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Even though it was only 30 degrees outside, I had to sleep with the windows open. I didn’t want to miss one second of the mind-boggling sound coming from the river just a few hundred yards away, where thousands of sandhill cranes stood in the shallow water, relentlessly trumpeting their unique “rolling r” calls into the night.

I’m spending tonight at one of the cottages operated by the Crane Trust Nature and Visitor Center in Wood River, Nebraska. About 20 of us have gathered to witness the annual sandhill crane migration through this 80-mile section of the Platte River. It’s the largest gathering of its type in the world, with over 600,000 of these incredible creatures passing through during a six-week stretch from late February through March.

This part of Nebraska is called a staging area -- a place where birds pause to eat and rest, just as they’ve done annually for the last 10,000 years. Some will travel up to 5,000 miles on their way to nesting grounds in Canada, Alaska, and even Siberia.

Why I Had To See The Cranes

Until a few weeks ago, I didn’t know much about the sandhill crane migration, but I quickly learned that it is an annual favorite of anthropologist Jane Goodall, who comes each year and, according to the Sierra Club, has called it “one of the most amazing spectacles to see in North America” and said, “The cranes restore my soul.” National Geographic put it on par with the huge Alaska caribou migration, identifying it as one of North America’s greatest wildlife phenomena. The bestseller 1,000 Places To See Before You Die listed it as a “must see.” I had to go.

The sandhill crane migration in Nebraska.
Brad Crooks

By Dawn’s Early Light

Our group gets up long before dawn and takes a van to the viewing blind. The Crane Trust guide cautions us to be dead quiet. Absolutely no lights of any kind are allowed; we don’t want to cause a major lift-off. We enter the long, low, heated building with one wall made entirely of clear plastic overlooking the river’s edge. I’m glad to see that the wall includes windows which open down, giving an unobstructed view of both the river and the sandbars. I balance my telephoto lens in the opening and wait for sunrise.

Everyone stares at the river, wondering if the gray shapes are sandbars or cranes. Occasionally I spot small groups moving through the sky. Gradually, as first light begins, I begin making out the silhouettes of individual birds. As the pre-dawn light increases, so does the chorus’s volume. Finally, there they are.

A sandhill crane in Nebraska.
Brad Crooks

I see 40 to 50 thousand Sandhill cranes standing in the shallow water or on sandbars. Each stands three to five feet tall on long, spindly black legs, with a wing span of five to six feet. Their long-necked bodies are covered in various shades of gray feathers. My attention is drawn to their crowns, a strip of reddish skin on the cranes’ foreheads. These crowns actually change size and color based on the bird’s emotional state -- big and red when the crane is excited, contracted and reddish gray when things are calm.

Our guide explains that there’s a 60/40 split between two subspecies -- the lesser sandhill cranes and the greater sandhill cranes. Size is the primary way to distinguish between the two, but the birds are moving around so much I can’t tell the difference, and it doesn’t really matter anyway. Every crane seems to be trumpeting nonstop. I’ve never heard anything as loud yet beautiful before.

Cranes flying during the migration in Nebraska.
Brad Crooks

Sunrise Changes Everything

The spectacle continues for over 30 minutes, but when the sun rises, even on this cloudy morning, everything suddenly changes. Huge groups take off in almost every direction. Some circle above the river while others fly so close to the blind that I can see their markings and hear their individual calls. Instantly I feel this deep, personal connection to it all. Now I can put a face to the sounds I’d heard the night before.

I try to comprehend seeing 40,000 cranes in flight. Massive flocks weave throughout the sky, like graceful ballet dancers executing complex aerial choreography. No midair collisions, no last-second course changes, just sleek gray bodies propelled by powerful wings, black legs perfectly positioned for maximum speed. Though I’d watched videos in advance of my trip, nothing could have prepared me for this magnificent sight. Jane Goodall’s words make sense now.

Sandhill cranes and a cow in a field.
Brad Crooks

Food Is A Top Priority

Taking the tour offered through the North Platte/Lincoln County Visitors Bureau, I board a bus to follow the cranes to their daytime hangouts: harvested corn fields. Local farmers often leave some of their crop for the cranes. The cranes also hunt in the wetlands for snails, earthworms, insects, and even snakes to mix things up a bit. They need the variety to produce healthy offspring. Usually the cranes remain in the area for about three weeks, spending most of their days foraging to gain 15 to 20 percent in body weight.

Sandhill cranes dancing during the migration.
Brad Crooks

How Do You Get The Girl? Show Her Your Best Dance Moves

Turns out that eating isn’t the only activity that happens in the fields!

Crane dances are legendary. Some moves are obviously designed to establish dominance or scare away challengers, but most are about impressing the girls. When trying to win a mate, a male will fly circles around a female on the ground. He’ll flap his wings, then bow or jump or stab at the ground to capture her attention. If she likes him, she may fly around him, too. Sandhill cranes mate for life, so I could be witnessing a match that will last 20 years or more.

Watching these courting dances, I recognize moves I’ve seen performed by people as well. Over the centuries, sandhill cranes have inspired everything from Native American dances to letters in the Greek alphabet to karate moves. Remember Ralph Macchio doing the crane stance in The Karate Kid? Yup, I saw that one too.

Saving The Best For Last

I’ll spend my last sunrise in one of the Rowe Sanctuary blinds. This time we silently walk in darkness across a prairie to reach the building. Luckily the guide knows the path well, as the only light was a fingernail-sized blue LED on the building. I’m so glad I’ve chosen guided viewing; the guides know what to do and where to go to maximize our experience, can answer the countless questions everyone has, and, most importantly, keep everyone quiet and contained so the cranes will stay close to us.

Our blind faces south and the view is excellent. I love watching the cranes moving about more and more as the morning light increases. Stretching their wings, taking a drink, trumpeting their morning calls -- the activity keeps intensifying.

I hear a photographer clicking away to my left and turn to see a beautiful sunrise. The cranes seem to love it, too. Large groups lift off and circle above us, trumpeting nonstop. Soon the sky is filled with thousands of birds silhouetted against the sun. I realize I am witnessing one of the most amazing things I can or will ever see. It is magical.

Sandhill cranes dancing during the migration.
Brad Crooks

One Last Surprise

When it’s time for us to leave, we can’t. The prairie we have to cross is occupied by several hundred birds who decide to start the day feeding right here. Serendipity strikes again. We watch them feed, dance, and play for at least 20 minutes, until some invisible signal triggers them all to fly away.

It was the perfect way to end my adventure. I can’t wait to come back again.

Here’s why you need to see Nebraska’s sandhill crane migration, plus pro tips on where to stay, eat, and spot the cranes from another traveler who’s been there.

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