As daylight fades, the Platte River takes on the blues, oranges and reds of a Nebraska sunset.
Sandhill cranes fall from the sky in small groups, skidding awkwardly with wings spread and spindly legs out, onto sandbars where they will rest for the night.
Unremarkable sandbars that were barren just an hour ago are buried under part of what’s the largest concentration of cranes in the world.
They spring off the ground in ritual dance and create a collective high-pitched clamor like a stadium full of screaming fans.
The spectacle at the Rowe Sanctuary – last year visitors came from every state and 43 countries — was the culmination of a day of observing and learning about crane habitat, habits and biology.
— Kurt Heine
Crane behavior hints at change in wind
The sandhill cranes were loafing and resting Sunday afternoon under the sunshine in fields close to the Platte River. John Murphy, an Audubon volunteer at Rowe Sanctuary, said this behavior tells him the cranes will be leaving soon.
After they arrive in February, the cranes using their time in the field to feed, fatten up and socialize before completing a migration as far north as Siberia – up to 7,000 miles. Lately, Murphy said, the cranes seem to be spending more time resting and less time eating.
“The number of sitting cranes to me means that they have been here for three or four weeks, and they are relaxing and getting ready to leave,” he said.
Murphy predicted that the birds are waiting for the right day to leave and that an impending wave of warm weather will trigger the departure.
“They are waiting for the south wind, the warm thermal winds,” Murphy said.
The cranes ride those thermals – rising columns of air – to gain the altitude needed for the long daily flights in their migration north to nesting grounds. Under good condition, they can travel up several hundred miles a day.
This stop on the Platte is their last chance to feed on an easily accessible food supply until they reach their nesting grounds.
“They’re full and ready to go,” Murphy said.
— Rebecca Lewis