Sandhill cranes rested shoulder to shoulder on the sandbars and in shallow water of the Platte River when we arrived in the observation blind at Rowe Sanctuary at 6:15 Monday morning. Their unusual calls echoed through the air. A nearly full moon hung just above the western horizon, glowing orange.
We were waiting for the moment when thousands of cranes would rise up together and fly out to feed.
The noise level rose almost imperceptibly as the morning light grew. By 7 a.m., the first few cranes began to fly, and we anticipated a mass exit.
Cranes stretched their wings and ruffled their feathers, flying off in groups of two and three.
Ninety minutes later, the sandbars were nearly empty. But there was no grand exit.
After our short walk back to the Iain Nicolson Audubon Center, Bill Taddicken, Rowe Sanctuary director, theorized about what happened.
In the last two to three weeks, the cranes built up their fat reserves and don’t have the same drive to leave in the morning to eat, Taddicken said. They are ready to continue their migration north.
The birds are also hanging out on the sandbars longer and engaging in more social activities, he said.
“A lot of the young ones are practicing dancing,” Taddicken said. “I saw one fall on his face once.”
Taddicken told us to watch Monday for flocks of cranes “kettling” — using the thermals to gain elevation. Once the winds shift out of the south, he expects many of the cranes to head north.
“If they go higher and higher and higher until they are almost out of sight and then take-off, they’re leaving,” Taddicken said.
– Margaret Berglund