The frosty grass crunched beneath my feet as if I was stepping on a trail of potato chips. The Platte River before me––winding, wide, and shallow––reflected a cloudless sky.
Entering the stark rectangular blind, warmth spread over me like a cashmere blanket. How delightful not to have to sit in the cold. The strategically placed structure was approximately 20 yards from the water’s edge, running parallel to the river in an area researchers believe is the largest roosting spot in the world.
The top half of the wall facing the water was plexiglass, with toaster-sized holes with hinged closures at different heights running its length. As soon as the stars of the show appeared, they would be filled with hungry camera lenses.
(L) Crane Trust hide, side view | Crane Trust hide, front view
Every March, hundreds of thousands of sandhill cranes migrate north from the southern United States and Mexico on their way to Alaska and Canada to breed––a route called the Central Flyway. Eighty percent of the population stops in Nebraska for a few weeks to feed on waste corn to fatten up for the journey. During the day, the 3.5-foot birds scrounge for food amongst the winter stubble of dormant corn fields.
But at sunrise and dusk, they become a spectacle estimated to be 2.5 million years old, drawing bird lovers far and wide to watch them coming and going from their nightly roost on the sandbars of the Platte River, where they are safe from predators.
View of sandhill Cranes landing on sandbars in the Platte River from a Crane Trust hide
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Sand Hill Cranes
They approached in small numbers, at first, before a stampede of feathers darkened the sky. A swarm of spindly-legged, swan-necked, long-beaked silhouettes with six-foot wingspans, bugling with ear-splitting intensity. With my camera lens through the peephole, It was like trying to photograph a three-ring circus. So much was happening it was hard to focus on any one thing.
Arriving in groups, they landed on sandbars, lining up next to each other on like soldiers in formation. The sheer magnitude of their numbers was straight out of Hitchcock’s The Birds, minus the death and destruction. It is one of those breathtaking wonders that no words or photographs will do the sight justice.
Sandhill cranes in flight
Where to See Sandhill Cranes in Nebraska
I was at the Crane Trust, a 25-minute drive from Grand Island in central Nebraska, where I flew in. Protecting and preserving approximately 10,000 acres of natural habitat in the Big Bend region of the Platte River is the non-profit’s mission. A year-round visitor center with an art gallery, gift shop, youth programs, and 10 miles of nature trails provide year-round opportunities to enjoy the prairie and wetlands and, in season, a variety of guided crane viewing/photography options.
My visit was part of the trust’s VIP Crane Experience which includes sunset and sunrise blind viewing with a naturalist, buffet dinner and breakfast, and a night’s stay at Rose Ranch, which is on the trust’s property. The accommodations are cute but modest cottages (there are fancier suites, too, if you’re so inclined) with four en-suite guest rooms and a common area with a kitchenette and television, perfect for families.
Just a few of the thousands of sandhill cranes over the Platte River in Nebraska
After a light snack the following morning, we quietly slipped into the hides a half hour before dawn so as not to frighten the cranes. We sat silently, phones off, or the light might trigger an exodus. We sat, staring at a wall of black, counting the seconds until sunrise when the action would begin.
As the light rose, so did the sounds of the cranes––a few scattered noises, then a cacophony of calls. The morning show was the same as the night before’s but in reverse, with a fascinating hour or so of early morning antics. The cranes, who mate for life, are known for elaborate bonding rituals, often described as dancing. While they take place at night as well, the morning is the best time to see them.
View of the Platte River and sandhill cranes in flight from a Crane Trust hide
There’s a lot of preening and loitering with bursts of wack-a-mole action, making it hard to photograph, but lots of fun. I never knew which cranes would dance when forcing me to continuously scan the mass of feathers. Like popcorn in a hot skillet, they hopped, stretched their wings, bowed, spun, and tip-toed. Throwing sticks in the air was a particularly popular move. Apparently, cranes find it very endearing.
Forty-three miles southwest of Grand Island in Kearney, Iain Nicolson Audubon Center at Rowe Sanctuary offers another prime viewing spot along the Platte River with guided tours. Farther away and from where they like to cluster than the Crain Trust hides, the structure at Rowe Sanctuary was elevated and faced upriver, which was a great angle when the birds began doing their thing. I didn’t stay for the morning craneapalooza, but I imagine it would be just as exciting.
One of three hides at the Rowe Sanctuary
The Best Time to See Sandhill Cranes in Nebraska
According to the Nebraska Game and Parks website, cranes start to arrive in February and reach their peak around the third week in March. Guided viewing increases the likelihood you’ll have an experience similar to mine. The Trust and Row Sanctuary have cultivated and maintained the perfect crane habitats for years, so it’s no wonder their tours deliver.
Between the Crane Trust and Rowe Sanctuary, you will find different environmental backdrops due to how the hides are positioned in relation to the river. I highly recommend you combine the two locations in any itinerary you plan to maximize your experience.
Two large heated hides (Reservations required)
Members and donors get first priority, and spots book quickly. Online reservations typically open in early January. (Children 12+)
- Guided Blind Tours
- 2.5 hours, $40/pp + tax, and online booking fees.
- Footbridge Evening Tours
- 2.5 hours, $15/pp + tax
- VIP Crane Experience
- 2 Days (sunset and sunrise viewing) /1 Night, $700/per Cottage Room (up to 2 guests), All-Inclusive
- Guided Photo Workshops and Tours
- Multi-day photo workshops ( 5 days/4 nights & 3 days/ 2 nights )
Three large hides (Sunrise and sunset viewing require reservations. No reservations are needed for daytime viewing.)Note: The blinds are not heated.
Online reservations typically open in early January. (Children 10+)
- Guided Crane Experience
- 3 hours, $50.00/pp + tax and online booking fees
- Guided Crane Photography Experience
- 3 hours, $100/pp + tax and online booking fees
- Overnight Crane Photography Experience
- 16 hours, $250/pp + tax and online booking fees
- Visit Grand Island
- The tourism website for the region has a self-guided crane tour map you can download.
- River Park
- There’s also a public viewing deck in River Park on Alda Road, four miles from I-80 exit 305. Be advised there are no facilities. Make sure to go to the bathroom beforehand.
I used my Canon 5DIV with a 100-400mm lens with a 1.4x extender. (I did not use the 2x extender because I don’t like the image quality. On my 5DIII, I used a wide-angle 24-70mm for environmental shots.
A longer lens is going to give you the best opportunity to capture strong photos.
Tripods are not allowed in hides but monopods are. I chose to handhold my equipment because I like to move around quickly, and a monopod makes that difficult.
Pro tip: Photography can be challenging because there is low light for long periods of time when the birds are really active. Freezing the action requires a fast shutter speed which also demands a high ISO setting. As the light comes up, it’s important to keep an eye on both.