How to See the Great Sandhill Crane Migration

Travel Features Birding
How to See the Great Sandhill Crane Migration

“Whooper, eleven o’clock,” whispered one of our guides. On a bitter Nebraska morning in early March, I pivoted in the viewing blind to find a regal, 5-foot-high bird standing among a group of about 5,000 sandhill cranes, its snowy feathers stark against the sea of gray. I’d come face-to-binoculars with an endangered whooping crane, North America’s tallest bird and one of its rarest. 

Each year, Nebraska’s Central and North Platte River Valleys host more than a half million cranes—about 80 percent of the global population of lesser sandhill cranes, greater sandhill cranes, and the occasional whooping crane. The two varieties of sandhill vary a bit in size, but you probably won’t be able to tell them apart as they wing above the water, their “bugling” permeating the sky for up to two miles away, then crowd onto the river’s sandbars to roost. 

Origins of the great migration

The great sandhill crane migration—considered one of North America’s most significant wildlife phenomena—has been taking place for thousands of years. In part because of its central location and abundance of food, and partly because Nebraska’s broad, flat plains make it more challenging for predators to sneak up on the cranes, the Platte has become the bird equivalent of an all-inclusive resort. 

The first cranes arrive in mid-February and depart in April. Numbers peak—to the tune of about 1 million—in mid-March. As they rest and fill up on snacks like tubers, amphibians, reptiles, insects, and small mammals, they gain 15 to 20 percent additional body weight in preparation for the arduous trip north to Canada and even Siberia.  

Here’s a guide to the best places to watch the great sandhill crane migration.


Crane Trust

Established in 1978, Crane Trust is an 8,000-acre sanctuary and research center in Wood River, Nebraska. Their land management strategies are aimed at maintaining the biological integrity of the Platte River, which provides optimal habitat for migratory birds. 

Crane Trust has 10-plus miles of nature trails. They offer a variety of tours, including guided 2.5-hour viewings from specially constructed blinds and a river-spanning footbridge.

I joined the VIP Experience ($700 per room), which included an overnight stay in a cozy modern cabin, sunset and sunrise viewings, plus a full dinner and breakfast. For each viewing, our group was shuttled over to a heated blind with a Plexiglas front, where hinged windows could be opened to take photos or get a better view of the cranes. 

Watching the birds swoop in by the thousands to roost on the river for the night was special, but the sunrise viewing was extraordinary. As light rose over the Platte, I got an up-close look at thousands of birds preening, parading, bowing, flipping vegetation into the air with their beaks, and fanning their wings like a cape—a few of the more than 20 “dance moves” that function as social behavior. 

The whooping crane was a lucky surprise. Although several dozen whoopers—who number only about 520 continent-wide and are protected by the Endangered Species Act—come through the region every year, you’re not guaranteed a sighting. This one, explained our guides, appeared to have bonded with a group of sandhill cousins and would likely be staying until they continued on their northward journey. 

Iain Nicolson Audubon Center at Rowe Sanctuary

The Iain Nicolson Audubon Center at Rowe Sanctuary, in Gibbon, Nebraska, is part of the National Audubon Society. They’ve been leading guided blind viewings of the great sandhill crane migration along the Platte since the 1970s.

The sanctuary encompasses 2,900 acres with 3 miles of hiking trails and several viewing blinds. They also host a free crane cam, where you can watch the birds shaking off sleep and preparing for the day, or packing it in for the night. Rowe offers sunset and sunrise viewings, plus guided photography experiences and a class in the basics of crane behavior. 

I went on a sunset viewing. While the blind wasn’t heated, between my layers of fleece and the blind’s orientation, with its back toward the wind and front facing the sunset, I was plenty warm. 

We got settled well before the birds began to land, to avoid startling them. For the first half hour, I squinted against the setting sun, wondering if I’d be able to see anything at all. But as streaks of orange and pink scraped the sky, first one flock, then another and another, whirled over the river, until the sunset was nearly obscured with the flapping of wings and rolling trills filled the air. 

I watched, in stunned silence, for what seemed like ages, as the birds came in for wind-buffeted landings that looked a bit like an ungainly parachuter wobbling to the ground. Just when it seemed like the sky was going quiet, another flock materialized. As darkness fell and the cooing cranes began tucking their heads under their wings, we tiptoed out of the blind, guided by small circles of red light—the wavelength doesn’t disturb the birds—cast by a trio of flashlights.

Along the roads of North Platte, Kearney, and Grand Island

During the day, the cranes leave the river to forage in Nebraska’s many agricultural fields. I saw hundreds clustered among winter-clipped crops, their feathers sooty-hued in the bright light. 

If you don’t have a car, you can hop on a converted school bus for a tour with Dusty Trails ($40). Their excursions travel between North Platte and Hershey, pausing wherever groups of cranes are congregating so you can observe and take pictures.  

The Stuhr Museum, a combination art gallery and living museum in Grand Island, hosts an annual Wings Over the Platte exhibition, from February 11 to April 2, inspired by the great sandhill crane migration; Mary Linnea Vaughan, whose work blurs the boundaries between narrative and abstract, is this year’s featured artist. You might even catch a glimpse of the birds sunning themselves on the plains en route to the museum.


Robin Catalano’s writing has appeared in National Geographic, Travel + Leisure, TIME, Smithsonian, Conde Nast Traveler, AFAR, Hemispheres, Robb Report, Bon Appetit, Fodor’s, ROVA, Insider, Boston Globe, Albany Times Union, and a variety of other regional publications.

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