Situated on 10,000 acres near Grand Island, the Crane Trust hosts various guided wildlife trips, including Nebraska's only overnight stay with Sandhill cranes.
Sandhill Crane Migration, Nebraska
Credit: Courtesy of Visit Kearney

Beyond the slow water and sandbars, I spot my first wisp of smoke on the horizon, as Jane Goodall calls it. The renowned conservationist ventures to rural Nebraska each March for one of the world's most remarkable migration rituals.

Sandhill Cranes Nebraska Sunset
Credit: Hannah Agran

From my perch by the Platte River, bundled alongside birders from across the country, I grab my binoculars. A lump forms in my throat as the stippled skyline wisp becomes a mass of wings, beaks and gangly legs headed for our stretch of water at the Nebraska Crane Trust.

Nebraska Sandhill Cranes in sky at sunset
Credit: Hannah Agran

The horizon begins to swallow the sun, and the birds descend. A rattly trilling builds as dozens of wisps become thousands of cranes lining the banks. The nightly staging ritual can last an hour, until one bird moves to the water. Alighting on a sandbar, it triggers a splash mob of bedding down-and a flurry of shutter clicks in our blind.

Sandhill cranes. Photo courtesy of Kearney Visitors Bureau.
Sandhill crane
Left: Credit: Courtesy of Kearney Visitors Bureau

At 3 to 4 feet tall, Sandhill cranes bulk up during this few-week layover between Mexico and Canada (or Siberia for some). Central Nebraska offers fields of fallen corn by day and a safe communal roost at night, far from foxes and coyotes. The Platte's wide but shallow waters draw half a million cranes, the vast majority of the world's population, to a 70-mile stretch from late February to April.

Overnight, the bugling wafts through a window in my cottage. "They're extra chatty this morning," guide Ben Dumas whispers while shuffling through fog and prairie grass and into a dark blind.

Sandhill Cranes Nebraska at dawn
Credit: Hannah Agran

The water slowly turns purple, then golden, revealing nearly 100,000 birds. They stretch their wings or dance about before taking flight. For some, it's another day of feeding. For others, it's goodbye until next March.

Best Time to Go

The Platte River Valley draws half a million cranes to its waters from late February to April each year.

Where to See Sandhill Cranes

In daytime, the birds populate fields near Kearney and Grand Island. At sunset and sunrise, watch from the Fort Kearney Bridge over the Platte River. Visitors can also reserve a spot at Rowe Sanctuary or Crane Trust Nature and Visitor Center.