The Platte River flows past Kearney, Neb., and in March it can be a cold, inhospitable place. It certainly was back in 1982.
I was there for a professional meeting, but I spent my first afternoon shivering in a blind overlooking the river.
Waterfowl, mostly Canada geese and mallards, covered the shallows and sand bars. But as the sun settled toward the horizon, the show I had come for began.
At first, I heard the trumpeting calls of the sandhill cranes.
Naturalist Paul Johnsgard called it “crane music” in a book by that very name (Smithsonian, 1991). What began as a handful of birds multiplied rapidly until there were hundreds and then thousands of sandhill cranes passing the blind.
They approached the river and banked, searching for the right wind and right angle against which to set their wings.
Then they sailed in effortlessly and landed in water just a few inches deep. It was a breathtaking sight, but even more amazing was its scope.
The cranes kept arriving for more than an hour. They never stopped bulging and as darkness enveloped the river, many tens of thousands of cranes had sought refuge there.
Even after it was too dark to see the birds, I could hear them continue to arrive.
On the river the cranes were safe from predators as they rested between their winter homes in New Mexico and Texas and their nesting grounds in Alaska and northern Canada.
Later, a local biologist told me there were about 250,000 cranes on the river that night. It’s an image I’ll never forget.
Sandhill cranes are tall, gray, long-legged, long-necked birds that resemble great blue herons. In flight, however, cranes hold their neck out straight, while herons pull theirs back in an “S” shape.
They stand nearly 4-feet tall, weigh 7 to 14 pounds and have a wingspan that can measure 7 feet. And their red, naked crown is hard to miss.
Though sandhills are primarily mid-continental birds, they have inexplicably expanded their range recently.
They began appearing in northwest Pennsylvania almost 20 years ago and first nested in Lawrence County in 1993.
Ohio also has a growing population of nesting sandhill cranes and Michigan is home to even more.
Though most sandhill cranes migrate long distances, Florida is home to a population of non-migratory cranes. They occur on inland wetlands from the Everglades north to the Okefenokee Swamp in Georgia.
It’s not unusual to see cranes in wetlands near Florida airports. On their winter grounds and during migration, sandhill cranes spend most of their day foraging in agricultural fields.
At night, they seek refuge in wetlands and shallow rivers. On their breeding grounds, cranes require isolated expanses of wetland habitat.
A single pair requires as much as 200 acres of nesting habitat. Sandhill cranes are monogamous and form lifelong pair bonds.
They begin building nests in April. The nest is placed at the water’s edge or in shallow water in a marsh. Plant material is heaped into a large mound to raise the nest above the water level.
In May, the female lays two eggs. The adults share incubation duties for about 30 days. The precocial young leave the nest within 24 hours and are typically aggressive towards each other.
Each parent tends to one chick and keeps them separated to minimize sibling rivalry.
Young cranes can fly when about 90 days old and stay with their parents until the following nesting season.
They begin pairing off at about three years of age, but do not actually nest until they are five years old.
Here in the east, sandhill cranes are classified as threatened or even endangered species because their populations are small. But where they occur, their numbers are increasing.
When traveling in crane country, watch for large, long-legged, long-necked birds flying with an outstretched neck.
And if you happen upon some cranes on the ground, take a few minutes to observe. Cranes dance. As part of their courtship and year-round pair bonding, cranes hop and step around each other, bow, flap their wings and leap into the air.
It’s a courtship to remember.