Watching Sandhill Cranes in Nebraska | TheFencePost.com

Watching Sandhill Cranes in Nebraska

Doug Carroll, NEBRASKAland Magazine Editor

It’s not springtime for many bird enthusiasts until they visit the Platte River to see thousands of migrating cranes. From late-February to April, approximately 500,000 sandhill cranes stage along the central Platte River, building up their fat reserves and absorbing nutrients vital to their survival through the nesting season.

Thousands of waterfowl, shorebirds, and other species also migrate through the area every spring, but it’s the world’s largest gathering of any crane species that attracts thousands of wildlife enthusiasts, many who make an annual trip to see the tall, lean birds.

Crane viewing along the Platte can be as casual or as serious as a person wants to make it. Some make a special trip to see the cranes, traveling thousands of miles and spending time and money to experience the migration. Others casually watch the cranes by driving through areas that the birds frequent and by using viewing decks and bridges in the Grand Island and Kearney area.

Three main areas where cranes congregate in the spring are the Kearney-to-Grand Island and Overton-to-Elm Creek sections of the Platte River, and the North Platte-to-Sutherland section of the North Platte River. In the Grand Island and Kearney area, where the largest number of cranes congregate, drivers may safely park and watch birds at three roadside turnouts – two on Platte River Drive west of Doniphan, and a third west of Audubon’s Rowe Sanctuary office located southwest of I-80 exit 285 near Gibbon on Elm Island Road.

For those who want to observe cranes on or near the river, there are two public viewing decks in the same area. The Alda Crane Viewing Site is two miles south of Crane Meadows Nature Center, a private non-profit nature center located south of the Alda interchange at I-80 exit 305, and the Richard Plautz Crane Viewing Site is located 1-1/4 miles south of the I-80 Gibbon interchange at exit 285. Built next to the river, both observation decks are wheelchair-accessible and offer nearby parking.

Another popular location for watching cranes on the river is the hike-bike bridge that crosses the Platte River at Fort Kearny State Recreation Area southeast of Kearney. Although a state park permit is required for vehicles in the area, there is no other fee to use the bridge, which is located 1/3 mile from the parking area.

Recommended Stories For You

For visitors coming from the west, or who want less-crowded viewing opportunities, the North Platte area is a great place to observe cranes. Biologists estimate 160,000 cranes use the river valley between North Platte and Sutherland. The Buffalo Bill Ranch State Historical Park in North Platte has a blind for crane watchers in its state recreation area that also features interpretative markers that tell about crane migration and habits.

The blind, which may be used for photography or simply watching, is a renovated horse trailer fitted with plexiglass windows and seats. It holds 15 people at one time and is available on a first-come, first-served basis. There is no charge for its use.

It’s not springtime for many bird enthusiasts until they visit the Platte River to see thousands of migrating cranes. From late-February to April, approximately 500,000 sandhill cranes stage along the central Platte River, building up their fat reserves and absorbing nutrients vital to their survival through the nesting season.

Thousands of waterfowl, shorebirds, and other species also migrate through the area every spring, but it’s the world’s largest gathering of any crane species that attracts thousands of wildlife enthusiasts, many who make an annual trip to see the tall, lean birds.

Crane viewing along the Platte can be as casual or as serious as a person wants to make it. Some make a special trip to see the cranes, traveling thousands of miles and spending time and money to experience the migration. Others casually watch the cranes by driving through areas that the birds frequent and by using viewing decks and bridges in the Grand Island and Kearney area.

Three main areas where cranes congregate in the spring are the Kearney-to-Grand Island and Overton-to-Elm Creek sections of the Platte River, and the North Platte-to-Sutherland section of the North Platte River. In the Grand Island and Kearney area, where the largest number of cranes congregate, drivers may safely park and watch birds at three roadside turnouts – two on Platte River Drive west of Doniphan, and a third west of Audubon’s Rowe Sanctuary office located southwest of I-80 exit 285 near Gibbon on Elm Island Road.

For those who want to observe cranes on or near the river, there are two public viewing decks in the same area. The Alda Crane Viewing Site is two miles south of Crane Meadows Nature Center, a private non-profit nature center located south of the Alda interchange at I-80 exit 305, and the Richard Plautz Crane Viewing Site is located 1-1/4 miles south of the I-80 Gibbon interchange at exit 285. Built next to the river, both observation decks are wheelchair-accessible and offer nearby parking.

Another popular location for watching cranes on the river is the hike-bike bridge that crosses the Platte River at Fort Kearny State Recreation Area southeast of Kearney. Although a state park permit is required for vehicles in the area, there is no other fee to use the bridge, which is located 1/3 mile from the parking area.

For visitors coming from the west, or who want less-crowded viewing opportunities, the North Platte area is a great place to observe cranes. Biologists estimate 160,000 cranes use the river valley between North Platte and Sutherland. The Buffalo Bill Ranch State Historical Park in North Platte has a blind for crane watchers in its state recreation area that also features interpretative markers that tell about crane migration and habits.

The blind, which may be used for photography or simply watching, is a renovated horse trailer fitted with plexiglass windows and seats. It holds 15 people at one time and is available on a first-come, first-served basis. There is no charge for its use.