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Sandhill Cranes Arriving Late?

Any long time resident of Nebraska knows there is no such thing as a “normal” spring*.  This spring provides more evidence.  The bitter cold snap of late February extended into the first days of March and today (16 March) the afternoon temperatures are going to be bumping 90.   Long time resident birders and birdwatchers know that weather in late winter/early spring will affect the progression (e.g., arrival) of the first waves of migrant birds.  The bitter late winter cold snap, which extended well south of Nebraska, is likely one of the factors which has slowed down this year’s Sandhill Crane migration.

Sandhill Cranes
Gray on gray; Sandhill Cranes taking flight from a cornfield in fog.

Sandhill Cranes typically arrive in Nebraska’s central Platte River valley by mid-February.   In mild years, a few Sandhill Cranes will arrive earlier, even as early as late January.  In cold years, they may hold off for a week or so.   Even when arrival is variable, Sandhill Crane numbers typically peak in Nebraska about the third week of March.  This year there were relatively few in the central Platte River valley by early March.  Even though numbers have increased substantially with the recent warm weather, it appears the peak will occur a bit later than normal this year.  This is possibly a testament to how cold that February cold snap was or additional variables may be affecting the cranes’ migration

Sandhill Cranes
Sandhill Cranes in a cornfield.

A quick call to Kent Skaggs with Audubon’s Rowe Sanctuary and a quick check of the Crane Trust’s website confirms the peak in numbers may be a little later than usual this year.   Both information sources note there are still lots (thousands!) of cranes around.  Thus, if you are planning a trip for this upcoming weekend there is no reason to panic and scuttle your itinerary.  There are still be lots of cranes to see, in addition to waterfowl, a few shorebirds and possibly the first Eastern Pheobes of the year.

Sandhill Cranes coming in to roost at dusk
Sandhill Cranes coming in to roost on the Platte River at dusk.

An upside to this year’s deviation in the timing of peak Sandhill Crane numbers may be that large numbers may be around a little bit longer this year.  This means there may be additional opportunities to view cranes well into April.  Kent S. with Rowe Sanctuary and Sally with the Crane Trust both inform me they have some open slots for blind trips in early April.  Thus, if you toyed with the idea of going to see the cranes this year but you put it off because the winter seemed like it was never going to end, you may now have a second chance to reconsider this decision by giving Rowe or the Crane Trust a call and making your reservation.  The sensible move, particularly if you have never experienced the cranes, is to just do it.  You will not regret it.

Good birding!

Nongame Bird Blog

*Some individuals may question my decision to refer to the current period as spring.  While it is true that astronomically it is still winter, meteorically and, more importantly ornithologically, it is spring.  This blog post by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration provides additional information.  

About Joel Jorgensen

Joel Jorgensen is a Nebraska native and he has been interested in birds just about as long as he has been breathing. He has been NGPC’s Nongame Bird Program Manager for eight years and he works on a array of monitoring, research, regulatory and conservation issues. Nongame birds are the 400 or so species that are not hunted and include the Whooping Crane, Least Tern, Piping Plover, Bald Eagle, and Peregrine Falcon. When not working, he enjoys birding.

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