There is no greater, more thrilling, or more inspiring natural happening in the Lower 48 than 600,000 northbound sandhill cranes gathering each evening for a few weeks on the Platte River in south-central Nebraska.

From just before sunset into the gathering darkness every day from mid-March into April, the sky, mudflats, and shallow channels in the broad Platte swarm with cranes.

They will spend each night on flats and in the shallows, while waiting for warmer weather to catch up to their annual urge to continue north to their nesting grounds in the western United States, and much of Canada and Alaska.

The migrating cranes spent the winter in parts of Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, California, and central Mexico. Now those cranes spend each day consuming corn kernels, and other seeds and edibles, in fields on the Nebraska prairie but returning to the comparative safety of the Platte each evening.

The first returning flocks of sandhill cranes are dark scribbles in every direction in the distant sky. But those fast-moving smudges in the sky soon become lines, V’s, and bunches of croaking cranes coming ever closer to the Platte.

As those first flocks swiftly circle over the river and create a near-deafening, but wonderful, constant din of voices, more dark scribbles are seen approaching rapidly from the distance.

As beautiful sunsets fade, wave upon noisy wave of darkly silhouetted cranes continue to approach the Platte, circle it a few times, and gracefully parachute down into the wind toward the river’s mudflats and shallow channels.

Now cranes crowd the skies and flutter down to flats and shallows like huge, feathered raindrops from swirling, feathered clouds. Those overwhelming hordes of 4-foot-tall, noisy birds are thrilling to experience.   

And still more cranes come from distant fields and land on flats and shallows of the Platte, as darkness settles upon them, the river, and the surrounding prairie. And there they will spend the night in their many thousands.

By the middle of April, the sandhill cranes will be going farther north to raise one or two young per pair. Those youngsters will consume invertebrates.

See their spectacular returning online via the live crane cam at National Audubon’s Society’s Rowe Sanctuary ( 


Clyde McMillan-Gamber is a retired Lancaster County Parks naturalist.

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