When is the best time to see sandhill cranes in Nebraska?

Prospective crane-viewers ask this question frequently. Here’s the simple answer for those planning a trip to Nebraska: mid to late March gives you virtually a 100% chance of seeing plenty of sandhill cranes. Casual crane viewers need not read further.

If you continued on to this paragraph, perhaps you’re a birder, or someone who simply wants to know a little more . . .

This brings us to our more nuanced answer: The entire month of March, plus early April, can be excellent for sandhill crane viewing in Nebraska. The time you choose will depend on you and your expectations. Are you looking to fill an empty check box or two on your life list? Are crowds OK, or are you the type who likes some space between you and your fellow birders? Willing to take a chance on getting “skunked” to view or photograph the cranes in circumstances not seen by most people?

Viewing prospects for the cranes — and other area wildlife — change noticeably through March and the first week of April. So we’ll split this period into three smaller pieces — early, middle and late — and describe what you might see within each.

Early (first half of March): Although the first sandhill cranes can be seen as early as mid-February – which is the case for this 2016 migration, large numbers often don’t appear until the start of March. Timing of early arrivals can vary considerably from year to year, depending in part on the severity of the current winter. Long spells of exceptionally cold weather in the Platte River valley can delay the migration, making viewing in the first week of March a little dicey. Nonetheless, some of my fondest crane-viewing memories — and more interesting photographs — have come during this time. This past image from early March shows cranes roosting on ice patches within the river:

Early Sandhill Crane Migration Arrivals

Early March also sees large flocks of snow geese piling into ponds and wetlands, sometimes by the tens of thousands. While stunning to watch, these high concentrations can result in outbreaks of avian cholera, which kill thousands of geese. Snows also fall as prey to bald eagles, a frequent sight at this time. Adult balds in flight make magnificent viewing, but are mixed blessings for crane watchers; cranes recognize eagles as predators and will sometimes bolt from a river roost before an eagle flyover. These sudden en masse takeoffs are spectacular but short-lived experiences, sometimes bringing a guided crane tour to an abrupt end.

Middle (latter half of March): As mentioned, this is the usual peak of the sandhill crane migration, with estimates ranging up to a half-million birds in the central Platte valley. However, this “peak” can be misleading. Research shows the first crane arrivals generally use the portion of the Platte south of Grand Island and Alda. As a certain portion of habitat can only hold so many birds, new crane arrivals begin to fill in suitable portions of the river further west. So while more cranes may be in the region as a whole, you may not notice much difference in one particular spot on a day-to-day basis. Even so, this period is generally the best and safest crane-viewing bet, particularly if this is a once-only trip. Here’s a typical view from one of our blinds:

Sandhill Crane Migration - on the river

Not surprisingly, this time also sees the peak of human visitation; those wishing to take guided viewing tours are encouraged to make reservations well in advance.

By this time, the snow geese and many of the bald eagles have usually left the region. A few species of waterfowl might be found on ponds, the river and particularly in the Rainwater Basinsouth of the Platte River.

Late (early April): While viewing occasionally peaks around this time, in most years sandhill cranes begin to leave as April opens, with many birds gone by mid-month. Also, the cranes’ main source of food — waste corn from the previous fall’s harvest — runs low in fields near the Platte River, forcing the birds to spread out as far as 12 miles either side of the river. Flocks at this time are often more dispersed.

Even so, this viewing time offers advantages. The evening gatherings along the river are still awe-inspiring, with longer, warmer days and later sunsets making for more comfortable conditions. Spots in guided tours are much easier to come by as visitation slows. With remaining cranes often full of corn and less in need of finding food, they’ll sometimes linger in one place for longer stretches. They also seem to congregate nearer roadsides, allowing views such as this:

Sandhill Crane Migration - feeding

This time is also your best chance of catching a rare whooping crane. With about 300 or so in the wild flock, your odds of seeing this tallest of the North American birds are slender at best. If you’re lucky enough to spot one, please do not approach it. Contact Whooper Watch and enjoy this rare and magnificent sight — even if it doesn’t allow an award-winning photograph.

As the sandhill show winds down, the region’s other major bird attraction — the displays of the grassland grouse — begins to hit high gear. While most habitat of the greater prairie chicken and sharptail grouse in this area has fallen to the plow, their mating dances can still be seen, particularly in the Sandhills region to the northwest.

Keep in mind that, no matter when during the migration you look, day-to-day weather plays a major role in how the cranes behave. A warm, sunny day may keep them in the fields longer, where as a windy, snowy day often brings birds to the river well before sunset. If you’re traveling here specifically for the sandhill show, allow for at least two days of viewing if possible, just in case inclement weather during one day doesn’t spoil your entire trip.

18 Comments

  • Ann Martin says:

    We have between March 28 and April 4 to try to see the Sand hill Cranes. What would be our best opportunity and how do I contact the best access options?

    • Crane Trust says:

      You can either book a tour with the us via the online booking or Rowe Sanctuary. Keep checking our Facebook page to follow the weekly crane counts which also provides locations for the larger groups.

      • Kathy M Fitzgerald says:

        If a tour opens up tomorrow would you let us know March 29!or call my cell at 9715204

        • Crane Trust says:

          You will need to call the center and ask if anything has opened. Unfortunately, we don’t have enough volunteers to manage a waitlist. Thank you for understanding. 308-382-1820

  • Cath Pardo says:

    I’ll be in Grand Island Ne. April 5 to 10 is like your the Crane Centet

  • Christine says:

    I’d like information on where to stay and what guiding costs are for Sandhill Cranes. Late March early April are fine.

    • Crane Trust says:

      Tour costs $35 + tax & booking fee. Discount hotel stays available at:

      Quality Inn
      Address: 7838 S. Hwy 281, Grand Island, NE 68803
      Phone: 308-384-7770

      Days Inn Grand Island
      Address: 7800 US-281, Grand Island, NE 68803
      Phone: 308-384-5006

      Fairfield Inn & Suites
      Address: 805 Allen Drive, Grand Island, NE 68803
      Phone: 308-381-8980
      Ask for the 10% Crane Watching discount.

      Candlewood Suites
      Address: 859 Allen Dr, Grand Island, NE 68803
      Phone: 308-381-7000

  • Diane Frizzell says:

    How do I get information about the tour and how to reserve a motel? There will be four adults coming around the middle of March, the dates have not be decided for sure yet. Is it to late to find a place to stay and use a tour service?
    Thanks, Diane

    • Crane Trust says:

      Check https://cranetrust.org/explore/crane-migration-tours/ to see if tours are available the days you are coming. Click “Experience the Magic. Book Now.” button. You will need to call the hotels to see if they have available rooms. 2018 discount hotel stays available at:
      Quality Inn: 308-384-7770
      Days Inn Grand Island: 308-384-5006
      Fairfield Inn & Suites: 308-381-8980 “Ask for the 10% Crane Watching discount.”
      Candlewood Suites: 308-381-7000

      We look forward to having you visit!

  • cyndi says:

    Hi looking for the perfect time to see the cranes and a place to stay and view birds

    • Crane Trust says:

      Throughout the month of March – earlier rather than later in the month is typically better. It all depends on the weather. You can watch our blog and Facebook to see weekly Sandhill Crane counts in our area.

      You can book a public viewing tour via our website at https://cranetrust.org/explore/crane-migration-tours/ or you can check Rowe Sanctuary’s website as well. Discount hotel stays can be found at:
      Quality Inn: 308-384-7770
      Days Inn Grand Island: 308-384-5006
      Fairfield Inn & Suites: 308-381-8980 “Ask for the 10% Crane Watching discount.”
      Candlewood Suites: 308-381-7000

      If you’d like a VIP experience, we still have some rooms available. The all-inclusive experience including meals is $499 per room.

  • Bri Kota says:

    Where is the best place to view the migrating birds? Should we go to the Crane Trust visitor center or closer to the Platte River?

    • Crane Trust says:

      During the day you can try the fields along Platte River Rd. which is south of the Nature & Visitor Center off Alda Rd., take a left on the road after the bridge.
      Sunrise and sunset are your best opportunities to catch them on the Platte River. You can book a public viewing tour online at https://cranetrust.org/explore/crane-migration-tours/ to get in a blind close to the river. The main goal of doing these tours is to avoid disturbing the roost.

  • Susan Albrecht says:

    Hello, we are interested in a tour to see the migration. We have a 7 year old son, but none of the tours say anything about bringing children under 12. Our son is very interested in birds and loves Cranes, we have a pair that nests in the wetland behind our home. Are there any options for bringing children? Thank you!

    • Crane Trust says:

      We’re happy to hear you are bringing your son out to experience the migration. Although children under 12 years old are not allowed to go into the blinds by the river, there are many activities at the Visitor Center for children. We have an animal display room where children can see animals that are found on the prairie. We also have 9 Bison that can be viewed while walking down to the channel, with bridges leading to 10 miles of walking trails. There is plenty to see on the trails and our gift shop stocks pamphlets to help families to recognize wild flowers, grasses and trees found on the trails.

      In the daytime the cranes are out feeding on corn in the neighboring corn fields and the Visitor Center can provide information on where the cranes can be found that day so that would be a good opportunity for your son to see them.

      Also, on March 17th, Raptor Recovery will be bringing live birds – hawks, vultures and falcons out to the Visitor Center, this is a great program for families.

  • Amanda says:

    I’ve been worried I may have missed the migration for 2018, but it is the last year I’ll be able to see it. I’m hoping there is still time.

    We’ve had someone tell us we were supposed to get snow in Omaha 3 times in the last 2 weeks and it didn’t come. Until LAST NIGHT. It snowed.

    I got to thinking that with this crazy weather, it is possible that the cranes aren’t quite done here. How are the flocks right now? Are they gone/sparse or are they still ramping up and have yet to hit their peak for 2018?

    I appreciate your time and intelligence on the matter, so thank you in advance for your help! =)

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