'Migrating With the Sandhill Cranes': Follow the Journey

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Sandhill cranes migrate over Nebraska. (Photo: Ilana E. Strauss)

For many of us, spring is an event that arrives quietly. The emergence of bulbs, the subtle shift towards longer days, the welcome return of warm morning breezes. For others, however, spring is announced in a thunderous chorus of hundreds of thousands of trumpeting bugle calls, borne on the wings of majestic sandhill cranes.

Beginning in mid-February and concluding in April, between 450,000 and 700,000 sandhill cranes migrate from their wintering grounds in southern regions like Texas and New Mexico to summer breeding sites in the Arctic and subarctic. It's one of the world's great natural wonders, on par with the massive seasonal migrations of wildebeest, caribou and monarch butterflies.

A majority of sandhill cranes travel through North America’s Central Flyway, a route used by several migratory species that spans from the western Gulf Coast to the Great Plains and Rocky Mountains. Over the course of their six-week journey, the birds congregate in massive numbers to rest and refuel, drawing the attention of naturalists, ornithologists and wonderstruck spectators.

"I live in Southern Arizona, part of the range where the sandhill cranes spend their winters," filmmaker and journalist Bryan Nelson told MNN. "These large charismatic birds always deliver a spectacle as they fly en masse from one roosting or feeding spot to another across the countryside, and crowds of birders congregate to stand in awe of them. It's impossible not to take notice!"

A sandhill crane taking flight over the Jasper-Pulaski Fish and Wildlife Area in Indiana. (Photo: Haricharan [CC BY-ND 2.0]/Flickr)

For his latest short film, Nelson wanted to document the migration of sandhill cranes, and he was inspired by the story of two individuals who through a shared love of the species also found each other.

"One of the birding hubs every January is the Wings Over Willcox Birding and Nature Festival, in Willcox, Arizona. I attended this year, which is where I met Erv Nichols and Sandra Noll," he said. "They were hosting a number of tours and talks about the cranes, and their passion was infectious. I got to know more about their story, about how the cranes brought them together, and about how they have migrated with the cranes — all the way from the cranes' wintering grounds down here in the Southwest U.S. and Mexico, to the summer grounds up in Alaska. I was envious of their adventure, and I found their personal journey so compelling."

Engaging Birdwatching

Sandhill cranes migrating in front of the moon along the Platte River, Nebraska. (Photo: Diana Robinson/Flickr)

While filming the cranes, Nelson says he was given a front-row seat to the 4-foot-tall birds' famously large personalities.

"I think the most surprising thing about the cranes is how complex their behavior is," he shared. "They are amusingly social birds, have a wide range of vocalizations, and some experts even believe they are tool-users — using sticks and other objects as part of their communication and displays. They're remarkably intelligent and adaptable birds. You really can just spend hours at a time observing them and they'll keep you entertained."

Looming Threat of Habitat Destruction

The regal head of a sandhill crane. (Photo: Adventures of KM&G-Morris;/Flickr)

While many subpopulations of sandhill cranes have rebounded thanks to aggressive conservation efforts, threats from man-made sources continue to loom large.

"Habitat destruction is probably the biggest threat that these birds face," said Nelson. "They require vast, sprawling wetlands in order to roost and feed, and these lands are disappearing due to a combination of factors that include human development and climate change. For instance, here in the Southwest U.S., winters have been gradually getting drier and the winter wetlands have been shrinking significantly. In some areas, water must actually get pumped into designated protected areas just to help maintain and preserve these dwindling habitats.

"The steady encroachment of human development is always looming as well. I witnessed large roosts of birds within eyeshot of coal-fired power plants and manufacturing zones during filming."

Hundreds of thousands of sandhill cranes dot the landscape in this still from the film 'Migrating with the Sandhill Cranes.'. (Photo: 'Migrating with the Sandhill Cranes'/MNN.com)

Should you get the opportunity to view a stop in this majestic migration, Nelson recommends clearing your schedule at sunrise and sunset.

"These are the times when the birds all take off from, leave for, or arrive at their preferred roosting areas. The flocks are mesmerizing and the sounds are hypnotic, and the lighting couldn't be more majestic — these are birds with a cinematic flare, for sure!"

Want to witness the beauty and grandeur of a sandhill crane migration? Prepare to get up early. (Photo: John Fowler/Flickr)