Sandhill Crane Migration with Kids
Updated: Jan 12
Nebraska doesn't seem to be known for much. It's usually one of the last states to be filled in on those little RV maps everyone has on their camper. I watch some of my favorite RV families fill up their maps leaving poor Nebraska empty for years. I think it's a shame because the state really does have so much to offer!
One of the little known natural wonders in Nebraska is the Sandhill Crane Migration that happens every spring. The migration is a converging of nearly every Sandhill Crane on the planet in a small stretch of the Platte River. We're talking hundreds of thousands of cranes, with the majority of the birds in and around the Kearney area.
We happened upon this phenomenon by chance in the Spring of 2018. One warm afternoon we decided to drive to Kearney to look for campgrounds. We were checking out Fort Kearney State Recreation Area when we heard a strange bird call. After a while, we noticed that there were a lot of these birds calling...and by evening the sky was filled with the birds. A little research told us that we had driven into the heart of the Sandhill Crane Migration on the Platte River.
Once we knew this massive migration convened on the river just a little over an hour down the road from us, we had to come back and get the full experience. 80% of the entire world's population of Sandhill Cranes visit the Platte River and it's surrounding corn fields between late February and early April. This means hundreds of thousands of birds are all in and around the Kearney, Nebraska area. The cranes are so important in this part of the state they even adorn the famous Great Platte River Road Archway (check out our visit to the Archway) that spans across the lanes of I-80.
Bring your telephoto lens if you want to snap any photos
The birds start leave the river at sunrise, get there about a half an hour before sunrise
Same goes for sunset, the birds arrive at sunset, so get there a half an hour before
Dress in layers, the weather in late winter/early spring in Nebraska can change quickly & dramatically. T-shirts in the afternoon and winter coats by sunset!
Bring your winter coat and boots!
Many of the people who travel from all over the world to see these birds in massive quantities are photographers, wildlife enthusiasts, and the like. But it's also a great experience for families with children from preschool to adulthood. There are tours and viewing blinds you can rent and even overnight experiences on the river. However, to experience the migration with your children, you don't need to spend hundreds of dollars and plan months in advance.
Must Have Gear for This Trip
Rent a telephoto lens from LensRentals.com. We did and it was an excellent experience! The lens arrived exactly as planned. And when we had to change plans due to the weather, they credited my account so I could rent the lens at a later date. No return or exchange fees for the change! Get $25 off your first rental when you click the link above!
Get a water bottle holder. This way the kids can bring a little snack & some water with them while they wait for all the action to begin. Or to help them stick around a little longer!
Cold Weather Gear Think long underwear, wool socks, a hat, and gloves. It gets cold...and I'm not kidding!
In fact, if we would have booked blinds and made our plans in advance we would have found ourselves in Kearney with no birds. We visited in April of 2019, on what was usually the tail end of the migration. But a long, snowy winter had delayed the birds arrival and we visited at the hight of the migration when over 600,000 birds were brooding on the river.
Other than the general knowledge that the birds appeared in the area between late February and early April, we didn't do much research, so our experience was by happens-chance, but ended up being the best possible option for families!
We camped at Fort Kearney State Recreation Area, a campground we had visited before. This campground ends up being a good fit for Crane Watchers for a number of reasons. First, you can view birds on the water and in the corn fields without ever leaving the park! Second, it's around a half an hour away from the Rowe Sanctuary and the Crane Trust if you want to get a closer look at the birds or speak with an expert. And finally, it's only a few minutes outside Kearney, so you have all the amenities of town nearby.
For those reasons, we highly recommend Fort Kearney State Recreation Area if you want to experience the crane migration. Within the campground there is a bridge along the Three Bridges Hike/Bike Trail in the park. The first bridge crosses the Platte River, creating an ideal viewing spot for the morning river exit and the birds return in the evening. The bridge is less than a mile from the parking lot for the trail. The trail is gravel, but is in great shape and can easily be navigated with strollers or wheel chairs.
Tips with Kids
Pick Sunrise or Sunset which ever works for your kids schedule
Be ready to wait for birds to arrive in the evening, bring binoculars, bird watching books, etc. to help with the wait
Dress the kids in layers and plan to be cold
Eat before you go!
Noise will deter the birds, so be sure your kids know they should be as quiet as they can
If you want to see the birds on the bridge, you'll need to arrive a half an hour before sunrise or sunset. Cranes spend the night brooding on the river, feasting on tiny creatures and plumping up for their trip north. Then, at sunrise the birds leave the river to head towards the neighboring corn fields for more snacking. They leave a few at a time to start, then take off in masses. It is a sight to see when thousands of birds leave the river at once. In the evening, the birds meet in the closest fields to the river and then suddenly they take to the air and return to the river for the night, diving in by the hundreds. These times, with the masses of birds, are the most spectacular time to see the migration in action. During the day, you won't see any birds on the river, but will find plenty in the corn fields.
During the day, if you're at Fort Kearney State Recreation Area, you'll be able to walk out of the park to the corn fields that line the entrance lane to see the birds more closely. There is also a path that leads through the trees bordering the corn fields next to the campground. This tree line creates a great blind to hide and watch the birds for as long as you'd like. Or you can hop in the car and drive around on country roads through the corn fields and see more birds than you can count.
You can visit Rowe Sanctuary and the Crane Trust during the day for free to learn more about cranes and explore, but don't expect to see birds. They're in the fields during the day.
We love Fort Kearney State Recreation Area for viewing the birds! The weekend we were there one of the campground host was selling food and hot chocolate for the bird watchers! It's a great campground, made even better by the presence of the cranes. The photographers share tips on where they've seen the most birds and families share their stories of watching the birds on the river.
Will we go back and rent a blind when the kids are older? Yes. There is no denying that renting a blind can provide a once in a life time experience to get up close and personal with the cranes on the river. But, if you want a more flexible, easier to navigate with kids, way to experience the Sandhill Crane migration, Fort Kearney State Recreation Area is the way to go!
If you're looking for up-to-date information on the crane migration, check out the Rowe Sanctuary, Crane Trust, or the Kearney Visitor Center websites. If you can't make it in person and it's between late February and Early April, check out the Crane Cam to see the birds live!