Beginner’s Guide To Sandhill Cranes In Nebraska (2020)

One of Nebraska’s most epic experiences is getting the chance to observe the sandhill crane migration in Central Nebraska. Bird-watchers from around the world flock to the state each spring to witness the marvel. But what about the rest of us? If you’re not a well-versed birder, here’s how to get the most out of seeing the sandhill crane migration.

Updated: This post contains information about closures as a precaution to health concerns surrounding COVID-19. It’s wise to call ahead before your travels.

Everything you need to know about the Sandhill Crane migration in Nebraska for 2020 (especially for beginners!) | Where to view the Sandhill Cranes in Nebraska | What events are planned for the Sandhill Crane migration | Best viewing opportunities and tours for bird-watching. #Nebraska #birdwatching #birding #Midwest

What’s so special about sandhill cranes?

Everyone says you’ve got to see the sandhill crane migration at least once. Why?

I think I read the best explanation in Smithsonian.com“Every year 400,000 to 600,000 sandhill cranes — 80 percent of all the cranes on the planet — congregate along an 80-mile stretch of the central Platte River in Nebraska, to fatten up on waste grain in the empty cornfields in preparation for the journey to their Arctic and subarctic nesting grounds. This staging is one of the world’s great wildlife spectacles, on a par with the epic migrations of the wildebeest and the caribou.”

Why is Nebraska so important to sandhill cranes?

There’s a stretch of the Platte River in Nebraska that serves as a rest stop for hundreds of thousands of migrating cranes twice a year.

And just a heads up so you look like you know what you’re doing, there are more than just sandhill cranes to view while you’re there. There have been at least 257 species of birds observed in the Rainwater Basin including 27 species of waterfowl, 27 species of shorebirds, and five threatened and endangered species (whooping cranes, bald eagles, least terns, piping plovers, and peregrine falcons).

Where are the best places in Nebraska to see the sandhill cranes?

There are several communities in central Nebraska that are prime starting points for sandhill crane viewing. Kearney, Neb., is known as the Sandhill Crane Capital of the World…for good reason. By all accounts, the most cranes seem to arrive in that area (like 400,000 to 600,000).

Of course, places like Grand Island or North Platte are not to be overlooked. You’ll still see hundreds of thousands of cranes there in March, too.

Related post: Headed for Kearney, Nebraska? You’re going to need some restaurant suggestions! Start with these seven must-try places to eat in Kearney.

When is the sandhill cranes’ migration in Nebraska in 2020?

The cranes usually start arriving in mid-February continue in waves until in mid-April. The peak is typically the last week of March.

Audubon Nebraska’s 50th Crane Festival commemorating the migration is March 20 and 21, 2020 in Kearney. This would be a great festival to not only to view the cranes, but to learn everything from the basics about the cranes to in-depth presentations on habitats and conservation. Registration is open and includes Saturday meals and a T-shirt: $160, adult; $70, student (high school and above); and $30, child.

Are there sandhill crane viewing tours?

Of course, there are bird-watching tours! There are some that you’ll have to get up at the crack of dawn to take advantage of (as well as overnight options). And then there are the options for a guided experience for the average person who isn’t a major birder.

Sandhill cranes at the Crane Trust in Wood River, Nebraska
Photo courtesy Nebraska Tourism Commission

For the serious birder

It’s recommended that you reserve a blind if you want to get up close to the migrating cranes. In Kearney, Neb., your best bet is Rowe Sanctuary. You’ll spend between $20-$40 to rent one for a few hours.

Serious bird photographers are going to want to consider guided tours that include photography blinds ($100) and overnight blinds ($250).

For the casual birder

Don’t want to early morning? If you’re in the North Platte area, you can do a tour with Dusty Trails LLC, which starts its tour at 2:15 p.m. (and ends at about 5 p.m.). In 2020, the tours will be held on Saturdays and Sundays, March 14 and 15, and then daily from March 20 through April 8.

Dusty Trails’ Tours are $35 for adults, $17/50 for children ages 5-10, and FREE for children ages 4 and younger.

The Iain Nicolson Audubon Visitor Center at the Rowe Sanctuary in Kearney, Nebraska offers kid-friendly sandhill crane viewing opportunities.
Photo courtesy Nebraska Tourism Commission

What if I told you that you could go bird-watching without going outside? (I’ve done this in eastern Nebraska, actually). Iain Nicolson Audubon Visitor Center at the Rowe Sanctuary has that option every Wednesday evening starting at 6 p.m. during the migration season. This is a great option for families since they have kid’s activities while you waited for the birds to arrive.

The cost for evening at the Audubon Visitor Center is $10 per person and kids 4 and younger are admitted for FREE. The 2020 dates are: March 11, 18, 25, and April 1 and 8. The Rowe Sanctuary is located about 20 miles from Kearney at 44450 Elm Island Road in Gibbon.

Where are crane viewing sites?

I remember my parents taking us kids on a wild ride one year, trying to find the birds and it was just the most unimpressive experience. I remember standing in a field, shivering, just to see about a dozen birds and wondering what the big deal was. Clearly, my parents hadn’t researched where we needed to go…or we were lost and not at a legit viewing site.

Crane watching on the hike bike bridge at Fort Kearny State Park in Kearney, Nebraska
Photo courtesy Nebraska Tourism Commission

Save yourself the bad memories and go to one of these sites instead:

UPDATE: Crane Trust is closed to guests and volunteers through April 5, 2020. One of your best bets to not only learn about cranes, but see them, is to head to the Crane Trust Nature & Visitors Center (located at 9325 S. Alda Road in Wood River, Neb.). Here, you can see the displays and then head outdoors to the 35-foot observation tower and the 10 miles of nature trails along the Platte River. Some trails may be closed to protect cranes that are roosting or loafing.

– For sunrise and sunset viewing near Kearney, go to Fort Kearny Bridge spanning the Platte River. You’ll need a state park permit to get into the Fort Kearny State Recreation Area. The address is 1020 V Road, Kearney, Neb.

– A free option is located just off the Interstate 80 exit to Gibbon. To get to the Plautz Viewing Platform, take Exit 285 and drive 1 ½ miles south. The Central Platte Natural Resource Department has view decks set up for a good view of the sandhill cranes, as well as herons, egrets, and pelicans. Parking is free.

– CPNRD also has a view site set up near Alda, Neb. Take the Interstate 80 Exit 305 to Alda and drive 2 miles south. Find three roadside turnouts south and east of the Alda interchange on Platte River Drive, and west of Rowe Sanctuary on Elm Island Road.

Is there bird watching etiquette?

Good question. Since we’re all non-birders here, I’m guessing this is on everyone’s mind. Of course there’s etiquette.

Close-up photo of a sandhill crane in Nebraska
Photo courtesy Nebraska Tourism Commission

I had to research it, though, since I’m a novice. Luckily, there are sites like Nebraska Flyaway and visitors bureaus to explain it to us. 

Here’s what not to do:

– DON’T stop on roadways, driveways or gated entry.

– DON’T stop abruptly in the road, either. The person behind you may not be as eager as you to see the cranes.

– DON’T attempt to approach the birds in the field. “One alarm call from a bird can send the entire flock into a panicked flight using up precious energy reserves.”

–  DON’T harass the cranes by honking your horn, flashing your lights, or yelling. It’s illegal, plus it annoys everyone else.

– DON’T use flash photography.

Sandhill cranes resting in Nebraska during their annual migration
Photo courtesy Nebraska Tourism Commission

Here’s what to do:

– Always obtain permission before entering land – most land in the Platte River Valley is private property. It’s trespassing if you don’t have permission.

– Respect the rights of people who live and work in the area.

– Silence your phone.

– Stay in your car or right next to it. Migratory waterfowl are used to being hunted by humans, so your car acts as a blind.

– Plan for the weather. It can get cold in Nebraska and the weather changes quickly in the late winter and early spring. 

What should I bring for sandhill crane viewing in Nebraska?

I mentioned earlier that Nebraska weather can be fairly unpredictable, but a safe bet is to assume it will be cold and windy. Wear warm, seasonally appropriate clothing. Hats, gloves, thermal underwear, heavy coats and outerwear and sturdy boots are recommended.

Some tours will have a few binoculars available to share with others, but if you have your own binoculars, bring them.

If you book any overnight experience, like the overnight photography tour, it’s recommended that you bring two sleeping bags per person, foam or insulated pads, extra clothing, and warm drinks and food.

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A helpful guide for first-timers wanting to see the sandhill crane migration in Nebraska 2020. Find central Nebraska viewing locations, tour options, as well as details on the Audubon Nebraska's Crane Festival. #Nebraska #birds #

7 Must-Try Restaurants In Kearney, Nebraska

Nestled smack-dab in the middle of Nebraska, the city of Kearney is a fun option for a weekend trip with the family. Complete with museums of all kinds, surprising outdoor recreation options, plenty of arts and entertainment, and some really fantastic restaurants in Kearney, it’s a wonderful option for a memorable getaway that won’t break the bank. 

Things to know about Kearney, Nebraska

Born from the westward push of the railroad after the civil war, Kearney has grown into a thriving college town, providing a home for the University of Nebraska at Kearney (UNK).

Its main claim to fame, however, is its status as the “Sandhill Crane Capital of the World.” Each year, over 600,000 Sandhill Cranes stop near Kearney to “fuel up” and rest during their migration north. Over 40,000 people — including famed anthropologist Jane Goodall — visit the Kearney area each year in March and early April. 

Now, of course, all of this is interesting, but the BIG question remains: Where do all of these tourists eat when visiting Kearney, Nebraska? 

Kearney, Nebraska is known as the Sandhill Crane Capital of the world. If you're planning a trip to view the crane migration, here are a few restaurants you'll want to visit! #Kearney #Nebraska #Midwest

Must-try (and family-friendly) restaurants in Kearney, Nebraska

Well, just stick with me, and we’ll focus on some locally-owned, family-friendly restaurants that add value and an all-round good time to your next family getaway! 

Daylight Donuts

A beloved Kearney tradition, Daylight Donuts has been churning out fresh, tasty, unbeatable donuts for as long as I can remember. With crunchy-sweet old fashioned donuts, bear claws as big as a toddler’s head, and satisfyingly-good coffee you don’t always find small donut shops, it really is the perfect way to start a day of exploring Kearney.

A variety of donuts from Daylight Donuts in Kearney, Nebraska.
Photo courtesy Visit Kearney

Like many classic donut shops, Daylight Donuts is open only in the morning — from 3 a.m. to noon, so it’s important to get there early for the best selection! 

It’s important to note that they have a wide selection of non-coffee drinks like chocolate milk and juice for the kiddos. My favorite recommendation actually isn’t a sweet one — their “gravy wrap” is a decadent concoction of flaky dough and sausage gravy, and I’d probably eat one every day if I could! 

Related post: 14 Great Places To Get Donuts In Nebraska

Barista’s Daily Grind

Another well-loved, always-bustling breakfast option is Barista’s Daily Grind. A Kearney staple since the 90s, you can trust you’ll find a decadent drink, fresh-baked goodies, and even a few savory options to get you through your morning. 

Interior of the Barista's Daily Grind in Kearney, Nebraska.
Photo courtesy Visit Kearney

Across the street from UNK, this Kearney coffee shop is full of patrons from the university — both students and professors alike — and its constant traffic means it’s not the quietest place during peak caffeination hours. This means you can bring headphones if you need to get some work done, but it also means you can breathe a sigh of relief knowing you can take the kids there without feeling like you’re disturbing someone.

I highly recommend the dirty chai latte! It’s creamy, not too sweet, and served by some seriously friendly baristas. 

A latte at Barista's Daily Grind in Kearney, Nebraska.
Photo courtesy Visit Kearney

A smaller south location can be found on Second Avenue — the “main drag” — and provides a slightly smaller selection of the offerings found at the main store. 

Komal Mexican Taqueria

This Kearney restaurant is one of my favorite gems — ranging from options that satisfy picky kids who only eat beige-colored food, to incredibly flavorful, authentic Mexican fare that will feed your whole family quickly and affordably. 

Sandwich at Komal Mexican Taquaria in Kearney, Nebraska.
Photo courtesy Visit Kearney

Tacos, burritos, nachos, tortas, quesadillas, some of the most delicious guacamole you’ll ever eat, and a fantastic salsa bar all come together to make everyone happy in a welcoming atmosphere. Though I’m not vegetarian, I love getting the nachos with guacamole instead of meat, and asking for the chips on the side.

With homemade agua fresca, horchata, and flan, it’s an all-around, honest-to-goodness meal that will keep even the pickiest eaters satisfied until dinner. 

Cunninghams Journal

You’ll find that a lot of restaurants in Kearney serve up the delicious, deep-fried menu options you’d expect in a smaller city, but Cunninghams Journal manages to turn your typical “bar food” into something special. 

Exterior of Cunninghams Journal, a pub restaurant in Kearney, Nebraska.
Photo courtesy Visit Kearney

Big, fat, juicy burgers, salty fries, and deep-fried pickles are well-made bar staples, but their menu of varying skewer baskets shine for people who are looking for something a little different (not to mention keto and gluten free-friendly, if that’s something you need). Tender chunks of sirloin steak and grilled shrimp are wrapped in bacon, served over grilled vegetables, and brought out with a unique “bistro sauce” to round it all out.

They also have pizza and wings on the menu, meaning my picky kids have options.

Pro Tip: If you’re looking for a chicken nugget option, ask for boneless wings without sauce. 

There are two locations: the original in downtown Kearney, and a newer one right off the interstate, going by the name “Cunninghams on the Lake.”  

Kyoto

Kyoto is a relatively new restaurant in Kearney, and adds a local, friendly vibe to your typical hibachi experience.

Chef at a grill at Kyoto in Kearney, Nebraska.
Photo courtesy Visit Kearney

What I love the most about Kyoto is that you can enjoy the spectacle of talented chefs tossing shrimp into peoples’ mouths and lighting onion volcanoes on fire, or you can simply dine in and order from the menu.

Or you can sit at the sushi bar and watch all of the sushi getting made.

Or you can enjoy a drink at the well-stocked bar and watch the game.

Or you can simply stop in to get a bowl of rolled ice cream without even having to stop for dinner. 

Sushi tray at Kyoto in Kearney, Nebraska.
Photo courtesy Visit Kearney

The big bonus? They have a kids menu, so if you’re craving sushi and the kids need french fries, everyone can be happy. 

Thunderhead Brewing Co.

Located “on the bricks” — a title that simply refers to the original downtown area with old-fashioned brick streets — Thunderhead Brewing sports a big, beautiful stone oven for pizzas, calzones, and soft pretzels, as well as super-melty mozzarella cheese bread. 

Pizza at Thunderhead Brewing Co. in downtown Kearney, Nebraska.
Photo courtesy Visit Kearney

While it is a bar, this Kearney brewpub is still a favorite local place for families to gather and enjoy some really awesome stone oven pizza. Little kids might get bored and antsy, but the pretzels come out fast enough to distract them while they wait for the rest of their meal.

The beers are brewed in a nearby town, and are time-tested and well-loved. In fact, Thunderhead has recently opened tap houses in downtown and west Omaha, if you’d like to give their craft brews a try. The only location that serves food, however, is in Kearney. 

I practically insist that, if you’re not afraid of jalapeno peppers, you try the Thunder Pie. It’s a pizza with an alfredo sauce base, shredded chicken, bacon, and jalapenos. Ask for a side of ranch and you’re in pizza heaven! 

Ktown Cakery

Wondering about dessert in Kearney? Look no further than Ktown Cakery, another stop on the bricks. Decadent bars, cupcakes, cake balls, cookies, call-ahead full-sized cakes, and even ice cream from the UNL Dairy Store await you in this adorable little shop on Central Avenue.

Macaroons at Ktown Cakery in Kearney, Nebraska
Photo courtesy Visit Kearney

The staff is friendly, and there are a couple of tables available to sit and enjoy your treats with the family. 

Ktown Cakery supplies a handful of local businesses with sweet treats (you can find their cookies at the aforementioned Barista’s Daily Grind), so don’t be surprised if you see their goodies at multiple places! 

The location is quite small, however, so if you’re traveling with a big group it might be a better idea to call ahead and order some treats to take to your hotel room or a nearby park.  

Family fun and fantastic restaurants in Kearney, Nebraska

Kearney is certainly smaller than Lincoln or Omaha, but don’t let that scare you! With culture, history, recreation, and unforgettable food, this lively college town in the middle of the state might just surprise you! 

Thinking of exploring more of Nebraska? Read 101 Things To Do In Nebraska for inspiration!

Planning a trip to see the Sandhill crane migration? You're going to need a place to eat while there. Here's a local's guide to the best restaurants in Kearney, Nebraska - each are family-friendly, too. #Nebraska #Restaurants #Midwest #local

About the guest blogger

Lauren Bonk, owner of the Curtain and Pen, hails from Kearney, Neb., where she works as a freelance copywriter for small businesses, startups, and even larger corporate entities in need of professionally-written marketing content for their businesses and organizations.

With a background in both Theatre and English, Lauren loves to help companies find a voice, fine-tune it, and authentically utilize it in written collateral like blog posts, website copy, and social media content.

You can typically find Lauren drinking coffee, listening to music that’s probably a little too loud, and daydreaming about drinking more coffee the next morning.

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