As more than half a million Sandhill cranes find their way to central Nebraska beginning in early March, as part of their northerly springtime migration, it’s time to plan your visit to the great Central Flyway to view the annual spectacular. So, you know that you’ll want to visit areas along a 100-mile range between Grand Island and North Platte, anchored by Kearney, for the best viewing options. But, what should you wear? What’s the best way to watch the large birds?
UPDATE: This post was first published in 2021 and has been updated in February 2024 with current content.
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Quick picks on what to bring
No time to read this whole post? Here are my top recommendations for a packing list for Sandhill Crane watching.
New to bird watching? Start with the Beginner’s Guide To Seeing The Sandhill Cranes
Where to watch the Sandhill cranes
You can find outstanding viewing areas to watch the 4-foot-tall gray birds with the red crown. They enjoy spending days in corn fields, where they dine on leftover corn, as well as bugs and other protein options.
The Crane Trust Nature and Visitor Center near Grand Island is an excellent outlet to visit while in the area. From sharing information to offering guided tours to viewing blinds, the Crane Trust is an excellent source when searching for Sandhill cranes.
Located south of Kearney, the Iain Nicolson Audubon Center at Rowe Sanctuary features riverside views of cranes and more creatures. Open during the day for information, Rowe Sanctuary also offers nightly tours to viewing blinds next to the Platte River, where you can watch the magical cranes land to roost for the night on sand bars.
Reservations for tours at Rowe Sanctuary are open now. The Guided Crane Experience runs March 9 through April 6. The Guided Crane Photography Experience runs March 15 through April 6. The Overnight Photography Experience runs March 15 through April 5.
In North Platte, you’ll want to reserve a spot on a tour with Dusty Trails LLC, which will take you a viewing blind located on private property.
An excellent spot to watch Sandhill cranes fly to the Platte River to roost at night is an observation deck next to the river a few miles south of the Wood River exit (285) on Interstate 80. Get there early, as it’s a popular spot.
What to wear for bird watching in Nebraska
Now that you’ve found places to view the annual Sandhill migration, you’ll want to prepare for the early spring weather by dressing in layers.
With temperatures fluctuating during the day, you can start the day in the low teens or 20s and experience a 50 degree day, or spend a cloudy day In the 30s, with wind chills near zero. After all, you’re visiting the area during later winter and early spring, when the weather gods enjoy playing with our feelings.
Here are some tips for dressing appropriately:
Wear neutral colors. Cranes are jittery animals. They don’t trust humans. Afterall, outside of Nebraska, every other state allows hunting the gamey birds.
Dress in layers. Bring a coat. AND a jacket. It’s encouraged to wear a comfortable long johns, T-shirt, flannel shirt or sweater. You’ll want to dress for any type of weather. You may start the morning in freezing temperatures and experience 50 or 60 degrees by early afternoon.
Bring gloves, stocking cap, and hand/foot warmers. Spending time outside in Nebraska’s open plains can be a cold experience if the wind is blowing out of the north. I prefer convertible mittens, which keep my fingers warm but can be converted to fingerless gloves when I want to take pictures.
I always pack a few hand warmers (and while they’re single-use, they are long-lasting). I’ve tried rechargeable hand warmers, and they work fine as long as you don’t lose the charger.
It may look warm out, but with a brisk wind, the wind chill can make you think twice about getting out of your vehicle.
The best way to view Sandhill cranes
With cranes being leery of us, they will move away from you as you pull over to the side of the road to watch them. Turn the radio off in your vehicle, eliminating unnecessary noise. While the birds may be a few feet from the road eating in the fields, by the time you step out, they’re several feet away. They move quietly and quickly.
Use your vehicle as a natural blind. Stand behind your vehicle, allowing the birds to forget you’re there and eventually move back toward you.
Do not approach the birds. Again, they are afraid of us, and moving toward them could cause the group to quickly fly away and possibly cause injuries. Or worse.
Binoculars are an excellent accessory with which to view cranes. A quality pair of binoculars will bring the birds closer to you, allowing you to appreciate the beautiful gray and red, while they freely move about.
I use a compact pair of binoculars made by Timorn that comes with a tripod adaptor for my phone, so I can take pictures of the birds I see. I’ve had it for just a couple of months, but so far, I love its portability and excellent field of view.
Tip: You can get a telephoto lens for your smart phone. Browse the selection of lenses and read reviews before buying.
Telephoto lens on a camera is another excellent way to view the birds. This is more for serious wildlife photographers, and not for hobby bird watchers. Lenses for DSLR cameras can be very expensive!
The annual Sandhill crane migration is a special experience that everyone needs to put on their bucket list. To watch them fly in formation, as they sill the Nebraska sky is breathtaking and a memory that lasts a lifetime.