For about six weeks every year, 80 percent of the world's population of sandhill cranes descends on the Platte River in south-central Nebraska during their migration north from southern wintering grounds. The cranes stop in Nebraska to build up the fat reserves necessary to sustain them through the nesting season.
World-Herald photojournalist Alyssa Schukar headed west to document the annual event. See more of her work in a photo showcase.
See more of Schukar's work in the Viewfinder photo blog.
More on the cranes
This year, the birds' migration is early, meaning it's a perfect time to take in the annual event.
If it's your first time, here's some information to get you started:
Crane-watching etiquette and tips
» Sandhill cranes are wary of people. Don't approach the birds on foot. A good way to get close is to use a car as a blind because birds are used to vehicles.
» Respect private property and don't trespass.
» Don't try to make cranes fly by honking your horn or waving your arms.
» Do not attempt to approach birds on their roosts. One alarm call from a bird can send the entire flock into panicked flight.
» It is illegal — and a disturbance to other birdwatchers — to harass cranes and other birds.
» If you must talk, do so only in soft whispers.
» Remember to turn off your camera flash as it starts to get dark.
» Take a jacket if you go on an evening tour to a viewing blind or if you are watching from a viewing deck. The temperature can drop up to 20 degrees after the sun has gone down.
» Wear dark-colored clothing so you won't be spotted as easily by the cranes.
» For those who want to see cranes through their car windows, driving the roads that closely parallel the river provide viewing opportunities when the birds feed near the river.
» Early in the season, the cranes find plenty to eat near the river, but they later might fly to more distant fields to feed. In late afternoon, they move close to the river again, feeding in nearby fields until it is time to roost.
» Early morning and late evening usually provide the best viewing and photography opportunities. Binoculars and spotting scopes are a must if you want to get a close look.
Sandhill crane facts
» Sandhill cranes are grayish-brown birds with white cheeks and throats, and a prominent red crown. They are most easily recognized by their call; sandhills can be heard up to a half-mile away.
» Cranes are among the oldest living birds on the planet. According to fossil records, sandhill cranes have been migrating through the area for more than 9 million years. The landscape then was savanna-like, and its inhabitants were more like modern East Africa — varieties of rhinos, camels and elephants long extinct.
» Sandhill cranes stop in Nebraska to build up the fat reserves necessary to sustain them through the nesting season farther north. They will add at least 20 percent to their body weight.
» While here, 95 percent of the cranes' diet consists of waste corn found in surrounding fields. The other 5 percent consists of worms, insect larvae, snails and other invertebrates found in wet meadows adjacent to the river.