The Platte River in central Nebraska is the stopover for over 600,000 sandhill cranes during their annual spring migration. Chicago Tribune photojournalist E. Jason Wambsgans reveals the beauty and magic of these majestic travelers.

Just before sunrise, in the hourglass heart of the North American continent, the temperature has dipped to 15 degrees on the Platte River.

I'm shivering in a wooden blind, even with layers of fleece and foot warmers to ward off frostbite. It's March, and it shouldn't be this cold, not even for Nebraska's Great Plains. Across the frozen landscape, the sun begins its ascent into a blush-colored sky, and slowly on the river dark shapes begin to stand and stretch and flap.


Photos: See images of the annual crane migration

An ancient, natural avian spectacle is about to happen here at the Rowe Sanctuary near Kearney. Here the sandhill cranes are awakening, untold thousands of them, their silhouettes barely visible in the bitter predawn cold. From the mist, a cacophony of cackles, calls and coos rises with each passing minute, the cadence increasing with daylight.

For the cranes, waking from a cold night on the silent, swiftly running river, sunrise brings feeding time, where as many as half a million birds will rise and fatten up on the waste corn, most of it left over from autumn harvest months earlier, in the vast acreage of fields, open landscapes and pastures of rich, sweet grass before returning back to the river at sunset to slumber again.

During that time, the cranes will look for a mate, striking poses, bending and preening for a few moments of passion on the prairie, sandhill-style. For the nosey birdwatcher — that would be me — it's worth a 15-degree morning just for that spectacle as they search for a mate for life.

I'm in Nebraska to see the annual migration of the cranes passing through the Platte River Valley from their wintering grounds in Texas and Mexico as they glide farther north to Canada and Siberia for the breeding season. I'm in the blind, a shed really, anticipating the massive breakfast liftoff that will soon occur.

That surreal moment comes sooner than I expect. A pair of scalawag eagles have caused havoc among the birds, and suddenly in seconds seemingly impenetrable synchronized clouds of blue-gray cranes lift to the skies in a furious attempt to escape becoming the predator's next meal.

The eagles dive into the mass of birds, with flocks of cranes going every which-away. The bright early morning sun was occluded by the wing-tracks of thousands of birds.

And just like that, they are gone for the day, only to return late in the evening, long stretches of v-shaped columns of birds just keep coming and coming like a never-ending freight train.

About 70,000 cranes zip through the Rowe-Kearney area each night during migration along the Central Flyway, one of four routes across the United States that most birds, waterfowl like ducks, geese, and more than 300 other bird species including the stately heron, follow annually.

The birds stay in the Platte River Valley for about three or four weeks, consuming enough calories to bulk up about 20 percent of their body weight for the lengthy flights north.

Earlier in the day, a ghostly field of snow geese, probably a bit of a nuisance to the Midwesterner, is a magical occurrence to a Southerner like me not used to such a natural avian circus. The sight of so many geese just adds to my glee.

The migration is amazing. The cranes are huge, standing up to 5 feet tall of gray plumage, sporty red cap, and some serious attitude. Their wingspan easily reaches 6 feet in circumference, enough to give you a scratch or two should one get hold of you. Not to worry. You can't come within a country mile of one of these skittish babies.

Sometimes the whooping cranes come, that rarest and most beautiful bird, as they follow the migration route, too. In another early morning jaunt to see the birds at the Crane Trust, jumbled into the racket of sandhills is that of a single-engine airplane.

As it comes into sight, Brad Mellema, once director of the Crane Trust Nature and Visitor Center, speaks in a low whisper as to not disturb the jittery birds. "If it circles, that means they've sighted a whooping crane."

Watching the plane intently and hoping it would circle back, I was a bit disappointed as it puttered on westward, signaling the whoopers were nowhere to be found.

All in all, the sandhill cranes gave a five-star performance.

"Cranes have been moving up and down this highway for centuries," said renowned nature photographer and author Michael Forsberg as he spoke of the migration. "They've seen the rise and fall of civilizations."

Birdwatchers flock from all over the world to climb aboard the crane train that begins in that window of time possibly in late February and that lasts until April. Peak times, though, are about the last two weeks in March.

"It's a place where you have to linger," Forsberg said. "The more you stay here, the more you want to stay. It's not just a great gathering of birds but a great gathering of people."

The Rowe Sanctuary can arrange it all for you, but you have to be up at the crack of dawn again, as the early prairie chicken bird gets the corn.

To see this wondrous crane occurrence that National Geographic calls the greatest wildlife phenomenon in the United States is just remarkable. I'm not a bird expert, by a long shot, only a lifelong admirer of all winged creatures, great and small.

Perhaps, like me, you'll come away from the migration all insane for cranes.

Info: The Crane Trust, cranetrust.org; Iain Nicolson Audubon Center at Rowe Sanctuary, rowesanctuary.org; Nebraska Tourism Commission, visitnebraska.com; Grand Island Hall County Convention and Visitors Bureau, visitgrandisland.com; Kearney Visitors Bureau, visitkearney.org.