For thousands of years sandhill cranes have flocked to the Platte River Valley to replenish their energy reserves before they head north to their breeding grounds in the Arctic. The last two years I have been fortunate enough to regularly observe and photograph these prehistoric birds during their time in Nebraska. However photographing cranes comes with many challenges, and more often than not the cranes or the weather get the best of you. Sandhill cranes aren’t hunted in Nebraska because public opinion is overwhelming against it. However, cranes are hunted in every other state in the Central Flyway. Because of this cranes are wary of human presence and will flee if they are approached. This makes the use of blinds mandatory when photographing cranes at their roosts on the river, in order to avoid disturbing them. But even if you go through the work to set up a blind the birds still may not show up when or where you want them to and in the past few years unseasonably warm temperatures have made the cranes behavior even more unpredictable.
In recent years cranes are starting to arrive on the Platte earlier and earlier with some cranes even overwintering (Harner et. al. 2015). No one knows the exact cause of this phenomenon, but warming temperatures are likely in part to blame. This has led to several conflicts along the Platte that have previously not occurred. One conflict that arose this year occurred when large flocks of snow geese remained in the Platte River Valley while crane numbers were reaching their peak. In normal years the snow geese would have mostly moved on by the time the majority of the cranes arrived on the river. The light goose conservation order extends the hunting season for snow geese until April 5, in order to reduce the numbers of this overpopulated species.
With snow geese still in the area, large numbers of cranes were often flushed off the river early in the morning when they were startled by gunshots from hunters in nearby fields. The early arrival and overwintering of sandhill cranes on the Platte may also lead to increased competition for food resources with snow geese and other migratory birds (Harner et. al. 2015). Another problem with the warmer temperatures was sunrise kayakers flushing entire roosts of cranes from the river. In normal years it is usually too cold to attract kayakers to the river. When birds are flushed from the river they are forced to waste valuable energy, which may affect their chances of survival when they reach their breeding grounds. On top of the problems caused by a changing climate on the Platte, the National Audubon Society projects the winter range of sandhill cranes to decline by 58% by 2080 due to climate change. Erratic weather patterns and decreased water supplies caused by climate change also threatens the wetland habitat that cranes rely on across their range.
Sandhill cranes draw thousands of visitors from around the world to the Platte River Valley every year. These crowds provide
a large economic boost to communities near the river. Many of the visitors that come to see the cranes pay to watch them from blinds along the river in the morning or evening. If cranes are frequently flushed from the river, the number of people that pay to use the blinds may be impacted. This may impact conservation groups along the Platte that rely on the income that they receive from viewing blinds.
In order to conserve crane populations and maintain the large crowds of visitors, it will become necessary to address any problems that arise in the future and to come up with innovate solutions to mitigate them. In the coming years of increasing uncertainty, a wide variety of interest groups will have to work together in order to preserve one of the greatest migration phenomenons in the world.
Harner, M.J., G.D. Wright, and K. Geluso. 2015. Overwintering Sandhill Cranes (Grus canadensis) in Nebraska, USA. The Wilson Journal of Ornithology 127:457-466.