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Like clockwork each year, starting around Valentine’s Day on 14 February and peaking around St Patrick’s Day on 17 March through early April, hundreds of thousands of sandhill cranes fly to the Big Bend in Nebraska’s Platte River, turning a rather unassuming part of the US Midwest into the setting for one of North America’s greatest wildlife spectacles.

This 75- to 80-mile stretch of river between the Nebraska towns of Grand Island and Kearney will see more than half a million birds – nearly 80% of the world’s population of sandhill cranes – pass through during their spring migration. The large grey-feathered birds, known for the bright red skin above their eyes, a loud trilling call that can be heard up to a mile away, and a wingspan of up to 7ft, travel around 350 miles a day from Texas, Oklahoma or Mexico to stop in Nebraska on their way to their breeding grounds, which are spread across the northern United States and Canada. Returning to within feet of their original nesting sites, the birds will travel upwards of 1,000 miles during a migration.

The sight and sound of nearly the entire population of the world’s oldest living bird species is awe inspiring, and the best way to see it is from a river viewing blind – a camouflaged, long wooden room with window panels built near the edge of the river. For the best views of the cranes, head to the blinds at the 1,150-acre Rowe Sanctuary, about 20 miles southeast of Kearney.

You will need to be in place well before sunrise, which means arriving at Rowe Sanctuary around 5 am, dressed in warm clothes and ready to stand quietly for about two hours with the other eager birders and photographers who may have waited their entire lives to witness the spectacle.

Long before you can see the birds along the river, you can hear them. Calling to each other through the night, the birds do not ever seem to stay quiet. Amazingly, a mother can distinguish her baby’s call and a male can hear his mate from amid the cacophony. When the sun starts to rise and the indistinct black shapes dotting the river as far as you can see come into focus, the noise will, incredibly, increase as all the birds begin to wake up.

Without warning, or at least without one that you can determine, nearly an entire roost, hundreds of birds, will take flight at once in a whoosh of wings and trills that will take your breath away. And when the early morning sunlight hits the underside of their wings, they take on a golden glow. Circling over the river, continuously calling out to each other, they will eventually fly to a nearby field and spend the day gorging on corn.

They are here, after all, to gain weight and energy for their long journey north. They will put on one-fifth of their body weight, about 1lb to 2lb, during the month or so that they stay. The cranes are also here to start forming pairs. Sandhill cranes mate for life, and if it is their first mating season, the bonding begins around the time they get to Nebraska.

One of the ways they connect with a future mate is through dancing. From a single crane bowing alone to a mated pair jumping and turning around one another, each dance has a meaning. A young, single crane throwing a piece of straw into the air for a potential mate is saying, “Look at me. I can build you a good nest.” Throwing their wings out, twirling, curtseying and hopping energetically from foot to foot, cranes do not dance solely to find a partner, they also do it to relieve stress; young ones will imitate parents or other older cranes dancing, and some naturalists theorize they dance to express emotion or just for the fun of it.

It is not about all dancing and getting fat, though; the arrival of the cranes means the arrival of a food source for predators. And with patience and binoculars, you can watch the drama of nature unfold before you. Bald eagles, for example, will prey on any cranes that are injured or left behind when the roosts fly to the fields for feeding.

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