Sandhill cranes are migrating unusually early this year, scientists wonder why

March 8, 2016, 10:28 a.m.

The sandhill cranes that winter along the Platte River valley typically start arriving in mid-February and stay until mid-April. Peak numbers hit around mid-March. But it seems that sandhill cranes got an early jump on migration this year, as the area is already seeing peak numbers weeks early.

"The latest aerial count of cranes along the Platte River from Chapman to Overton — taken on Monday — showed 213,600 cranes, the largest number recorded in February since weekly crane inventories during migration season began in 1998," reports Omaha.com. The most sandhill cranes recorded in the area in February during the last 19 years was 30,000.

Researchers think the early arrival has to do with weather patterns and a particularly warm winter. But what is even more of interest is whether the cranes will stay their usual length of time into mid-April, or if they will leave ahead of schedule as well.

"Andrew Caven, the Crane Trust’s lead biologist, said how long the sandhill cranes stay in Nebraska could be influenced by several local factors. For example, the amount of waste corn and natural forage available play a role since the cranes stop along the Platte River to fuel up and rest before completing their journey north to their nesting grounds," writes Omaha.com.

Meanwhile, it is now prime viewing time so if you have ever wanted to witness huge flocks of 5-foot-tall cranes, now is the time to visit their wintering grounds. Head out to a refuge, take a seat in a viewing blind, and enjoy the noise and activity of these gorgeous birds.

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Jaymi Heimbuch is a writer and photographer at Mother Nature Network. Follow her on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook.