Stephane’s Blog for April 12

Spring migration monitoring is about to begin!


Once again, another spring season at the Cabot Head Research Station is soon to unfold. It will be the 15th year that the Bruce Peninsula Bird Observatory has been monitoring migrant birds at the tip of the Bruce Peninsula through a combination of mist-netting and observations.

At least, that’s what we hope if we can access the station! This April has seen quite a bit of late snow and the road to paradise might be paved with white stuff! But, if all goes well, we should open the nets for the first time this spring on April 15th. There should be regular postings on this blog from then on.

It is always exciting to be at the brink of a new season, anticipating the days to come, filled with returning birds of all colours, shapes, and sizes, the slow greening of the Earth, as warmth seeps back into the soil, the land and the sky.

Of course, birds have been on the move already, with, for example, Tundra Swans flocking to Long Point in March, and American Robins showing up on urban lawns (which, at least in southern Ontario, saw a yo-yo of white and green throughout the winter months!).

Nowhere is this great push northward more evident than along the Platte River in Nebraska in mid-March! This is where almost the entire population of Sandhill Cranes congregate and stage for several weeks, coming from the high desert of Arizona and New Mexico and the rice fields and coastal prairies of Texas and Louisiana. Up to half a million cranes will share a short stretch of this braided river, searching for safety on its sandbars and shallows, roosting by the thousands, and lifting every dawn to go and feed in nearby wet meadows and cornfields.

I mention this because I was fortunate enough to witness this spectacle this spring. After the Canadian Migration Monitoring Network meeting in Winnipeg this mid-March, I took a side trip to Nebraska, with a few days spent at the Audubon Rowe Sanctuary ( Here, in blinds set very close to the river, we were treated to an incredible display of thousands-upon-thousands of Sandhill Cranes coming in to the river to roost as the sun disappeared over the western horizon eliciting a cacophony of trumpet calls. And, after a short, cold, night, the spectacle resumed, this time, with a river filled to the brim by long-legged gray birds, slowly stirring in voice and feathers as the sun started its slow arc in the sky. Sometimes, only a small group would lift up, ready to move on and go to the fields to feed. Sometimes, an uproar – a sound so loud that no individual voices could be heard – would wash over the blind and leave the audience of humans spellbound. Then, a cloud, a real cloud of birds would move over the horizon, stretching over the river and stretching our beliefs and imagination as well.

Truth be told, it was incredible. Not least because my timing was perfect: migration is all about timing, and, this time, my visit to the Platte River coincided with the highest number of cranes ever recorded at one time. About 400,000 were counted along a stretch of about 100 km of river the day before I arrived! (All official counts are done on Mondays in small airplanes) In my own estimations, I must have seen about 50,000 cranes in one evening!

I am posting some pictures and videos on our FaceBook page. Please, visit it, like it, and share it! But, more importantly, I believe, please discover and learn more about the crane migration. And I hope that you too would be able to visit one day and experience one of the last great shows of nature along the Platte River!

Finally, I need to add that “our” cranes, the ones that breed on the Bruce Peninsula, on Manitoulin Island, or in southern Ontario in general, do not migrate through the Platte River. They spend the winter in Florida and Georgia (as many Canadians do too), flying through the eastern US to reach their destination. (see for more information).