Sandhill cranes are silhouetted against the rising sun as they begin departing their morning roosting grounds last March on the Platte River south of Interstate 80 near Alda.

One of the oldest family gatherings in the world is getting underway in the Platte River valley.

Half a million sandhill cranes will stop in the valley through mid-April to feast on leftover field corn and turn over cow pies with their long needlelike beaks, looking for tasty bugs, frogs, grubs and snakes.

The cranes roost at night in the shallow waters of the Platte during the annual migration and put on about 20 percent of their body weight before flying on to northern Alaska, Canada and Siberia. They’ll spend the summer hatching chicks before flying south again next winter.

The elegant birds stand 3 to 4 feet high, have crimson caps on their heads, white cheeks and a 7-foot wingspan. In flight, their long, dark legs trail behind streamlined, gray bodies. They are among the oldest species of birds on the planet; fossil records indicate they've been around for more than 9 million years.

The mass migration through Nebraska generally starts about Valentine's Day, peaks in March and tapers off by mid-April.

“I think the birds will be on schedule,” said Kent Skaggs, operations manager for the Iain Nicolson Audubon Center at Rowe Sanctuary near Gibbon. “Our snow is already disappearing pretty quickly. ... The snow is going to be gone by the time most of the birds arrive here, unless we get additional storms.”

In fact, he said, he saw a small flock flying over the Rowe Sanctuary on Jan. 31. Those early birds might have flown back south after a blizzard earlier this month blanketed fields in snow, hiding their spring banquet.

“When we get a snowstorm like that, if it’s a thick enough blanket of snow where it prevents the birds from feeding, they might retreat a little farther south where they can access food,” Skaggs said. “Or they may have weathered it out and waited for things to thaw.”

The number of sandhill cranes in the state usually builds to a significant number by the first week of March.

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The spectacle brings about 70,000 bird-watchers and millions of tourism dollars to the region each year. A University of Nebraska-Lincoln Bureau of Business Research report in 2010 found the annual economic impact to be more than $10 million.

“If you live in Nebraska or places nearby and haven’t seen this yet, it’s essentially right here in your backyard,” Skaggs said. "Come out and take a look at it."

The cranes are only one of hundreds of species of birds that stop during the spring migration. The Platte River valley is also a great place to see the northern pintail, mallards and snow geese. The snow geese migration peaks during late February or early March.

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There are many places in Nebraska from which to see the cranes, but bird-watchers should take care not to trespass on private property.

Visitors are welcome at the Iain Nicolson Audubon Center, and those who want a close-up view can reserve a spot in a viewing blind for a fee. Morning and evening viewings are scheduled daily during March and early April, last about two hours and are led by trained guides. For more information, visit rowe.audubon.org or call 308-468-5282.

The Crane Trust near Grand Island also offers viewing blinds and tours for visitors in the morning and evening. See cranetrust.org or call 308-384-4633.

People can drop by the Crane Trust Nature and Visitor Center at the Alda exit on Interstate 80 for more information about public crane-viewing spots and guided tours on weekends.

Make reservations early. Many of the blinds fill up quickly for mid-March, which is the prime viewing time.

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