By Mel White
|National Wildlife Refuges||National Parks||Acreage of Important Bird Areas|
Travel diagonally through Nebraska from Missouri to Wyoming—a distance of about 490 miles—and you’ll find habitats ranging from hardwood forest and prairie to the ponderosa pine woodland of the Pine Ridge.
But Nebraska is perhaps best known for its Sandhills: rolling grassland dunes that span 20,000 square miles, a quarter of the state. It’s home to many increasingly rare grassland birds, and the thousands of lakes that dot the landscape act as a magnet for wintering waterbirds. Go to Valentine National Wildlife Refuge, which lies in the heart of it, to find both the Greater-prairie Chicken and Sharp-tailed Grouse.
If you only head to Nebraska once, make sure it’s in spring, when a half million or so Sandhill Cranes gather along the Platte River—truly one of the greatest nature experiences of North America. The Lillian Annette Rowe Sanctuary and Iain Nicholson Audubon Center welcome visitors to some of the best crane viewing along the Platte.
Of course, we would never recommend that you seek out just one site and species. Let Nebraska’s well-organized system of birding trails help you plot your path across the state.
Nebraska Birding Hotspots
Fifteen miles northwest of Lincoln, Branched Oak State Recreation Area attracts crowds of birders and non-birders alike in spring, when Bald Eagles gather by the dozens. They’re joined by as many as 20 species of waterfowl on and around 1,800-acre Branched Oak Lake. Snow Goose is particularly abundant in spring.
Many viewpoints, including the dam at the eastern end of the lake, offer sites from which to scan the water from fall through spring for ducks, loons, grebes, gulls, and terns. Many rare species have turned up here over the years, including Black Scoter, Red-throated Loon, Neotropic Cormorant, Ross’s Gull, Mew Gull, and California Gull.
American White Pelican is seen through most of the year, and Osprey is regular in spring and fall. Water level varies in the lake, and when shallows or mudflats are exposed there can be numbers of shorebirds, especially in the western part of the lake.
Cottonwoods and grassland around the lake are home to Northern Bobwhite, Wild Turkey, Red-headed Woodpecker, Willow Flycatcher, Bell’s Vireo, Grasshopper Sparrow, Dickcissel, Orchard Oriole, and Baltimore Oriole.
You have to drive about 30 miles of unpaved roads to reach this 45,800-acre national wildlife refuge, but the reward is one of Nebraska’s most lively birding destinations.
Crescent Lake National Wildlife Refuge lies within Nebraska’s Sand Hills, a vast area of gently rolling, grass-covered hills with thousands of small ponds and wetlands. Waterbirds of all kinds flock to these wetlands both in migration and nesting season.
Driving through the refuge you’re apt to see up to a dozen species of ducks, along with Pied-billed Grebe, Eared Grebe, Western Grebe, American White Pelican, American Bittern, Black-crowned Night-Heron, White-faced Ibis, Virginia Rail, and Sora. Nesting shorebirds include Black-necked Stilt, American Avocet, Willet, Upland Sandpiper, Long-billed Curlew, and Wilson’s Phalarope. Also nesting in wetland areas are Black Tern, Forster’s Tern, Marsh Wren, and Yellow-headed Blackbird.
On the refuge grasslands, look for breeding Sharp-tailed Grouse, Northern Harrier, Burrowing Owl, Loggerhead Shrike, Horned Lark, Grasshopper Sparrow, Lark Sparrow, Lark Bunting, and Bobolink.
Set on the Missouri River 15 miles northwest of Sioux City, Iowa, Ponca State Park is one of Nebraska’s most popular and productive birding destinations. The park’s bird list of well over 200 species testifies to its varied habitats. Park naturalists lead guided walks in spring to introduce visitors to the park’s bird life.
Densely forested bluffs are home to species including Wild Turkey, Eastern Whip-poor-will, Red-headed Woodpecker, Yellow-throated Vireo, Wood Thrush, Ovenbird, American Redstart, Eastern Towhee, Scarlet Tanager, Rose-breasted Grosbeak, Orchard Oriole, and Baltimore Oriole. Grasshopper Sparrow and Dickcissel nest in grassy areas. In spring migration, woods and fields attract a great variety of songbirds.
Ducks and other waterbirds use the Missouri River as a flyway in spring and fall, and birds such as Double-crested Cormorant, American White Pelican, Osprey, and Bald Eagle are seen often. Migrant shorebirds can be found at times on river sandbars. Least Tern nests in the area.
On the Missouri River in extreme southeastern Nebraska, Indian Cave State Park is a wonderful birding site in spring migration, as vireos, thrushes, warblers, and other birds pass through on their way to northerly breeding grounds. A number of interesting species, some of them “southern” birds uncommon in Nebraska, nest here.
The park is known for picturesque sandstone bluffs and for its extensive hardwood forest covering more than 2,000 acres. Scenic overlooks offer great views of the Missouri River Valley and nearby wooded hills.
Nesting birds in the park include Wild Turkey, Barred Owl, Chuck-will’s-widow, Eastern Whip-poor-will, Red-headed Woodpecker, Pileated Woodpecker (scarce), Acadian Flycatcher, Yellow-throated Vireo, Wood Thrush, Ovenbird, Louisiana Waterthrush, Black-and-white Warbler, American Redstart, Northern Parula, Kentucky Warbler, Summer Tanager, and Scarlet Tanager.
More than 20 miles of hiking trails wind through the park’s 3,052 acres, many of them in the less-developed southern section.
Tallgrass prairie once covered 140 million acres of North America, yet today it’s an endangered ecosystem, with relatively few sizable tracts scattered through the Midwest. The Spring Creek Prairie Audubon Center protects around 650 acres of native, never-plowed tallgrass prairie on its 850-acre sanctuary 11 miles southwest of Lincoln.
The rolling grassland here, once a ranch, is now home to an Audubon visitor center with interactive exhibits on natural and cultural history. More than three miles of trails wind across the prairie, through woodland, and along wetlands. Wagon-wheel ruts from the 19th-century Oregon Trail can be seen on the preserve.
Among the grassland species nesting here is Greater Prairie-Chicken, an icon of the tallgrass prairie; males give their booming calls in spring. Other prairie birds breeding here are Northern Bobwhite, Upland Sandpiper, Grasshopper Sparrow, Henslow’s Sparrow, Dickcissel, and Bobolink.
Northern Harrier hunts the prairie in winter, when birds such as Rough-legged Hawk, Northern Shrike, Sprague’s Pipit, Smith’s Longspur, and Le Conte’s Sparrow have been recorded. Harris’s Sparrow is fairly common in winter.
This massive reservoir on the North Platte River is Nebraska’s largest body of water. In summer it’s a popular fishing and recreation area. (Around 180,000 visitors can arrive on the July 4th holiday.) In winter it’s a near-legendary birding location.
There’s a special viewing area at the dam to see the dozens of Bald Eagles that can be present in winter. But it’s the gulls that have most contributed to Lake McConaughy’s reputation. Vast numbers of them winter at the dam, and although most are Ring-billed and Herring, rarities show up with amazing regularity (Sabine’s, Mew, Iceland, Glaucous-winged). Franklin’s Gull is abundant in migration.
McConaughy and Lake Ogallala, below the dam, have great numbers of winter waterfowl, loons, and grebes, including Tundra Swans and thousands of Western Grebes. It’s almost enough to say that if there’s a water-loving bird in the general vicinity, it will show up at McConaughy or Ogallala.
The water level in McConaughy can vary greatly from year to year, with the shoreline sometimes exposing miles and miles of sandy beach. Other times the sand areas are deep under water. When beaches are present in migration they attract shorebirds, and Piping Plover and Least Tern nest in protected areas.
Operated by a private conservation association, Fontenelle Forest comprises 1,400 acres on the Missouri River just south of Omaha. The area includes bottomland forest, oak savannah, grassland, and wetlands, making it an excellent birding destination.
Fontenelle Forest’s birds can be discovered along trails including a boardwalk through a floodplain forest to a two-story observation platform at the Great Marsh wetland. Ducks and shorebirds can be seen in the wetlands section in migration.
Several birds found here are of special interest, including some that are unusual in Nebraska. Look for Red-shouldered Hawk, Pileated Woodpecker, Acadian Flycatcher, Carolina Wren, Prothonotary Warbler, Cerulean Warbler, Kentucky Warbler, Yellow-throated Warbler, and Summer Tanager. In addition, Fontanelle has seen a number of western strays, such as Cinnamon Teal, Couch’s Kingbird, Spotted Towhee, Black-headed Grosbeak, and Lazuli Bunting.
Other nesting birds here include Wild Turkey, Barred Owl, Red-headed Woodpecker, Yellow-throated Vireo, American Redstart, Eastern Towhee, Scarlet Tanager, Rose-breasted Grosbeak, Orchard Oriole, and Baltimore Oriole.
One of the great wildlife spectacles of North America occurs in mid-March on the Platte River in south-central Nebraska. Hundreds of thousands of Sandhill Cranes stop here on their northward migration, spending nights on the river and feeding in nearby fields each day. Seeing these impressive birds in such numbers is a true bucket-list experience for any birder.
One of the best places to see this it the Lillian Annette Rowe Sanctuary and Iain Nicholson Audubon Center, on the Platte east of Kearney. Visitors can walk a trail to see cranes or, for a fee, arrange for time in a viewing blind. The birds are best seen at dawn and dusk.
Cranes are present from about mid-February into April. A Nebraska Crane Festival is held yearly in mid-March, with speakers and field trips. Occasionally a small group of migrating Whooping Cranes will appear, as well, most likely in early April.
Cranes can also be seen from the hiking trail at Fort Kearny State Recreation Area, where an old railroad bridge crosses the Platte River.
The Rainwater Basin is a huge area of wetlands in southern Nebraska that’s one of the nation’s most important habitats for migrant and nesting waterfowl, shorebirds, and marsh birds. The Rainwater Basin Wetland Management District manages more than 60 waterfowl production areas totaling at least 24,000 acres in 13 counties. Their website has maps and suggested driving tours for birding.
One excellent spot is Funk Waterfowl Production Area, about nine miles northeast of Holdrege on Road 737. Several parking areas and observation points are scattered around the roads, and birders can walk on the dikes separating the impoundments.
Vast numbers of geese and ducks are present here in migration, and the endangered Whooping Crane sometimes appears in March or April. Grebes, Double-crested Cormorant, American White Pelican, and rails can be common, and thousands of shorebirds of more than two dozens species feed in spring and fall migration.
Nesting birds include Northern Harrier, Least Bittern, Black-crowned Night-Heron, Dickcissel, Yellow-headed Blackbird, and Great-tailed Grackle.
In northwestern Nebraska, the Pine Ridge region is a landscape comprised of sandstone hills and bluffs covered in ponderosa pine. It’s home to several bird species associated with the Rocky Mountains and other areas to the west.
These “western” birds uncommon elsewhere in Nebraska include Common Poorwill, White-throated Swift, Lewis’s Woodpecker, Western Wood-Pewee, Cordilleran Flycatcher, Say’s Phoebe, Pinyon Jay, Violet-green Swallow, Pygmy Nuthatch, Rock Wren, Mountain Bluebird, “Audubon’s” Yellow-rumped Warbler, and Western Tanager.
To see many of these birds in nesting season, visit three areas located within a distance of less than 50 miles. Chadron State Park, about 8 miles south of the town of Chadron, has roads and trails through Pine Ridge habitats and has long been a favorite birding site. West of Crawford, Fort Robinson State Park has thousands of acres to explore, as well as historic structures and fine scenery.
A half-mile north of the town of Harrison, take Sowbelly Road east and then north to enter Sowbelly Canyon, a well-known birding location. The land along the road is private, but roadside birding will turn up many other species listed above. There is one small park area along the road with public access.
The state license plate a few years ago featured flying sandhill cranes, and for good reason: Half a million of these regal birds stop over on the Platte River in southern Nebraska every spring, attracting thousands of birders and tourists from around the world. But if you explore this statewide series of trails, encompassing more than 400 sites, you’ll realize that Nebraska has a lot of birds besides cranes. With its broad stretch from west to east, the state takes in species typical of areas beyond the Great Plains in both directions. Northwestern Nebraska’s pine ridge region has birds straight from the Rockies, like hyperactive pygmy nuthatches and flocks of blue-gray pinyon jays. At the state’s opposite corner, bottomland forests ring with the songs of typical southeastern birds, like Kentucky warblers and Louisiana waterthrushes. Visiting birders may be most excited about the grassland species inhabiting the wide-open spaces between these extremes. Among the distinctive denizens waiting to be discovered are droll burrowing owls nodding next to prairie-dog towns, sharp-tailed grouse strutting on their display grounds, and long-billed curlews showing off their namesake scimitar beaks. —Kenn Kaufman