A Greater Prairie-chicken booms in the Sandhills of Nebraska. Photo: Rick Wright
As it crosses the plains of central Nebraska, the Platte River hosts the greatest of all North American wildlife spectacles. Each spring, several million birds stop over here on their northbound migration; among them are more than 500,000 Sandhill Cranes—some 80 percent of the world population. Every evening the cranes return in their thousands from the fields and wet meadows to roost on the Platte’s broad channels and sandbars. Raptors are often numerous, and Greater Prairie-Chickens and Sharp-tailed Grouse have begun their dancing displays in the 20,000 wild square miles of the Nebraska Sandhills.
Other specialties regularly seen on our Nebraska tours include Ross’s and Richardson’s Cackling Geese, Harlan’s Red-tailed Hawk, Baird’s Sandpiper, American Woodcock, Red-headed Woodpecker, Carolina Wren, Oregon Dark-eyed Juncos, Harris’s Sparrow, and Eastern and Western Meadowlarks. Our schedule lets us accommodate the possibility of a day of bad weather, and the relaxed pace of our tour lets us appreciate fully the extraordinary concentrations of birds that make central Nebraska a world-class birding destination.
Day 1: The tour begins at 3:00 pm at our hotel in Carter Lake, Iowa, a short distance from Omaha’s airport. We’ll have an early dinner, then depart for nearby Lake Manawa, where we can hope for a good variety of waterfowl, large numbers of gulls (in some years including Franklin’s and Lesser Black-backed Gulls), and the antic displays of American Woodcock. Night in Carter Lake.
Day 2: We’ll have breakfast in our hotel, then leave at 7:30 am to visit the upland and floodplain woodlands of Fontenelle Forest. Just south of Omaha, this privately owned 1,600-acre remnant of eastern deciduous forest can produce Red-headed and Pileated Woodpeckers, Winter Wren, Tufted Titmouse, Red Fox Sparrow, and a number of other eastern species not typically seen anywhere else on our route. After a quick lunch, we’ll take a driving tour of the area’s wetlands, hoping for waterfowl, shorebirds, and passerines including Harris’s and Gambel’s White-crowned Sparrows. Night in Carter Lake.
Day 3: After breakfast in our hotel, we’ll set out around 7:00 for the three-hour drive west to the central Platte River valley. Our first Sandhill Cranes will welcome us to Grand Island, where we’ll leave the interstate to drive crane-lined back roads in search of Bald Eagle, Baird’s Sandpiper, and Harris’s and American Tree Sparrows. Arriving in Kearney, we’ll check in to our hotel and have an early dinner, then end the day on the banks of the Platte, where we’ll witness the amazing sight and sound of thousands of Sandhill Cranes flying to roost in the river’s shallows. Night in Kearney.
Day 4: We’ll leave around 6:30 this morning for the south bank of the Platte, where we’ll watch the cranes wake up and begin to pour out of their river roosts. We’ll return to Kearney for breakfast and check out of our hotel. We’ll stop for lunch in one of central Nebraska’s ranching communities, then push on into the Nebraska Sandhills, the largest area of stabilized dunes in the western hemisphere; roadside birds here could include Rough-legged Hawk, Northern Shrike and both prairie grouse species. We plan to arrive in Mullen in the mid-afternoon, where we’ll check in to our motel and meet our local guide for the half-hour drive to a Greater Prairie-Chicken lek. We’ll watch the chickens from our blind—a converted school bus just a few feet from the lek—until sunset, then return to Mullen for dinner. Other species possibly seen from the blind include Horned Lark and Lapland Longspur, as well as mammals like Pronghorn and Mule Deer. Night in Mullen.
Day 5: This will be an early morning, but well worth it: we’ll leave our motel around 5:30 am to visit the dancing grounds of the comical Sharp-tailed Grouse. Among the other possibilities in this area is Ferruginous Hawk, a species only rarely seen east of here. We’ll remain in our big yellow blind until the birds leave for their brunch, usually around 8:00, then return to Mullen for our own hearty breakfast. The return drive to eastern Nebraska will be a chance to catch up on our rest and perhaps to stop for a “missed” bird or two along the way. Night in Carter Lake.
Day 6: This morning we may explore new areas, as well as revisit some of eastern Nebraska’s best hotspots, letting our choice be determined by any good birds discovered in our absence. A few days can make a big difference in late March, and we may find that Hermit Thrush, Eastern Phoebe, or other early migrants have arrived while we’ve been out west. We’ll return to Omaha’s Eppley Airfield around 11:30am, where the tour ends.
Updated: 08 April 2016
* Tour invoices paid by check carry a 4% discount. Details here.
This tour is limited to seven participants with one leader.