Skip to navigation, or go to main content.

WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

Nebraska: The Sandhills and the Platte River

Cranes and Prairie Grouse

2017 Narrative

In brief:

            This year’s Nebraska tour covered just shy of 1,000 miles of habitat through America’s hearty center in search of the last wintering waterfowl, early spring migrants, an unbelievable Sandhill Crane show, and a legitimate chicken dance. Right off the bat our first night was filled with excitement as we watched the spring flight display of the American Woodcock as they twittered high up into the sky and came plummeting down like little spent rocket ships. The following day we scoured the Missouri River woodlands and lucked into an early Eastern Phoebe, strikingly golden-crowned Kinglet, and 2 Midwestern US specialty Harris’s Sparrows enjoying the early morning rays. Shorebirds were on the move this year, especially notable were an early group of American Golden-Plovers, several Wilson’s Snipe in the open for viewing pleasure, grassland species like Pectoral and Baird’s Sandpipers and well-spotted Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs. The wide, shallow Platte River was a beautiful sight as we arrived in the center of the state. This area harbored hundreds of thousands of Sandhill Cranes; an experience to behold for all senses. We stood in awe as wave after wave of cranes poured in overhead at our bridge perch and couldn’t stop taking pictures, as the show seemed unending. The gently rolling Sandhills in the northern part of the state were picturesque and contained another amazing exhibit. The group sat in amazement as we watched, and heard, the antics of displaying Greater Prairie Chickens and Sharp-tailed Grouse from the comfort of our makeshift school bus blind replete with hand warmers in the sub-zero temperatures.


In detail:

A quick visit to nearby Carter Lake yielded many boats and few birds, a sign that spring is surely here with the unseasonably high temperatures. American Robins were singing and our first encounter with Slate-colored Dark-eyed Juncos was enjoyed. A small group of Pied-billed Grebes foraged along the shoreline while Ruddy Ducks, the only other diving duck on the lake, slept with stiff tails upturned. After dining at one of the excellent restaurants Omaha has to offer we headed over to Iowa to explore Lake Manawa. The gull flock was amassing and hundreds of Ring-billed Gulls were joined by at least 2 Franklins Gulls. We had great looks at both Hooded and Red-breasted Mergansers as they foraged in the perfect sunlight. Diving ducks were aplenty with rafts of both Lesser Scaup and Canvasback. Perched on the large trees surrounding the lake were at least a dozen opportunistic Bald Eagles waiting for some source of food. As the sun was setting the group enjoyed the displaying of at least 4 American Woodcocks as they twittered above and passed mere meters from us as they fell back to earth.

Just after the sunrise, and with a nip on the nose, we scanned Carter Lake and realized a lot had changed since the prior evening. Several bright Common Mergansers had moved in to join a pair of Buffleheads. Our first Double-crested Cormorant was spotted here, a sure sign that spring is already well on its way. A small pond harbored 8 Wood Ducks, with the male’s fabulous attire admired extensively. On the way out a duo of American Kestrels perched on a wire next to the van allowing time to compare these markedly different sexes. At Fontenelle Forest we were greeted by a foursome of woodpecker species. Downy, Hairy, Red-bellied, and Yellow-shafted flickers were all enjoying the leafless hardwoods. Some high-pitched calls alerted a regal Golden-crowned Kinglet who came in for eye-to-eye views. Our first Eastern Phoebe was heard as it flitted for insects in the steep-sided gullies. The wetlands area was ripe with birds. Ducks were added to the growing list of fowl when both Green-winged and Blue-winged Teals floated along the reedy edges of the sinuous lake. Song Sparrows were in abundance and sang incessantly to establish their territories early. One of the best birds of the trip was found along a weedy path. At least 2 Harris’s Sparrows popped up and sat in the morning sun; one in blissful breeding plumage, the other hanging on to its winter garb. A soft sweet chortling was flowing from a male Eastern Bluebird as we watched through the scope. Working our way south along the Missouri River woodlands we stopped at a couple lakes, slowly strolled well-mulched river paths, and scanned any wet fields we could find. During this endeavor while looking intently at an old Bald Eagle nest two tufts of feathers sticking up above the rim revealed a Great Horned Owl resting softly on new eggs. The mate was strategically places directly under the nest at the ready to tackle any unwanted intruders. Other signs of spring were apparent when 3 Pectoral Sandpipers stopped briefly for 2 minutes before heading back on their path north. Baird’s Sandpipers and Wilson’s Snipe also stopped on a very unassuming body of water. This particular spot was the bathing location for many species, including several American Tree Sparrows and both Eastern and Western Meadowlarks. Any chance to see these 2 species together to get good comparisons is a memorable experience and a great teaching moment. A short walk bagged us views of 2 wren species. A loud Carolina Wren sang it’s unique notes as a pair of these buffy beauties worked their way along the strip. Deep in the brushy doldrums of the river bank a Winter Wren finally popped up, albeit briefly, for all of us to glimpse. Some recently tilled fields hosted yet another spring migrant as we watched a flock of American Golden Plovers wheel around in unison, then stop for long viewing opportunities.

Out with the sun we started our multi-day journey west along Interstate 80. At Chalco Hills Recreation area male Eastern Meadowlarks were singing loudly from atop mullein stalks. A regal Bald Eagle watched intently from a lofty nest sticking its head just high enough to keep an eye on us while we quietly crept around. Luckily a trio of scouted Red-breasted Nuthatches was still around as we enjoyed their tin trumpet calls in one of the many pine stands this area hosts. At the south end of Wehrspann Lake most of the ducks were concentrated and perfect light allowed great views of Common Goldeneye, Ring-necked Duck, and Redhead. A major surprise here was a curious Bonaparte’s Gull that insisted on joining the Ring-billed Gulls loafing on an island, one of the first of its kind to arrive in the state this year. A brief visit to some of the saline marshes around Lincoln was a nice way to break up our long drive. Migration was in full effect as we watched Double-crested Cormorant dart by, gigantic American White Pelicans float on stiff wings, and a young Herring Gull tacking in the wind. Good numbers of sparrows were scattered through the brushy edges and close encounters of many American Tree, Song, and black-faced Harris’s sang atop the vegetation. After lunch the group set our sights on finding Sandhill Cranes in the fields around Rowe Sanctuary. En route a small roadside pond’s muddy edge was enticing enough for a newly arrived Baird’s Sandpiper to probe for fuel. A continuing Tundra Swan, extremely rare for this region, was still enjoying the company of many Snow and Cackling Geese at an island witnessed from some newly erected blinds. As we passed cut cornfields we began seeing flocks of hundreds of Sandhill Cranes foraging, loafing, and practicing their dance moves on their brief visit to this section of the Platte River. After a delicious barbeque dinner next to our hotel the group drove the brief 15 minutes to a bridge over the Platte River where we would watch the Sandhill Crane’s sunset show. While driving along the highway flocks, some containing dozens and some with hundreds, of Cranes were flying in all directions from the cornfields where they fed during the day to the safe waters of the river. At the Gibbon Bridge we arrived before the cranes and set up for the show to come. As if someone hit a button cranes started dropping out of the skies and started landing into the shallow waters in front of us. Wave after wave of Sandhill Crane littered the skies while we stood in awe of such an amazing spectacle. It was hard to wrap our minds around what the estimated 400,000 cranes in this valley looked like, but we had good practice imagining as thousands of these bugling beauties poured in overhead. The following morning we witnessed a similar event at sunrise. Tens of thousands of cranes streamed by across the slowly rising sun imparting an amazing image we all preserved with lots of pictures. The trails around Fort Kearney State Recreation Area were stuffed with birds at this hour including excellent looks at an “Oregon” race of Dark-eyed Junco with striking black hood standing out nicely. We spend the next hour gingerly coursing the back roads getting up close and personal with several flocks of Sandhills before packing up and heading off.

The tour left the flat Platte River Valley and set off north through the Sandhill region of north-central Nebraska. This area’s gently rolling mixed grass hills harbor thousands of small ponds and offers an important stopping ground through the middle of the country. Not only were the migrants plentiful, but the resident birds here were just as remarkable. We drove many miles today, stopping for some occasional brief birding stops, to Mullen in the middle of this vast region. Here is where we would be bussed out to a makeshift school bus viewing blind to witness a spectacular show, the mating rituals of the Greater Prairie Chicken. Cold blustery winds kept most of the chickens from displaying but luckily we were cozy in our bright yellow fortress. Despite the lack of participation from the males, some of these birds came right up to the window of the van. Who can blame these birds for not wanting to perform under such conditions considering there have been no hens with which to properly perform for this year! Droves of Mule Deer came to join in the fertile fields and a migrant flock of Snow Geese with a few Sandhill Cranes were enjoying the remaining corn stubble. Coursing low over the landscape a Ferruginous Hawk lit on a grassy mound for us to enjoy through the scope. Before dawn the following morning we entered the school bus chariot once again and drove the 20 minutes east of town to yet another lek site. This time we anticipated the sultry moves of the Sharp-tailed Grouse. Even before they could be seen, we heard these fluffy foes squaring off with each other, only noticing the white feather tips of the tails as they shot through the unlit dark grass clumps. Soon light would yield these birds in all their glory and show off well just why they’re named sharp-tailed. Instantly the bird’s feet would start stomping, too fast to see well, and they’d push out their wings and lift their tails high. At the same time 2 males would quickly sprint towards each other, sometimes ending in a few feathers flying as they tried to critique each others performances. For nearly 2 hours we watched the antics and were happy to see that another Greater Prairie Chicken lek was just 100 yards away so after the previous night’s lull we were still treated to an amazing show as at least 10 males performed their hooting display with bright orange neck sacks exposed! After we had our fill and all the birds left the lek we headed back to Mullen to enjoy a delicious breakfast and prepare for the long drive back to Omaha we had in store. The drive meandered back south through the extensive Sandhill region towards route 80. A brief stop in North Platte was very welcomed and gave us all superb comparative views of Ross’s Goose in with a bunch of Snow Geese, a dozen diminutive Cackling Geese of the Richardson’s variety floating by the large Canada Geese present, and the king of them all a stately Trumpeter Swan at close range.

            Our final morning we decided to head back to Fontenelle Forest and concentrate on the lowlands wrought with huge trees and wet lands. This area would be able to produce the most species we hadn’t seen yet and it’s a good thing we went there. Bird activity was quite high as we watched scads of Wood Ducks coming off their tree roosts for the day, even coming across a group of 34 together in one pond! A Swamp Sparrow called from the depths of the thickets but never did appear. In the same habitat some pishing popped up a dandy “Red” Fox Sparrow, one of about 10 seen this morning and proving how in just a few days the composition of birds can change quite a bit this time of year. High over the ridge a lonely raptor was spotted and eventually the clues revealed a light-morph Rough-legged Hawk floating north well along its way to breeding grounds. The last minutes we had to bird here before leaving for the airport the group members scored a Hermit Thrush perched on a log along the Cottonwood Trail. What a way to end the trip!

            In just under 1,000 miles driven the group succeeded in finding 101 species of birds. An amazing task considering how much time we spent driving through America’s Heartland. The group, mostly from the east coast, melded well and a constant dialogue of good stories and interesting facts was delivered. One participant was from Nebraska and confirmed, without a doubt, that we all had amazing luck, perfect weather, and a great assortment of species during our short tour.

Jake Mohlmann 2017

Created: 04 April 2017