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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

Nebraska: The Sandhills and the Platte River

Cranes and Prairie Grouse

2020 Narrative

In brief:

This year’s Nebraska tour covered just over 1,000 miles of habitat through America’s Heartland in search of the last lingering waterfowl, early spring migrants, an unbelievable crane show, and a legitimate chicken dance. The trip began with a ‘peent’ as we enjoyed the twinkling teetering flight display of American Woodcock across the river in Iowa our very first night. The action continued the following days as we scoured the hardwood forests of the Missouri River Valley enjoying black hooded Franklin’s Gull passing through, recent arrival Red-headed Woodpeckers, and a particularly handsome group of Harris’s Sparrows. Heading west the roads led through the tallgrass prairie which harbored lots of lingering duck species such as Canvasback, Common Merganser, and bright white Buffleheads. The geese flocks were mostly overhead, but those on the ground allowed close inspection of both the diminutive Cackling and migrant Greater White-fronted Goose. The wide, shallow Platte River was a beautiful sight as we arrived in the center of the state that 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 sand hills in the northern part of the state were picturesque and contained another amazing show. The group sat in amazement as we watched, and heard, the antics of displaying Greater Prairie Chickens and Sharp-tailed Grouse from our makeshift school bus blind.

In detail:

After our meeting and delicious vegan dinner, we headed a short way to Lake Manawa in Iowa where hundreds of gulls were amassing on the open water body. The composition was mainly Ring-billed Gulls, however a few Herring Gulls finally flew over for good views as well as a single Franklin’s Gull showing its dark hood nicely. We relocated to the opposite side of the lake when Allen quickly pointed out a Great Horned Owl that flushed just ahead of the approaching group. Despite the fact it flew deep into the woods at first, it eventually came back out and perched in the open allowing extensive views. As the sun was setting a few male American Woodcocks began ‘peenting’ and eventually would reveal themselves as the shot up high in display and came gently floating down eventually close to where they took off. Though the light was dim for this performance, a single male came out before it got too dark and allowed the group to watch through the scope as it pirouetted blurting loudly to attract a nearby female. As if this evening could get any better a pair of Barred Owl were enticed to land directly in front of us and sat still long enough in the spotlight to pick out all the feather details and pitch black eyes this species is known for.

Our first morning we were excited to visit the Fontenelle Forest lowlands protecting a swath of hardwood flooded forest on the banks of the Missouri River. Immediately we were greeted by a trio of woodpecker species. Downy, Red-bellied, and Yellow-shafted flickers were all enjoying the leafless hardwoods and drumming beats through the tall deciduous trees. North America’s largest and perhaps most exciting woodpecker soon made an appearance as it came rowing in across the sky. The Pileated Woodpecker couldn’t be outdone and insisted on its own drumming session. The wetlands area was ripe with birds. Ducks were added to the growing list of fowl when both Green-winged Teal and Wood Ducks floated along the reedy edges of the sinuous lake, accompanied by a large flock of Common Mergansers using their group’s size to help each other corral fish for breakfast. Song Sparrows were in abundance and sang incessantly to establish their territories early. One of the favorite birds of the trip was found along one weedy path. At least 2 Fox Sparrows popped up and sat in the morning sun, both in blissful breeding mood and one even in full song. A soft sweet chortling was flowing from a male Eastern Bluebird as we watched it explore the dead trees with its likely ate. A quick stop by the boardwalks of the Visitor’s Center put us in close proximity to several recently arrived Red-headed Woodpeckers sorting out which tree cavities belonged to whom. Working our way west along the Platte River woodlands we stopped at a productive area and slowly strolled a river path. Some feeders at Schramm Park had both Slate-colored and Oregon type Dark-eyed Juncos for nice comparisons, as well as no less than 11 Harris’s Sparrows, a major target for any birder even remotely excited by sparrows! It was also here we discovered an interesting pattern, noting how one American Goldfinch exhibited a leucistic plumage and was the reason most of it looked ghostly white. On our way back to our hotel a couple brief stops at lakes revealed nice views of a single Snow Goose with purple grin patch, lots of Lesser Scaup and Ring-necked Ducks to practice IDs with, and a single Eastern Phoebe seemingly being the only bird on a vast expansive lake.

This morning we set our compass west and drove along the cross-continental Interstate 80 to our first stop at Branched Oak State Recreation Area. Being the largest lake in the eastern side of the state makes this spot attractive to all sorts of bird species. In the brushy verges near the dam we scored with a perched Northern Shrike that stayed busy competing for the single prominent perch with a Red-winged Blackbird also wanting the prominence for displaying. On the lake itself some open sand spits hosted a few gull flocks including great looks at the much-appreciated Lesser Black-backed Gull, a lifer for some. A small side pond had a healthy concentration of ducks comprised of several beautiful male Hooded Mergansers displaying their namesakes and group of cream-headed male American Wigeon. Another nearby lake was checked long enough to see a group of huge American White Pelicans come in for a landing.

Leaving Lincoln in the dust we pushed on further west and into the heart of the Sandhill Crane staging area. Not only was the Rowe Sanctuary an amazing resource for information about cranes, but the feeders here also had several first year White-crowned Sparrows! The van drove slowly through the corn fields and wound our way through groups of thousands of Sandhill Cranes as they loafed the afternoon away. Using the van as a blind allowed us close inspection of the red head skin and interesting dancing displays already commencing this early in the season. After a delicious locally sourced 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 to our destination flocks of cranes, some containing dozens and some with hundreds, were flying in 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 flowing waters. 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 100,000 cranes in this immediate floodplain looked like, but we had good practice imagining as thousands of these bugling beauties poured in overhead.

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. One pond in particular had a showy pair of Trumpeter Swans that were actively defending their nesting mound from the nearby Canada Geese. 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 blind. 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 in though, to join in the fertile fields and before long we counted over 60 of these pretty ungulates.

Before dawn the following morning we took the old school bus chariot out 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. Initially some brown lumps were soon revealed in the rising light their true identity. A batch of male Sharp-tailed Grouse soon began their ritual in all their glory, showing 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 other’s performances. For over 2 hours we watched the antics and finally left when the birds flew away for the final time off over the horizon.

Reluctantly we traversed the great sand hills back to Omaha on the long ride across Nebraska leaving behind the great places we visited. One goal of this trip is to expose people to the wonderful state of Nebraska, and some participants said they were surprised at how much they ended up liking it. It’s certainly an under-rated region of the country that everyone should see and bird.

Jake Mohlmann, 2020

Created: 06 April 2020