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WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

Nebraska: The Sandhills and the Platte River

Cranes and Prairie Grouse

2019 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 continues the following days as we scoured the hardwood forests of the flooded Missouri River Valley enjoying Wood Ducks exploring nesting cavities, recent arrival Red-headed Woodpeckers, and a particularly handsome Harris’s Sparrow. Heading west the roads led through the tallgrass prairie which harbored lots of lingering duck species such as Common Goldeneye, Red-breasted Merganser, and bright white Buffleheads. The geese were present by the thousands the entire week, with 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 and 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:

Nebraska sits at the geographic center of the United States and as a result is susceptible to a variety of natural disaster opportunities. Just before the tour started a week’s worth of icy blasts called a bomb cyclone swept through the region leaving any open water that wasn’t flowing frozen. Immediately afterwards lots of rain and melting snow began flooding several rivers in eastern Nebraska leaving some cities only as islands completely cut off from the rest of the world. About 90% of the birding spots scheduled for our first day and a half was completely underwater. This meant a unique itinerary was carefully scouted and planned before the tour, which ended up performing better than planned with birds showing up in completely unexpected places. Everyone flew in by jet and coursed over the flooded Missouri River staring at barns with just their roofs showing. Despite this we had a positive attitude about the week ahead and immediately got down to business.

After our meeting and dinner we headed a short way to Lake Manawa in Iowa where hundreds of gulls were amassing on the still frozen water. The composition was mainly Ring-billed Gulls, however a few Herring Gulls finally flew over for good views. Several Bald Eagles were perched around the edge of the lake in hopes things would thaw soon, and a very attractive pair of Common Goldeneyes landed close by and fed in one of the few open water spots. 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 couple of Harris’s Sparrows were noticed shooting into the cedar trees providing a first lifer for many on the tour!

Given the devastating flood waters most of the locations for our planned itinerary were under water, but luckily the guides had the day before the tour began to scout out a new route and find a bunch of really nice species, some of which were still hanging around. Heading north to NP Dodge Park we got our first real look at how extensive the flooding spread. For miles across into Iowa we stood and noted the soccer fields, maintenance sheds, and people’s homes with only their roofs showing as far as the eye could see. Some species didn’t seem to mind the extra water at all, as we watched multiple pairs of Wood Ducks search for nesting cavities in the normally dry forest that for unforeseen reasons this year turned into a perfect breeding site. We headed over to an inland lake where a female Great Horned Owl peered over the edge of its nest to observe the observers admiring its knife-like ears. Nearby a patch of inconspicuous marsh harbored a couple of Swamp Sparrows, an infrequently encountered species on this tour. Chalco Hills Recreation area was also frozen solid, but there were still some birds to be seen here as well. One of the patches of pine trees hosted a few previously scouted Red-breasted Nuthatches, as well as some of the eruptive Pine Siskins that were showing a greater presence than usual around Omaha this year. We pulled up to observe a Bald Eagle nest and one of the adults was already perched next to the parking area as if reviewing all the visitor’s for credentials. He allowed close inspection and a flurry of photo opportunities for us all as it sat in wait. After a quick lunch at the city’s best Mexican Restaurant we headed to the privately owned Fontenelle Forest. About 95% of the preserve was closed due to the flooding, but the 5% that was open held a nice assortment of birds. White-throated Sparrows whistled from brush piles, a Brown Creeper worked the trees from bottom to top, and Red-bellied Woodpeckers tried to blend in with their Red-headed Cousins. We were excited to tally at least 5 Red-headed Woodpeckers along the boardwalk here. This species is only seen about ¼ of all the tours so we were all excited these beautiful birds decided to come back early to their breeding grounds replete with striking red heads, black bodies and white wing flashes. From our perch atop the bluffs in Nebraska we could see flooded fields miles away in Iowa that had thousands of waterfowl milling about including some very distant swans. We decided to explore that area closer and were able to find the exact spot where the fowl were feeding. The swans turned out to be 10 Trumpeter Swans, a lifer for most, picking through the wet corn stubble. Included amongst the hundreds of Greater White-fronted and Cackling Geese were good numbers of Northern Pintail, Green-winged and Blue-winged Teal, American Wigeon and Gadwall. At the abutting property that somehow managed to avoid the flood a few sparrows were utilizing the grass lawn. One of them turned out to be a handsome Harris’s Sparrow that eventually came in very close and perched up nicely in the scope practicing its memorable song that it will utilize very soon.

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 below the dam we scored with a close perched Northern Shrike that also stayed busy hunting. On the lake itself only slivers of open water revealed a few gull flocks including great looks at the pale wing tips of a fly-by “Thayer’s” Iceland Gull. We counted 40 Bald Eagles perched like sentinels around the lake, with some even standing on the ice as if waiting for it to melt. We learned they were indeed in wait, for dead fish that passed during the winter to float up to the surface within a beaks width. They would then smash through the ice and enjoy their cold fish entrée. Leaving Lincoln in the dust we pushed on further west and into the heart of the Sandhill Crane staging area. Not only was the Crane Trust an amazing resource for information about cranes, but also the feeders here had American Goldfinches and Slate-colored Juncos! The vans 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 local American Cuisine 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 300,000 cranes in this 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 for migrating birds. Recent rain kept our normal chicken and grouse school bus blinds from being put out into the lek areas, but we decided to give it a whirl anyway and stay with the planned itinerary in Mullen Nebraska. The group split up into 2 groups and headed out into the muddy 2-tracks of central Nebraska in search of Greater Prairie-Chickens. Jake’s bus wound its way into the middle of an agricultural field and almost immediately got stuck. Lucky for us it happened to get stuck right next to a group of 5 chickens hunkered down amongst the corn. We checked them out with the scope and noticed all the birds flying up to a nearby hill where the other group was waiting patiently. We all excitedly got to witness the Greater Prairie-Chicken display as it pushed its pinnae up over its head, inflated some nice orange neck sacks, and sent out a whoop that traveled for miles. An amazing 64 of these birds were counted coming and going to the lek over about 2 hours of observation.

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. We were elated that a male Greater Prairie-Chicken decided to come into the middle of the Sharp-tailed Lek and show off his owns moves, this time only about 20 feet from our blind! 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. At our hotel we noticed car license plates with familiar names from some of the towns we went through and realized they were likely people left homeless by the tragic flooding of the region. It was surreal to see an event that has never happened at such scale before and we all felt extremely lucky to even be able to go through with the tour, let alone have such an amazing time seeing 80 species of birds, some by the tens of thousands, over the last 6 days. 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. They say the flooding is likely not over and may even get worse as the spring comes. I’m sure the region will be in all our thoughts in the next few months as we wait to see what fate has in store.

Jake Mohlmann, 2019


Created: 23 April 2019