March 13 – 20, 2022
Narrative by Michael Plauche; Photos by Michael Plauche, Martine Stolk, Marianne Feeney and Bob Butler
Leading up to our trip there were very challenging weather conditions across Nebraska. Lows were regularly in the single digits, high winds were persistent and the area received a substantial amount of snow and ice. However, conditions improved just before our trip began and we enjoyed springlike weather for much of the week. On a few afternoons some of us were even down to short sleeves! This was the beginning of our good luck.
After touching down in Lincoln, a small group of us visited two different lakes in the area. Pawnee Lake was mostly frozen and hosted thousands of ducks and geese and nearly one hundred Bald Eagles.
Short for time and eager to see more, we headed to the Branched Oak State Recreation Area. Here we stood in awe as over one hundred thousand Snow Geese swirled into massive clouds in the sky and set back down on the lake’s surface over and over. A few Ross’s, Cackling and Canada Geese were interspersed throughout the flock.
A large raft of ducks held Common Goldeneye, Northern Pintail, Common Merganser, Ruddy Duck, American Wigeon, over one hundred Canvasback, Lesser Scaup and numerous other waterfowl species. This was a taste of what was in store and it was hard to pull away but we needed to join the rest of our party and get to dinner.
After meeting at the hotel and plotting our course for the week we headed downtown for dinner with a short stop at the Nebraska State Capital to search for a reported Peregrine Falcon. Constructed between 1922 and 1932, the capital was an architecturally striking building. Topped with a 400 foot domed tower and a 19 foot tall bronze figure known as “The Sower,” we walked the grounds, saw mostly park birds and appreciated the design. As we walked back to the cars, the Peregrine zoomed in and made a few powerful passes before perching on a ledge. We went to dinner at a local restaurant, Lincoln’s Pub, then called it a night.
Twenty to forty mile an hour winds were forecasted for our first full day. We decided to take our time traveling, birding by car and covering some ground. We birded our way across six counties on our way to the Massie Waterfowl Production Area. Massie was dry due to the persistent drought conditions in the West but we did have lots of Western Meadowlarks, a very accommodating Horned Lark and a quick look at a Prairie Falcon.
We moved on to Harvard Waterfowl Production Area. Here we were whipped by plains wind but Snow, Ross’s, Cackling and Canada Geese were concentrated in shallow pools. Hundreds of dabbling ducks foraged alongside them. We took in the stark landscape and the spectacle of all the waterfowl but retreated back into the van and out of the harsh conditions to head to Kearney.
Well before arriving in Kearney, we began seeing thousands of Sandhill Cranes in the sky and in the fields. In fact, for the next forty hours of our trip we were never out of sight of Sandhill Cranes. They were constant. As soon as we got into Kearney we found a roadside pond full of diving ducks with Canvasbacks being the most numerous.
After checking into our hotel we birded some local hotspots, adding Harris’s Sparrow, Greater White-fronted Goose and Rough-legged Hawk to our trip list, before heading to the Fort Kearney State Recreation Area to watch the evening fly in of Sandhill Cranes on a walking bridge over the Platte River.
We saw hundreds of ducks, thousands of geese and tens of thousands of Sandhill Cranes course down the river on the way to their nighttime roosts. As the sun set over the Platte River the temperature dropped and we went back to the hotel to get some rest before an early morning.
We were up well before the sun on Tuesday morning. On a cool, calm morning we were in a viewing blind on the Platte River in Wood River, Nebraska to see the sunrise on tens of thousands of Sandhill Cranes. The cranes’ bugling calls could be heard from the river before sunrise. As day broke, many of the cranes performed their mating dance and their calls filled the air. It was an incredible natural spectacle.
After our morning in the blind and a quick bite to eat we hit a few local hotspots. At a local water treatment plant we saw hundreds of diminutive Cackling Geese and a few beautiful Common Goldeneyes along with many other waterfowl species. A bit further down the road, at a birdy grove of trees, we flushed a Great Horned Owl that perched on roadside farm equipment, conveniently, for all the photographers in the group.
That afternoon we went to West Shoemaker Island Road to try for Short-eared Owls. We had clear looks at a few Harris’s Sparrows and American Tree Sparrows foraging roadside in a flock of Dark-eyed Juncos.
Everywhere we went there were loads of geese and cranes. Geese and wigeon foraged in the fields. Northern Harriers coursed over the grasslands but we never found a short-eared owl. We flushed a pair of Northern Bobwhite and a male Ring-necked Pheasant crossed the road in front of us. As we were leaving we flushed another Great-horned Owl.
The next morning we were out the door early and on our way to Funk Waterfowl Production Area. This area can be great for shorebirds, but unfortunately, it was rather dry upon our visit.
In the brushline a Northern Shrike perched for great scope views. We walked across the gravel road and flushed a Merlin and a Greater Yellowlegs dropped in. Meanwhile, Northern Harriers hovered around us in the grasslands and American Tree Sparrows zipped all around.
At the Johnson Waterfowl Production Area water was limited and the large flock of ducks there were difficult to see through the prairie grass and heat waves. Pintails and Green-winged Teal seemed to be the most numerous waterfowl.
An enormous flock of Red-winged Blackbirds twisted, swirled and spiraled in beautiful formations. Sometimes alighting simultaneously in a distant tree, then taking off again to dance on the horizon.
Another large flock of smaller birds caught our attention. These birds seemed to, repeatedly, fly down to land near the water but never quite settle. We watched them from a distance for some time before they flew nearer and then directly over us. Their flight calls, tail patterns and the quick reflexes of the photographers in the group showed that this was a flock of hundreds of Lapland Longspurs. As we watched the flock undulate and bounce, never seeming comfortable enough to land, they passed over us a few more times before we loaded up to move on.
Next, we dropped into the town of Funk, Nebraska where we used the facilities, got advice on local birding hotspots and were, politely, invited to join a local card game. It felt like the epicenter of small town America.
After lunch and a few quick stops to survey waterfowl we birded the Harlan County Reservoir, the second largest lake in Nebraska. From the dam at the east end we added Herring Gull and Horned Grebe to our trip list. We put together a nice list of perching birds from the Methodist Cove camping area on the lake. We had six species of sparrows here including a Lincoln’s Sparrow. It was still a long drive to North Platte, so we hit the road.
We noted birds as we headed along, tallying loads of geese and ducks, raptors and a Great-blue Heron. Along the interstate, somewhere in Lincoln County, a small group of dark soaring raptors caught our attention. After safely pulling over the van, a dark morph Rough-legged Hawk floated over the field and a bulky Ferruginous Hawk perched on farm equipment. As traffic zoomed by everyone got to study and admire this beautiful, regal raptor while a freight train rolled by on the plains behind it. This moment felt especially western. The Rough-legged Hawk flew over and out of sight but the Ferruginous allowed nice long views, then flew low and powerfully across the field. We piled in and moved on to North Platte where we had dinner and were checked into our rooms earlier than previous nights.
The following morning we met Dusty, the owner of Dusty Trails Outfitters at 5:30 am and piled into a school bus.
As we rolled west down the interstate, Dusty told us stories about growing up on the plains. He told an extraordinarily vivid story about how he and his son woke very early on a full moon night in early spring, saddled up their horses and went out searching. They eventually found the very Greater Prairie-chicken lek that we were bumping along towards. Looking out the bus window onto the darkened plains you could almost see the two figures on horseback. It was very moving.
We pulled off the interstate and down a two lane highway, then down a gravel road. Next, rattling down a barely discernible trail over the plains. We reached the bus, that would be our blind, well before sunrise. Dusty lit a few heaters in the bus and gave us an idea of what to expect. We sat and waited, watching dawn come to the prairie.
In the twilight a group of birds flew in and around to the left of our bus. While Western Meadowlarks sang all around us the Prairie-chickens started to appear from out of the golden prairie grass. Their deep, rich, bellowing coos, clucks and cackles were the only sound on the prairie (other than our camera snaps.) As the sun rose, the light improved and enormous flocks of Snow Geese flew high over us calling. More and more Prairie-chickens appeared at the lek.
Off to our right, at the edge of the lek, a paler bird appeared. We all took notice, assumed it was a female prairie-chicken surveying the males and those of us with cameras snapped a few photos. Dusty later asked if we’d seen the female prairie-chicken. More on this later.
After leaving the lek, Dusty took us by the Sutherland Reservoir. Here we saw American White Pelicans, our first Double-crested Cormorants of the trip and more than a thousand ducks of several species. With limited time we left many of the ducks unidentified and made a note to return.
After breakfast and packing up in North Platte, we were on our way towards Ogallala. We stopped back by the Sutherland Reservoir. Unfortunately, most of the ducks from earlier in the morning were gone. We did pick up a group of Audubon’s Yellow-rumped Warblers before moving on.
The view at Kingsley Dam on Lake McConaughy was stunning. We picked out a few Lesser Black-backed Gulls amongst hundreds of Ring-billed and Herring gulls. Bald Eagles lounged around on the frozen lake.
We drove down from the dam to Lake Ogallala to find well more than a thousand Common Mergansers in a single, active flock. These large and attractive ducks put on quite a show.
We drove around Lake McConaughy to the Omaha Beach area. Here we stirred another pair of Great Horned Owls. Thousands of geese and ducks rose and settled, then rose and settled again on the lake. A rough-legged hawk perched on a small tree at the edge of the lake. A Northern Harrier coursed over the marshy wetlands. As we were leaving, a Peregrine Falcon soared over.
We next went to the Clear Creek Wildlife Management Area, on the west end of the lake. We did well with raptors here, seeing Rough-legged and Red-tailed Hawks, Northern Harriers, a Bald Eagle, an American Kestrel and a Sharp-shinned Hawk.
We spent the evening in Ogallala. Ogallala has a rich western history from the days of the Nebraska Territory as a stop on the Pony Express, the Transcontinental Railroad and as a terminus for cattle drives from Texas to the Union Pacific railhead that was located there. Apparently, it was a rough and rowdy town in its past. We enjoyed dinner at Driftwood, a local taproom and restaurant.
We were on the road early Friday morning, from Ogallala to the Crescent Lake National Wildlife Refuge. Crescent Lake is one of the great wildlife refuges in North America. However, it is very, very remote. We packed a picnic to enjoy on the refuge, made sure the van was gassed up and made certain we were prepared for a day off the grid.
On our way to Crescent Lake we encountered a few large flocks of Brewer’s Blackbirds. There are twenty-one wetland complexes on the refuge and each lake seemed to have its own dominant species. One pond belonged to Northern Shovelers, the next to Redheads. One to Lesser Scaup and another to Common Goldeneye. We picked up nineteen species of waterfowl on the Refuge, the most memorable being a pair of Trumpeter Swans that flew over a ridge in front of us and right along the side of the van!
Multiple pheasants ran in front of or alongside the van as we drove through. We stopped and enjoyed a picnic and a bit of rest then went westward.
We decided to take a little cultural detour, just north of our route, to Carhenge. Carhenge is exactly as it sounds–a replica of the World Heritage Site, Stonehenge, made entirely out of cars. Coincidentally, a visit to Carhenge was a lifelong dream of one member of our group! On our short detour a pair of brilliant Mountain Bluebirds perched on a powerline. We found nesting Rock Pigeons and House Sparrows at Carhenge. Back to birding!
We meandered west and south on smaller highways, birding as we went. We stopped for a Townsend’s Solitaire perched beside the road. The occasional Rough-legged Hawk and changing scenery kept the drive interesting.
After arriving in Pine Bluffs, Wyoming, some in the group chose to stay in and rest while others went out to pick up a few birds in the area. We had spectacular views of a mountain bluebird in the afternoon light against a sea of golden prairie grass. An early Brewer’s Blackbird was mixed with a flock of Red-winged Blackbirds. We flushed a flock of Lapland Longspurs from the side of the road. Our last bird of the afternoon, in the fading light, was a gorgeous Rough-legged Hawk. We made it back to the hotel and walked to a nearby restaurant.
The next day was dedicated to the hunt for Sharp-tailed Grouse. Luckily, a few were reported the day before nearby in the Pawnee National Grasslands in northeast Colorado. We birded through the southeast corner of Wyoming on the way, adding a few more birds to our Wyoming list. We then swung through a corner of Nebraska, where we had close views of a Prairie Falcon and passed over Panorama Point, the highest point in Nebraska at 5,429 feet.
Pawnee National Grassland is a vast 193,060 acres, but yesterday’s sightings narrowed our Sharp-tailed Grouse search to an intersection. While searching we met a local birder who was also on the hunt (so we knew we were in the right place!) After an hour of searching, the local birder sped over to let us know he had just seen the grouse. We were quickly on our way to the area where he’d seen the birds. But after much patient searching we decided to move on, see more of the National Grasslands and, hopefully, to stumble across sharp-tailed grouse elsewhere.
While pulling into the nearby town of Grover, Colorado a Black-billed Magpie flew directly in front of the van. In town, a few newly arrived Great-tailed Grackles noisily and boisterously flew around. We made a pit stop at a local shop and restaurant then headed back into the grasslands.
We tried some local hotspots in the grasslands but, besides many Horned Larks and a few Mountain Bluebirds, it was rather quiet. I think the Pawnee Grasslands would likely be magnificent in a few weeks when the breeding birds arrive but we were a bit early. After spending the morning birding we decided to head back east, towards our destination for the night in North Platte.
We made it back to North Platte with time to spare and hit a few more local parks, one of which hosted an active Great-blue Heron rookery, on our last afternoon of the trip.
We left early Sunday morning, passing Kearney where we saw thousands of Sandhill Cranes again. We stopped in Grand Island, Nebraska and quickly birded a park, adding Wood Duck to our trip list. Finally, we made it back to Pawnee Lake, just minutes from the Lincoln Airport, with an hour to bird. The immense flocks of waterfowl that were here a week ago had whittled down. We spent the last minutes of our trip scoping gulls and eagles.
Now, back to that pale bird at the edge of the Greater Prairie-chicken Lek. At some point, on one of the longer stretches in the van, the conversation turned to this bird and how it was paler than we’d all expected. We discussed the possibility that it wasn’t what we’d thought it was or what Dusty has said it was, a female Greater Prairie-chicken. Looking through field guides, our suspicions grew that this bird was a Sharp-tailed Grouse. Fortunately, a number of us had taken photos.
Two days after we’d all made it home, photos were sent around and we picked up one of the “best” birds of the trip! It was a Sharp-tailed Grouse after all! It was exciting to add such a good bird in such a way. It felt particularly collaborative.
Nebraska left us all with a great impression. The towns were charming, there were lots of outstanding parks and nature preserves, the people were friendly, the countryside was diverse and beautiful and the birding was spectacular. It was a fun trip with a great group!
A few more birds: