Skip to navigation, or go to main content.

WINGS Birding Tours – Narrative

Nebraska: The Sandhills and the Platte River

Sandhill Cranes and Prairie Chicken

2023 Narrative

In Brief:

This year’s Nebraska tour covered just under 1,000 miles of habitat through America’s Heartland in search of the last lingering waterfowl, early spring migrants, and an unbelievable crane show. 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 several handsome groups 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, bright white Buffleheads, and completely out of place Long-tailed Duck. The geese flocks were staggering in number and those on the ground allowed close inspection of both the diminutive Ross’s mixed with more numerous Snow 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. A trip highlight was hidden in plain sight amongst the Sandhills as we enjoyed scope views of the first of the endangered Whooping Cranes to arrive for its own migration north to its Canadian breeding grounds.

In detail:

Day 1 After our intro meeting we headed straight to dinner, something we always look forward to after a long day. Various delicious dishes were consumed after which we were off to neighboring Iowa for a peak at Lake Manawa. A pair of Hooded Mergansers were the first waterfowl to greet us upon arrival. Hundreds of gulls were amassing on the open water body. The composition was mainly Ring-billed Gulls, however a couple dozen or so Herring Gulls flew in for good views showing the size difference between the two nicely. Ducks were hanging out in small flocks including pale-backed Canvasback, and Common Goldeneye of both sexes. Common Mergansers were as plentiful as Red-breasted on the water, allowing a good study in differentiating the two.  We relocated to the opposite side of the lake for a short stroll when a single bird flushed just ahead of the approaching group. Much to our delight a stunning Harris’s Sparrow was revealed and granted a brief study while perched in the open. 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. Right around this time a pair of owls shot out of the juniper trees nearby and floated right by us. They turned out to be Long-eared Owls, a first for this tour, and a lifer for a few of us! As if this evening could get any better a bold 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 stare into its pitch-black eyes.

Day 2 We were greeted by the rain showers that were predicted. This didn’t deter us from getting out and having a great day of birding. Just after first light we pulled into Power Park along the Missouri River and picked out a water-logged Peregrine Falcon sitting atop one of the tall smoke stacks of the power station. Though we didn’t see it, there is supposed to be a nesting platform nearby that a pair of these aerialists use every year. A bit further north at N.P. Dodge Park flocks of birds were flushing from the roadsides getting one last feed in before the snow squalls started. Mostly these were American Tree Sparrows, but a few Harris’s, Slate-colored Dark-eyed Juncos, and Song Sparrows also appeared. A blackbird flock of mostly Red-winged Blackbirds adorned the tall dead trees along the roadsides, and were joined by a half dozen Common Grackles, recently arrived from their wintering grounds further south. Although common in most of the country this time of year, our only White-throated Sparrow was seen here, and ever so briefly. Both expected species of Meadowlarks were feeding together giving nice comparisons of these lookalike cousins. Luckily both the Eastern and Western were calling and singing helping us solidify our ID assumptions. We reached our limit of getting soaked so we left and got warm in the van while taking a break from the inclement weather. We drove to a nearby lake that had a pavilion perfectly placed close to the water that we could sit under with the scope and pick through the myriad ducks laid out before us. Northern Shovelers were packed tight in small groups, and Bufflehead were all over diving in the icy waters. Lesser Scaup were picked out of the more plentiful Ring-necked Ducks, and a small raft of Northern Pintails added some flair to the setting. Single Gadwall and American Wigeon were also added to the growing waterfowl list, as were displaying Green-winged Teal and a lone American Coot, a species not too common along our route. The rain had turned to snow at this point and, aided by the wind, made for a perfect excuse to go to a delicious Mexican restaurant to get some hot soup and thaw/dry out for a bit. After succeeding in recharging our internal batteries we went to Schramm Park on the banks of the mighty Platte River. There were several inches of snow being delivered by brisk squalls on the ground so we all piled up next to the side of the building out of the snow. We were obliged to accept the offer for the center to fill up the bird feeders for us. As a result birds started pouring in, including several gorgeous Red Fox Sparrows scraping away the snow with the 2-foot hop method to get to the seed at ground level. Black-capped Chickadees came in and out constantly, as did the only Tufted Titmouse we had this week. Eastern White-breasted Nuthatches crawled down the trees before hitting the seeds and a trio of woodpeckers, Red-bellied, Hairy and Downy were a good study as they came in for an easy morsel. Juncos were plentiful and this area hosted Slate-colored, cismontanus, and Oregon subspecies. It was gratifying to have such a captive set of birds that allowed us to slowly pick through to figure out the different subspecies to everyone’s content. On the way back to our hotel we quickly stopped at Walnut Creek Recreation Area and picked up a raft of Redhead for the list, as well as one of the only Blue Jays of the trip.

Day 3 We started our voyage west along the transcontinental Interstate 80. In the first rays of light we were perfectly placed for waterfowl viewing with many species admired for their beauty. Canvasback and Redhead comparisons were had, and a group of Wood Ducks was simply stunning as they pirouetted around each other under a fallen log. We managed to pick out a pair of Greater Scaup intermixed with their Lesser lookalikes. It took some time to figure this out because they were sleeping most of the time, but we all left comfortable with figuring out this sometimes-difficult ID. We hit the highway and flew through the capital of Lincoln before reaching our next planned stop at Pawnee Lake. Immediately upon arrival it was hard to miss the gigantic American White Pelicans floating by on broad wings. These behemoths were soaring around in small groups, sometimes quite close, and adorned huge knobs on the end of their bills that they sport in the breeding season. A previously reported Long-tailed Duck was spotted near the dam. We shifted closer to get a better view and enjoyed watching the sea duck constantly dive spending most of the time under water. Eventually we all got great looks, and while doing so had a flock of recent arriving American Pipits land on the rock wall of the dam. We also noticed a beautiful breeding plumaged Franklin’s Gull in the mix that repeated flew up and down the dam in the strong winds finally landing in amongst the other waterfowl by the outflow. Heading even further west we ended up near Grand Island, the gateway to crane land. We stopped at the Crane Trust Visitor’s Center that had a wealth of knowledge about cranes and the best places to find them, as well as 11 Bison on the grounds. It’s hard to believe American Bison numbered close to 60 million originally but were down to roughly 500 by the end of the 1800s. It’s here we not only started seeing Sandhill Cranes soar overhead in small flocks, but also scads of Snow and Ross’s Geese flying in formation. Seeing these flocks heightened our anticipation for the impending show the waning light of the day would have in store. Just before checking in to the hotel we made a brief detour to witness an amazing gathering of thousands of Snow Geese coming in to a small pond right next to the road. We took time to admire the ‘blue morphs’ of the Snow Goose, abundant in this part of the country this time of the year, as well as scrutinize the flocks for Ross’s Geese. Once we all had a good look it made it much easier to pick out this smaller version of the Snow Goose and its triangle bill, lack of grin patch, and overall smaller proportions. We had a delicious locally-sourced dinner nearby then headed out for our appointment with the cranes. While driving along the highway to our destination flocks of Sandhill 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 Platte River. At the Gibbon Bridge we arrived before the cranes and set up for the show to come. As if someone hit a button the cranes started dropping out of the skies and began 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 20,000 cranes in this immediate floodplain looked like, but we had good practice imagining as thousands of these bugling beauties poured in overhead.

Day 4 We went right back to the same spot as the previous night to see the cranes lift-off. It was quite cold when we arrived and even before we could get out of the van we began seeing large flocks of Snow Geese taking flight, getting a much earlier start than the cranes. The sound of thousands of geese taking flight was loud and memorable. Some flocks of Greater White-fronted Geese were also picked out as they flew over, easier to identify by their overall dark colors and speckled bellies. Not long after official sunrise cranes began taking off in flocks of hundreds, bellowing out a cacophony of bugles likened to a packed professional sports stadium crowd yelling after a goal has been scored. It really has to be heard to be believed. After the tens of thousands of Sandhill Cranes left, a couple Bald Eagles slowly made their way low over the water upriver looking for any cranes or geese that didn’t make it through the night. For the couple of us who last to leave a fly-by Belted Kingfisher was noted, the only one seen on the tour. After breakfast we headed out to the agricultural fields surrounding the river. 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. Small flocks of Horned Larks occasionally flushed from the roadsides and a quick flock of Lapland Longspurs shot by but unfortunately never landed for a better view. Northern Harriers slowly floated over the weedy ditches in search of small mammals they specialize in hunting, and American Kestrels adorned the transmission lines ready to drop down on unsuspecting prey at a moment’s notice. We swung by Rowe Sanctuary tucked on the south bank of the Platte River. This spot has a live camera designed for anyone in the world to catch the cranes coming and going from the river roosts. Some of us had subscriptions so it was cool to see the area in person. The fields across from the visitor’s center had thousands of cranes for us to admire while they picked their way through corn stubble fattening up for their impending migration ahead. Continuing east we took our time scanning through fields full of cranes trying to find any of them that looked large and all white. Eventually we spotted a ghostly looking individual at some distance. As we approached it disappeared amongst the rolling hills and we found ourselves driving up and down the dusty road trying to get a look at this interesting individual. I climbed up on the roof of the van and could make out the bird. It was definitely one of the highly sought after Whooping Cranes we were intently looking for. Unfortunately, the rest of the group was not able to climb all the way up so we played the waiting game. After an hour or so the bird finally walked out into view, showing its dark face, large red crown, and gigantic white body nicely. We speculated this might be Bob, typically the first Whooping Crane to arrive every year to join the Sandhill Crane flock before heading north to Wood River National Wildlife Refuge in Canada where it will hopefully breed. This evening we went to a different location on the Platte to view the incoming hordes of Sandhill Cranes at sunset. In just one hour of observance we watched over 50,000 cranes come floating in. Small family groups combined to form a mass of feathers in the middle of the shallow river. It’s hard to believe that the cranes can tell each other apart by voice in this ridiculous rumbling of animal noise.

Day 5 Before first light the next morning we pulled back up to Alda Bridge in the 14 degree temperatures. Again before we could even see, giant flocks of white geese had already taken flight, heading north to parts unknown in northern Canada where they’ll spend the summer months. When light allowed, we watched the waters full of chunks of ice floating east towards the awaiting Missouri River. A single snow goose with a bum wing was swept away downstream but waited briefly under the bridge so the Bald Eagle cruising by didn’t notice it. It was nice to see this wounded goose still had its wits about it. This morning was a true test of the clothing that we brought. We all wore everything we had, were adorned with hand and feet warmers, yet still it was extremely cold and something few of us were expecting. Unfortunately the cranes never took off all at once, favoring a slow approach to the morning leaving in small groups instead. A male Blue-winged Teal was new for the trip as he sat on the ice with bill tucked trying his best to get warm in the frigid temps. It was also neat to hear a Greater Yellowlegs calling from downriver and then show up right in front of us landing on the ice at the edge of the water. He also looked frigid and out of place, perhaps the reason within minutes it took flight looking for a warmer place to forage. After breakfast we headed south into the Rainwater Basins of south-central Nebraska. After nearly hitting a Wild Turkey that flew right in front of the van, we noticed a dark raptor gliding by to the east. We pulled over and watched as a Harlan’s Red-tailed Hawk flew right over us allowing study of its streaked chest and pale tail, much different than any of the ‘normal’ looking Red-tailed Hawks we’d seen up to that point. We checked out Funk Waterfowl Production Area in Phelps County. This is the largest production area in the state, so perhaps it’s no surprise that waterfowl abound here. Over 1,000 Northern Pintails was a site to behold as lesser quantities of Wigeon and Teal tried to hide amongst the mass. We counted at least 8 Northern Harriers working the wetland here and were amazed to see such a high concentration of them in this relatively small area. Bald Eagles harassed Red-tailed Hawks in the surrounding agricultural fields holding constant vigil waiting for them to leave scraps behind. We also checked out Prairie Dog WPA where dozens of Black-tailed Prairie Dogs were barking from their burrows. As we quietly approached we could see a raptor picking apart one of the small mammals as it stood on the ground. We were ecstatic this was the Ferruginous Hawk we had heard was around, a lifer for several in the group! It was great to watch this hawk do what it normally does, sitting at the entrance to the prairie dog burrows waiting for an unlucky individual to pop its head up, possibly for the last time. It was hard to leave this interesting part of Nebraska, but we had to head back to Omaha, but not before taking one last sweep through the fields of cranes.

Day 6 Our last 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 pair of Red-headed Woodpeckers that were, much to our surprise, feeding in the middle of a corn field. A crisply plumaged adult was teaching what looked like last year’s chick to forage opportunistically as they both flew up to trees deep in the woods with corn kernels for later consumption. A brief pishing session caused a few Harris’s Sparrows to pop up at point-blank range for staggeringly good views of the mid-central US specialty. It was nice to see this sparrow on the last day as well as the first day, a great bookend to the tour.  The wetlands area was ripe with birds. Hundreds of Green-winged Teal ran back and forth along the shoreline and a couple Wood Ducks floated along the reedy edges of the sinuous lake, accompanied by a large flock of American White Pelicans 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. A diminutive Downy Woodpecker perched on an isolated cottonwood snag as more numerous chortling Red-bellied Woodpeckers called from the forest. A quick stop by the Visitor’s Center put us in close proximity to some raptors at the rehabilitation center here. The highlight was getting within inches of a white morph Gyrfalcon they were taking care of, an unbelievably amazing bird that’s very difficult to see in the wild, and never this well!

We wrapped up the day after dropping some participants off at the hotel where they would stay another night to check out some of the city the following day, and the rest to the airport for flights home. On the drive it was great reminiscing about the week we’d had watching hundreds of thousands of Sandhill Cranes coming and leaving their roosts, the great white Whooping Crane we worked hard to see, droves of waterfowl in numbers that were hard to believe, a palate of raptors that would make many birders jealous, and our extremely cohesive group that loved sharing the time together.

Jake Mohlmann 2023

Created: 18 April 2023