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Trumpeter Swans

The Trumpeter Swan is the largest North American waterfowl and one of few native swan species. They are monochrome, with a black, slightly rounded beak, a completely white head and body, and black legs. With the largest male ever recorded presenting a breathtaking wingspan of 10 feet and 2 inches and weighing in at a hefty 17.2kg (38 pounds), it is obvious why Trumpeter Swans are a sight to behold on their own let alone when part of a ‘lamentation’ or ‘bevy’ (collective nouns for a group of swans; the term ‘wedge’ is used for a group of swans in flight).

The Sandhills possess habitats perfect for Trumpeter Swans, especially in Cherry, Sheridan, and Garden counties. Where there is an abundance of open water, fresh vegetation to feed on, extensive cover, and little human disruption, other than by visitors hoping to appreciate this glorious bird.

In “Birds of Nebraska – their distribution and temporal occurrence” (2001), Sharpe, Silcock, and Jorgensen provide a potted history of Nebraska’s Trumpeter Swans covering the last 120 years. Pre-1900 a small population of Trumpeter Swans is thought to have made the lakes of the Sandhills their primary breeding location, but through unchecked hunting—primarily for the feathers, which supposedly made the best quills—they were all but wiped out from this particular region.

Thanks to a welcome increase in the numbers of Trumpeter Swans in Montana’s Red Rocks National Wildlife Refuge, the United States Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) began a reintroduction program. They transferred a small bevy of Trumpeter Swans from this region (between 1960 and 1963) to LaCreek NWR, South Dakota, where the most southerly point lies just 16km from the Nebraska state boundary. This same line of birds then began to migrate on to the Lakes of Sandhills, with records showing the first successful nesting, from this relocated population, took place around 1968 at Hoover Lake, Sheridan County.

From this point onward, the transplanted population has gone from strength to strength, with Trumpeter Swans breeding in most northerly counties of Nebraska, including McPherson, Holt, Arthur, and those previously mentioned. In recent years, the best place to see Trumpeter Swans, during summer, is Valentine NWR, where there are a large number of lakes to investigate, such as Pelican, Mule, and West Twin Lake.

During winter, choosing the best place to visit for Trumpeter Swan spotting is a much harder job, as the frozen lakes force the Nebraskan breeding population and any migrating groups to go wherever they can gain access to food. However, since the 1980s a number of sites have provided regular sightings, such as the North Platte River, just South of Lake Ogallala and Blue Creek in Garden County.

Whichever site you base your visit around, make sure to take a camera, so you can be the envy of your friends when they have proof that you saw once extinct Nebraskan natives alive and well.

Shorebirding Sandhills Lakes along Highway 2

Highway 2 connects the southwestern corner of South Dakota with the northwestern tip of Nebraska, and runs through some of Nebraska’s most idyllic locations. The 422.29 mile road affords drivers and their passengers one of the most scenic routes through a whole state in the U.S. This road is especially significant as it joins three of Nebraska’s iconic national areas of outstanding natural beauty: Nebraska National Forest, Crescent Lake National Wildlife Refuge, and The Nebraska Sandhills. Highway 2 carries on long past the Sandhills, exiting the state on the eastern side at Nebraska City, but you would be forgiven for making an impromptu stop along the way to wonder at the terrain and animals it so successfully sustains.

Along Highway 2, Sandhills Journey Scenic Byway is a 272-mile stretch that takes you from (east to west) Grand Island to Alliance, a small railroad City in Box Butte County, and has been ranked as one of the ten most scenic routes in America. Take in the stunning, rolling sand hills, countryside as far as the eye can see, rich farmland, marshes bursting with wildlife, twisting and turning rivers, and the Charles E. Bessey Nursery, which is America’s oldest federal seedling nursery.

From the car you might be fortunate enough to see birds flying from one side of Highway 2 to the other or a lone migrant just arriving, but for the full, unforgettable experience you must alight at one of the many rest stops, campsites, and refuges. During the summer, the clear, pollution-less skies, uninterrupted by buildings, provide the perfect backdrop for bird watching, photography, and at night-stargazing.

In the summer season, the two major refuges that flank Highway 2, Valentine National Wildlife Refuge and Crescent Lake National Wildlife Refuge account for much of the tree-dwelling, marshland and wetland breeding/rearing populations, which include Black-necked Stilts (a recent breeding success at Crescent Lake NWR), American Avocets, Wilson’s Phalarope, Warbling and Red-eyed Vireo, Bobolink, Orchard Oriole, Horned Lark, Common Yellowthroat, and the Common Nighthawk. Across the length of Highway 2 there are in excess of 300 possible bird species to spot. So take your pick at random, make the Sandhills your summer holiday destination and your resting point will surely bring you some unforgettable sights.

Long-billed Curlews

Nebraska has an enormous range of areas to appreciate, but along the Nebraska Sandhills you will find a unique eco-region, which serves as an increasingly important breeding ground for many different bird species. One of these bird species is the Long-billed Curlew, which is America’s largest native sandpiper. It’s one of only nine grassland birds commonly occurring in the Great Plains, Nebraska. They are often referred to as the sickle- or candlestick bird; names that have been acquired thanks to the distinctive, and somewhat disproportionally long beak that, visually, defines the species.

Aside from the strikingly long and downward-curved beak, when attempting to identify the Long-billed Curlew with your camera, binoculars, or spotting scope, you will notice back and outer wing feathers similar to those of the female American Kestrel, with a wonderful, deep cinnamon-brown alternating with uniform streaks of black. They also have long, slender legs, to rival any Victoria’s Secret model, which help to keep their body out of the water or damp soil/sand.

Those planning to see these fantastic and highly vocal birds must come to the Nebraska Sandhills during the spring and summer months. Providing one of few remaining strongholds, this region should afford impressive views of the Long-billed Curlew’s courtship ritual, particularly during April. The male circles a specific area, which can stretch to over a mile in diameter, whilst letting out a high-pitched whistle throughout. This inspiring display could warrant the title of lark of the shorelines.

Males and females share roosting responsibilities, but the male typically roosts until the chicks have hatched and takes care of feeding duties. The female will usually leave the nest after two to three weeks. In spite of this dissolution, the same pairs will often mate in further breeding seasons.

While Long-billed Curlews do feed on animals at the surface of grass plains and shorelines, such as crickets, beetles, and other insects, their beaks are specially adapted for extracting food buried in soil and sand, such as worms, crabs, and shrimp. And when identifying them, remember, mud will often cake their beaks, giving it a much darker appearance than the actual color beneath, with the lower mandible a light pink.

Long-billed Curlews are currently classified as a “Tier 1 – At Risk” species, due to grasslands that are important for breeding being turned over to agriculture. However, efforts are being made to better understand and support this species. These measures, along with the increasing awareness of how wildlife enthusiasts can help, should hopefully preserve this species status as one of Nebraska’s most beguiling birds.

Prairie Grouse – experiencing a lek in spring

Every year visitors to Nebraska’s rich and varied landscape are all but guaranteed to see one of nature’s greatest events. Sharp-tailed Grouse and Greater Prairie Chicken (don’t be fooled by the name, this is also a type of Grouse) use the vast plains, much to the delight of onlookers, to dust off their wings from the long winter and demonstrate their similarly elaborate appearance and courtship behavior on a ‘lek.’

A lek is an area where animals, in particular grouse and prairie chickens, come together during mating season to display their assets and courtship behavior to attract the best possible mate. The term lek can also be used as a collective noun for the animals in an area indulging in these courtship activities. Each lek tends to have a maximum of 20 birds displaying, and they are dotted around the Great Plains of Nebraska, including the Sandhills and the more northerly areas that surround the Platte River. Females will often visit more than one lek; especially the pickiest females looking for the most impressive male.

Sharp-tailed Grouse and Greater Prairie Chicken indulge in similar courtship methods; both occupying the northwestern regions of Nebraska, and coming together to share the same terrain between March and July to strut their stuff.  The best time to see a lek in full flow is April, but the other months also provide plenty of clear sightings. Unlike the Greater Prairie Chicken, Sharp-tailed Grouse can be found in a wider mix of habitats, and also use Nebraska’s parkland for lekking.

To help distinguish the two, male Sharp-tailed Grouse have two purple air sacs, one on each cheek, whereas Greater Prairie Chickens have orange air sacs. Both species puff the air sacs out during courtship and force the air to create a resonating call to attract the attention of potential mates. This behavior is combined with fast-paced running on the spot, with the tail cocked in the air whilst rapidly wiggling it from side-to-side.

Male Sharp-tailed Grouse are slightly less elaborate than male Greater Prairie Chicken, as their air sacs are considerably smaller and the latter species have the benefit of impressive ‘ears,’ raised during lekking, to steal the birdwatcher’s attention away. However, Sharp-tailed Grouse have attractively arranged white outer tail feathers, shaped into a teardrop from the rear, with a few black spots at the peak, which warrants close attention from bird spotters.

The Sharp-tailed Grouse and Prairie Chicken mating season is a must for Nebraska’s visitors; ranking as one of April’s best attractions. You might be able to see videos of a lek, but they will never do this wondrous experience justice. Get your diary and set aside a day, or a week if you can, to see one of nature’s greatest gifts: Sharp-tailed Grouse and Prairie Chicken lekking on the Great Plains of Nebraska.

Whooping Crane Migration and Stopover Areas

Few birds native to North America better represent the desire of modern man to preserve and foster the natural world than the Whooping Crane. With a population of just 21 wild Whooping Cranes recorded in 1941, desperate and costly attempts have subsequently been made to encourage Whooping Crane population growth. Some 62 years later, a review of the species’ status showed 153 wild, breeding pairs were present in America. Worldwide, there is an estimated current population of just over 430 individual birds.

The Whooping Crane is an endangered species due to unregulated hunting and natural predation chiefly by mammals, such as bobcat, black bear, wolverine, and mountain lion. But other birds, including bald and golden eagles, and the common raven have been known to eat both the eggs and young of the Whooping Crane.

The tallest North American bird, standing 5 feet tall on average at full stretch; Whooping Cranes have become iconic largely through painstaking, countrywide measures to increase their numbers. As an overview of their physical characteristics, they possess an impressive wingspan of around 7 and one-half feet. Which allows for easy identification when flying overhead in combination with their outstretched neck in excess of 2 feet.

From head to toe, adults have a crimson red crown, a short beak (for their overall size), piercing yellow eyes, brilliant white feathers other than black wingtips, and long dark legs. Juveniles are dusty-cinnamon, their red crown takes a few months to come in, and usually it takes a year until their full height is realized.

Whooping Cranes migrate through Nebraska every spring and fall; heading north during spring to breed in Alberta, Canada (specifically Wood Buffalo National Park) and south during fall, to winter in Aransas National Wildlife Refuge, Texas.

For those understandably yearning to see this precious North American bird, the best places to catch a glimpse of their passage or, if you are especially lucky, stop over, head to the wetlands of the Central Table Playas, or the Loup, Niobara, and Platte Rivers.

Whooping Cranes generally fly in small clusters of around five birds.  When progressing through Nebraska, history shows they usually follow a straight vertical line over the central region of the state. You will have to be quick though, as some of these migrating birds only stay for a matter of hours before taking flight for their next destination. So when staying in the Cornhusker state, make sure to stay poised as you may be blessed by the sight of one of North America’s rarest and now most fiercely protected birds passing through the sky.

Birding at Sherman Reservoir

There are thousands of forests, lakes, ponds, reservoirs and shorelines to visit in Nebraska’s Sandhills, but if you are looking for the perfect marriage of bird watching and other outdoor pursuits then Sherman Reservoir State Recreation Area is the place for you. Sherman Reservoir is in Sherman County, deep in the heart of Nebraska, and can be found just four miles east of Loup City, just off State Highway 92. The reservoir is sustained by the Sherman Eastern Dam, which was installed by the United States Bureau of Reclamation in 1961. The dam measures 134-feet high and stretches to a length of 1,912 feet.

The region is especially popular for boating (with various marinas and boat ramps on the water), hiking, and camping. Within the Sherman Reservoir State Recreation Area there are 360 non-paid campsites available to visitors, which offer a variety of facilities, such as coin-operated showers and modern water cabins; allowing visitors to appreciate the great outdoors without having to live in the same manner as the local wildlife.

Sherman Reservoir has a wealth of animals to tick off your list, with birds a particular draw for visitors. There are 2,845 acres of water surface to scan, and 4,271 acres of surrounding land to scour for rarities and local regulars alike. The areas navigable on foot include a good blend of hiking trails, which cross through a variety of terrain, chiefly prairie grassland and wooded creeks.

In the last year alone, the following species have been observed at the Sherman Reservoir State Recreation Area: Marbled Godwit, Semipalmated Plover, Buff-breasted and Baird’s Sandpipers, Thayer’s, Glaucous, Herring, and Ring-billed Gulls, Golden Eagle, Hairy Woodpecker, Red-breasted Nuthatch, Turkey Vulture, Red-tailed Hawk, American Kestrel, Common Grackle, Brown-headed Cowbird, Greater Yellowlegs, and Mourning Dove. So pack your bags, load up your car and head to the wilds of Sherman County to breathe in the fresh air. And try to keep count (it might be tough!) of the myriad of birds you will see on the reservoir, in the trees, and feeding in the grasslands all throughout the year.

Birding Crescent Lake NWR

Nebraska provides refuge to millions of birds and hundreds of different bird species, but some regions are especially important for conservation. One, if not the most significant, area of Nebraska for bird conservation is the Crescent Lake National Wildlife Refuge, which is located in Garden County and was set aside in 1931 as a protected site for animals and birds.

The refuge is almost perfectly delineated by some of the county’s major roads, which allows visitors to gain access to the vast refuge from various points. Depending on your entry point, you may make your way down some of the Sandhills’ more ‘characterful’ sandy lanes, as modern road improvements have yet to make their way to parts of this particular region.

There are water and toilet facilities at the refuge headquarters, accessed from the south entrance, but the site is the definition of remote, as civilization lies 30 miles away with nowhere to get food, supplies, gas, or even lodgings within the 45,818-acre refuge. This means visitors must make sure they are well-prepared with all the necessities and a tank full of gas essential before you drive into the refuge.

The Crescent Lake NWR is protected by the National Wilderness Preservation System and possesses America’s largest, uninterrupted sand dune. The refuge is principally grassland, but there are in excess of 8,250 acres of wetlands, which are a mix of permanent, semi-permanent, and temporary bodies of water, some are fed purely by underground aquifers.

The blend of sand dunes, wetlands, and grassland on the refuge is birding heaven, with more than 200 bird species using the area as a stopover during migration or as their permanent residence. This means there are excellent bird spotting opportunities all year round. The lakes may freeze over during the latter weeks of fall into winter, but the grassland and sand dunes offer a host of bird sightings from September through February. Birds seen regularly in fall and/or winter at Crescent Lake NWR include Black-crowned Night-Heron, Canvasback, Sharp-tailed Grouse, Ring-necked Pheasant, Common Grackle, Western Meadowlark, and Long-billed Dowitcher.

Across the four seasons there are often in excess of 250 species to see, including White-rumped Sandpiper, Savannah Sparrow, Dickcissel, Snowy Egret, Wilson’s Phalarope, Peregrine Falcon, American Avocet, Blue- and Green-winged Teal, Pied-billed and Eared Grebe, Eastern Kingbird, Blue Grosbeak, Bufflehead, Orange-crowned Warbler, Short-eared Owl, Western Tanager, and Bald Eagle, of which there have been as many as 20 pairs at the refuge at one time.

If you are a keen wildlife enthusiast and want to escape the modern world, then stop looking for destinations. Plan your visit to Crescent Lake NWR now, with its truly unique and diverse landscape, which offers amazing sightings of both native and migratory birds, even through fall and winter.

A full list of bird species you might get to see at Crescent Lake NWR can be found at the following link.

Birding in Halsey

Highway 2 connects the southwestern corner of South Dakota with the northwestern tip of Nebraska, and runs through some of Nebraska’s most idyllic locations. The 422.29 mile road affords drivers and their passengers one of the most scenic routes through a whole state in the U.S. This road is especially significant as it joins three of Nebraska’s iconic national areas of outstanding natural beauty: Nebraska National Forest, Crescent Lake National Wildlife Refuge, and The Nebraska Sandhills. Highway 2 carries on long past the Sandhills, exiting the state on the eastern side at Nebraska City, but you would be forgiven for making an impromptu stop along the way to wonder at the terrain and animals it so successfully sustains.

Along Highway 2, Sandhills Journey Scenic Byway is a 272-mile stretch that takes you from (east to west) Grand Island to Alliance, a small railroad City in Box Butte County, and has been ranked as one of the ten most scenic routes in America. Take in the stunning, rolling sand hills, countryside as far as the eye can see, rich farmland, marshes bursting with wildlife, twisting and turning rivers, and the Charles E. Bessey Nursery, which is America’s oldest federal seedling nursery.

From the car you might be fortunate enough to see birds flying from one side of Highway 2 to the other or a lone migrant just arriving, but for the full, unforgettable experience you must alight at one of the many rest stops, campsites, and refuges. During the summer, the clear, pollution-less skies, uninterrupted by buildings, provide the perfect backdrop for bird watching, photography, and at night-stargazing.

In the summer season, the two major refuges that flank Highway 2, Valentine National Wildlife Refuge and Crescent Lake National Wildlife Refuge account for much of the tree-dwelling, marshland and wetland breeding/rearing populations, which include Black-necked Stilts (a recent breeding success at Crescent Lake NWR), American Avocets, Wilson’s Phalarope, Warbling and Red-eyed Vireo, Bobolink, Orchard Oriole, Horned Lark, Common Yellowthroat, and the Common Nighthawk. Across the length of Highway 2 there are in excess of 300 possible bird species to spot. So take your pick at random, make the Sandhills your summer holiday destination and your resting point will surely bring you some unforgettable sights.