Nebraska Cranes and Prairie Grouse

Join me next year for some of the continent’s greatest birding spectacles. 

Sandhill Crane

Who could have predicted that—in March! in Nebraska!—we’d be peeling layers as fast as we could in temperatures in the 60s and 70s?

Fontenelle Forest in March

True to its changeable nature, though, by the end of this year’s tour, the Great Plains weather had us grateful for the coats and gloves we’d cast off at the beginning of the week. In between, we relished close-up studies of Ross’s and cackling geese, red-headed woodpeckers, and frantically displaying greater prairie-chickens and sharp-tailed grouse. We paid three visits to the spectacular roosts of the sandhill cranes, with the third time most decidedly the charm as thousands streamed onto the fields and river channels. Best of all, we made new birder friends and learned a lot along the way.

Lesser black-backed gull

That first afternoon together, we looked at our suitcases stuffed with down coats and long underwear and smiled in embarrassment: why on earth should we have brought all that if the weather was going to be so resolutely springlike? The warm, sunny day was more than welcome as we explored a few of the waterfowl sites just north of our hotel; a good selection of lingering ducks padded the list neatly, while Dodge Park gave us our first looks at bald eagles perched hungrily in the giant cottonwoods and a fine adult lesser black-backed gull, still scarce on the eastern Great Plains, squabbled with ring-billeds over fish and other rotting tidbits.

We went on to a really good Mexican meal in Council Bluffs, then took our places on the shores of Lake Manawa for the evening show.

woodcock skies

Right on time came the first buzzes, and soon half a dozen American woodcock were dancing in the sky above our heads, one of them repeatedly flashing right past us where we stood watching the sunset.

It was a good start.

And it got better.

The weather was even finer the next morning as we took our first walk through Fontenelle Forest.

red-headed woodpecker, Nebraska

A pileated woodpecker, sadly not seen by all, greeted us as we left the van, but red-headed woodpeckers were more obliging, perching and flycatching unconcerned as we admired them at close range. Prospecting wood ducks perched high in the trees, and the spring’s first red fox sparrows haunted thickets and brush piles.

Wood duck, Fontenelle Forest

A post-lunch visit to more wetlands, this time south of Omaha, produced a couple of horned grebes, one of them already in dashing breeding plumage. A gorgeous Franklin’s gull at close range on the water and in flight made up for the stand-offishness of one a few of us had glimpsed the evening before.

Harris's sparrow
We ended a beautiful day at Schram Park, on the banks of the Platte River, where the always reliable feeders were attended by white-throated and Harris’s sparrows and at least two purple finches, a species whose occurrences in the area are unpredictable from year to year.

We could easily have spent the entire tour just in our little corner of eastern Nebraska, but the next morning, cooler and damper, we set off for the west. A stop at the Ceresco Flats and its “sparrow road” produced good views of Cassiar juncos and hordes of song sparrows; the handsome mink that emerged from the marsh was probably in search of muskrats rather than sparrows.

Cackling Goose

The first sandhill cranes welcomed us to Grand Island, and we paused at Mormon Island long enough for a leisurely study of our first close-up cackling goose. We would see many more more of both those species.

We drove the back roads to Kearney, stopping occasionally where it was safe to scan the crane flocks on the ground and to sort quickly through the roadside ducks. After checking in to our hotel, we found ourselves on the banks of the Platte River, where many thousands of cranes had assembled on the upstream roost. That first evening’s flight was not massive, but it gave us a taste of what lay ahead.

Sprinkles greeted us the next morning at Fort Kearny, and the cranes did not. Whether coyotes or human disturbance, something had pushed the birds off the roost early. It was time to shuffle the itinerary a bit to give us another chance at witnessing the great spectacle, and by the time we were finished with our well-deserved lavish breakfast, we had a plan.

Nebraska Sandhills landscape March

After another look at roadside cranes, we drove north into the Nebaska Sandhills, one of the most beautiful and wildest areas in the lower 48. Red-tailed hawks were everywhere, among them a ferocious-looking Harlan’s hawk; not for nothing did Audubon style that (sub?)species “the black warrior.”

A suspicious bird wading in a ditch just west of Ravenna was occasion for one of those birderly u-turns. It was a rusty blackbird, with eight of its fellows; this rapidly declining species is scarce anywhere in Nebraska away from the Missouri River, and we would see only one more the entire trip, another female on the last morning in Fontenelle Forest.

Our walk around the Broken Bow sewage ponds turned up nice flocks of ducks, along with one of those “difficult” white-cheeked Branta: smallish and small-billed, but with a sloping forehead and long, thin neck, it may have represented the Canada goose subspecies parvipes, whatever that really is, a taxon poorly known in Nebraska.


We pressed on after lunch, arriving in Mullen (with a population of 491, the largest city in Hooker County) in time to put up our feet before meeting Mitch for the trip to a nearby greater prairie-chicken lek.

Greater Prairie-Chicken

About 18 males strutted their weird stuff right in front of our schoolbus blind, occasionally breaking out into surprisingly violent dustups that left feathers flying and, no doubt, self-confidences battered.

grouse blind

When the dancing had waned and the herds of stotting mule deer started to descend from the hills, we bounced our way back to town for supper and an early night.

Thanks to the jagged line dividing the time zones in western Nebraska, 5:20 the next morning didn’t feel quite as early as it could have, but it was still dark when we arrived at the lek of the sharp-tailed grouse.

Sharp-tailed Grouse

Less aggressively social than their prairie-chicken cousins, there were six males on this dancing ground, alternating their manic spinning dances with earnest, sometimes minutes-long stare-downs between rival males. The purple neck sacs, smaller and less conspicuous than the orange balloons sported by prairie-chickens, are always a surprise no matter how often you’ve seen them, surely one of the most improbable colors in the entire bird world.

Sharp-tailed Grouse

The Pantry welcomed us for a huge breakfast, and then it was time to return to the east. Not straightaway, though: we wanted to leave ourselves time for another opportunity for the crane show at Kearney. Along the way, we witnessed one of the most memorable sites of the entire tour in the somersaulting display flight of a northern harrier at Clearwater, the bird again and again rising straight into the air, then twisting and turning on his descent into the cattails.

We went south to Sutherland Reservoir, where a distant flock of snow geese shimmered white on the gray waters and a great horned owl perched on the concrete dam and then flew in to inspect us at almost disconcertingly close range. A very active northern shrike was a reminder that no matter how warm the weather, winter wasn’t long past. The northern flickers here were apparently red-shafted birds, but a fresh roadkill confirmed just how complex the situation is for that species on the Great Plains: a visually “pure” red-shafted flicker at first glance, closer investigation of this unfortunate bird discovered a few red spots on the nape, certain evidence that somewhere in its family tree lurked a yellow-shafted bird or two.

Ross's Goose

After our Runza lunch in North Platte, we visited Cody Lake, that tiny urban pond on the banks of the North Platte famous for its appeal to lingering late-season waterfowl. This year, among the park ducks and barnyard geese, we found a female common goldeneye, several dozen cackling geese, a lone Ross’s goose, and a pair of dozing trumpeter swans, which raised their long necks to give their buzzy calls whenever a plane or red-tailed hawk passed over. The setting is far from pristine, perhaps, but there are few places where wild waterfowl are as trusting and as point-and-shoot close as here.

Cackling Goose

We were back in the Kearney area with plenty of time to watch the sandhill cranes feeding, loafing, and leaping on the fields, then took our place on the bridge at Fort Kearny.

Sandhill crane, Nebraska

A greater yellowlegs chased prey through the shallows of the Platte, and one of the red-tailed hawks was a dramatic dark-morph adult, crossing the river at close range.

Cranes, of course, were never out of sight and earshot, and as the evening went on, many thousands gathered on the low fields along the river. After two (almost) disappointing tries, this was the show we had been waiting for.

Sandhill cranes, Platte River

The light turned golden, then purple and pink and red, and still the cranes kept coming, flocks purring and trumpeting over our heads as they sought the safety of the river for the coming night. Even when dusk was approaching dark and we made the return walk to our vehicle, the shadows of the great birds were still overhead and their calls still echoed in the spring air.

Sandhill Crane

The only downside to our having lingered at Kearney was that it was a long drive back to Carter Lake. The hotel desk, though, had our rooms waiting for us, and we were able to hit the pillows within a few minutes of arriving, crane music still in our ears.

It was easy enough to negotiate a slightly later starting time for our last morning afield. Cooler air had moved in during our time in western Nebraska, but even with temperatures right at freezing, the light breeze and brilliant blue skies made it a delight to take one final walk in Fontenelle Forest. Red-headed woodpeckers, eastern bluebirds, and American goldfinches were drinking from the shallow waters of the stream, and red-tailed hawks were moving north along the ridges as we bade farewell to the birds, to each other, and to the wonder that is springtime in Nebraska.

Next year: March 19-26. See you there!