Nebraska with VENT

Franklin's gull

We’re off to a fine start on this 2017 Victor Emanuel tour to Nebraska, with an afternoon of good birding and great company behind us.

The pretty little Franklin gull in the photo was a good find. The big flocks won’t be appearing for another three weeks or so, and I’d suspect that this bird was one of those that for whatever reason linger all season far north of the usual South American wintering grounds.

Lake Manawa produced a smattering of waterfowl, including half a dozen hooded mergansers and a nice gang of 35 or so canvasback among the couple of hundred lesser scaup. That we weren’t the only ones watching ducks this afternoon was made clear by the roost flight of bald eagles: at least 30 came out of the trees around the lake to seek safer perches on the Nebraska side of the river.

This tour is often very nice for mammals, and I hope we didn’t use up all our luck today. We started off with excellent looks at a black-morph eastern fox squirrel, one of the handsomest of the squirrels. Then at Lake Manawa we were serenaded in the late afternoon by a pack of coyotes, beautiful noise that never fails to send a shiver up the spine.

If there was a disappointment today, and I don’t think there really was, it was the woodcock show. The first started to buzz at 6:40 pm, but we had only fleeting views of three birds flying in early to display, and not a single good look at any of the birds up in the sky. It was getting chilly and the wind came up, so we kicked it in half an hour later. We’ll try again at the end of the tour — tomorrow it’s west to look for cranes, gray ones and white ones and maybe, fingers fervently crossed, one with a black and white neck….


Sowbelly Canyon

One of my favorite places and one of my favorite place names — but Sowbelly wasn’t especially Prius-friendly the other day after the snow. So we took just a quick, chilly walk into the top of the canyon before heading west.

Rick and Gellert, Sowbelly

It was quiet up there, a circumstance that only convinced me there were really great birds down lower; but it’s hard to complain about fences lined with mountain bluebirds and Brewer’s blackbirds.

A distant Pheucticus song was neatly identified when a male black-headed grosbeak flew in to investigate our presence; both species occur in spring on the Pine Ridge, and — confession time — I can’t consistently tell the songs apart, and these ears of mime don’t always pick up those chip notes at a distance.

Red-headed woodpecker

We were hoping for Lewis’s — it’s just time for that species to arrive — but had to content ourselves with the even more stunning red-headed woodpeckers; the bird is common all across Nebraska, wherever there are trees or fence posts, but it’s still a bit disconcerting to see it against a background of shortgrass prairie and buttes.

And even more disconcerting to look down the fence and see a Cassin’s kingbird.

Cassin's Kingbird

These no-longer-quite-so-southwestern tyrants breed in the upper canyon (and even farther north into Dakota, if I remember right), but I’d resigned myself to their late arrival when this one suddenly appeared. Who knows — this may have been the first of its species to make it to Nebraska this year. And it couldn’t have chosen a more beautiful place to land.



Fort Robinson snow

Much of the snow melted by 2:00 pm.

It’s one of those sentences I didn’t expect to speak on May 20 in Nebraska, but snow it did, a good inch and a half on the ground, the roofs, and the car tops when we got up that morning.

And what do we do in unexpected weather in migration? We bird, of course.

Alison snow boots in May

Alison’s attire required a little extemporization, but once that was done, we set off for the Soldiers Creek Campground at Fort Robinson, where we’d seen large numbers of lark sparrows, clay-colored sparrows, chipping sparrows, and lazuli buntings the day before, when it was just drizzling.

This snowy morning, the campground came through for us once again.

fort robinson in the snow

It’s always been one of my favorite birding sites in one of my favorite landscapes, the Nebraska Pine Ridge, but it’s rare for me to be there when the campers aren’t. On this morning, we shared the wooded grounds along the creek with a grand total of one rv’er (uncertain how to spell that one) — and loads and loads of birds.

Most impressive of all were the Swainson’s thrushes. This is a common May migrant in the Nebraska Panhandle, but we were unprepared for the flock of at least 20 bouncing around on the lawns and in the brush. We looked hard for rarer birds, but all were Swainson’s, and all the Swainson’s were olive-backed thrushes. No complaints from us, though.

white-throated sparrow

The sparrow flock had grown considerably in numbers, with at least 120 lark sparrows feeding frantically on the snow, and perhaps half that many chipping sparrows joining in. Spotted towhees, probably but not certainly local breeders, whined and mewled and trilled everywhere, occasionally bounding out from their thickets to show off. These arcticus birds are the most heavily marked of all the spotted towhees, and Alison, who had most recently seen the bland oregonus birds of coastal British Columbia, exclaimed again and again when one flashed through her field of view.

There were less expected sparrows, too. A Lincoln’s sparrow was a bit on the latish side, even for western Nebraska, and a gloriously white-striped white-throated sparrow was both geographically and chronologically slightly out of place: generally uncommon at best in the Panhandle, this species is usually gone from the state entirely by May 20.

Most interesting among the emberizids were the white-crowned sparrows. At first glance, they seemed all to be dark-lored birds, thus presumably leucophrys (or maybe, just maybe, oriantha); but a closer look revealed that even though the black lateral crown stripes were thick and reached or nearly reached the base of the bill, there was invariably a gray loral patch separating that stripe from the eye line. The bill color was also intermediate between the darker-billed birds of the far north and west and the paler-billed Gambel’s sparrow; we put them down as “subspecies indeterminate,” not an uncommon label when you’re dealing with migrants — of just about any species — on the western Great Plains.

A high-pitched squeal revealed another surprise.

Broad-winged hawk

Broad-winged hawks are rare in extreme western Nebraska, but the weather had put down a mini-flock of three juveniles in the campground’s cottonwoods, and as the weather warmed, slightly, they took to the air, flashing from tree to tree and studiously avoiding the nervous Cooper’s hawks nesting in a tall tree nearby.

Broad-winged hawk

If I were a county lister, I’d have checked this one off for two, as it soared against the Cheyenne Outbreak Buttes, back and forth across the Sioux County line.

Meanwhile, the passerine show never let up. Red-eyed vireos and a locally scarce Bell’s vireo sang from the trees and thickets, and as the air attained its balmy 40 degrees F, yellow warblers, common yellowthroats, American redstarts, and an ovenbird started to hunt and sing. All of those species breed in the campground, but there were also two migrants: a nice-looking celata orange-crowned warbler, and then, feeding with the American goldfinches and pine siskins in the cottonwood buds, a grassy-backed Tennessee warbler. As abundant as that bird is in eastern Nebraska in May, I’d never seen it in the Panhandle, where it is surprisingly rare at any season.

Three hours later, we left the campground to explore a couple of other sites.

Pine Ridge in snow

There were birds everywhere, but the true fallout seemed to be concentrated in the riparian thickets. Up in Smiley Canyon, where our way was first blocked by American bison, we found no obvious migrants at all, though a flock of seven black-billed magpies was a welcome sight — the only representatives of the species we would see anywhere in Nebraska. The Icehouse Ponds were slightly more productive, with numbers of Swainson’s thrushes plicking and plocking everywhere we turned; chimney and white-throated swifts hunted among the flock of cliff, barn, and violet-green swallows. Alison, less reverent of rarity and more easily swayed by mere beauty than I am sometimes, decided that a male Bullock’s oriole, perched out on the grass in the middle of a small flock of western kingbirds, was her favorite bird of the day.

And mine? Impossible to choose on a day like this, when the weather and the season combined to make one of the best birding experiences I’d had in a long time. Or at least since the day before.


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!





Greater Prairie-Chicken

They’re stately, dignified, even slightly pompous birds. But when the spirit is upon them, even greater prairie-chickens can lose control, as these two did this past week in the Sandhills of Nebraska.

Greater Prairie-Chicken

Greater Prairie-Chicken

Greater Prairie-Chicken

Greater Prairie-Chicken

Greater Prairie-Chicken

Greater Prairie-Chicken

Yes, it’s the season of love and battle on the prairies.