There’s just no predicting March on the Great Plains, and though the cold weather and snow that started this year’s tour were less than welcome, they were no surprise—and no real obstacle to our hardy group of eager birders, all of us recognizing that what might have been discouraging to hoi non-birding polloi in fact promised good numbers of birds (and more exotic creatures, too) that in other years would have been long gone to the north.
That promise was fulfilled on our first afternoon’s van tour of the waterfowl sites in Pottawattamie County, Iowa, and Sarpy County, Nebraska, where oxbow lakes, park ponds, and reservoirs were covered with ducks.
Redheads, Ring-necked Ducks, and Lesser Scaup numbered in the hundreds, while the five Red-breasted Mergansers we found at Wehrspann Lake were an uncommon find anywhere in the area.
The wind made passerine birding less rewarding, but our first scope views of American Tree Sparrows provided outstanding quality even in the absence of impressive quantity. We made up for being snowed out of our woodcock watching by tarrying over a delicious Mexican dinner in Bellevue.
The weather hadn’t improved much the next morning, but there we all were, dressed warm and ready for more exploring on the fields and in the woodlands of eastern Nebraska. Our early morning drive along gravel roads in northern Cass County turned up more waterfowl, and we had excellent close views of Horned Larks—among them, no doubt, both migrants on their way north and local breeders already on territories out in the stubble of last year’s corn and beans. Meadowlarks, most of them silent and many of them distant, were everywhere in large flocks, their bright breasts doing their best to put the lie to winter’s claims. Two Wilson’s Snipe surprised us by feeding in the open on the edge of a farm pond, letting us admire them at our leisure as they poked and prodded the cold water.
We came in from the cold to watch the feeders at Fontenelle Forest, where Carolina Wrens and a Pine Siskin were busy keeping body and soul together. Some of us opted to stay behind in the comfortable warmth and watch out the windows of the nature center, while the rest of us drove a few minutes to the lowland forest.
Two Harris’s Sparrows, sharing the shelter of a dense thicket with Slate-colored Juncos, Northern Cardinals, and House Sparrows, took the honors as the tour’s first “lifers,” and the waterfowl spectacle continued on the Great Marsh, where numbers of Hooded Mergansers and Wood Ducks joined what was already the familiar but still greatly appreciated range of migrants.
We re-assembled to compare our sightings over a good hot lunch at Runza Hut, then moved south and west for our first birding on the banks of the Platte River.
The feeders at Schramm State Park were a constant frenzy, offering great close looks at many common eastern species and a surprise or two: a brown Purple Finch, several Oregon and two Cassiar Juncos, and more Harris’s Sparrows for those who had missed them in the morning. Nine American White Pelicans flapped slowly past the huge windows to become the only representatives of that species we would see all week.
The pelicans seemed to bring with them slightly warmer temperatures, a southward shift in the winds, and, at last, the end of the snow, so we set out for a short walk along the base of the bluffs above the river. American Robins bathed on the shore of the ponds in the old fish hatchery while Cedar Waxwings moved through the trees above them. An Eastern Phoebe, no doubt harboring second thoughts about its decision to come north so early, hung around a footbridge, where it competed for scarce insects with two Myrtle Warblers and a Hermit Thrush, both “good” species for this tour.
For a moment or two it felt like spring, finally, but as soon as the sun began to descend, it was cold again, and we hurried off to a dinner of Old World specialties at Omaha’s venerable Bohemian Café.
And then, early next morning, it was time for the cranes. We drove through the dark, then through the dawn, and then through droves of roadside Sandhill Cranes to Grand Island, stopping at Mormon Island for close views of geese and even more ducks before driving through the riverside woods of Hall County Park.
Using our van as a blind, we spent the better part of an hour watching feeders at the south edge of the Grand Island cemetery, where we had more opportunities to study Cassiar and Oregon Juncos; two Red-breasted Nuthatches gorging themselves on suet were a nice surprise and a bird many in the group had not expected. Crane Meadows Nature Center was even better, and the bright Pink-sided Junco feeding alongside Cassiar, Oregon, and Slate-colored Juncos was a lifer for some of us.
Lunch called, and then the cranes. We drove the river from Grand Island to Kearney, pausing when the cranes were close to the road or our attention was caught by other birds—such as the 2,500 Richardson’s Cackling Geese at Doniphan, with a single Ross’s Goose in the middle of the flock. The large sandpits just east of Kearney were white with uncountable Snow Geese, a sight more typical of February than of late March most years. We checked in to our hotel, then after a short break reversed our course to return to Grand Island, giving us a second chance to scan the open fields for rarities.
Our timing could not have been better that evening, though the weather might have been.
We got back to the river after dinner just in time to see the first great waves of Sandhill Cranes returning to their roost—and the first snow start to fall, again, from the sky. Greater Yellowlegs shouted at us as they flew by the observation platform, and a Wilson’s Snipe flashed past on its way to some nocturnal foraging ground. We stayed out as long as the wind and cold would let us, then returned to our hotel and looked forward to the morning.
It came soon enough. We left for our fifteen-minute drive to Rowe Sanctuary at 5:20, and after a long introductory talk by Audubon volunteers we were out on the banks of the river by 7:00 am. Cranes were all around us, and as the great orange moon set, the sun rose, and the skies lightened, we could see Bald Eagles making desultory passes at the edges of the flock. A single Whooping Crane stuck its snowy neck and head up above the mass of dove-gray Sandhills a few brief times, but never stepped out of the flock to show us the rest of itself. By the time we re-emerged into the fields around the sanctuary headquarters, cranes were coming off the river and flying out through a bright blue sky to feed on the fields.
It was time for us to feed ourselves back in Kearney, then to check out of the hotel and move north and west into the Nebraska Sandhills, that vast region of high dunes and birds.
Our drive to Mullen was punctuated by a fine Rough-legged Hawk and two Northern Shrikes, the second of which remained perched long enough for all of us to have good views of that uncommon and uncommonly dashing bird. Our lunch stop in Broken Bow was a chance to ask directions to that town’s icy sewage ponds, where more Wilson’s Snipe, large numbers of ducks, and a rapidly disappearing American Pipit overhead repaid the few minutes’ detour.
It was still bright and even noticeably warmer when we arrived in Mullen mid-afternoon. We checked in to the motel, then had over an hour to put up our feet or to take a quick walk around the largest (and the only) town in Hooker County; those who opted for the stroll discovered a Sharp-tailed Grouse in firm possession of the city playground.
At 4:30 sharp we piled into the shuttle for the half-hour drive to one of the largest Greater Prairie-Chicken leks we had ever seen.
With seventy males on the dancing grounds, there was always something to watch out the windows of our big schoolbus blind; when we weren’t admiring the bullfrog stateliness of the booming, strutting chickens, we were watching two coyotes hunting the distant hillside or the mule deer and pronghorn crossing the lek.
Ours weren’t the only eyes peeled: two Ferruginous Hawks, one light and one gorgeous dark bird, seemed nearly as interested in the grouse as we were.
We left the lek just after the prairie-chickens did, and returned to Mullen for a hearty dinner at the Rustic Restaurant, an establishment greatly missed during the nearly two years over which it had sought a new owner—we can be very happy that it has found such a good one in Rhonda, whose brisket (butchered by our local guide, Mitch) would have made the meal perfect for even a less hungry crowd than ours.
There were stars in the sky as we returned to our motel, and there were stars in the sky when we got back into the shuttle at 5:30 the next morning for the short drive out to the dancing grounds of Sharp-tailed Grouse.
As soon as the first of eventually five males on the lek arrived, we transferred into the blind, where we sat transfixed as the birds spun and rattled and gobbled and stamped at each other.
Already on territory, Horned Larks harassed each other and, sometimes, the grouse,
and a Western Meadowlark sang its loud, rich warble from a distant fence.
The grouse usually take a break not long after sunrise, giving their human watchers a chance to get out of the blind without disturbing them, but this year, perhaps making up for the dancing time they’d lost to bad weather in the days just before, they stayed on the lek until after 9:00 am–and so did we.
We were at least as hungry as they were when we left the birds to return to town—happily, Mitch was able to phone ahead and ask that the cafe stay open for our gang of starving birders.
After bidding farewell to our motel, we stopped for fuel and breaks and a snack, but decided of one accord to let our breakfast serve as lunch and to push on all the way to the Missouri River.
We arrived at Lake Manawa, an ancient oxbow on the Iowa side, in the late afternoon, and birded the lake and the surrounding woods until dusk. The gull flock was tremendous, and Ring-billed Gulls poured in without pause the entire time we were there; a single bright pink Franklin’s Gull was picked out in flight, but disappeared completely once it landed in the seething mass on the other side of the lake.
Just before sunset, we discovered a lone striped skunk hunting the ditches just outside the van, where we watched it root and snuffle for several minutes. Dusk brought the white-tailed deer out of the woods to take advantage of the strange people who drive around scattering corn for them on the roadside; we had to gently bully one such misguided soul out of our usual parking lot so that we could listen for the reliable American Woodcock, making up for the missed opportunity at the snowy beginning of our tour.
It was warm enough to wait outside the van, and barely had we gathered in the lee of the vehicle when the first buzzings started. The western sky was still pink, and we had good views of about six birds as they flashed around the parking area before they began their sky dancing. Soon it was too dark to see the birds easily, and somehow, inexplicably, hunger had returned. We enjoyed a very good meal in Omaha’s Old Market , then drooped, righteously weary, into our hotel for last night of the tour.
And wouldn’t you know it: the next morning, our last morning, dawned bright and calm and warm.
We returned to Fontenelle Forest for our last hours together, where we found a subtle shift in the birds of the lowland forest. There had been an obvious push of sparrows, and the Song and American Tree Sparrows and Slate-colored Juncos were joined by Harris’s and Red Fox Sparrows in double digits, along with a few White-throated Sparrows and a single Pink-sided Junco; a visually “pure” Eastern Towhee, much rarer than its spotted relative this time of year, sang a few times to confirm its identity.
A Great Horned Owl almost ended our tour on a low note. It flew ahead of us to disappear into the sycamores in the middle distance, where it was as good as invisible even through the scope; it neither moved nor vocalized as we came cautiously closer and then, apparently, walked past its concealed perch. Only when we turned around to return to the van for the last time did that distinctive silhouette suddenly reappear against the blue sky, and this time we all had clear views of the monarch of the nighttime forest, the last bird we would add to the list on a March tour that had truly been different from any other.
Different, and outstanding for the good company and new friends, fine food and excellent birding. Next year is only twelve months away!