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Five essential spring birding trips – #1

Spring is a terrific time for birds and birding.  Over the next few weeks, I will be highlighting five birding trips and experiences that all outdoor enthusiasts should consider attempting this year.  Certainly there are hundreds more out there for the taking, but I’ll start slow.  Now that we are in the latter days of winter, it is time to pencil in dates and make plans.   I begin at #1 with the most famous and familiar and I will end with lesser known, but equally exciting, experiences for you to consider.    

#1:  Cranes and waterfowl in the central Platte River valley and Rainwater Basin

The number one spring birding trip and experience is old hat to many, but even if it is routine, it never gets old.  Central Nebraska in early spring is outright spectacular and this is a bit of an understatement.    As winter loosens its grip in late February or early March, millions of birds that include Sandhill Cranes, five geese species and several duck species converge on the central Platte River valley and Rainwater Basin.  Individuals that have experienced this spectacle can probably stop reading and go back to your business, you’ve already got the 411.  This blog post is for newbies and those that have always found a reason not to venture out to see what all the fuss is about.  This is the year, right?  RIGHT!

I do not need to go into great detail about how to plan your trip.  I have provided several links at the bottom on this page that provide a wealth of information.  People unfamiliar with Nebraska, the migration spectacle, or both, often have the same basic questions.  Thus, a few basic sideboards and tips:

  • WHEN:  Sandhill Cranes stopover in Nebraska in large numbers from late February through early April.  Peak migration is during the latter half of March.  Weather can affect arrival and departure of the big numbers of birds.
  • WHERE:  Sandhill Cranes and waterfowl are easily found in the central Platte River region, from Grand Island to Kearney.  Large numbers of Sandhill Cranes also stopover in the North Platte and Lewellen areas.  The Rainwater Basin is a vast region with widely dispersed isolated wetlands that is south of the Platte River.
  • WHAT NOT TO MISS:  Viewing and hearing cranes come in to roost in the evening or leave their roost in the morning is an essential part of any trip.   Rowe Sanctuary and the Crane Trust provide guided blind trips.  Also, public viewing platforms also provide excellent viewing opportunities.  If you intend to take a blind trip, reserve your space well in advance.
  • TIP #1:  Prepare for winter weather, hope for spring.  Nebraska’s March weather is bi-polar.  Snowstorms and temperatures in the 90s are possible, but odds are weather will be somewhere in between.  Bottom line, be prepared.
  • TIP #2:  When traveling county roads, please be sure to pull off far to the side if you stop to view cranes.
  • TIP #3:  Be very wary of traversing “minimum maintenance roads” in spring or after precipitation, particularly in the Rainwater Basin.
  • TIP #4:  Do not call me to pull you out if you fail to follow TIP #3.
  • TIP #5:  Unless marked otherwise, most of Nebraska is privately-owned.  Please do not trespass on private property and PLEASE do not attempt to approach cranes and other wildlife.
  • TIP #6:  Rainwater Basin wetland water conditions are variable, it might be good to check with local contacts to find out which wetlands have water and birds ahead of time.
  • TIP #7:  A useful, printable, map of the central Platte area can be found here.   Useful maps of the Rainwater Basin can be found here.

Again, the links at the bottom of this post provide details needed to plan your trip.  Otherwise, I’m providing a few personal photos, below, showing what you could be seeing in just a few weeks.

Sandhill Cranes in corn

Large numbers of Sandhill Cranes are easily observed in agricultural fields during daylight hours in the central Platte River valley.  Rare cranes, such as Whooping, Common and even Hooded (one record) are occasionally found in the masses.

Sandhill Cranes in fog

Less than ideal weather conditions may dampen the mood, but it can serendipitously provide excellent conditions for viewing and photography.

Sandhill Cranes at sunset

Whether on a guided blind trip or at a public viewing platform, watching cranes come into roost in the evening or leaving their roosts in the morning, or both, is an essential experience of this essential spring birding trip.

Crane watchers

Expect to share the best crane viewing sites with “new” friends from both near and far.

Snow Geese at Funk

Massive flocks of Snow and Ross’s Geese have become, at times, a bigger spectacle than Sandhill Cranes. However, the period when large numbers of geese are in the area is relatively brief (a week or so) and dependent on weather conditions.  The big flocks of geese are usually gone by mid-March unless cold weather persists.  Greater White-fronted, Canada and Cackling Geese are also common.  These geese were at Funk Waterfowl Production Area in the Rainwater Basin on 28 February 2007.

White geese in corn

Snow and Ross’s Geese also are found in cornfields during daylight hours where they feed on waste grain.  Be aware a spring “white goose” hunting season, called a conservation order, is in effect in the Rainwater Basin from 10 February to 1 April.  Bird distribution and viewing opportunities can be affected by hunting.

Ducks in the Rainwater Basin

Large numbers of ducks can also be found at Rainwater Basin wetlands and in the central Platte Valley. Mallards and Northern Pintails are two abundant early arrivals.

Alma sign

The welcome mat will be out again at Harlan County Lake and Alma, home of the Harlan White Pelican Watch and Homecoming Celebration.  A trip to Harlan County Lake can be an excellent add-on to any trip to see cranes.

Links with more information to make your plans

Rowe Sanctuary

Crane Trust Nature and Visitor Center

Nebraska Flyway Website

Audubon’s Crane Festival

Nebraska Game and Parks Spring Migration Guide

Rainwater Basin Wildlife Management District

Nebraska Birding Trails

Harlan County Birding and Pelican Festival

Chicken Dance Trail

Nongame Bird Blog

About Joel Jorgensen

Joel Jorgensen is a Nebraska native and he has been interested in birds just about as long as he has been breathing. He has been NGPC’s Nongame Bird Program Manager for eight years and he works on a array of monitoring, research, regulatory and conservation issues. Nongame birds are the 400 or so species that are not hunted and include the Whooping Crane, Least Tern, Piping Plover, Bald Eagle, and Peregrine Falcon. When not working, he enjoys birding.

4 comments

  1. Sure hope to see Crescent lake in mid-May on this list. Saw 90 species in one day there. Overlap of waterfowl, shorebirds, and warbler migrations.

    • Matt:

      Thanks for the comment. No question Crescent Lake is a special place, you’ll have to check back to see if it makes my top 5. Thanks again.

      -Joel Jorgensen

  2. It is Harvard, not Funk that allows hunting of light geese.

    • Rylan:

      Thanks for the comment and question. I did have some information that requires clarification that I have since taken care of. The NGPC waterfowl hunting guide states the following regarding what is illegal during the Light Goose Conservation Order:

      “on all lands owned, controlled or managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, EXCEPT Harvard and Cottonwood Waterfowl Production Areas. Hunting is allowed seven days a week.” – pg. 12

      The full guide is available: http://outdoornebraska.ne.gov/hunting/guides/waterfowl/pdf/waterfowl.pdf

      Thanks again for the question, nice catch!

      -Joel Jorgensen

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