Great Spring Birding on the Great Plains

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By Paul A. Johnsgard

For Nebraskans, trying to decide where to go birding in the spring is like trying to decide between chocolate and strawberry ice cream. The Platte Valley, with its amazing numbers of cranes and waterfowl, is virtually my second home during March, but that has not prevented occasional trips to other locations having other attractions. Over the years I have made birding trips to nearly all the great birding places of the Great Plains between North Dakota and Oklahoma, with occasional forays beyond. Here, I suggest several of my favorite sites, choosing one each for Nebraska and four of its adjoining states. All five sites are within four hundred miles of Lincoln or Omaha, and nearly all (with one exception) have the highest published number of spring bird species so far reported for any location in that state. All are national wildlife refuges, having (with one exception) free public access, and all have seasonally specific bird lists. All have headquarters that provide toilet facilities and varying degrees of information on the natural history and biological diversity of the site. Numbers of bird species mentioned below are based on the most recent information that I have, but some are no doubt out of date by now and the totals should be considered as minimums.

Nebraska

Crescent Lake National Wildlife Refuge is the largest of any of the sites described here (45,818 acres) and is easily the most remote. It is located about twenty-five miles north of Oshkosh, in the heart of the nineteen-thousand-square-mile Nebraska Sandhills. The road from Oshkosh is poor but is of near-interstate quality compared to roads on the refuge itself. One should leave Oshkosh with a full gas tank and carry both food and water; the only toilet on the refuge is located at the small headquarters building. The sand roads on the refuge can seem like quicksand in wet weather, and even under ideal conditions, one should try to park on the level or a downhill slope and on a grassy site rather than bare sand. Yet, with these simple precautions in mind, there should be no problems, and a visitor will soon discover why this is my favorite of all Nebraska’s national wildlife refuges. The great Ogallala Aquifer lies just below the base of the Sandhills here, so dozens of shallow marshes and lakes are present. These wetlands vary from slightly alkaline to highly alkaline, the former used by two dozen species of waterfowl and latter attracting a separate and distinct array of birds, such as the American avocet, black-necked stilt, Wilson’s phalarope, and other shorebirds.

A total of 248 species have been reported on the refuge during spring, 12 of which are classified as abundant. Several of these are waterfowl (northern pintail, blue-winged teal, and northern shoveler), but they also include shorebirds such as the killdeer and Wilson’s phalarope. Other abundant spring birds are the mourning dove, barn swallow, marsh wren, common yellowthroat, grasshopper sparrow, red-winged blackbird, western meadowlark, and yellow-headed blackbird. Crescent Lake is a great place for watching western and eared grebes in spring display, and sharp-tailed grouse are in peak display during April. Camping on the refuge isn’t permitted, so seeing grouse display is difficult, but they are often visible along roadsides. Golden eagles and peregrine falcons are fairly rare, but I have seen them several times in spring, and seeing burrowing owls and long-billed curlews is relatively feasible during late April and May. American bitterns and black-crowned night-herons are fairly easily found, and white-faced ibises are also good possibilities.

Iowa

DeSoto National Wildlife Refuge lies along the banks of the Missouri River and is partly located in Nebraska. It consists of 7,823 acres and can be reached by driving five miles east of Blair, Nebraska. Besides the river-bottom habitat, there is a 750-acre oxbow lake, with a modern visitor center at one end. Unlike the other sites described here, Desoto NWR charges a small daily admission fee and has slightly fewer reported bird species (240) than does the Upper Mississippi River NWR, at the eastern end of the state. Yet, 187 species are present on Desoto’s spring bird list, including five that are classified as abundant. One of these (the snow goose) no longer occurs in large numbers during spring, but other abundant spring species are the mallard, ring-necked pheasant, mourning dove, and red-winged blackbird. One of Desoto’s unique features is an extensive exhibit of artifacts recovered from a sunken paddle-wheel ship of the mid-1800s, the Bertrand. These materials, mostly items that had been on their way to silver mining camps in Montana, provide a fascinating look at life during the middle of the nineteenth century. Desoto NWR has a good deal of riparian and bottomland woods that make for fine spring birding; twenty-one species of warblers are on the spring list, and at least four (yellow, black-and-white, American redstart, and common yellowthroat) have been reported to nest.

Missouri

Squaw Creek NWR lies about five miles south of Mound City, in northwestern Missouri. Its 6,919 acres lie just east of the Missouri River, in rich prairie bottomland, and include a shallow marsh fed by two small creeks. The refuge’s bird list includes 277 total species, with over 100 nesting species and a spring list of 264 species. Beyond this very high overall spring diversity, twelve species are listed as abundant during spring. These include often phenomenally large flocks of snow geese (a million or more birds have been reported in some years). Other abundant spring birds include the Canada goose, mallard, northern pintail, American coot, bank swallow, red-winged blackbird, and brown-headed cowbird. Large numbers of bald eagles overwinter and remain until the great snow goose flocks depart in March. Hundreds of trumpeter swans also overwinter, and many of these spectacular birds remain well into spring. At least two pairs of sandhill cranes have nested on the refuge in recent years (providing Missouri’s first modern breeding records for this species) and have either overwintered locally or returned very early in the spring.

Kansas

Quivira NWR, named for the mythical city of gold unsuccessfully searched for by early Spanish explorers, is nevertheless very real and is an ornithological gold mine. Located in central Kansas about ten miles south of Ellinwood, along Rattlesnake Creek, its 21,820 acres consist of two large salt marshes fed by a system of dikes and canals that result in about 5,000 acres of shallow wetlands. These wetlands are major spring staging areas for two hundred thousand waterfowl, plus thousands of American white pelicans and sandhill cranes, and have been designated as critical habitat for whooping cranes. The site’s total list of 344 species is the largest of any of the sites described here, and its spring bird list of 267 species is also the largest seasonal list. Species that have in the past been classified as abundant during spring include the American white pelican; greater white-fronted and Canada geese; green-winged and blue-winged teal; mallard; northern pintail; northern shoveler; gadwall; American wigeon; redhead; lesser scaup; American kestrel; ring-necked pheasant; sandhill crane; lesser yellowlegs; white-rumped sandpiper; Baird’s sandpiper; Wilson’s phalarope; Franklin’s gull; mourning dove; bank, barn, cliff, and northern rough-winged swallows; American crow; American robin; yellow-rumped warbler; red-winged blackbird; and western meadowlark. Some of the rare spring birds that remain to nest include the least tern, snowy plover, American avocet, black-necked stilt, and white-faced ibis. Much harder to find are the black, king, and Virginia rails, and the common moorhen.

South Dakota

Lacreek NWR lies close to the Nebraska border in the northern Sandhills region, about thirteen miles southeast of Martin. It consists of 16,420 acres, including 5,000 acres of impounded marshes, surrounded by native sandhills prairie. The refuge and its bird life closely resemble Crescent Lake NWR. Its bird list consists of 281 species, of which 246 have been reported during spring. Twenty-two species have been classified in the past as abundant during spring, including the American white pelican, double-crested cormorant, snow and Canada geese, mallard, northern pintail, blue-winged teal, gadwall, ring-necked pheasant, killdeer, mourning dove, eastern and western kingbirds, horned lark, marsh wren, yellow warbler, common yellowthroat, lark bunting, red-winged blackbird, western meadowlark, and yellow-headed blackbird. Trumpeter swans and American white pelicans breed here, the swans overwintering and the pelicans likely to be present by the end of March. Western grebes arrive fairly early in spring and breed here, as do American bitterns, black-crowned night herons, long-billed curlews, and Forster’s terns.

Now is the time to get out road atlases and begin calculating mileages and ideal timing for birding trips … there are far too few springs available during one’s lifetime.

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