Nebraska: Platte River and Sandhill Cranes, March, 2005 Mar 19—23, 2005

Posted by Kim Eckert


Kim Eckert

Kim Eckert, with over 40 years of birding experience throughout the U.S. and Canada, has now been guiding birders or teaching bird identification classes for more than 25 o...

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For those looking to change careers, forming your own nature tour company might be a good idea?with one important caveat. Don’t put too many tours on your schedule which focus on bird migration. Not only are you and the migrants you seek at the mercy of the weather during your tour, but just as important is what the weather was like prior to it.

As case in point: Nebraska in March. How can you prepare your participants for the weather when anything from 80 degrees one day to a full-fledged blizzard the next is possible? While this year’s tour focused on Sandhill Cranes along the Platte River did not experience those extremes, it was difficult enough dealing with strong cold winds blowing rain and/or snow in your face (and in van windows) during the two most important days of the tour. A long-term drought in this part of the country had also been drying up most of the wetlands of the Rainwater Basin, where hordes of geese and ducks would normally congregate. But with so little habitat, and given some premature warm temperatures earlier, the impressive flocks of Snow Geese and other waterfowl had mostly departed for Dakota before we arrived.

Certainly, though, the cranes did not disappoint, even though the cold and wet winds made observing them a challenge much of the time. At the bridge crossing south of Alda, it certainly appeared that there were more cranes roosting there than ever before. In addition, those less overwhelming numbers of cranes roosting by the Nine-Mile Bridge near our hotel were even more impressive in their own way. For one thing, the birds were a bit closer to us, and we literally had them and the bridge all to ourselves. And it certainly enhanced our evening experience there as the wind and precipitation had finally let up?indeed, it was essentially calm and almost clear at sunrise on our last day at “our” bridge.

Another highlight of this tour is definitely the prairie-chicken display we view each year not far from Grand Island. Though the lek is not as close to the road as it was a few years ago, it is not hard to see the erect pinnae and the inflated orange air sacs of the strutting males, and their low-pitched sounds emanating from these sacs is quite audible when the wind abates. One of the nature centers is now beginning to establish observation blinds on the leks, and these should be available to us as an option on future tours.

Despite the weather, or perhaps because of it, this year’s tour actually tallied our highest species total since this tour began in 1990. No fewer than 98 species were listed (plus five other “leader-only” birds), and these included four species never recorded on this tour before: American Golden-Plover, Pectoral Sandpiper, Lesser Black-backed Gull, and Pileated Woodpecker. The two early shorebirds were the result of low water levels at Harvard Marsh. Marshall located the gull for us among the thousands of gulls roosting at Lake Manawa (and his California Gull there would also have been a first, except it was impossible to show the group as dusk grew). And that Pileated at the extreme edge of its range at Fontenelle Forest might have been the only one in all of Nebraska.

Other highlights included an adult Peregrine Falcon watching the waterfowl at the power plant pond south of Council Bluffs (only the second record for this tour); a Red-breasted Nuthatch at a feeder at Branched Oak Recreation Area (a third tour record); and the male “Cinnamon” Teal by the Alda bridge, an apparent hybrid showing some muted Blue-winged Teal characters. This species had only been recorded twice before on this tour, including last year at the same place, and it will be interesting to see if it returns in 2006.