Nebraska: Platte River and Sandhill Cranes Mar 18—22, 2006

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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So, what is it like to bird during the greatest snowstorm ever recorded along this stretch of the Platte River at Grand Island? It was quite memorable, to say the least, as nearly 22 inches of wind-driven snow piled up outside our hotel from Saturday afternoon through Monday night. (In Greeley, just two counties to the north, 30 inches were officially measured.) Both the all-time 24-hour (17.8 inches) and 48-hour (20.7 inches) snowfall records for any date were broken at Grand Island, with the old 24-hour record of a mere 13 inches dating way back to 1917.

High winds on Sunday and Monday produced roof-high drifts at many places, and some cars at our hotel parking lot were completely hidden under drifts. At the same time, these winds blew some roads partly clear of snow, so we could at least drive and bird along these. Still, I-80 was entirely shut down to all traffic for over 24 hours from Monday afternoon until late Tuesday afternoon, and there were several birding areas (not to mention my two favorite restaurants!) which we were unable to reach. And needless to say it was cold, with temperatures Sunday through Tuesday stuck in the 20s, when normally it should reach the low 50s.

As might be expected, the weather conditions made some birds harder to find; we nearly missed species we had found on every previous tour: Redhead, Red-bellied Woodpecker, Black-capped Chickadee, and Eastern Bluebird. But we still managed to turn up a surprising 89 species, which was the third-highest total ever for this tour.

All those cranes were still very much in evidence, as were good numbers of water birds, although most of the so-called Rainwater Basin wetlands have been dry due to a long-term drought (perhaps all that snow will replenish some of them). We also were able to watch a few prairie-chickens displaying at dusk (the road that morning was impassable), even though their lek was snow-covered. Other highlights included six species of shorebirds probing in a mix of mud and slush, close spotlighted views of American Woodcock and Eastern Screech-Owl at Lake Manawa, a surprising and foolish (and probably now deceased) Purple Martin, a Loggerhead Shrike consuming a bird near a bird feeder, and Yellow-headed Blackbirds at that same feeder.

But the real highlight of the tour involved the impressive concentrations of birds forced by the blizzard into and along the road as they searched for food. We saw dozens, if not hundreds, of Killdeers, Horned Larks, American Robins, sparrows (including good numbers of Harris’s Sparrows), Lapland Longspurs (!), and Western Meadowlarks. The snow also produced American Pipit (a first ever for this tour) and Lincoln?s Sparrow (a second tour record) along the road. Those longspurs, though, were especially memorable, since many were handsome males in nearly full plumage, and since the few previous tours which listed this species had only recorded them as hard-to-see individuals migrating high overhead.

Certainly, never before had the weather even come close to being this bad on the tour. Yet, at the same time and in many ways, the birding was perhaps more interesting than on any previous Platte River tour. Not despite the weather, but because of it. I could almost be persuaded to hope for an even bigger and better blizzard next year.