Nebraska: Platte River, Sandhill Cranes & Prairie Grouse Mar 19—25, 2011
Posted by Kim Eckert
Very high river flows in the Platte + very low water levels in the Rainwater Basin = very strange!
Even after 20-plus VENT tours here in Nebraska in March, there always seems to be something unexpected waiting for us along the Platte River. And this time around it was to find the river running much higher and faster than it had for decades. The cause of this was an unusually high snow pack in the Rocky Mountains, the source of the Platte, and the dams upstream were wide open to lower the reservoirs to make room for the imminent snow melt.
As a result, many of the normally dry sand bars and quiet shallows in the Platte favored by the Sandhill Cranes for roosting were no longer there, now under several inches of rushing water, and it was a unique experience to watch the cranes settling in for the evening on unconventional roost sites. But never fear: all half million cranes were still present along this 40-mile-long stretch of the Platte, and the spectacular sights and overwhelming sounds of them—especially from our observation blind at dusk—remain impossible to adequately portray in words or photographs.
Meanwhile, after a dry fall and winter, many of the nearby wetlands of the Rainwater Basin were either dry or nearly so. These ephemeral lakes, potholes, and marshes are not fed by the Platte or any other rivers and must rely on whatever precipitation falls from clouds overhead. But at least in dry periods a chosen few have water pumped in by federal and state agencies to provide habitat for the tens of thousands of waterfowl migrating north each spring. Accordingly, we were certainly able to find plenty of ducks in impressive numbers at those favored wetlands.
The geese, however, were conspicuous by their absence while we were there. Warm weather and south winds prior to our arrival prompted almost all of them to pull out prematurely for points north. For example, we found only one field with anything more than a handful of Greater White-fronted and Cackling geese, and I'm sure we saw fewer than a hundred Snow Geese in all during the tour—a more typical total would be a hundred thousand. And Ross's Goose was nearly missed entirely for the first time ever, but we finally managed a nice look at one lingering with a few Snows close to the road.
On the plus side, though, this premature warmth resulted in the early arrival of several species seldom found on this tour. American Golden-Plover, Wilson's Phalarope, and Yellow-rumped Warbler were all unexpected finds, each for only the second time ever, and a Common Loon turned up for only the third time in our 20-plus-year history. Just as impressive was the flock of 34 Long-billed Dowitchers behind our hotel in Grand Island: this was the sixth record for this species, and we had never seen more than three or four individuals before.
Other tour highlights included great views of a highly territorial American Woodcock displaying at dusk on our first day, a new Greater Prairie-Chicken lek much closer to the road at Taylor Ranch near Grand Island, and a close study of an obliging Northern Shrike within a mile of our lodgings at Calamus Outfitters. Of course, our additional excursion to Calamus Outfitters—a first for this tour—was even more memorable for the lek with Sharp-tailed Grouse displaying at dawn and the prairie-chickens cowering in the cold wind on their lek (thankfully, we had unexpectedly nice looks back at Taylor Ranch).
And, speaking of that cold wind, the prairie-chickens were not the only ones cowering. We may have started with temperatures in the 60s, but then the highs dropped to closer to 40 degrees on our last two birding days, and half of our six days brought us winds in excess of 40 miles per hour. Fittingly, a moderate snowfall then punctuated the tour and sent us off for home.