Nebraska: Platte River, Sandhill Cranes & Prairie Grouse Mar 19—26, 2016
Posted by Rick Wright
Larry may have put it best on our final evening together as a group: The greatest surprise this tour has to offer is Nebraska itself, a state too easily dismissed as “flyover country,” but one that in fact contains a vast diversity of habitats and shelters a vast variety of birds—even beyond the world-famous spring concentrations of Sandhill Cranes and the equally moving spectacle of Sharp-tailed Grouse and Greater Prairie-Chickens on their grassland dancing grounds.
The cranes took center stage during our time on the central Platte, and we paid four visits to the river roosts, marveling at the sight and, above all, at the sound of tens of thousands landing in the shallow water, the close-packed flocks quickly taking on the appearance of topography rather than of mere birds. We also had close views of many Sandhill Cranes on the stubble fields and pastures between Grand Island and Kearney, where they feed and loaf and dance in numbers only dreamed of elsewhere in their vast range. The great prize, of course, was a single adult Whooping Crane, picked out by eagle-eyed Dawn as it moved in stately grandeur through the hordes of its lesser cousins.
Those crane-watchers wearing shorts and t-shirts on our second evening got their comeuppance soon enough, when a spring storm arrived the next morning with sleet, snow, and vicious winds. Our slow drive through the dunes of the Nebraska Sandhills was more evocative than ever, the grass- and yucca-covered slopes and hills thrown into sharp relief by the white inch, then two, then three that blew across them. Sensibly, we postponed our visit to the lek of the Greater Prairie-Chickens from morning to evening, and spent most of the following day—blue, calm, and warm—exploring the great marshes at Whitman and Hyannis, where Trumpeter Swans lorded it over the abundant ducks, and the season’s first American White Pelicans floated overhead.
That evening we were witness to one of the most startling and most ludicrous scenes in nature, the booming of the prairie-chicken. At least 28 males performed on the flat, overlooked by a herd of Mule Deer and American Pronghorn. For the birds, the ritualized dancing and hooting is in deadly earnest, literally a matter of survival, but we could not help finding comic relief in the weird poses and eerie screams and cackles just a few feet out the windows of our big yellow blind.
We would see a smaller lek of that species the next morning, but our attention was captivated by the Sharp-tailed Grouse. Less manically social than the prairie-chickens, the grouse dance in smaller parties, but the five males we watched made up for their lack of number with a more than sufficient plenitude of energy, emerging into the dawn to dance like whirring, purring tops. If the prairie-chickens perform with a certain ludicrous gravity, the Sharp-tails abandon all pretense to dignity, their tiny minds on only one thing as they spin and rattle in the short grass.
The contrast could hardly have been stronger with our first day’s birding in eastern Nebraska, on the forested bluffs and shallow marshes lining the Missouri and lower Platte rivers. The bright songs of Carolina Wrens and the rattles and shrieks of Red-bellied Woodpeckers enlivened our walk through the lowlands of Fontenelle Forest, and a Barred Owl perched above the road for some of us to briefly admire. The Red-tailed Hawks encountered in the Omaha and Bellevue areas were all eastern birds, and much of a sameness, but away from the Missouri, we found a number of western calurus, with dark throats and extensively barred tails, including two intermediate, rufous individuals and a splendid Harlan’s Hawk—Audubon’s “black warrior”—north of North Platte. Always a highlight of a visit to eastern Nebraska, Harris’s Sparrows put on their usual great show at Schramm State Park, feeding and drinking unconcernedly just a few feet away as we enjoyed this largest (and perhaps most dramatically beautiful) of the “brown” sparrows. An Eastern Meadowlark sang on the Ceresco flats, even as the first large flocks of migrant Westerns were appearing a bit farther west.
The March contrast between east and west overlies a seasonal contrast too, as winter gives way, if at times grudgingly, to spring. Some of us were fortunate enough to see individuals of both the Loggerhead and the Northern Shrike during their brief period of overlap in Nebraska, and while Red-tailed Hawks and Bald Eagles were already on their nesting territories, Rough-legged Hawks still hunted the snowy Sandhills, laying on fat for their long flight to the arctic. Horned Larks were already on their nests, but Slate-colored and Oregon juncos were still gorging themselves at feeders and brushpiles in preparation for their own northward migration. The latest of the spring waterfowl, Blue-winged Teal and Red-breasted Mergansers, had arrived, welcomed by lingering winterers such as Common Goldeneye and Common Mergansers. The great goose flights took place this year in February, but we were still able to enjoy outstandingly close views of Ross’s, Greater White-fronted, and Richardson’s Cackling geese, even as Black-capped Chickadees, Eastern Bluebirds, and Song Sparrows tuned up for the nesting season.
Yes, Nebraska is a surprise—at any season. I hope that this spring experience is enough to lure you back at other times of the year, and I look forward to exploring this and so many of my other favorite places with each of you again soon.