Nebraska Part IV: We Dodged a Blizzard…

…but not biting cold and whipping wind.

By Joe Sebastiani, Members Program Team Leader

Fourth in a series about the Delaware Nature Society trip to Nebraska in March.

Kansas was getting stirred-up with 40 and 50 mph winds and received a foot of snow the day we visited the Rainwater Basin in south-central Nebraska.  Looking on the weather map, I realized we were three counties away from blizzard warnings.  This is enough to give a trip leader nervous fits.  Luckily, we got away with mere cold and wind. 

A better name for the Rainwater basin on our visit would have been Icewater Basin.   This vast area of south-central Nebraska was historically prairie intermixed with low-lying shallow marshes.  Now it is mostly cornfield with some of the larger wetlands preserved through the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.  Our destination for the morning was Funk Waterfowl Production Area.

Funk Waterfowl Production Area is one of the biggest wetlands remaining in the Rainwater Basin.
Funk Waterfowl Production Area is one of the biggest wetlands remaining in the Rainwater Basin.
Cold was how it looked as we drove to Funk.  Chilly duck feet stood on the ice when we arrived.   Biting wind was in our faces.  Freezing fingers gripped binoculars.  Bleak was the thought of spending the day outside.  Wintry air was reluctantly breathed.   Cold-blooded was how we felt.
Need I say more?
Need I say more?

An executive decision was made…watch birds from the van!  Baird’s Sandpipers had arrived on-time to the Rainwater Basin, but wintry winds ruffled their feathers as they fed in the icy mud.  A Northern Harrier switch-backed into the gale, listening for the shivery movement of a hunkered rodent.  Thousands of ducks, mostly Northern Pintail, American Wigeon, Mallard, and Green-winged Teal were unresponsive when we approached.  They eyed us and were leery, but most opted to quietly swim away rather than take flight into the winds that would have directed them into a sea of inhospitable cornfield.

Cold waterfowl swam away from us or walked on the ice instead of flying.
Cold waterfowl swam away from us or walked on the ice instead of flying.

One thought warmed us.  A Whooping Crane had been seen sporadically for the last few weeks in the Platte River area.  The “area” however, was about 80 miles long.  Finding a Whooping Crane somewhere among half-a-million Sandhill Cranes would be nearly impossible. 

Funk Waterfowl Production Area is a remnant of what much of south-central Nebraska was like.  Prairie and marshland.
Funk Waterfowl Production Area is a remnant of what much of south-central Nebraska was like prior to cultivation…prairie and marshland.
Lunch in a warm building was very, very welcome.  Afterwards we went on a driving tour of the Platte River floodplain to view cranes feeding, dancing, flying, calling and whatever else that cranes do on such a frosty day.   
What did we see?  Did the weather improve?  How many layers of clothing were enough to survive an evening in a crane blind?  Stay tuned to find out…

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