The Sandhills of Nebraska: Cranes and Prairies

By Joe Sebastiani, Seasonal Programs Team Leader

Late March in Nebraska is very much like it is here in Delaware…warm, cold, warm, cold, windy, windy, rain, snow.  That is how our trip went last week in the Cornhusker State.  We experienced a wild variety of weather, including temperatures in the 70’s when we arrived.  That didn’t last.  By the end of the week it was a high of 34 degrees and snow all day.

The wildlife isn’t as variable as the weather luckily, and that was the reason 8 of us from the Delaware Nature Society made our way to the center of the continent last week.  The main reason, and original draw for the trip is still the Sandhill Crane migration and staging of half-a-million birds on the Platte River.  This year, as in the last 100,000 years, the Cranes descended on this shallow prairie river, and fed in it’s floodplain of corn fields.  They captivated us, and brought us into their world of the wild for a few days, while they paused, rested, and fattened on their journey to the northernmost reaches of North America and even Siberia.

Sandhill Cranes descend on the Platte River for the night after fattening in corn fields during the day.

Away from the Platte River and the Cranes, corn, and for the most part, other people, is my favorite part of Nebraska…the Sandhills region.  It is mostly an area that is unknown to Americans, but it should be.  It is America’s Sahara and our last great, intact and functioning prairie ecosystem.  When the wind blows here, it does not rustle corn stalks.  Here you hear the swoosh of prairie grasses and the dried stalks of wildflowers.  Rolling sand dunes, some as high as 400 feet overlook abundant wetlands at their bases, springing up from the Ogallala Aquifer lying just under the sandy soil.  20,000 square miles of sand dunes, prairie grass, wetlands and lakes, few people, and abundant wildlife define the Sandhills region, Nebraska’s greatest natural treasure.

The Nebraska Sandhills are a 20,000 square-mile area of prairie-covered sand dunes with abundant wetlands. Few people and lots of wildlife characterize this special region...America's Sahara, and one of our last remaining intact prairie ecosystems.

We stage our Sandhills experience at Calamus Outfitters on the Switzer Family Ranch.  Here we watched Greater Prairie-chicken and Sharp-tailed Grouse perform their spring mating dances.  An open-air jeep safari tour deep into the beautiful Sandhills landscape was cold, but exhilarating and educational at the same time.  The nearby Calamus Reservoir and surrounding wetlands provided huge numbers of ducks, Bald Eagle, American White Pelican, gulls, and many other species to appreciate and watch.  Join us if you can on a future trip, and enjoy the short video of highlights from our trip to Nebraska, March 2011.

Here is the list of birds we saw on the trip this year:

Snow Goose
Ross’s Goose
Canada Goose
Wood Duck
American Wigeon
Blue-winged Teal
Northern Shoveler
Northern Pintail
Green-winged Teal
Ring-necked Duck
Greater Scaup
Lesser Scaup
Common Goldeneye
Hooded Merganser
Common Merganser
Ruddy Duck
Ring-necked Pheasant
Sharp-tailed Grouse
Greater Prairie-Chicken
Wild Turkey
Horned Grebe
Eared Grebe
Double-crested Cormorant
American White Pelican
Great Blue Heron
Bald Eagle
Northern Harrier
Sharp-shinned Hawk
Red-tailed Hawk
Rough-legged Hawk
American Kestrel
Peregrine Falcon
American Coot
Sandhill Crane
Greater Yellowlegs
Lesser Yellowlegs
Franklin’s Gull
Ring-billed Gull
Herring Gull
Eurasian Collared-Dove
Mourning Dove
Eastern Screech-Owl
Great Horned Owl
Belted Kingfisher
Hairy Woodpecker
Downy Woodpecker
Northern Flicker
Eastern Phoebe
Northern Shrike
American Crow
Horned Lark
Eastern Bluebird
American Robin
European Starling
Cedar Waxwing
American Tree Sparrow
Field Sparrow
Song Sparrow
Harris’s Sparrow
White-crowned Sparrow
Dark-eyed Junco
Northern Cardinal
Red-winged Blackbird
Western Meadowlark
Yellow-headed Blackbird
Rusty Blackbird
Common Grackle
Brown-headed Cowbird
House Finch
Pine Siskin
American Goldfinch
House Sparrow

Oops!  I forgot to add Wilson’s Snipe, Red-bellied Woodpecker, and Blue Jay.  Also, the mammals we saw were: White-tailed Deer, Mule Deer, Coyote, Mink, Groundhog, Eastern Fox Squirrel, Muskrat, and Eastern Cottontail.  For the first time ever on this trip, we saw a lizard…the Northern Prairie Lizard.

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