Although the vernal equinox signals the beginning of spring for humans, many species of waterfowl begin "spring
migration" long before March. Northern pintails and mallards are among the earliest migrants and some begin arriving in Nebraska by early February. Nearly 100,000 mallards and Canada geese may winter along Nebraska's rivers and reservoirs in mild winters, and many move to the Rainwater Basin as soon as the ice thaws.
Look for mallards and Canada geese if there is an early thaw. Bald and golden eagles frequent the basins even when the water is still frozen. Prairie falcons sometimes perch on utility poles near larger wetlands. Short-eared and great-horned owls hunt the uplands at dusk on large basins, such as Harvard Marsh WPA.
By mid-February larger basins usually have pools of open water, and agitation by ducks and geese keeps them from refreezing. Mallards and Canada geese that have wintered on the Platte River usually appear on the basins first, followed by migrating pintails.
Snow geese usually arrive in large numbers if the weather moderates and open water is available. By the end of February, the migration is well under way. Bald eagles are abundant and can be seen "harassing" waterfowl or scavenging sick or injured birds.
March is the peak month for waterfowl viewing. Large numbers of white-fronted geese arrive, and large wetlands, such as Funk and Harvard WPAs, might have more than one-half million ducks and geese. Pintail courtship flights and whirlwinds of snow geese are common. An alert observer might see as many as 20 species of waterfowl in a single day.
The early part of April still offers excellent waterfowl viewing. Although many early migrating species have moved on by then, blue-winged teal, shovelers and redheads are still abundant. Shorebird viewing begins to pick up. Look for killdeer and greater and lesser yellowlegs early in the month followed by dowitchers and Baird's, spotted, pectoral and least sandpipers. While looking for shorebirds, many visitors often see migrating merlins and peregrine falcons, which often prey on shorebirds.
Early May offers the largest variety of shorebirds. Public and private basins with exposed shorelines and mudflats are the best viewing areas. Basins cut by roads, such as Funk Lagoon WPA, provide viewing from the comfort of a vehicle. Early May is also a good time to view piping plovers and least terns wetlands and along the river. Flooded grain fields are excellent places for spotting buff-breasted sandpipers. Plum thickets and weed patches near wetlands are good places to spot warblers and sparrows.