Birding by Park Areas
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Chadron State Park
This park lies in the heart of the Nebraska National Forest, dominated by ponderosa pines and roughly 50 species of birds. This is the best place in the region to see Lewis' woodpeckers. This park also supports pygmy nuthatches, violet-green swallows, western tanagers, pinyon jays, yellow-rumped warblers and mountain bluebirds. Seek out the Black Hills overlook, and scan dead snags along the way for these species. The Spotted Tail Hiking Trail extends for eight miles from the park boundary through the Nebraska National Forest, and the Black Hills Overlook trail extends for four miles from the park campground.
Fort Robinson State Park
This park is laced with hiking trails offering birding opportunities for western bird species. Search rocks for nesting golden eagles, prairie falcons and merlins. Watch for rufus and broad-tailed hummingbirds from July until September. Juncos are abundant in the winter. Bighorn sheep reintroduced to the area may be seen among the buttes. The White River and Soldier Creek pass through the park and are lined with woodlands which attract passerine species. Smiley Canyon is nearby and is a good birding site. Access to this canyon is by the old road up the Pine Ridge escarpment just west of Fort Robinson State Park. There was an extensive burn in this area that was expected to attract post-burn-loving woodpeckers like Lewis', black-backed, and three-toed. Re-growth will change the habitat and associated birds over time.
Gilbert Baker Wildlife Management Area
This is a reliable location in the Pine Ridge that offers opportunities to see many western species. It also has more rare visitors like the Clark’s nutcracker. Look for rock wrens and Say’s phoebes near buttes and rock outcrops. Spring migrants include green-tailed towhees and MacGillivray’s warblers. Pinyon jays nest here (very few documented locations in the state), as do white-throated swifts, and possibly even Swainson's thrushes and Lewis' woodpeckers. Monroe Canyon (part of Gilbert Baker) also supports some distinctly western species, such as Townsend's solitaires, cordilleran flycatchers, western tanagers, plumbeous vireos and violet-green swallows. A red-naped sapsucker may be occasionally seen. Merlins, golden eagles and prairie falcons nest in the area.
Walgren Lake Wildlife Management Area
A great variety of migrant species are attracted to this lake, including such rarities as Sabine's and black-headed gulls, and Townsend's warbler.
Box Butte Reservoir State Recreation Area
This is an outstanding birding area in the Panhandle. Rock wrens, Say's phoebes and ferruginous hawks are among the more interesting western species, and probable eastern breeders include eastern bluebird, eastern wood-pewee, Indigo bunting and wood thrush. Hybrid bluebirds, wood-pewees and buntings might also occur here. Many warblers and vireos are abundant during migration.
Ash Hollow State Historical Park
This historically interesting park has a wide variety of habitats, such as exposed rocky bluffs that are used by great horned owls, American kestrels, and sometimes prairie falcons. This park has grassy wet meadows where bobolinks and eastern meadowlarks are present and riparian wooded habitats used by warbling vireos. There is also upland grassland, with blue grosbeaks and spotted towhees in shrubby areas, and scattered yuccas where field and grasshopper sparrows sometimes perch.
Chet and Jane Fleisbach Wildlife Management Area
This W.M.A. preserves one of the best saline marshes in the north Platte River Valley. It is a major stopover point for migrant shorebirds, and also attracts ducks during migration. Some shorebirds such as American avocets and Wilson's phalaropes also nest here. The cinnamon teal has also nested here.
Wildcat Hills State Recreation Area and Buffalo Creek WMA
The rugged terrain and ponderosa pines provide habitat for western bird species. Cassin’s kingbirds can be found here along with red-breasted nuthatches. Blue-gray gnatcatchers are in the wildcat hills area and sage thrashers can be found irregularly. Pinyon Jays may be more easily found in the Wildcat Hills than in the Pine Ridge. Steller Jays are irregular visitors. Pygmy nuthatches nest here, common poorwills can be found and violet-green swallows are fairly common. Several raptors, such as golden eagles and prairie falcons are good possibilities. A nature center is present at Wildcat Hills State Recreation Area, and the feeders should be checked for red crossbills.
Cottonwood Lake State Recreation Area
Canada geese breed here. Five miles east of Merriman is a marsh where trumpeter swans have nested, off the north side of U.S. Highway 20. Look for swans in spring and early summer.
Oliver Reservoir State Recreation Area
This reservoir is an excellent birding location, and has been described as a “migrant trap par excellence.” It attracts many migrants during spring and fall, especially warblers. Wilson's snipe have been reported to nest here (at the west end marshes), and a local population of song sparrows is the only one known for western Nebraska. Dusty flycatchers and Hammond’s flycatchers have been observed during migration. Cassin’s vireo, western and eastern wood pewees, black-headed grosbeaks and common yellowthroat are found. Ruddy ducks, pie-billed and eared grebes and American white pelicans are found with belted kingfishers and yellow-headed blackbirds.
Merritt Reservoir Wildlife Management Area
This area abuts Nebraska National Forest land to the north. The reservoir attracts migrant waterfowl, pelicans, western grebes, and other species. Feeders near the restaurant offer the opportunity to view lazuli buntings, indigo buntings and/or their hybrids. Merritt is a post-breeding staging area for grebes from August into October. Common loons may be seen in the summer. Large flocks of trumpeter swans may be seen in the winter.
Smith Falls State Park
Smith Falls State Park is in the heart of the Central Niobrara River Valley. Five distinct biotas merge in this region providing birders the opportunity to view birds that find habitats in pine forests, boreal woodlands, deciduous forests and grasslands all in one place. Nearly 270 species of birds have been reported for this area. Eastern species include wood ducks, green herons, black-billed cuckoo and red-eyed vireos. American redstarts and black-and-white warblers nest here. Western species include black-billed magpies, red-breasted nuthatch and lazuli buntings. Grassland species include golden eagles and prairie falcons.
Lake McConaughy State Recreation Area
This area has the largest bird list of any location in the state; about 340 species, with 104 known breeders, 17 additional possible breeders, and about 200 transients. The large water area attracts vast numbers of migrant waterfowl, grebes (especially western grebes), gulls (including many rarities) and shorebirds. In autumn its population of western grebes is one of the nation's highest, and during winter it has one of Nebraska’s largest bald eagle populations. An eagle viewing heated building is below the spillway. A good spotting scope is needed to cover this vast reservoir, but many of the waterfowl congregate near the spillway during winter, or toward the western end of the lake in the summer.
Lake Ogallala State Recreation Area and Kingsley Dam
Kingsley Dam offers a good vantage point for birds both on the deeper end of Lake McConaughy and on the shallower and much smaller Lake Ogallala located at the base of the dam. Lake Ogallala receives the spillway water from Lake McConaughy, and its level fluctuates greatly. However, it is very attractive to migrant ducks, ospreys, Caspian terns, cliff swallows, gulls, American white pelicans, double-crested cormorants and other summering species, and is used by Canada geese and by numerous bald eagles in winter. An eagle-watching blind is available during peak periods, when 200-300 eagles are sometimes present. It is available from late December through early March.North River Wildlife Management AreaThere are woods along the river, and grassland beyond that is used by sandhill cranes. This is one of the westernmost crane roosting sites; the birds use the southeastern part of the area.
Sutherland Reservoir State Recreation Area
Ten gull species have been observed here. These include such rarities as Thayer's, glaucous, great and lesser black-backed, and even Ross's gull. There are often large flocks of wintering grebes, diving ducks, double-crested cormorants, and American white pelicans during mild winters. Because of the coal-burning power plant, the lake rarely freezes. During spring large flocks of snow, greater white-fronted and occasional Ross's geese stop here. Bald eagles usually overwinter here.
Enders Reservoir State Recreation Area
Enders Reservoir is one of the largest tracts of public land that has a combination of woodlands, shortgrass, mixed-grass and sagebrush prairie. Frenchman Creek flows through woodlands above the reservoir and provides opportunities for finding migrating songbirds. Mudflats on the upper end when the water levels are down provide good shorebird habitat. Look for American avocets and white-faced ibis during migration. Rock wrens can be found on rocky outcrops along the trail road. Gulls should be present during migration, as well as loons and grebes. Golden and bald eagles have been occasionally seen. This large reservoir attracts large numbers of mallards and Canada geese. A large prairie dog town provides many watchable wildlife opportunities.
Rock Creek Lake State Recreation Area.
This 54-acre reservoir attracts ducks, shorebirds and other water birds during both spring and fall. It also attracts many passerine migrants, especially in autumn. Burrowing owls have been seen here. The nearby fish hatchery often attracts ospreys.
Swanson Reservoir Wildlife Management Area
Swanson Reservoir attracts many migrant water birds, some of which might overwinter. This reservoir has a large fish population, which should attract eagles and other fish-eating birds.
Keller School Land WMA and Keller Park State Recreation Area
Keller Park State Recreation Area serves as an excellent headquarters for birding the central Niobrara Valley. These areas consist of native prairie, wooded canyons, creeks and ponds. The ponds attract ducks, eagles, and other water birds, the prairies support grassland sparrows, and the mixed wooded habitats have a variety of both coniferous and deciduous forest birds including wild turkeys, scarlet tanagers and American redstarts.
Calamus Reservoir State Recreation Area/Wildlife Management Area
The north end of the lake has a pull off to watch bald eagles. A pair has consistently nested for several years. Additionally, look for puddle ducks, especially during spring migration. Wading birds such as great blue herons, black-crowned night herons and American bitterns are present during warmer months. Wetland-edge passerines such as yellow-headed and red-winged blackbirds, marsh wrens, yellowthroats and swamp sparrows can be found. When water is standing on the meadows, look for willets, yellowlegs and other shorebirds feeding. Ospreys and American pelicans are seasonal. Cormorants are common.
Pibel Lake State Recreation Area
Pibel Lake is a beautiful Sandhills lake with a variety of water birds present during spring and summer.
Fort Kearny State Recreational Area
This SRA is a place to view sandhill cranes in the spring. The hike/bike trail is a mile east of the Fort and is a well maintained, handicapped-accessible trail across the Platte River on a former railroad bridge. Cranes can be watched arriving and leaving the river in early morning and late evening in mid -April through May, but they do not roost right at the bridge. This is a good location for families with young children to watch the cranes. With a bridge over the river, there are opportunities to see many bir species throughout the year including bald eagles, geese and ducks in the winter and warblers and other passerines in spring and summer. The four-mile trail leads to Bassway Strip Wildlife Management Area along the two northernmost channels of the Platte.
Johnson Lake State Recreational Area
The best birding is in late fall, winter and early spring. It is a good area for gulls, waterfowl, cormorants, eagles, loons and grebes.
Mormon Island State Recreational Area
This area is just off I-80 and attracts large concentrations of waterfowl and shorebirds during the spring migration, primarily March through June. Because of its depth, the main lake sometimes hosts loons, pelicans, mergansers and a variety of grebes. Sandhill cranes will be in the area from March through April. The slough running through the SRA is a good place to search for Wilson snipe and many other birds. Cedar waxwings and woodpeckers are common in colder months.
Ashfall State Historical Park
The area is mostly range country, with an opportunity to view many grassland species. Listen for the “wolf whistle” of the upland sandpipers. Rock wrens are often seen near the excavation site.
Gavin's Point Dam and Lewis & Clark Lake State Recreation Area.
Birding from the dam should offer views of gulls, waterfowl, and other birds including numerous bald eagles during migration and winter. Some rarer gull species such as Iceland, lesser black-backed, Sabine’s, mew and Thayer’s have been sighted from October through December. Other interesting species include red-necked grebe, Pomarine jaeger and red-breasted merganser.
Niobrara State Park
A bird list encompassing the park and surrounding areas includes nearly 300 species. Several vistas overlook the Missouri River and Niobrara river providing opportunities with a spotting scope. Wooded rolling hills provide habitat for bird such as the whip-poor-wills, woodpeckers and warblers. Both bald eagles and ospreys are seasonally present. Sandbars along the Missouri River provide foraging and nesting habitat for shorebirds.
Ponca State Park
A bird list of nearly 300 species are reported for the park and surrounding area. In the spring, woodlands come alive with sounds and sights of migrant and resident songbirds. During peak migration (late April and early May) the park attracts both amateur and experienced bird watchers. Warblers, scarlet tanagers, northern orioles, red-breasted grosbeaks, indigo buntings and ruby-throated hummingbirds are just a few of the highlights. Look for tree swallows or eastern bluebirds using bluebird nesting boxes, bank swallows on river banks and cliff swallows on the limestone cliffs at the boat ramp. In the woods look for black-billed cuckoos, red-bellied woodpeckers, eastern wood pewees, ovenbirds and Carolina wrens. In fall, migrating ducks, geese and other birds are found. In winter, the park is home to bald eagles seen roosting and soaring over the river. Here the Missouri River is still unchanneled so sandbars offer refuge for shorebirds. A Missouri National Recreational River Resource and Education Center provides information on river ecology and associated animal life.
Pelican Point State Recreation Area.
This is a good place to see migratory and breeding bird species including warblers, vireos, thrushes, orioles, flycatchers, woodpeckers and other passerines as well as larger birds that tend to follow the river during migration.Schramm Park State Recreation Area and Ak-Sar-Ben AquariumThis area includes the Ak-Sar-Ben aquarium, and is one of the best warbler migration viewing areas, with the peak in mid-April through May. There are five miles of trails, and an educational center with an aquarium of native fishes. Whip-poor-wills can be heard here, and the otherwise rare Kentucky warbler is a regular summer resident.
Branched Oak Lake State Recreation Area
This is the biggest of the reservoirs in the county, and one that seem to attract many common and rare water birds such as gulls, waterfowl, loons during fall, winter and early spring. Vast flocks of snow geese visit in early March, as well as Canada and greater white-fronted geese. Bald eagles are common during the spring when the ice is breaking up and ospreys may also be seen on migration. Cormorants and American white pelicans are common during migration. The shorebirds are best during fall. Rarities such as snowy owls, black-billed magpies and loons are sometimes seen. The brushy vegetation supports wintering American tree sparrows and Harris' sparrows among many others. Look for tree swallows and eastern bluebirds at the bluebird boxes.
Burchard Lake Wildlife Management Area
This WMA has both a lake and good quality upland prairie. There is a resident flock of greater prairie-chickens, and two permanent blinds are located on the hilltop around a traditional lek. Mid-March to mid-April is the best time to view prairie chickens, but plan to be in the blind at daybreak to avoid flushing the birds. Be prepared to watch their mating dance and listen to their loud booming calls.
Eugene T. Mahoney State Park
This park overlooks the Platte River, and is primarily covered with riparian deciduous forest. There is a tall observation tower built among a stand of bur oaks that overlooks the river, and a six-mile network of trails perfect for birding. This park is a good site for woodland species such as eastern flycatchers, blue-gray gnatcatchers, ruby-crowned kinglets and wood-pewees. This park offers opportunities to view migrating warblers during migration, primarily in May. It has an excellent population of eastern bluebirds and both scarlet and summer tanagers breed at this park.
Indian Cave State Park
This park has diverse wooded habitats and it is not uncommon for an experienced birder to see or hear 100 species in one day in the spring. The park borders the Missouri River, which serves as a migration corridor. This park is known for the warbler migration occurring principally in May. This park has summer and scarlet tanagers, Acadian flycatchers and chuck-will's-widows. Pileated woodpeckers have nested here in recent years, and this is one of the few places in Nebraska to find them. Since this park is located in the southern part of Nebraska, you may find southern birds such as cerulean warblers, northern parulas, white-eyed vireos, Kentucky and yellow throated warblers. There is hope that the ruffed grouse will return to the area.Pawnee State Recreation AreaThis fairly large reservoir attracts many migrant waterfowl during spring, and also has many prairie species.
Pawnee Prairie Wildlife Management Area
Only two miles from the Kansas border, this WMA has prairie, woodlands, ponds and creeks. It is a place to find mockingbirds, scissor-tailed flycatchers and Carolina wrens. This is also a great location to find greater prairie chickens. Listen in early mornings or late evenings from mid-March to mid-April to locate leks. There are no permanent blinds at this location.Platte River State ParkThis park offers opportunities to see woodland species. During May, migrant warblers are abundant, and Kentucky warblers may breed here. Both scarlet and summer tanagers breed in this park. Platte River State Park also borders the Platte River, so a variety of shorebirds may be present in spring and summer. There are 10 miles of hiking trails and two observation towers.
Medicine Creek State Recreation Area
This reservoir and surrounding area attracts mallards and Canada geese and other waterfowl year round. Bald eagles and ospreys are occasionally found. Pelicans and cormorants are expected seasonally. Exposed mudflat during low water periods attract shorebirds. Look for songbirds in the woodlands around the campground. Grasslands around the reservoir will have a variety of grassland birds like dickcissels and lark sparrows.