Flights of Fancy

“The amazing birds of the Great Plains survive body-numbing cold, mind-numbing heat, and fly thousands of miles each year through unimaginable challenges.”

—Marian Langan, Executive Director, Audubon Nebraska

From the endemic prairie birds of the Sandhills, to the songbirds and raptors of Pine Ridge country, to the migrating waterfowl and shorebirds of the Niobrara and Platte river valleys, Nebraska’s avian diversity is enough to delight birders of all feathers.

The long-billed curlew in the poster is one of the continent’s largest shorebirds. The grassland bird spends its summers in the western Great Plains and winters in Mexico. The white-faced ibises flying over are the most common ibis found in the Great Plains.

For being land-locked, the Great Plains is full of water birds like loons, rails, grebes, terns, and many more types. At least 90 species of water birds have been found in the Great Plains. The meandering waterways and marshes of the Plains make for good birdwatching in every state.


Rainwater Basin Joint Venture

(308) 395-8586

The shallow playa wetlands of the Rainwater Basin in south central Nebraska attract millions of migratory birds each year — a birder’s dream come true. The 160-mile-wide region lies at the narrowest portion of the Central Flyway migration route, making it a gathering place for ducks, geese, and other water birds. Designated a Landscape of Hemispheric Importance for shorebirds, it’s possible to see over 40 species, including the Long-Billed Curlew (featured on the GPEC’s poster). The Rainwater Basin doesn’t have a visitor center, or a centralized location. Instead, visitors can download a Bird List and a Driving Tour Map to explore the area independently.

Crescent Lake Wildlife Refuge

(308) 762-4893
10630 Rd. 181
Ellsworth, Nebraska 69340

A well-kept secret in the Nebraska panhandle, the Crescent Lake National Wildlife Refuge consists of 45,818 acres of rolling sandhills, twenty-one lakes and numerous ponds resulting from the underground aquifer. According to the Fish and Wildlife Service, which manages the Refuge, as many as 20 bald eagles and over 200,000 waterfowl may concentrate in the area during fall migration. Over 275 bird species have been observed on the Refuge since 1975, including a wide variety of migrating shorebirds and passerines. In the summer months breeding ducks and geese populate the lakes, while Red-tailed hawks and Northern Harriers search the meadows for prey. The Refuge has a Bird List and a Calendar of Natural Events — great tools to help you plan your visit.

Nebraska Birding Trails

Nebraska Birding Trails is the ultimate online bird-watching guide to Nebraska. Extensively researched, the site describes 400 public-access birding sites. Visitors can search by geographic region, ecological region or by communities that surround the site. Great descriptions, regional bird checklists, and trails that connect various birding sites make exploring easy.

Chicken Dance Trail

(308) 995-4601
701 4th Avenue
Holdrege, NE 68949

The Chicken Dance Trail provides opportunities to see not just prairie chickens, but a multitude of other bird species in south central and southwestern Nebraska. The Chicken Dance Trail is not a physical location, but a website full of insider information about canyons, reservoirs, and creeks where you’re sure to spot the birds on your bucket list—as well as rural communities to explore along the way. The Chicken Dance Trail organizes the information into five birdwatching trails that travelers can take independently, at their own pace.

Spring Creek Prairie Audubon Center

This 850-acre tallgrass prairie nature preserve is located 20 minutes southwest of Lincoln. Visitors can enjoy miles of walking trails all year long, meandering through a landscape that includes ponds, wetlands and scenic vistas — along with a diverse assortment of birds and other wildlife. Spring Creek Prairie offers a variety of programs, from wildflower and bird walks to a firefly event to papermaking and basket weaving classes. There’s plenty for the whole family to enjoy.

Willa Cather Memorial Prairie

The Willa Cather Memorial Prairie is 612 acres of native mixed-grass prairie just outside of Red Cloud, Nebraska. According to the Willa Cather Foundation, which manages the prairie, it is the largest, never-been-plowed prairie in the six surrounding counties and home to 250 reliant plant species, including the rare Fremont’s evening primrose and Fendler’s aster. The Foundation offers a plant guide to the Prairie available at the Willa Cather Foundation in town. The Prairie is also recognized for it’s birding, associated with both the Nebraska Birding Trails and The Chicken Dance Trail. Nearly two miles of mowed walking trails make it possible for the public to get up close and personal with an abundance of plants and wildlife.

The Foundation says, “We see the preservation of the Prairie as part of a holistic approach to the study of America’s art, history and culture through the works of Willa Cather, who was a great champion of prairie lands.”

Rowe Sanctuary-Audubon

(308) 468-5282
44450 Elm Island Rd
Gibbon, NE 68840

Rowe Sanctuary is dedicated to the conservation of sandhill cranes, whooping cranes and other migratory birds and their habitat along the Platte River. Along with preserving habitat for wildlife, Audubon’s visitor center in south central Nebraska is a home-base for crane tourism and year-round nature-based education opportunities. Guided crane viewing is scheduled by reservation between March and early April.

The Crane Trust Nature & Visitor Center

(308) 382-1820
9325 South Alda Road 
Wood River, NE 68883

The Crane Trust is a non-profit organization dedicated to the protection and maintenance of critical habitat for whooping cranes, sandhills cranes and other migratory birds along the Big Bend Region of the Platte River Valley. The Trust operates the Nebraska Nature & Visitor Center, providing a regional gateway for community outreach and education. During crane season they offer visitors several different guided tours and access to private photo and viewing blinds along the river.

Loup Rivers Scenic Byway

More than a dozen gardens are underway along the Loup Rivers Scenic Byway, a mosaic of visually appealing, biodiverse habitats, carefully-planned to benefit the pollinators that benefit us in so many ways. Individuals and towns are in the process of certifying their gardens with the North American Butterfly Association and the Butterfly Byway will be launched for the public in Spring 2015. Check the Loup Rivers Scenic Byway website for a map and guide or call the Loup Basin Resource Conservation & Development office at (308) 346-3393.

Calamus Outfitters

(308) 346-4697
83720 Valley View Ave
Burwell, NE 68823

Calamus Outfitters is a family-owned business providing outdoor recreational activities for diverse kinds of tourists: from hunters, to serious birdwatchers to families who want to float down the river or lounge at the nearby Calamus Reservoir. The operation is located in the north central Nebraska Sandhills, near Burwell, right along the Calamus Reservoir, a prominent regional tourist attraction. They see a massive influx of monarchs when they migrate in the fall, which you can read about on our blog.

Uncle Buck’s Lodge

(308) 547-2210
455 Brewster Ave
Brewster, NE 68821

While visiting the lodge, experience the diverse ecosystem of the Sandhills grasslands, which supports a distinct population of plants and animals. Fields are filled with grasses and wildflowers, cacti and other desert plants, and lush marshes that buzz with birds, mammals, reptiles, amphibians and insects. Researchers have counted 134 different vertebrate species associated with a community of prairie dogs alone. Tours also include visits to historic sites, such as an authentic sod house, and how to prepare meals from plants gathered from the grasslands.

Big Blue Ranch

(402)-865-4335
70901 609th Avenue
Burchard, NE 68323

Big Blue Ranch is a place to enjoy the Great Plain’s wildlife and scenery on an operating cattle ranch. Along with tradiational hunting and fishing, ranch activities feature horseback riding, nature photography, and bird watching. It’s an especially great place to see the greater prairie chicken and blue herons. It’s a relaxing get away close to Lincoln, Omaha, and Kansas City. The ranch has been honored with a number of conservation awards including the Rangeland Conservation Award from the Lower Big Blue NRD. The open prairie, woodlands, and lakes are home to many species including coyote, bobcat, red squirrel, fox, and leopard frogs. The ranch’s owners, Billie Kay and Scott Bodie, have continuously worked to improve the sustainability and diversity of their pastures through rotational grazing, inter-seeding with beneficial species, and controlled burning.

Double R Guest Ranch

(866) 217-2042
86091 Double R Drive
Mullen, NE 69152

The drive to Double R Guest Ranch is along one of the most scenic and least populated stretches of highways in the state, Highway 97, connecting Mullen and Valentine. The property includes three big lakes and is a working cattle ranch. Owner, Pat Bridges is a knowledgable local guide. A number of buildings on the property include an old sod house, a restored one-room school house, a little store, stables, and a wooden cabin near a fishing lake. “At dusk the hills are alive with their deepest shades of green making early evening the best time to get the beautiful shadows on the hills, and to capture the clouds in all their glory. Activities include hunting, fishing, ice-fishing, hiking, bird-watching, star-gazing, horseback riding. Ask Pat to take you on an ATV ride in the hills!

Wachiska Audubon Society

Wachiska has several prairies under their management in southeast Nebraska, and they encourage visitors. They especially suggest Wildcat Prairie, 30.5 acres in Gage County, south-southwest of Virginia, Neb., as a particularly good spot for orange-red milkweed plants, which are especially good at attracting a range of butterflies.

High Plains Homestead

(308) 665-2592
263 Sandcreek Rd
Crawford, NE 69339

Driving along a dirt road in the high plains of northwestern Nebraska, High Plains Homestead appears like an oasis. The Old West outpost is located in the middle of the Oglala National Grasslands, an expanse of 90,000+ acres of African-like savannah. Owners Mike and Linda Kesselring are veterans of Nebraska tourism and after 16 years of business have seen a lot of repeat visitors—and for good reason. The couple works hard at it, embodying western hospitality and greeting all guests that come through the screen door like long-lost relatives.

High Plains Homestead includes a school house, saloon, mercantile, post office, jail, and blacksmith shop. Individual lodging is available. At the center of “town” life is the Drifter’s Cookshack, a restaurant featuring high-quality home-cooked meals.

Our Heritage Guest Ranch

(308) 665-2810
Toadstool Rd
Crawford, NE 69339

Our Heritage Guest Ranch is nestled in the foothills of the picturesque Pine Ridge. Owner Jean Norman is a fourth generation rancher with fifty years of experience and knowledge working in the Nebraska Panhandle. She organizes special experiences for her guests, including guided fossil digs, natural horsemanship training and multi-day horseback journeys. Her six-day Lakota journey is led by a tribal member who introduces groups to the plants and animals of the area as well as Lakota culture, astrology, traditional cooking and storytelling. Jean has shorter horseback expeditions as well, and also the option to participate in everyday ranch activities: fixing fence, haying, lambing and calving. Jean also makes beautiful art incorporating natural materials — ask her to tell you the story of the fence post, now bedpost, that saved her life in a blizzard! Activities include horseback riding, hiking, biking, fishing, stargazing, photography, and holistic health instruction.

American Prairie Reserve

(877) 273-1123
7 East Beall Street, Suite 100
Bozeman, MT 59715

American Prairie Reserve is a unique effort to build a nature reserve to conserve and restore the grasslands of Montana. The reserve is home to bison, prairie dogs, swift fox, many grassland bird species, and more species. The collaboration through state and federal agencies, ranching operations, and scientists is a great example of a multi-pronged approach to conservation. When complete, American Prairie Reserve will span more than three million acres of private and public land, showcasing the iconic landscape that once dominated central North America and helped shape our national character.

Homestead National Monument of America

(402) 223-3514
8523 West State Highway 4
Beatrice , NE 68310

The ongoing tallgrass prairie restoration at Homestead National Monument of America began in 1939. And though the restored prairie at the monument will never exactly repeat the original mix of plant and animals life, species composition does resemble that of presettlement times. Species include prairie grasses (big bluestem, little bluestem, Indiangrass, goldenrod) and a variety of birds, insects, and mammals.

Niobrara Riverview Retreats

(402) 376-2679
P.O. Box 414
Valentine, NE 69201

Steve Hanson and his family run Niobrara Riverview Retreats, a business that transforms their love for the outdoors into an experience to share with visitors. A former fisheries biologist in Alaska, Steve is an expert naturalist who can explain in detail the botany, geology, biology and ecology of his surroundings. Niobrara Riverview Retreats borders two miles of the Niobrara River. It includes hiking trails and a 25-acre marsh, appropriate for canoeing and catch and release fishing. The Valentine National Wildlife Refuge is only 15 miles away, a stunning landscape of over 30 sandhills lakes spread out across 70,000+ acres with 260 identified bird species spotted. The ranch is just miles from Ft. Valentine National Wildlife Refuge. Activities include tubing, canoeing, guided nature walks, orienteering, overnight stabling and horseback riding.

Sheep Wagon Hideouts

(308) 432-5954
61 Country Club Road
Chadron, NE 69337

In their hay day, sheepwagons were simple mobile homes for sheepherders living amongst their flocks in the open rangelands of the western United States. They’ve all but disappeared from use, but thanks to Jim and Lora O’Rourke — rangeland scientists, ranchers and sheepwagon collectors — you can wake up in one of these Old West wagons, tucked into the hills of Ponderosa pine. The O’Rourkes run RuJoDen Ranch and are international range management experts. They accept a limited number of visitors, providing nature walks, historical land use discussions and demonstrations of sustainable grazing practices.

 

Know of an ecotourist-friendly place in the Great Plains to see birds? Email us at cgps@unl.edu