Central Sandhills Trail


This region mostly consists of the Nebraska Sandhills. It represents the largest natural ecosystem in the state, covering about 19,000 square miles, or almost a quarter of the state.

The Nebraska Sandhills represent the largest remaining grassland ecosystem in the country that is still virtually intact both faunistically and floristically. Included within this vast region are Crescent Lake (Garden County), Fort Niobrara (Cherry County) and Valentine (Cherry County) National Wildlife Refuges.   At Crescent Lake and Valentine refuges the nesting water and marsh birds include American bittern, black-crowned night heron, upland sandpiper, long-billed curlew, American avocet, Wilson’s phalarope, eared, western, Clark’s and pied-billed grebes, Virginia and sora rails, American coot, black and Forster’s terns, Canada goose and nearly a dozen species of ducks. There are also burrowing and short-eared owls, Bell’s and warbling vireos, and red-winged and yellow-headed blackbirds.

Crescent Lake adds cinnamon teal, lesser scaup, black-necked stilt, white-faced ibis, and swamp sparrow to the breeding mix of ducks and shoreline birds. Valentine has breeding greater prairie-chicken, red-headed woodpecker, eastern screech-owl, eastern and mountain bluebirds, gray catbird, lazuli bunting, song sparrow and chestnut-collared longspur.

Fort Niobrara has in turn slightly different and more riparian forest mix that includes turkey vulture, wild turkey, western wood-pewee, eastern phoebe, white-breasted nuthatch, rock wren, northern mockingbird, American redstart, ovenbird, yellow-breasted chat, scarlet tanager, spotted towhee, Savannah sparrow and pine siskin

There is also the Nebraska National Forest, Bessey Division (Thomas County) and the Samuel R. McKelvie Division of the Nebraska National Forest (Cherry County), both of which are planted pine forests in the heart of Sandhills grasslands. Conifer-adapted species such as red crossbills occur here, far from their usual montane haunts, and many migrating warblers and thrushes regularly stop here during spring and fall migrations.

Many Nebraska waterbirds and shorebirds nest almost only in the Sandhills wetlands, such as the American wigeon, canvasback, redhead, ruddy duck, common snipe, Forster’s tern, marsh wren and swamp sparrow. In the wet meadows and rush-lined marshes that lie between the rolling sand dunes a rich variety of water birds and shoreline birds is present, such as willet, American bittern, red-winged and yellow-headed blackbirds, black and Forster’s terns, pied-billed and eared grebes, Canada goose, trumpeter swan and several species of ducks.

The highly alkaline marshes of the western Sandhills (Garden and Sheridan counties) are outstanding birding sites for marsh birds, including several rarities such as cinnamon teal, black-necked stilt and white-faced ibis, as well as the more common American avocet, willet, Wilson’s phalarope, eared grebe and black-crowned night heron. Driving in the Sandhills requires special care, as food and gas supplies are often far apart, there is very little traffic to rely on for possible assistance, and many Sandhills “roads” are basically unmarked ranch trails. It is also very easy for one’s vehicle to become stuck in sand unless care is taken while driving and when parking on bare sand. A good state atlas is often needed for finding some of the Sandhills birding areas mentioned here.

Near Grand Island greater prairie-chickens can be found, and farther west sharp-tailed grouse are equally likely to be seen and heard, especially near sunrise during the spring courtship season. Typical grassland birds such as long-billed curlews, upland sandpipers, horned larks, short-eared owls, northern harriers, lark sparrows, grasshopper sparrows and vesper sparrows are all possibly seen throughout the Sandhills region.
Paul A. Johnsgard