Missouri Valley Trail

Missouri River, Niobrara State Park
Missouri River, Niobrara State Park
Indian Cave State Park
Indian Cave State Park

This region is a land whose eastern portions were scraped-over and re-shaped by glaciers, and which later was mantled by tall-grass prairies and riparian deciduous forests with eastern biogeographic affinities. It is bounded to the east by the Missouri River, which is now mostly channeled and much degraded, although some stretches provide a faint idea of what the river once was like.

The Missouri Valley is still a major migratory pathway, not only for arctic-breeding waterfowl such as snow geese, which alone now number over a million birds using this narrow flyway, but also myriads of forest-adapted Neotropic migrants, especially warblers and vireos. Remnant stands of mature deciduous forest still exist at Rulo Bluffs Preserve and Indian Cave State Park, both in Richardson County, These are among the best places that can be visited in early May to see these wonderful birds as they journey north to breeding grounds in the Upper Midwest and southern Canada.

Fontenelle Forest Preserve in Bellevue (Sarpy County) and Neale Woods Nature Center (Douglas & Washington counties), both near Omaha, provide similar Missouri Valley forest habitats. Neale Woods Nature Center, situated astride the boundary of Washington and Douglas counties, has a bird checklist of 190 species. Schramm State Park (Sarpy County), Eugene T. Mahoney State Park (Cass County) and Platte River State Park (Cass County) offer similar hardwood forest habitats along the lower Platte River.

A primary birding attraction in the central part of this region is DeSoto National Wildlife Refuge, near Blair (Washington County), established around an oxbow lake (DeSoto Bend) that was formed by an isolated loop of the Missouri River. The refuge has a bird list of 240 species, and spectacular fall migrations of waterfowl, especially snow geese. Boyer Chute National Wildlife Refuge (Washington County), located near DeSoto N.W.R, is a good example of the wildlife values provided by newly restored Missouri Valley riparian habitats. Its birds are still largely undocumented, but should be similar to those of DeSoto.

This area is rich in Lewis & Clark history, and people who are both birders and American history buffs may want to visit Fort Atkinson (Washington County), the “Council Bluff” site of Lewis and Clark’s first council with Native Americans, as well as a recently completed interpretive center in Sioux City with some natural history information. There is also a new nature-oriented Lewis & Clark interpretive center in Nebraska City (Otoe County), where birding is possible on the wooded 80-acre site overlooking the Missouri River and the more distant Iowa loess hills.

Nebraska breeders that are largely limited to the forested Missouri Valley are the American woodcock, barred owl, chuck-will’s widow, whip-poor-will, ruby-throated hummingbird, yellow-throated vireo, tufted titmouse, blue-gray gnatcatcher, Louisiana waterthrush, Kentucky warbler, summer tanager and scarlet tanager. Wooded habitats birding is possible at historic Arbor Lodge State Historical Park, in Nebraska City.

Waubonsie State Park is located across the river on the steep loess hills lining the east side of the Missouri Valley (off Iowa State Highway 275). These are the “bald-pated hills” as described by Lewis & Clark, having now mostly grown up to mature hardwood forest with only small remnant tallgrass prairies remaining on south-facing slopes. More than 100 bird species are believed to nest in the loess hills, including Iowa’s densest breeding populations of the turkey vulture, American kestrel, Bell’s vireo, orchard oriole, chuck-wills-widow, and summer tanager. The most common nesting species in Iowa’s Loess Hills region include the brown-headed cowbird, northern cardinal, brown thrasher, house wren, mourning dove, American crow, blue jay and red-headed woodpecker

Many eastern or southeastern wooded habitats songbirds occur and breed locally in southeastern Nebraska, including the Kentucky, cerulean, yellow-throated, northern parula, and prothonotary warblers, the Louisiana waterthrush, and the red-shouldered and broad-winged hawks. Furthermore, chuck-will’s-widows nest in the wooded habitats bordering the southeastern corner of the state, and pileated woodpeckers sometimes also nest here, making it an area of special interest to birders.
Paul A. Johnsgard