Niobrara Valley Trail


Keya Paha County Prairie
Keya Paha County Prairie

This portion of the state includes two of the very best bird-finding localities in the state, namely Valentine and Fort Niobrara National Wildlife Refuges (both in Cherry County). These two locations have bird lists (221 and 201 species respectively, and with 93 and 76 respective breeding species) that are among the largest in the state, with a combination of eastern, western and widespread species.

In addition to Valentine and Fort Niobrara refuges, the region includes those parts of the Niobrara Valley that lies in the middle of the transition zone between the Rocky Mountain coniferous forest and eastern deciduous forest biogeographic regions. This biological transition zone includes areas of hybridization between several bird species or incipient pairs of species that are now in overlapping contact, after having been isolated geographically for much of the Pleistocene geologic period.

The central Niobrara Valley also includes some isolated populations of plants and animals that have survived in the cool canyons since the end of the last glaciation about 10,000 years ago. The ecological transition zone between eastern and western faunas and floras is very wide in the Platte and other Great Plains prairie rivers to the south, but is compressed to a distance of less than 100 miles in the Niobrara Valley. Most of this transition zone is now included within the boundaries of the Fort Niobrara National Wildlife Refuge (Cherry County) and the Nature Conservancy’s adjoining Niobrara Valley Preserve (mostly located in Brown County).

The 76-mile Niobrara National Scenic River is also present in this region, and includes the Fort Niobrara National Wildlife Refuge, the Niobrara Valley Preserve, and Smith Falls State Park (Cherry County), which has the highest waterfall in Nebraska.

Merritt Reservoir is nearby, and together with the adjoining Nebraska National Forest provides for excellent birding opportunities. Both sharp-tailed grouse and greater prairie chickens occur here, providing one of the few places in the nation where both can be observed fairly easily, especially during spring display.

The Niobrara Valley also supports breeding populations of several eastern wooded habitats species that are otherwise mostly limited to Nebraska’s Missouri Valley, including the wood thrush, black-and-white warbler, American redstart, ovenbird and scarlet tanager. Western or northern species that occur in the central Niobrara Valley include the red-breasted nuthatch, chestnut-collared longspur, black -headed grosbeak, Bullock’s oriole, red crossbill, lazuli bunting and spotted towhee, but these are all more likely to be seen along the Panhandle Trail.

The western half of the Niobrara Valley passes through the northern portions of the Nebraska Sandhills, and continues into the ridge-and-canyon Pine Ridge country of Sioux and Dawes counties. The northern portions of Sioux and Dawes counties include the 95,000-acre Oglala National Grassland, where black-tailed prairie dogs, burrowing owls, golden eagles, and other typical shortgrass species occur. Similar habitats occur at Agate Fossil Beds National Monument (Sioux County), where 20-million-year-old fossil deposits provide a spectacular view into the Miocene life of the Great Plains, and where many high plains birds such as lark buntings and McCown’s and chestnut-collared longspurs can also be seen. The upper Niobrara Valley is an important wintering area for raptors such as the prairie falcon, and several open-country buteos such as the ferruginous hawk, Swainson’s hawk and rough-legged hawk are present at various times during the year. Open grassland birds may also be seen at Fort Robinson State Park (Sioux County), and in the vicinity of Box Butte Dam (Box Butte County) and its associated reservoir, where prairie dogs and their associated shortgrass birds are still common.

The Pine Ridge division of the Nebraska National Forest (Dawes County) and Chadron State Park (Dawes County) offer great birding for coniferous forest species. The Pine Ridge region (see description under the Panhandle Trail) has many western species not found elsewhere in Nebraska but occur in the Black Hills, such as the cordilleran flycatcher, pinyon jay, Lewis’ woodpecker, plumbeous vireo, the white-winged race of the dark-eyed junco, and others. There are also visually and acoustically confusing populations of hybrid mountain and eastern bluebirds, and of lazuli and indigo buntings.

The Soldier Creek Wilderness area (Sioux County) provides great on-foot birding and hiking for more energetic birders, especially for western species such as Lewis’ woodpecker in burned-over pine forests. The Gilbert-Baker Wildlife Management Area (Sioux County) is even more likely to turn up distinctly western birds, such as pinyon jay, Townsend’s solitaire, Clark’s nutcracker, green-tailed towhee, red-naped sapsucker, Townsend’s warbler and McGillivray’s warbler.

Along the upper Niobrara Valley several western or northern bird species extend eastwardly, including the common poorwill, red-breasted nuthatch, western wood-pewee, spotted towhee, black-headed grosbeak, lazuli bunting and Bullock’s oriole. All but the first two of these might hybridize with eastern relatives along this valley corridor, their often confusing offspring making bird identification especially challenging in this region.
Paul A. Johnsgard