The pine-covered hills and escarpments of the western Panhandle remind one of the Black Hills, and about 3.5 percent of the region’s land is covered by wooded habitats or forests.
Several pine-adapted species that are common in the Black Hills occur only in the northwestern corner of Nebraska, such as Lewis’ woodpecker, pinyon jay, dark-eyed junco, western tanager, yellow-rumped warbler, Swainson’s thrush, solitary vireo, red-breasted nuthatch and red crossbill. Some of these same western species as well as the violet-green swallow, white-throated swift and pygmy nuthatch also occur in the pine forests of the Scottsbluff area and the Wildcat Hills (both in Scotts Bluff County). However, the canyon-adapted cordilleran flycatcher and plumbeous vireo are seemingly found only in Sowbelly and Monroe canyons (Sioux County). North Platte National Wildlife Refuge (Scotts Bluff County) is a major migration staging area for waterfowl.
The Panhandle region also has over 5.6 million acres of grassland, which supports a few quite localized short-grass or arid plains species such as the McCown’s and chestnut-collared longspurs and mountain plovers. Country roads very close to the Wyoming border (between Henry and Hemmingford) are the best places for finding these birds. A few sage-adapted species, including the sage thrasher and the Brewer’s sparrow, are also local possibilities.
This region includes the point of highest elevation in the state (Panorama Point, at over 5,400 feet, in Kimball County), and is one of the better areas for seeking mountain plovers. Other typical open-country Panhandle birds include the prairie falcon, ferruginous hawk, golden eagle, merlin, Say’s phoebe, western wood-pewee, Cassin’s kingbird, pinyon jay, rock wren, and McCown’s longspur, while the mountain bluebird, yellow-rumped warbler, western tanager, and pygmy nuthatch are more woods-adapted.
The area around Lake McConaughy (Keith County) has one of the very few local bird lists exceeding 325 reported species for any site north of Mexico. About 75 miles northwest of Lake McConaughy is Crescent Lake National Wildlife Refuge (Garden County), a wilderness refuge in the western Sandhills, having the second-largest local bird list for the state, with 273 species. Additionally, hundreds of highly saline Sandhills marshes that abound with waterfowl and marshland birds are present in northern Garden County and southern Sheridan County, and provide wonderful roadside viewing opportunities from car windows.
Paul A. Johnsgard