The central Platte Valley and nearby Rainwater Basin provides some of the best spring birding opportunities in all of North America; for most of March about seven million waterfowl and nearly half a million sandhill cranes pour into the region, remaining until late March in the case of the waterfowl and about the second week of April in the case of the sandhill cranes.
The best way to watch cranes during the day is observing them field-feeding from a parked car, with observers remaining quiet and inside the car. Opening a door and leaving the car will guarantee a rapid departure of the birds. Gravel roads on the south side of the Platte River are usually better than those on the north side of Interstate 80. The most rewarding way to watch cranes is from riverside blinds near roosting locations. Such blinds are maintained by the Whooping Crane Trust on Mormon Island (Hall County; reservations required; cost $20 per person, contact Crane Meadows Nature Center (308/382-1820 or 888/382-1820 see below), at the Audubon Society’s Lillian Rowe Sanctuary near Gibbon, (Kearney County; cost $20 per person, for reservations phone 303/468-5282), and possibly the Fort Kearney State Historical Park near Kearney (Kearney County; phone 308/865-5305).
If it is not possible to arrange a blind viewing, several bridges such as the hike-bike trail bridge near Fort Kearney or the observation platforms (“NRD viewing sites”) located beside the highway bridges over the middle Platte channel near Alda (Hall County; located about 2 miles south of I-80 exit 305) and Gibbon (Kearney County; located about 1.5 miles south of I-80 exit 285) provide free viewing opportunities, both at sunset and sunrise.
Birding in the central Platte Valley during March is a chancy affair in terms of weather; late winter snowstorms may blanket the entire area in a foot of snow, which when melting leaves country roads slippery at best, and thus driving requires a good deal of care. This is especially true in the Rainwater Basin, an area directly south of the Platte Valley, with clay soils that prevent water from percolating down and draining away. It is thus rich in temporary seasonal wetlands (locally called “lagoons”) just at the peak of spring waterfowl populations. This occurs only during years when winter snowfalls or spring rains allow the nearly impermeable playa basins to fill. In drier years only the deepest lagoons or those that are kept wet by pumping can accommodate the hordes of ducks and geese passing through.
The Rainwater Basin area is just as attractive as the Platte Valley during early spring, at least after wet winters, when snow meltwaters accumulate in the lowlands and an estimated 7-9 million ducks and 2-3 million geese pass through. These flocks include 90 percent of the mid-continental greater white-fronted goose population, 50 percent of the mid-continental mallard population, and 30 percent of the entire continent’s northern pintail population. Increasing numbers of snow geese also use the more easterly parts of the area each spring, the numbers recently exceeding a million birds. Some of the shallower wetlands such as Harvard, Smith’s and Massie Waterfowl Production Areas (WPA), are also of great importance to migrant shorebirds.. The region may be of hemispheric migratory importance to the very localized buff-breasted sandpiper, which stages during spring in various native grassland and agricultural sites around the eastern Rainwater Basin, especially in York County.
A regional bird checklist, with nearly 200 species including over 100 breeding species, is available from the Kearney (Rainwater Basin) office of the USFWS, 2610 Ave. Q, Kearney 68848 (308/236-5015). The Kearney office of the Nebraska Game & Parks Commission is located at 1617 First Ave, Kearney (308/865-5310). The Audubon Society’s Rivers & Wildlife celebration, held in Kearney during mid-March of every year, has many expert speakers and field trips, and is also a highly educational event (call 308/468-5282 for information).
The abundant waterfowl and fish populations of the Platte Valley attract many wintering bald eagles, hundreds of which occur along ice-free areas of the Platte from late fall until early spring. A good viewing area for these birds is at the J-2 Hydro Plant near Lexington (Gosper County). This area is open to the public on Saturdays and Sundays from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. with weekday reservations possible for groups (call 308/995-860l for information). Another good central-Platte birding site is Sutherland Reservoir (Lincoln County), sometimes called the “gull capitol” of western Nebraska. At least six rare species of gulls have been sighted here, and it is a major spring staging area for migrating geese.
Information on crane viewing and accommodations can be obtained from the Kearney Visitors Center (308/652-9435 in state; 800/227-8340 out-of-state), the Grand Island Visitors Bureau (800/658-3178 or 308/382-4400), or the Hastings/Adams County Visitors Bureau, 100 N. Shore Dr, Hastings (800/967-2189 or 402/461-2370). The Hastings Museum (14th St. & Burlington Highway, 402/46l-4629) and the Stuhr Museum at the southern edge of Grand Island along U.S. Route 34 (308/385-5316) both provide tourist information and sell informative books or pamphlets on local tourist attractions. The Nebraska Game & Parks Commission (308/865-5310 in Kearney, 402/471-0641 in Lincoln, or PO Box 30370, Lincoln 68503) can provide free informative materials.
The Central Nebraska Wildlife Viewing Guide, published yearly by cooperating agencies and distributed free at many tourist outlets and nature centers, provides excellent birding information and regional maps. Visitors to the Platte Valley are urged to dress warmly, drive carefully over the narrow and sometimes slippery roads, and be prepared for rain, snow, and possibly even tornadoes, in recent year’s tornadoes have struck as early as mid-March, and in one case killed tens of thousands of snow geese near York.
Paul A. Johnsgard