Sandsage and Shortgrass Trail


The area around Kingsley Dam and its reservoir, Lake McConaughy (Keith County), has one of the very few local bird lists exceeding 325 reported species for any site north of Mexico.

Lake McConaughy is one of the few Nebraska sites where breeding Clark’s as well as western grebes are likely to be seen, and the riverine forests along the North Platte River have dense populations of nesting songbirds, including hybridizing Bullock’s and Baltimore orioles, lazuli and indigo buntings, and black-headed and rose-breasted grosbeaks. The cliff swallow population here is one of the densest and best-studied in the country; over 130,000 have been banded near Cedar Point Biological Station (0.5 mile east of Kingsley Dam; visits require permission) over the past few decades.

About 75 miles northwest of Kingsley Dam (and 30 miles north of Oshkosh, the last opportunity for getting gas and food) 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. Crescent Lake and the numerous nearby refuge marshes and lakes support dozens of species of nesting water birds and shoreline birds. Shoreline and water birds include double-crested cormorant, pied-billed, eared, western and Clark’s grebes, white-faced ibis, American avocet, Wilson’s phalarope, black-necked stilt, black-crowned night heron, willet, and many others. Good populations of ruddy ducks, redheads, canvasbacks, and many surface-feeding ducks are present, including occasional cinnamon teal and sometimes trumpeter swans.

The remote and little-visited portion of southwestern Nebraska contains the state’s last remaining stands of sandsage prairie. Rock Creek State Recreation Area is one of the few sites that protects the sandsage habitat. Some of the typical birds of this sandy grassland community are the lark bunting, McCown’s longspur, Brewer’s sparrow, and mountain plover. The last two of these are now quite rare in Nebraska, and usually require hard searching. The Cassin’s sparrow is also a marginal species that appears during some years, especially during drought years in the Southwest. Relatively little natural habitat is left here now, pivot irrigation has transformed most of the lands and little native grassland left.
Paul A. Johnsgard