Loess Canyons

Johnson Lake

WaterfordThere’s something I don’t know, invigorating about early morning in Nebraska. The air is clean and bracing with the scent of sage and water and things growing. As we load the car with binoculars, cameras, water, guidebooks and other necessities for the day’s adventure, the sun is just coming up over Johnson Lake, one of a number of surprisingly beautiful lakes in this part of Nebraska. The air is alive with bird calls, some familiar, some strange and exotic.

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Elwood Reservoir

Elwood ReservoirWe skirt around the lake to the north and east and pick up U.S. 283 south to Elwood, a town with its own water feature – the Elwood Reservoir – nearby. Elwood is just waking up when we roll through, turning west on Nebraska 23 toward Eustis.

The area around Eustis is studded with deep, winding canyons and spectacular views of sky, canyon and tablelands.

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East, Middle and West Canyons

TurkeyStraight south on Eustis’ main street, across the railroad tracks, the paving quickly gives way to gravel and within a few moments we reach a fork in the road.There are three sparsely-populated canyons south of Eustis – imaginatively named East Canyon, Middle Canyon and West Canyon – providing a range of habitat and a wide variety of birds at almost any time of the year.

We head first toward West Canyon. Before we’ve driven a hundred yards, we make a sighting common in this area but rare elsewhere: wild turkey. A flock of about eight hens and toms cross the road unconcernedly in front of us. Populations of these North American natives were seriously threatened in the 19th and early 20th Century, but stocking programs have been successful and populations are on the rise.

In the spring of each year this is good havitat for the Greater Prairie Chicken. When it’s still, you can hear them a long way off, as much as a mile. Just get out of your car and listen for the call – it’s a very distinctive booming sound – and follow the sound back to where they are.

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Farm Ponds and Abandoned Properties

Farm PondsAbout five miles down the West Canyon road, you’ll start to see farm ponds, which are often great habitat for migrating water fowl and shore birds. We stop near one and see a small flock of mallards feeding and resting, but it’s not uncommon to see teal, coot, common goldeneye and many other species in this area, depending on the time of year. Since most of the ponds are on private land it’s good etiquette to ask permission of the landowner before venturing off the road.

We branch off down a narrower side road and drive down to a creek bottom thick with giant cottonwood trees. These big deciduous trees growing along creek bottoms are a great place to look for cavity dwellers such as bluebirds, barn owls, shrikes, wood ducks and woodpeckers. The plum thickets in the barrow pits are also often good places for bird watching, with the birds almost right at eye level.

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Restoring Bluebird Habitat

BluebirdOn the way back toward Eustis, now in East and West Canyons are some of the 32 bluebird boxes built, installed and monitored for Bluebirds Across Nebraska. BAN is an organization of bird enthusiasts who work to restore habitat lost to bluebirds when trees are cut down for development and once-wooden fence posts are replaced with metal stakes.

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Eustis to Morefield

CoyoteWe head west out of Eustis, again on Nebraska 23, and watch for coyotes and deer from the road.

At Moorefield, we turn right on Ash Street (the second of the two north-bound streets) and cross the railroad tracks and take a right at the fork in order to stay on the Brady-Moorefield Road.

Moorefield to Jeffrey Lake

Jeffrey LakeAlthough the pavement soon ends, this, too is a well-maintained gravel road, winding north through some of Nebraska’s most appealing landscape. Here there are rolling hills dotted with cedar and intermittent stands of big deciduous cottonwood, ash and elm.

Indigo Buntings, Black-headed Grosbeaks, Say’s Phoebes, Bells Vireos and Yellowbreasted Chats breed in the Loess Canyons. We drive slowly, pulling off on the few side roads to get out and listen and look, spotting a bluebird and some tree swallows.  Eventually we realize we have reached the southern shores of Jeffrey Lake, one of several manmade lakes in the region built to provide water for irrigation.

A little farther along, however, we find the turnoff we’ve been promised, leading up the hill on the north side of the lake to a set of cabins and a lodge, once operated as the hydroelectric administrative offices for the Central Nebraska Public Power & Irrigation District which still owns them. Here we have unrestricted vistas of this beautiful body of water and the tree-lined bluffs surrounding it.

On a floating snag a hundred yards off shore, we can see six or eight cormorants drying their wings before preparing for another feeding dive. This is also a terrific vantage point to see many other sorts of waterfowl, wading birds and shorebirds. Behind the lodge is a dam controlling the lake water and dropping it off into Central’s Tri-County Canal.

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Jeffrey Lake to Brady

After leaving Jeffrey Lake, we travel a few more miles north, crossing the Interstate to Brady. Here we meet Mark Peyton, a naturalist for the Central Irrigation District who’s agreed to show us some of his favorite bird watching sites in the region.

Maxwell and Ft. McPherson

Ft. McPhersonMark leads us west on U.S. Highway 30 – the famous Lincoln Highway, the first paved road uniting the nation – to Maxwell, where we turn south on Road 56A, known locally as Ft. McPherson Road. In a short while, this leads us to the gates of Ft. McPherson National Cemetery, the only National Cemetery in Nebraska.

Originally a fort built to protect railroad workers and settlers from Indians, the Ft. McPherson National Cemetery was established on the grounds of Ft. McPherson as part of the military reservation in 1873. Because many forts and military cemeteries were deteriorating, Ft. McPherson National Cemetery was chosen as a re-internment site for many veterans of the Civil War as well as soldiers who died in the Indian Wars. There are many fascinating stories among its 7,643 residents, and it’s worth a few minute’s stop whether as a birder or amateur historian.

From the cemetery, we turn south to Cottonwood Road and quickly find ourselves in more of the scenic cedar-studded hills and canyons, with only occasional farmsteads along the way.

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Wapiti Wildlife Management Area

Wapiti WMAA few miles south on Cottonwood Road leads us to the fork of Cottonwood and Effenbeck Roads. Cottonwood hugs the canyon floor and Effenbeck climbs into the uplands, which is the way we choose to go.

Just a mile or so south of the fork, Mark points to a small sign on the west side of the road stating “Access to Public Hunting Area”. Look sharp, because for now, that’s the only sign you’ll see leading you to the Wapiti Wildlife Management area.

From Effenbeck, the road is steep and rutted. Still, after winding through about three miles of easement through private land, we come to a small sign and an end to the fences. We found ourselves walking around on a high plateau with views in all directions. Mark tells us Wapiti is one of only three elk hunting areas in Nebraska and an ideal place to bring your spotting scope and a picnic lunch, especially to look for various hawks, vultures and eagles. Rock Wrens, Black-headed Grosbeaks, Say’s Phoebe and many others are found here.

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The birds of central and western Nebraska:

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Avocet, American
Avocet, American
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Bittern, American
American Bittern.
Bittern, American
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Blackbird, Brewer's
Brewer's Blackbird
Blackbird, Brewer's
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Blackbird, Red-winged
Photo by Don Brockmeier.
Blackbird, Red-winged
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Blackbird, Rusty
Blackbird, Rusty
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Blackbird, Yellow-headed
Yellow-headed Blackbird.
Blackbird, Yellow-headed
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Bluebird, Eastern
Photo by Don Brockmeier.
Bluebird, Eastern
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Bluebird, Mountain
Bluebird, Mountain
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Bobolink
Bobolink.
Bobolink
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Bufflehead
Bufflehead Duck
Bufflehead
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Bunting, Indigo
Indigo Bunting.
Bunting, Indigo
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Bunting, Lark
Lark Bunting
Bunting, Lark
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Bunting, Painted
Bunting, Painted
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Bunting, Snow
Bunting, Snow
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Bunting,Lazuli
Lazuli Bunting.
Bunting,Lazuli
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Canvasback
Canvasback.
Canvasback
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Cardinal, Northern
Cardinal, Northern
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Catbird, Gray
Catbird, Gray
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Chat, Yellow-breasted
Chat, Yellow-breasted
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Chickadee, Black-capped
Black-capped Chickadee.
Chickadee, Black-capped
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Coot, American
American Coot.
Coot, American
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Cormorant, Double-crested
Double-crested Cormorant.
Cormorant, Double-crested
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Cowbird, Brown-headed
Cowbird, Brown-headed
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Crane, Sandhill
Sandhill Crane.
Crane, Sandhill
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Crane, Whooping
Crane, Whooping
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Creeper, Brown
Creeper, Brown
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Crossbill, Red
Crossbill, Red
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Crossbill, White-winged
Crossbill, White-winged
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Crow, American
American Crow.
Crow, American
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Cuckoo, Black-billed
Cuckoo, Black-billed
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Cuckoo, Yellow-billed
Cuckoo, Yellow-billed
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Curlew, Long-billed
Long-billed Cerlew.
Curlew, Long-billed
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Dickcissel
Dickcissel
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Dove, Eurasian Collared
Dove, Eurasian Collared
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Dove, Mourning
Photo by Don Brockmeier.
Dove, Mourning
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Dove, Rock
Rock Dove.
Dove, Rock
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Dowitcher, Long-billed
Dowitcher, Long-billed
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Dowitcher, Short-billed
Short-billed Dowitcher.
Dowitcher, Short-billed
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Duck, American Black
Duck, American Black
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Duck, Black-bellied Whistling
Duck, Black-bellied Whistling
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Duck, Gadwall
Gadwall Duck.
Duck, Gadwall
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Duck, Garganey
Duck, Garganey
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Duck, Mallard
Mallard.
Duck, Mallard
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Duck, Ring-necked
Duck, Ring-necked
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Duck, Ruddy
Duck, Ruddy
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Duck, Wood
Wood Duck.
Duck, Wood
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Dunlin
Dunlin
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Eagle, Bald
Bald Eagle. Photo courtesy of Don Brockmeier.
Eagle, Bald
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Eagle, Golden
Golden Eagle.
Eagle, Golden
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Egret, Cattle
Egret, Cattle

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