Rainwater Basin

Holdrege

Holdrege, NEPhelps and Kearney Counties are deep inside one of the most unique and fertile bird watching regions of the entire country: the central migratory flyway passing through Nebraska’s Rainwater Basin. Each year, some ten million waterfowl and other birds of all types drop down into this area to feed and restore their depleted reserves in preparation for the next leg of their migration north.

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Sandhill Cranes and so much more

Sandhill CraneWe need to get something straight right away. You’ve probably heard of this area in terms of the annual sandhill crane migration. It is unquestionably a magnificent site when these beautiful creatures along with millions of ducks and geese pass through the central Platte River Valley and Rainwater Basin in February, March and April. After you have experienced the world’s largest concentration of these ancient birds, we invite you to experience spotting some of the 257 other varieties of birds that visit and live in this part of the world.

The Rainwater Basin refers to a network of wetlands covering some 4,200 square miles of south and central Nebraska. In good years, these shallow basins fill up with rainwater and snowmelt early in the spring and provide a fertile breeding ground for invertebrates. This, combined with seeds and tubers from the wetlands and waste crops from the thousands of acres of surrounding corn, soybean and wheat fields provide an ideal diet for a wide variety of migrating birds.

But depending on what you’re looking for, spring isn’t the only time for good birding in the Rainwater Basin area.

Lake Seldom

Lake SeldomDuring early spring, see the migrating waterfowl at Lake Seldom and shore birds picking at snails and other crustaceans in the mudflats.  Lake Seldom is located in Phelps County on the south edge of Holdrege. Late spring and into summer, birdwatchers walk the trails to see a chat, western king birds, marsh wrens, killdeer, a black-crowned night heron, blue-winged teal, rough winged swallows, common terns and pheasants amongst the red winged blackbirds and other wetlands species.

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The Road to Sacramento-Wilcox and Sacramento Wildlife Management Area

Sacramento-Wilcox WMAFrom Holdrege, we head east on U.S. 6 and 34 and a mile or so out of town turn right on Brewster Road, cross the railroad tracks and turn left on Polyline Road, named for a now-defunct railroad company, angling southeast.

At S Road, you pass by what’s left of the tiny settlement of Sacramento.

Approximately 2 miles along, at V Road, we see a sign indicating that the entrance to the Sacramento-Wilcox State Wildlife Management Area is off to our right half a mile.

Sacramento-Wilcox is fairly large as these preserves go, and a great place to get out and walk around. The habitat is varied, with a mixture of forested shelterbelts, short and long-grass meadows, shrubs and wetlands. In non-migratory season, it’s as great a place to look for some of our permanent residents, such as harrier hawks, prairie falcon and northern flicker. This would also be a place for a sharp-eyed birder to spot great horned or eastern screech owls.

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Prairie Dog WPA

Prairie DogIn this part of Nebraska, there are basically three types of public lands pertinent to birding: State Wildlife Management Areas (SWMAs), Federal Waterfowl Production Areas (WPAs), and State Recreation Areas (SRAs).

To get to the Prairie Dog WPA, we drive through Wilcox (it doesn’t take long) and turn north on State Highway 44. About three miles north of town, turn right on D Road. In another mile, you’re at the southwest corner of Prairie Dog WPA, and as you drive around it, you’ll notice fenced off parking lots with access to the interior.

On the east side of the area, we find the “dog town” for which this particular WPA was named. Although all the prairie dogs disappear when we stop, when we stay still and remain in the car, they begin to pop their heads out of their burrows, and soon the air is filled with their whistling calls. Burrowing owls frequently use unoccupied prairie dog dens for their nests, and although we don’t see any owls today, we’re told they can be spotted here.

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Funk Lagoon

Snow GooseThe Funk Waterfowl Production Area (WPA) is one of the largest Waterfowl Production Areas in Nebraska. The wetland and grassland prairie ecosystem provides habitat for diverse native plants and animals.  Thousands of snow geese, white-fronted geese, Canada geese and nearly every duck species traveling north through Nebraska stop at the WPA to scavenge for leftover grain in the nearby corn fields and to rest prior to their long trip north.  The Funk Peterson Wildlife Trail, a 3-mile backcountry loop trail in the Funk WPA was designated as a National Recreation Trail in 2008.  Endangered species such as whooping cranes also utilize this WPA making the Funk Peterson Trail a unique and excellent visitor opportunity.

Along the 3 mile backcountry loop trail, you can find a scenic viewpoint, interpretive signs, a handicap accessible wildlife viewing/hunting blind, a 650 foot concrete walkway with tracks imbedded from the local wildlife, and a 150 foot boardwalk that extends into the wetland, that will allow you to get a little closer to nature. Activities include hiking, photography, hunting, and educational opportunities.

To get there, start at Funk and drive north on T road about 3 miles.  See a sign designating the Wild Life Management Area.  Turn east for approximately 1 mile and see interpretive signs and the trail map.

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Axtell and Mosiac

MosiacMosaic is a large charitable organization in support of people with disabilities. Its facility at Bethphage Village in Axtell includes the Miracle of the Prairie Lodge and Retreat Center, on a beautiful campus of big trees and interesting Scandinavian-influenced brick buildings.

Just north of the campus is a spot created by Mosaic for the viewing and contemplation of birds and wildlife. Called Lake Siloam, the site features a covered pavilion, wide concrete paths and a dock out over the water. It was obviously made to be easy to use by people in wheelchairs, so it’s a delightful viewing area, with open water likely to attract a variety of ducks, pelicans, grebe and other water-loving birds.

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Ft. Kearney State Recreation Area

Ft. Kearney SRAFrom Mosaic, go back to Highway 6 and 34, and turn east. In a couple of miles, you’ll come to the junction where Nebraska 44 separates and turns north toward Kearney. Take 44 north. In ten miles or so, you’ll come to the intersection with Road 50A. Turn right. In about four miles, you’ll pass the state historical park, then about two or three miles beyond that, you’ll see a sign to the entrance of the Ft. Kearny SRA.

Ft. Kearny SRA is right on the Platte River, so in season it’s a prime spot for sandhill crane viewing. Although the SRA is large and features a number of camping spots, we’re here to check out the Ft. Kearny Hike-Bike trail and the old railroad bridge across the Platte allowing visitors some really special riparian viewing.

The trail leading up the bridge is wide and flat, so it’s an easy hike. It’s bordered on both sides by big deciduous trees, mostly cottonwood, making it an ideal place to spot some of the woodpeckers that make Nebraska home, such as the downy woodpecker and the hairy woodpecker. You’ll also see red-breasted and white-breasted nuthatches which are native to this part of Nebraska. We spot a black-capped chickadee and a blue jay in the trees, and then step out onto the long wooden bridge.

The bridge allows you to essentially step out into the middle of this extraordinary, ribboned river and partake of a rare observation of this kind of habitat without getting your feet wet. It offers an extraordinarily clear view in both directions, and is certainly not to be missed in migration season.

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The birds of central and western Nebraska:

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Egret, Great
Egret, Great
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Egret, Snowy
Egret, Snowy
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Falcon, Peregrine
Peregrine Falcon.
Falcon, Peregrine
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Falcon, Prairie
Falcon, Prairie
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Finch, House
House Finch.
Finch, House
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Finch, Purple
Purple Finch.
Finch, Purple
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Finch, Rosy
Finch, Rosy
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Flicker, Northern
Northern Flicker.
Flicker, Northern
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Flycatcher, Alder
Flycatcher, Alder
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Flycatcher, Great Crested
Flycatcher, Great Crested
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Flycatcher, Least
Flycatcher, Least
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Flycatcher, Olive-sided
Flycatcher, Olive-sided
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Flycatcher, Scissor-tailed
Flycatcher, Scissor-tailed
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Flycatcher, Willow
Flycatcher, Willow
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Flycatcher, Yellow-bellied
Flycatcher, Yellow-bellied
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Gallinule, Purple
Gallinule, Purple
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Gnatcatcher, Blue-gray
Gnatcatcher, Blue-gray
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Godwit, Hudsonian
Godwit, Hudsonian
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Godwit, Marbled
Marbled Godwit.
Godwit, Marbled
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Goldeneye, Barrow's
Goldeneye, Barrow's
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Goldeneye, Common
Common Goldeneye.
Goldeneye, Common
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Goldfinch, American
Photo by Don Brockmeier.
Goldfinch, American
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Goose, Brant
Goose, Brant
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Goose, Cackling
Goose, Cackling
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Goose, Canada
Goose, Canada
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Goose, Emperor
Goose, Emperor
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Goose, Greater White Fronted
Goose, Greater White Fronted
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Goose, Ross'
Goose, Ross'
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Goose, Snow
Photo by Don Brockmeier.
Goose, Snow
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Grackle, Common
Grackle, Common
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Grackle, Great-tailed
Grackle, Great-tailed
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Grebe, Clark's
Grebe, Clark's
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Grebe, Eared
Grebe, Eared
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Grebe, Horned
Grebe, Horned
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Grebe, Pied-billed
Grebe, Pied-billed
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Grebe, Western
Grebe, Western
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Grosbeak, Black-headed
Grosbeak, Black-headed
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Grosbeak, Blue
Grosbeak, Blue
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Grosbeak, Evening
Grosbeak, Evening
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Grosbeak, Pine
Grosbeak, Pine
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Grosbeak, Rose-breasted
Rose-breasted Grosbeak.
Grosbeak, Rose-breasted
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Grouse, Sharp-tailed
Sharp-tailed Grouse.
Grouse, Sharp-tailed
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Gull, Bonaparte's
Gull, Bonaparte's
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Gull, California
Gull, California
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Gull, Franklin's
Gull, Franklin's
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Gull, Herring
Gull, Herring
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Gull, Lesser Black-backed
Gull, Lesser Black-backed
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Gull, Ring-billed
Gull, Ring-billed
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Gull, Thayer
Gull, Thayer
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Gyrfalcon
Gyrfalcon

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to the following counties and communities for their support:

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  • Harlan
  • Phelps
  • Red Willow
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