Sandsage prairie

McCook

Sandsage PrairieIf a real honest-to-goodness American birding adventure is what you’re looking for, there are few better places to start one than in McCook, Nebraska. For one thing, native sand-sage prairies of this type are rare except in southwest Nebraska. Due to the rough topography and rocky soils, many parcels of sand-sage prairie have been left undisturbed, attracting – depending on the season – a remarkable variety of some of North America’s most interesting birds, including Greater Prairie Chickens, Cassin's Sparrows, burrowing Owls and Lark Bunting.

Barnett Park

Barnett ParkWe’re starting our adventure in cool-crisp of early morning at Barnett Park, just a few minutes south of U.S. 6 and 34 on Highway 83. Right on the Republican River, Barnett Park is a favorite spot for local birders to look for wading birds and song birds in the temperate months.

According to T.J. Walker, Nebraska Game and Parks biologist and an expert birder, the park is “good for water birds when it is not too busy, and the trees along the river are a good place to look for migrating warblers and other songbirds.”

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Red Willow Reservoir

Narrows WMAFrom Barnett Park, pick up U.S. 83 north and follow it to the well-marked entrance to Red Willow Reservoir and the Red Willow State Recreation Area.

Located 11 miles north of McCook, this reservoir, and the other reservoirs mentioned, often hold large concentrations of diving & wading birds such as grebes, ducks, geese, gulls and others with occasional rarities like Red-necked grebes and is considered one of Nebraska’s prime birding areas. With some 4,320 acres of upland area to explore, you’ll want to allow some extra time for Red Willow’s varied habitats. As T.J. Walker writes, “The reservoir and the roads around it can take a day to bird thoroughly due to the diversity of habitats present at the reservoir.” Look for burrowing owls in the prairie dog town near Spring Park. A white-faced ibis nests in the wetlands on the west side of the reservoir, and we spotted barn owls peering out of holes in the clay banks above the reservoir.

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Swanson Reservoir and SRA

Swanson Reservoir and SRADrive west on Hwy. 34, adjacent to the Republican River toward Swanson Reservoir and Benkelman.

Now is the time to really appreciate the big-sky aspects of this Nebraska landscape. The dramatic, open country inspires us to stop to photograph the amazing scenery along with the picturesque villages rooted like wild plum thickets along the highway. In all of the sand-sage prairie region, keep your eye out any time of year for red-tailed hawk, American kestrel, Northern harrier, and horned lark. Sharp-eyed birders may also see black-capped chickadee or white breasted nuthatch.  

Before long, we are able to see the eastern end of Swanson Reservoir. Swanson Reservoir SRA is the largest of the four state recreation areas in the region, comprising over 9,600 total acres. Situated right on the Republican River, Swanson SRA is a big area with lots of trails and good birding habitat. Check in at the marinas at the north shore or the south shore to pick up a map of the trails, lake, and wetlands. The trails are well marked, and we are told that not long ago, bird watchers noted 88 species of birds in one day on the trails around Swanson.

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Benkelman, Rock Creek, and Enders Reservoir

Enders ReservoirStay on Hwy 34 to Benkelman, a few more miles west. From Benkelman, it’s just 25 minutes straight north on Highway 61 to Enders Reservoir and State Recreation Area. Altogether, Enders encompasses over 3,600 acres, nearly all of which is open grassland and surrounding hills that go from rolling to rugged. From early spring until well into the fall, it attracts large numbers of waterfowl.

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The Lodge

Sandsage PrairieNow this is what we call a great way to close a Nebraska birding adventure.  We are spending the night in Haigler at The Lodge, a green and tan Craftsman-style house tucked under stately, old elm and cottonwood trees. 
 
George and Carol Peterson, innkeepers of The Lodge greeted us and invited us into the lodge for iced tea or freshly brewed coffee and to sit down and “visit” after our day of driving.   In Nebraska I know when I cross the east/west divide because in the west people take the time to tell a story and enjoy a story. 

The Petersons advertise three tours: the scenic tour, the ranch tour, and the wild life tour on their website,   www.thelodgenatureviewtours.com.  Definitely, we wanted to get outdoors and walk along the trails and below the towering trees in the Republican River bottom.  We spotted vireos, flycatchers, a red-headed woodpecker, and a wild turkey on an early morning 20 minute walk.   I identified white prickly poppy wild flowers, the prairie rose and prairie coneflowers. 

There are plenty of other wildlife viewing sites in this area, including Rock Creek and the Rock Creek Fish Hatchery. 

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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