Most of central Nebraska’s sandhill cranes head north, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t still plenty to see across the state.
The Nebraska Game and Parks has brought together its nine top parks with trails for wildlife viewing. Visitors can observe birds of all kinds as well as several varieties of wild animals, from deer to beaver.
Nebraska offers many opportunities with its diverse habitats – from prairie to ponderosa pine, wetlands and over 23,000 miles of rivers and streams.
“It’s a great time to see wildlife across the state,” said Olivia DaRugna, observable wildlife biologist for Game and Parks. “With the warmer spring, everyone is looking forward to getting outside. With few leaves on the trees, this is a great time for birdwatching in canopies.
Songbirds are starting to arrive from the south and DaRugna said to listen carefully and you might hear a skylark sing. The Meadowlark is the state bird of Nebraska.
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Red-headed vultures fly over Ponca State Park and many pelicans arrive in the Lake Ogallala area.
The muddy spring soil makes it easy to spot animal tracks.
“Early mornings are the best for seeing the most wildlife,” she said.
If you are planning a visit, find out about the parks in outdoornebraska.org.
Here are some of the best parks for wildlife viewing this spring:
Ponca State Park: One of the most visited state parks in Nebraska, Ponca State Park is popular for its forested hills, scenic views, and superb wildlife viewing. Observers have compiled a bird list of nearly 300 species for the park and its surroundings, and during peak migration in late April and early May, the park is a hotspot for both amateur and experienced birdwatchers. Turkeys are also a common sight in the park, and if you’re lucky, you may spot white-tailed deer along the park’s 22 miles of trails.
Rock Creek Station State Historic Park: History buffs will love exploring this former Pony Express station where James Butler “Wild Bill” Hickok began his bloody fighting career. But it is also an ideal place for birdwatching: more than 10 km of trails offer exceptional birding opportunities. Try the Natural Legacy demonstration hiking trail. You can see Eastern Bluebirds, Towhee, Barred Owls and a variety of Sparrows. Many of the sparrows that have wintered here, such as the American Tree Sparrow and Harris’s Sparrow, will soon head north to their breeding grounds, while Field Sparrows and Grasshopper Sparrows will just start arriving and singing then that they pile up their breeding grounds. If it’s warm, you may see turtles and snakes come out to bask in the sun. Coyote, red fox, white tailed deer can all be seen here, especially early in the morning.
Oak Branched State Recreation Area: This park is home to the largest lake in eastern Nebraska and has long been a popular spot for fishing, boating, and camping. It also offers 7 miles of hiking trails, with a multi-use trail along the south side of the lake that offers excellent wildlife viewing. The lake attracts many birds in early spring, such as gulls, waterfowl and loons. Many species of ducks, as well as double-crested cormorants and American white pelicans, are common during migration. Game birds and upland deer can also be spotted in the park. It is ideal for watching birds and other wildlife from your car with plenty of parking areas with different vantage points around the lake to watch waterfowl like American white pelicans.
Pawnee Prairie Wildlife Management Area: Just 2 miles from the Kansas border, this wildlife management area features native grasslands, woods, ponds and streams, home to northern thrashers, Carolina wrens, upland sandpipers and loggerhead shrikes. A flock of about 20 Great Prairie Chickens congregate on a lake near the center of the prairie, about three-quarters of a mile from the outlying parking lots. No permanent blinds are available, but temporary blinds are allowed; bring one to see the birds in the early morning or late evening from mid-March to mid-April. Upland Sandpipers will start appearing later this month.
Fort Kearny State Recreation Area: Are you looking for a place to observe sandhill cranes? Fort Kearny is a great place, although many have continued their migration north to their breeding grounds. From the hiking/biking trail one mile east of the fort, visitors can see cranes arriving and leaving the river in the early morning and late evening from late February to early April. The trail is well maintained and handicapped accessible. Throughout the year, you can see many species of birds from this location, including bald eagles, geese and ducks in winter. Watch for belted kingfisher, eastern phoebe, and tree swallows along the biking trail, as well as deer, possums, and foxes.
Lake Ogallala State Recreation Area: Located on the east side of the Kingsley Dam and the huge McConaughy Lake, Lake Ogallala is a well-known fishing destination – and very attractive to a variety of birds. A variety of waterfowl can be seen here in early April, including ducks, horned grebes and gulls. Shorebirds are just beginning to migrate through Nebraska, but you can spot Greater Yellowlegs and American Avocets here over the weekend. Campsites are available along the western and northern shores of the lake, where hardwood woodland habitats support a rich range of nesting passerines.
Niobrara State Park: Located at the confluence of the Niobrara and Missouri Rivers on the northeast border of Nebraska, Niobrara State Park offers visitors an array of outdoor experiences including wildlife viewing. White-tailed deer and wild turkey roam freely in the park, while beaver, muskrat and mink roam the banks. The park is also home to a wide range of birds, including woodpeckers, shorebirds, and bald eagles.
Fort Robinson State Park: This beautiful park encompasses over 22,000 acres of exquisite Pine Ridge scenery and is home to a variety of species including bighorn sheep, bison, pronghorn, and elk. Laced with 130 miles of hiking trails, this park also offers birding opportunities, including chances to see species found in the western United States. Look for rocky escarpments for golden eagles and prairie hawks. Hike along the White River Trail, where you can spot Barred Owls, Black-billed Magpies, Meadowlark, Say’s Phoebes as well as deer and other wildlife.
Wildcat Hills: Located high on a rocky escarpment in the Wildcat Hills, this park offers an escape from the rugged topography characteristic of the region. An array of wildlife roam here including wild turkeys, deer, bobcats and coyotes. The rugged terrain and ponderosa pines also provide habitat for western bird species. Stop at the visitor center bird feeders to see a wide variety. Hike the park’s 3 miles of trails and keep your eyes peeled. Tracks of some of the park’s stealthiest animals, such as bobcats, can be spotted on the nature trail. Along the roads of the SRA you can also see mountain bluebirds choosing which nest box to nest in this spring and a Say’s phoebe perched atop a yucca.
Josh Herr, an assistant professor at UNL, said Jon Hees “really learned everything on his own. He is really into science.
Experts aren’t sure why 95 of them stayed on the Platte River in central Nebraska last week compared to the usual 12 to 16. A strong southerly wind was likely a contributing factor.
With 1,250 nests, Wolf Island and its population is the first large nesting colony of American white pelicans in Nebraska.
Since Chadron State Park opened in 1921, the number of Nebraska state parks has grown to 76. More than 12 million people visit each year.
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