With a fabulous system of well-organized trails, Nebraska is one of the nicest and easiest hotspot destinations for bird lovers from around the country.
- Common Birds — Common Pheasant, Sharp-tailed Grouse, Greater Prairie-Chicken, Northern Bobwhite, Canada Goose, Great Horned Owl, Eastern, Screech Owl
- Rare Birds — White-winged Dove, Black Rail, King Rail, Iceland Gull, Laughing Gull, Gyrfalcon, Red-throated Loon, Scissor-tailed Flycatcher, White-eyed Vireo, Clark’s Nutcracker
- Environment of Nebraska — Plains, rivers, gently rolling hills
- Best Time for Birdwatching Travel — There’s plenty of year-round birding available, but if you’ve come for the cranes (which you probably have!) aim for a mid-March travel time
Top 5 Nebraska Birding Trails
The Cornhusker State is well-organized in terms of birding trails, with plenty of information available about each one. If you’d like to get a move on, though, add these top 5 birding trails in Nebraska to your itinerary and fly!
Fort Niobrara National Wildlife Refuge
Located in north-central Nebraska, along the beautiful Niobrara River, this National Wildlife Refuge is a 19,000-acre safe haven for a variety of Great Plains flora and fauna. Three complex plant systems converge on the Fort Niobrara National Wildlife Refuge, creating an incredibly diverse ecosystem that attracts a wide variety of wildlife, including avifauna.
Fort Niobrara, a former frontier fort for the military, was established as a refuge especially for the feeding and breeding of birds in the early 20th century, when President Theodore Roosevelt and a variety of national organizations began to get serious about preserving and conserving our nation’s wildernesses and signed several executive orders doing so.
If you make the scenic trek to Fort Niobrara National Wildlife Refuge, you can expect to see a vast array of plants, animals, and certainly birds, including the Sharp-tailed Grouse, Prairie Chicken, Grasshopper Sparrow, and 230 other species.
Central Sandhills Trail
The Central Sandhills Trail allows you to journey through the state’s largest natural eco-system–a 19,000-acre grassland region that takes up almost a quarter of the entire state. The Nebraska Sandhills is the biggest grassland eco-system in the whole country, and the trail that runs through it is one of the best in the region for spying on resting, nesting, breeding, and feeding birds.
There are several wonderful stopping points for birding along this massive trail that spans nine counties. Among them are: Crescent Lake, Fort Niobrara (see above for more information), the Nebraska National Forest, and the Valentine National Wildlife Refuge.
Some of the amazingly diverse species of bird you’re bound to see along the way include: American Bittern, Black-crowned Night Heron, American Avocet, Wilson’s Phalarope, White-breasted Nuthatch, Yellow-Breasted Chat, Eastern Screech Owl, Canada Goose, Trumpeter Swan, and so much more.
Missouri Valley Trail
The Missouri Valley is a great causeway for migratory birds of all kinds, and this trail takes you right among them. The eastern half of the valley was created from the carving nature of great glaciers slowly trudging across the country. Tall grass prairies and deciduous forests eventually grew from the glacial wreckage creating plains that are as diverse in their topography as they are in their inhabitants, both resident and temporary.
The Missouri Valley Trail gives you the opportunity to take advantage of a great many birding hotspots as you trek with it across the countryside. Some of the must-see locations you’ll come across–or walk through–that you should add to your itinerary include: the Fortenelle Forest Preserve, Desoto National Wildlife Refuge, and Waubonsie State Park.
Among the various birds you’ll get to observe along the Missouri Valley Trail are: American Woodcock, Barred Owl, Ruby-throated Hummingbird, Yellow-throated Vireo, Northern Cardinal, Brown-headed Cowbird, and the stunning Snow Goose.
Elkhorn Valley Trail
From the Platte River near Omaha to the Sandhills, the gorgeous Elkhorn Valley Trail follows the route of its namesake. Across scenic terrain of grasslands, rolling hills, and prairies, this hot birding spot takes you on a tour of everything beautiful in the Cornhusker State.
Along this lengthy trail, you’ll be passing through or near some of the best Nebraskan bird watching highlights, including: Bobcat Wildlife Management Area, Whitetail Wildlife Management Area, Fremont Lakes State Recreation Area, Two Rivers State Recreation Area, and Redbird Wildlife Management Area–just to name a few!
Platte Valley Trail
If you find yourself in Nebraska during the springtime, be sure to check out the Platte Valley Trail, which is considered one of the absolute best birding sites in the region during that time of year. During much of the month of March, there is a staggering number of Sandhill Cranes that fly into the Platte Valley: approximately 500,000. But that is nothing compared to the sheer awesomeness of the amount of water fowl who visit: over 7,000,000!
One of the main drawbacks to catching this mass migration is the inconsistency of the weather during the early spring in Nebraska. There may be days of blue skies and warm sun, followed immediately by snow flurries and blistering cold. Be sure to check the weather forecasts as far in advance as possible if you want to see the millions of fowl descend on the valley.
About the State of Nebraska
On March 1, 1867, Nebraska was admitted to the U.S., becoming the 37th state. Its capital, Lincoln, used to be called Lancaster, but was changed in the late 1800’s to honor the assassinated president. Nebraska experienced three major population growth spurts in the 19th century: the California Gold Rush of 1848, the Homestead Act of the 1860’s, and the agriculture and cattle boom of the 1870’s and 1880’s which saw a great number of people making their way to Nebraska to own farms, work on farms, or manufacture equipment to be used on farms.
Almost all of Nebraska’s topography is described as prairie lands. There are two major regions: the Dissected Till Plains and the Great Plains, each of which offers plenty of opportunity for great hiking, nature viewing, and birding.
The Nebraska Birding Trails Workgroup was founded in 2003, and has been tirelessly working since then to create and catalogue the many fantastic birding trails available in the Cornhusker State today. They’ve worked side by side with state, county, and city governments as well as private businesses to enhance, preserve, and provide information on the best trails for birding in Nebraska. They are a resource that deserves every birder’s thanks!
Photo credits to NebraskaBirdingTrails.com
Special thanks to Scott Taylor of the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission for his assistance on this article.