Tired of the same old bike path? Is that hiking trail starting to lose its luster? A pair of binoculars and a birding field guide can transport you to a brand new world. Discovering the world of birds is a treasure hunt that’s always full of surprises. Bird-watching or “birding” isn’t just for seniors anymore—why should they have all the fun? It requires a combination of skill, patience and luck.
The Jamaica Trail in Wilderness Park comes alive for birders in May with the arrival of stunning indigo buntings that sing from conspicuous perches. Holmes Lake is a favorite stop for a variety of beautiful ducks such as goldeneyes and redheads, and can be the highlight of Fido’s next trip to the dog run. Fontenelle Forest attracts colorful warblers as they migrate between South America and Canada.
All of these birds are actually fairly easy to see even though you may have never noticed them before. And you don’t have to travel far because, according to noted ornithologist Paul Johnsgard, approximately half of all North American species have visited Nebraska. Besides, birding is a good excuse to spend time outside and leave the noisy, mechanized world behind. When you lose yourself while watching a Baltimore oriole build its nest, a city or state park can suddenly feel like a timeless place.
Places such as Platte River State Park consistently yield an abundance of beautiful birds that you wouldn’t expect to see in Nebraska. The summer tanager is one such bird. In May this flaming red gem is often seen in the treetops and could be mistaken for a cardinal if not observed carefully. Its song has been likened to a lazy robin, and its call is a rhythmic “pik-i-tuk.”
Platte River S. P. is at the very northern and western edge of its range. The best birding trail in this park follows Stone Creek and starts below the observation tower. Stone Creek is a small rocky stream with one miniature waterfall that looks like it’s been transplanted from Missouri. Louisiana waterthrushes, who are usually found farther east, are odd warblers that can be seen wading in the creek and bobbing their tails. They are the earliest warblers to arrive in the spring and require clear, fast-moving water for breeding. A walk along Stone Creek may reveal ovenbirds hollering “teach-er teach-er” at the top of their lungs one week and three female ruby-throated hummingbirds buzzing by the next. It’s a magical place for birds.
Branched Oak Lake State Recreation Area is another spot that birders flock to. Sometimes hundreds of American white pelicans lounge on the edge of the lake while common loons dive for fish in deeper water. Once in a while a rare seagull is found amidst the thousands of seasonal ring-billed and herring gulls. Recently, local birder Dan Legend discovered a lesser black-backed gull from Greenland on the beach. Birders travelled from far and wide to relish seeing this rarity. Bald eagles regularly visit in winter and can be seen standing on the frozen lake eating dead fish or just looking patriotic. Massive flocks of snow geese and ducks rely on this stopover during migration and can be seen from the many access areas around the lake. A lake this large rarely disappoints a dedicated birder.
Despite its urban location, Wilderness Park is a great place to immerse yourself in the splendor of prime bird habitat. I remember birding at Wilderness Park and seeing my first common yellowthroat warbler along Salt Creek. It felt like I was somewhere deep in Central America viewing an exotic jungle bird and gave me a new perspective on Nebraska. This ribbon of forest also houses fidgety blue-gray gnatcatchers that scold wayward hikers if they pass too close to a nest. Yellow-throated vireos forage in the canopy, occasionally allowing birders to see their inimitable yellow plumage. Dark-eyed barred owls work the night shift, regularly calling “who cooks for you, who cooks for you all” from somewhere inside the forest.
These are just a few of the special birding places in Nebraska. There are more, but unfortunately not as many as you might think. Many wild places have fallen victim to development or agriculture, and the struggle to protect what’s left is ongoing.
Once you get hooked on birding, it’s easy to realize why becoming a conservationist is the next logical step. Nobody likes seeing homeless birds. Some species like the greater-prairie chicken occur only in the Midwest and require extensive grasslands, most of which have been eliminated. Local and state conservation groups have preserved some of our native prairies, providing a safe haven for many birds like bobolinks, a species that would otherwise nest in hayfields where early cutting can kill more than 80 percent of unfledged young. (Studies recommend haying should be done after July 20 in the north.)
NEBirds is a birding resource that will add to your success. This Web site is a recent development from 2001 that allows birders from around the state to post what they are seeing and where to go. It’s free, easy to join and immensely helpful! With so many eyes looking at birds, someone inevitably sees something interesting. The directions are usually specific enough to lead you right to the bird. An example was the posting about a barn owl in Ulysses a few years back that even went so far as to specify which eave of the abandoned schoolhouse this white monkey-faced owl would be sitting under. Sure enough, shortly after we arrived and searched the school, we were rewarded with a ghostly stare. Many first-time sightings (called lifers) have been tallied because Nebraska birders posted their find for all to see.
Birding is fun, unpredictable and can occur at the most unlikely spots. A friend found a strange marsh bird that looks like a chicken, called a virginia rail, on his front porch one morning when he went to get the newspaper. An unusual eastern black-throated blue warbler was reported on the University of Nebraska’s downtown campus last fall next to a stream of students coming and going to class. So, don’t forget to take a second look at the interesting birds that may be flying over or even perching in your own backyard. With a birder’s eye, even the most familiar places can become new and exciting.
Wachiska Audubon Society’s annual bird-a-thon is held the weekend of May 15–16. It is a great opportunity to go birding with local experts during the peak period for bird migration. For more information, contact the society at (402) 486-4846.