Situated at the base of the Nebraska Panhandle, the Lake McConaughy area is one of the premier birding areas in Nebraska and the entire Great Plains region. Much of this is a result of the diversity of habitats in this small area—a large lake with sandy beaches, lush marshes, riparian habitat along major river corridors, extensive thickets of cedars, the Sandhills grasslands and urban areas. Ornithologists and birders visiting this area have documented an incredible 363 species of birds, largely a result of the habitat diversity. In this article I’ll begin with some general advice on birding locales and then detail when and where some of the region’s birdlife can be viewed.
Generally, there are four locales that provide a good overview of the birds of this region, and I’ll briefly describe each one here. The 14,400-hectare Lake McConaughy is the largest lake in Nebraska and contains more than 160 kilometers of shoreline. The main lake hosts waterfowl, loons, grebes, gulls and terns while the shoreline is favored by shorebirds, and the ribbon of forest along the lakeshore hosts many nesting and migrant songbirds. A spotting scope is necessary to see birds on the lake, and wind, fog and heat shimmer can make it challenging to see birds in the middle. Good birding spots are the pullouts at either end of Kingsley Dam, Lakeview (Van’s) on the south shore and Arthur Bay, Lemoyne and Cedar Vue on the north shore. Below Kingsley Dam are Lakes Ogallala and Keystone (actually just a single body of water), which combine to form a smaller, sheltered lake with some marsh and surrounding forest. The lake is home to waterfowl and huge numbers of gulls. Bald eagles favor the trees along the edge, and the forested areas can be excellent for migrant songbirds. Good birding spots are the eagle-viewing building near the spillway, the campground at the northeast end of the lake, the foot trail along the south shore of the lake and the riparian areas immediately below the Keystone diversion dam at the east end of the lake. At the opposite (west) end of Lake McConaughy lie the extensive Clear Creek marshes, best accessed off of Highway 92 from the Keith County line west to Highway 26 or from Road 44 heading east from Highway 26 along the south side of the marshes. The wetlands are home to migrant waterfowl and Sandhill cranes, nesting bitterns and rails and other marsh birds, while the surrounding meadows and Sandhills host many migrant and wintering raptors and nesting grassland birds. Finally, Ash Hollow State Historical Park is accessed from Highway 26 just south of the Clear Creek marshes and is a good place to find forest-nesting birds and migrant songbirds.
The bird diversity of the Lake McConaughy area varies seasonally, with a peak occurring in April–May and again in August–September; diversity is lowest in January–February. Some birds are resident year-round while others may only appear for a week or two at a particular season. An awareness of the seasonal occurrence of birds in this region will greatly enhance your ability to find certain species. Here I’ll briefly provide an overview of when and where to search for groups of birds and selected species, although this is not intended to be a thorough coverage of all species!
One of the primary avian spectacles is the annual migration of waterfowl through this area. Spring migration is often underway by mid-February with the arrival of geese, northern pintails and many diving ducks. The first spring migrants seek open water that is usually present at Lake Ogallala or at the west end of Lake McConaughy. Spring numbers and diversity peak in March and decline rapidly in April. A few species breed locally, most notably redheads and ruddy ducks. The autumn migration begins in August with the arrival of flocks of blue-winged teal and peaks in October–November. Hunting pressure alters the use pattern during fall, although Lake Ogallala is a consistent viewing spot. This is also the season to look for less common visitors like scoters and long-tailed ducks. As the lakes begin to freeze in December, the birds will become concentrated at the east end of Lake McConaughy and in the open water on Lake Ogallala. Diving ducks predominate, including tens of thousands of common mergansers and the occasional Barrow’s goldeneye. Mid-winter is a good time to look for wintering trumpeter swans, especially along the North Platte River below Keystone dam, on Lake Ogallala and in deeper bays along the north shore of Lake McConaughy.
Besides waterfowl, many other waterbirds visit the region. Small numbers of common loons frequent Lakes McConaughy and Ogallala in April and October–November, with the occasional bird oversummering. Lake McConaughy is one of the most important mid-continent staging sites for western grebes, with September–October counts reaching 30,000 birds some years! A few Clark’s grebes, along with small numbers of horned and eared grebes, are present during April–May and September–November. American white pelicans flock by the hundreds to shallow-water areas in migration, especially April and September. Great blue herons nest in small colonies in trees near water, while other wading birds, including the secretive American bittern and white-faced ibis, are regular migrants in wet areas with emergent vegetation. Shorebirds, one of the more diverse groups of birds in this region (36 regular species), are primarily migrants that prefer shallow water with adjacent exposed mud. Thousands may be present when habitat conditions are good, but they are scarce in other years. Lake McConaughy’s sandy beaches support internationally important numbers of nesting piping plover, which, along with the least tern, are among the most imperiled birds in this region. Long-billed curlews and upland sandpipers are characteristic nesting birds of the Sandhills. Gulls are another diverse group of birds that occur in this region, and many rare species have been noted. Check the numerous ring-billed and herring gulls in late fall and winter for California, glaucous and Thayer’s gulls. Thousands of Franklin’s gulls occur during migration, and the vastness of Lake McConaughy sometimes attracts migrant jaegers and Sabine’s gulls.
This region is home to five resident gallinaceous birds (gamebirds). Displaying sharp-tailed grouse and greater prairie chickens perform spectacular spring mating dances (called “booming”) in the Sandhills in March and April; both are occasionally seen in other open habitats the rest of the year. The wild turkey is a typical bird of the riparian forest along the lakes and rivers, while the less common northern bobwhite occurs in similar habitat.
Raptors, or birds of prey, are another group of birds for which this region is well known. At the top of the list is the bald eagle, a locally common winter resident with the peak counts in January and February. Eagles can occur anywhere in the region but are best seen loafing on the ice or roosting in trees along the shore of Lake Ogallala. The birds are concentrated here during the coldest winter weather because of the open water and abundant fish that serve as a food source. The Nebraska Central Power and Public Irrigation District has constructed an eagle-viewing building that is open seasonally for viewing. Counts of 100 or more eagles are possible, and the building offers a comfortable location from which to view the eagles, waterfowl and gulls in winter. Other raptors abound in the region. Ospreys patrol the lakeshores in April–May and September in search of fish. Nesting red-tailed and Swainson’s hawks are replaced in winter by rough-legged hawks and the occasional ferruginous hawk, as well as a few merlins and prairie falcons. Northern harriers are a common migrant and irregular winter visitor. All of these birds prefer grasslands, especially those bordering the lakes and rivers. A visit to this same habitat at dusk in winter might produce a sighting of a short-eared owl floating over the grass in search of rodents. The burrowing owl is a rare nester, preferring prairie dog colonies, while long-eared and northern saw-whet owls can be encountered in dense cedar groves in winter. The diminutive loggerhead shrike is a nesting bird with a diet of mostly insects, and in winter is replaced by the larger northern shrike, whose diet is small birds and rodents. Both birds share the nickname “butcherbird.”
Other birds, including the diverse songbirds, abound in the Lake McConaughy region and represent about half of its bird diversity. Hillsides with grass and scattered cedars support nesting common poorwills, a nocturnal insectivore at the eastern edge of its range, and other species such as western kingbird, brown thrasher, spotted towhee and lark sparrow. The thin ribbon of trees along the shore of Lake McConaughy supports many migrant flycatchers, vireos, warblers and sparrows, especially in April–May and August–October. Typical breeding birds of this habitat include the red-headed woodpecker (currently increasing with the drought-related die-off of cottonwoods), western wood-pewee, warbling vireo, tree swallow, house wren, orchard oriole and American goldfinch. Shallow marshes and the adjacent shrubs and willow thickets, including those at Clear Creek and Lake Ogallala, support nesting willow flycatcher, marsh wren, yellow warbler and red-winged and yellow-headed blackbirds. A trip into the grassy Sandhills during the nesting season could produce loggerhead shrike, horned lark, lark bunting, grasshopper sparrow and western meadowlark. And finally, generalist breeding birds include the eastern kingbird, cliff swallow, common yellowthroat and song sparrow. The region is also a zone of contact between birds whose ranges lie mostly to the east or west—western and eastern wood-pewees, rose-breasted and black-headed grosbeaks, lazuli and indigo buntings and Baltimore and Bullock’s orioles, all of which occur, including a few hybrid individuals!
In this article I have provided a brief overview of where to bird in the Lake McConaughy region and details about some of the species you can expect to see. This is by no means a thorough coverage of the area, which supports more than 360 species of birds. If you have any interest in birds, this is an area worth exploring at any season. Who knows, you might get lucky and discover a regional first!
All images by Stephen J. Dinsmore