Go Wild with Nebraska's Abundant Wildlife-watching Opportunities

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Once nearing extinction, bison can be seen in increasing numbers in northeast Nebraska. (R. Neibel, Nebraska Department of Economic Development)

By Tom Tabor

When most people from Nebraska—or even from outside of Nebraska—hear the words wildlife watching, bird-watching most likely springs to the forefront of their minds. Topping those thoughts would likely be the sandhill cranes due to the fact that the crane migration is one of the top 10 species migration happenings in the world. This is similar to what one thinks of when the Serengeti in Africa is brought up and images of large wildlife, such as wildebeest, lions, elephants, rhinos, zebra and cheetahs are envisioned. Nebraska, with its diverse landscape, has an abundance of watchable wildlife beyond the noted sandhill cranes. Although not as large as elephants, there are many unique species that have adapted to the Great Plains and can excite any wildlife-watching enthusiast.

I have been told by many a world traveler that the African species puts an edge of fear into those adventurers seeking out the adrenaline high of encountering a lion or elephant in the wild. For those adrenaline junkies, Nebraska is home to North America’s largest land mammal, the American bison. Male bison can grow close to 6 feet tall to the top of their hump and can weigh up to 2,000 pounds. I recommend treating them with the same respect you would any African species. A bison can reach speeds greater than 30 miles per hour, and at nearly a ton you might find yourself flying the friendly skies of North American Bison Airlines. Sorry, no first-class seats available! All joking aside, Nebraska does offer the wild of wildlife watching. If you don’t want to make the annual Darwin Award list, respect this species—and all wildlife, for that matter. Give them plenty of room and always have an escape plan in case you are caught in a situation where you may have accidently approached too close.

My comments above were not to scare the novice away but to aid in the safe enjoyment of experiencing one of North America’s most majestic species. Bison may look like they are as docile as cattle as they are grazing and lounging in grassy meadows, but that wild side can be occasionally triggered and one should just use caution. My other point above was to demonstrate that you don’t have to spend a fortune to fly to another continent to enjoy wildlife. Nebraska has an abundance of species from small insects, reptiles an amphibians to the large bison I mentioned above.

There are 71.8 million people 16 years and older in the United States that participate in wildlife watching (U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, 2011 National Survey of Fishing, Hunting and Wildlife-Associated Recreation, Preliminary Report, August 2012). These 71.8 million people spend $55 billion to photograph, feed or observe wildlife. Nearly 23 million who participate in wildlife-watching activities travel away from home to see a species that they would not have the opportunity to see in their immediate area.

Wildlife watching can be a great family adventure and learning experience for all ages. Many recent studies done by the Center of Disease Control (CDC), National Wildlife Federation and various universities say that outdoor recreation and learning improve a child’s cognitive ability, problem-solving skills and creativity, while reducing stress and having a calming effect on them. Children that spend more time outdoors have higher standardized test scores in math, reading and listening. Other findings show that more exposure to sunshine increases vitamin D, which contributes to stronger bones; that outdoor activity can help reduce rising obesity rates, which have doubled over the past two decades and that outdoor activity can lower the risks of Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder (ADHD), which has risen in children 3 percent each year from 1997 to 2006, according to a recent University of Illinois study. With Nebraska’s diverse landscape and wildlife, families have an abundance of opportunities to get outdoors to explore and learn. Nebraska offers great places for families to get a start and learn proper wildlife watching techniques that will protect the species and themselves. From Fontenelle Forest in eastern Nebraska to Fort Robinson in the west, there are multiple nature centers that can get any novice on track toward a lifetime of wildlife watching. And I highly recommend using these resources as a starting point. There are also many state agencies, universities and nonprofit organizations that offer outdoor education for all ages. The Nebraska Game and Parks Commission, The Nature Conservancy, Audubon, Fish and Wildlife Service, U.S. Forest Service, University of Nebraska, Chadron State College and local community and regional organizations across the state offer resources to get any novice started, and can provide new information to or update the experts on the latest research on species and habitat.

The stunning views of Chardron State Park are the perfect setting for hikers, bikers and nature lovers from all walks of life. (M. Forsberg, Nebraska Department of Economic Development)

When thinking about wildlife watching in Nebraska, don’t count out the excitement you can bring to a small child when they are discovering the hundreds of different insect species drawn to a black light lit from behind a bedsheet hanging from a support frame at night. During a summer event at a nearby nature center, children flocked to this spectacle and described each insect in a way only a small child could. Their imaginations and creative descriptions amused everyone within earshot. It actually became a competition to see who could come up with the craziest name. Things like, “pop eye,” “fuzzy-butt,” “helmet-head” or “ugh-bug!” And they were actually more creative than that!

Insects are not a species one usually thinks of when talking wildlife watching, unless one is talking about butterflies, dragonflies and moths. The first time I saw a luna moth, I thought what kind of butterfly is this? With a 4-and-a-half-inch wingspan, I did not relate it to a moth at all, but more toward an eastern tiger swallowtail. That was part of the excitement of seeing a species that one rarely sees. It captured my curiosity, and it made it a learning experience. There are fascinating behaviors to watch in the insect world. Another on the top of my list of insects is the praying mantis. I have been told the female sometimes rips the male’s head off during mating. Brutal! I’d make a personal analogy of that, but it is probably best left unsaid!

In 2004 when I became the state’s first ecotourism development consultant, I discovered there was a person leading eco-tours at the Nebraska National Forest near Halsey. These wildlife-watching tours were not your normal bird-, ungulate- or predator-type tours. An extension educator in the School of Natural Resources at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, Dennis Ferraro (who is known by many as the “Snake Guy”) was leading amphibian and reptile eco-tours to the largest hand-planted forest in the country. At the time I thought, “Wow… who would do that?” Dennis’s knowledge and excitement about what he does showed me that this type of wildlife watching can be a unique experience if you have a guide as passionate as he is. I have always been an inquisitive hiker, and with a knowledgeable guide like Dennis, I have found that keeping my eyes focused on the ground ahead of me reveals another world of wildlife-watching opportunities. There are roughly 33 snakes in Nebraska (four poisonous), nine turtles and 13 species of frogs. Not to mention the salamanders and lizards you can also find. Hiking in the Sandhills one summer with a group of trekkers I came across an ornate box turtle and yelled to the group to come look. Some of the hikers reacted like a small child opening up presents on Christmas morning. These types of encounters are what make me love my job. I enjoy the people. The expression of amazement or joy in seeing a wild thing live and in person elevates the experience to a whole different level than one gets from seeing that creature on television.

There are also those times when you want to laugh, yet want to be sensitive to people’s fears. Kayaking the Platte River one summer we stopped along the shore and held onto some downed, snagged trees. My friend who is deathly afraid of snakes was holding onto a branch, and a couple inches from his hand was a northern water snake (not poisonous, if you are wondering). Now my first thought was to yell out for him to take his hand off that snag, but if I startled him it could cause him to capsize his kayak or possibly harm the snake. So I paddled over next to him and I asked if he could hold my beverage for second, which he did. Then I told him to look where his hand was, which still might have not been a good time to tell him. I have never seen someone paddle so fast in all my life. His ophiodiphobia stayed on his mind the rest of the float. It was so bad that he capsized a little farther down the river trying to avoid another snag of trees. I have taken many people with ornithophobia to birding blinds and witnessed the same expressions of fear. Be sensitive to the fears some people may have. You can still make the experience enjoyable; just don’t pressure them to do something they are uncomfortable with.

Every year I spend some time in the Sandhills of Nebraska. The solitude and existential feeling I get in the Sandhills cannot be described. It is a personal feeling that is different to each of us. Walking the hills of the Valentine Wildlife Refuge is better to me than any mountain hike or walk on the beach. It is different and unique, with no comparisons, even though people try. Grouse hunting with some buddies one fall, I came over the crest of a hill where there was a blowout. Not more than 15 feet in front of me were three mule deer. It was an interesting encounter because we all just froze and stared at each other for what seemed like 10 minutes, but I’m sure it was more like 10 seconds. They were checking me out, and I them. One buck and two does. It was an October morning, the sun was shining and Dad’s Lake was off to my left. I was thinking, “Where the hell is my camera?”

Nebraska’s wildlife species list and experiences are abundant. I could tell you of encounters with river otters, prairie dog towns and the burrowing owls and ferruginous hawks associated with them, of bats, fox, elk, bighorn sheep and driving down a remote highway and slamming on the breaks because of the large flock of wild turkeys blocking the road. One of my most memorable wildlife-watching encounters occurred while I was hanging out on my deck on an acreage north of Lincoln a little before sunset late one summer. Out of the trees not more than 20 yards from my deck came what is known as a very obscure and enigmatic animal, a bobcat. I have heard Michael Forsberg speak many times about how hard it was for him to get a good picture of the bobcat he took for his Great Plains book. Once again my camera was nowhere near, so I rushed into the house to grab it. I snapped a photo of a bobcat that was once 20 yards away and now almost 40 yards away. Not the quality of Michael Forsberg, but you can tell (when you blow the picture up) that it was a bobcat. I’ll leave the wildlife photography to the professionals. Timing and being prepared seems to elude me when it comes to wildlife photography.

I hope I have piqued some interest in checking out the incredible wildlife-watching opportunities Nebraska offers. I say, “Why spend the fortune to travel around the world to see wildlife when you can find a world of opportunities right here in Nebraska?” Go WILD… in Nebraska!

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