Birding and Sandhill Cranes
Every year, beginning in mid-February, hundreds of thousands of Sandhill Cranes migrate into the Platte River Valley in Lincoln County. They will spend about six weeks here, roosting in the river bottoms at night and spending their days in the corn fields, alfalfa fields and meadows between North Platte and Sutherland. One of the most spectacular sight of the migration is the Crane dance. All cranes engage in dancing, which includes various behaviors such as bowing, jumping, running, stick or grass tossing, as well as wing flapping. It is a sight you’ll see on every corn field, alfalfa field and meadow between North Platte and Sutherland from late February to early April.
For those who want to see cranes through their car windows, driving the roads that closely parallel the river in these areas provides viewing opportunities when the birds feed in fields near the river. By using a car as a blind, visitors can often stop nearby to watch the birds feed, interact and perform courtship rituals.
In the North Platte to Hershey area in Lincoln County, the Sandhill Cranes can be seen best right from the windows of your car, which works great as a viewing blind. The abundant food in the crop fields and meadows means lots of Sandhill Cranes within easy viewing distance from the roads.
Another great site from which to view the Sandhill Cranes is from the top of the Golden Spike Tower and Visitor Center! For the price of admission to the tower, you get a two-for-one deal – Cranes and Trains!
Whether it’s spring, summer, fall or winter, the Great Plains area near North Platte offers magnificent birding opportunities. During the summer, the playa lakes in the Sandhills just north of North Platte offer great viewing of some unusual species, including the Curlew pictured here. The mixed landscape of Sandhills, cropland, scattered shelterbelts and spring fed wetlands will yield a variety of species just a short drive from North Platte. Minutes north of North Platte you will enter hay meadows that species such as Eastern Meadowlarks, Bobolinks, Upland Sandpipers and Wilson’s Snipe call home for the summer. Cattail marsh habitat where small shrubs and trees are present nearby may find Virginia Rails, Sora, Marsh Wrens and Swamp Sparrows.
Located just a couple miles south of the town of Sutherland, this large, man-made lake was built to supply irrigation water to local farmers and supply water for a coal-burning power plant. This reservoir rarely freezes, even in the harshest of winters, and the cooling pond on the south side of the reservoir freezes even less often, due to warm-water discharged from the power plant. Due to the open water in winter this reservoir can hold large concentrations of waterfowl and eagles through the winter months. The reservoir also attracts large numbers of Western Grebes, various gulls including occasional rarities, terns, cormorants, pelicans and other waterbirds. Public areas around the reservoir include grassland, cropland, wooded and shrubby habitats that occasionally hold good numbers of migrating sparrows and other migratory song birds.
Lincoln County boasts a large number of winter visitors, as many Bald Eagles choose the central flyway for waterfowl migration as their preferred overwintering home. North Platte’s Cody Park is a convenient and comfortable place to watch these magnificent birds during their winter sojourn. A drive along the Platte River between North Platte and Sutherland will also provide the opportunity to see many Bald Eagles. Perhaps the best viewing of all is at the Sutherland Reservoir. On the east, there’s the Outlet and Hershey Beach, where the cooling pond from the Nebraska Public Power District’s Gerald Gentleman Power Plant is open water all year long and fish and waterfowl provide a constant food supply for the Eagles. On the north is Hole in the Wall, Omaha Beach and the Sutherland Oregon Trail Golf Course. A drive along the road within the wall will put you in close proximity to many Eagles. On the west is the Inlet with more opportunities to view the overwintering Eagles.
For a complete list of scenic drives and what birds you might have the opportunity to see, please download this Birdwatching in Lincoln County guide.