April 4th–7th, 2019: An amazing 4-day road trip from Minnesota to the famous Platte River, Nebraska
Oh man, was I ever excited to do this! I try not to do too much driving for birding purposes, but when you know you can bird along the way and you’ve got 4 days ahead of you, it’s hard not be psyched about driving to so many new places!
I know that early April is not the best time to be trekking across MN, IA, NE, and SD to find birds. But it is DEFINITELY the best time to see the insane phenomenon that is the biggest bird migration congregation in the world: the Sandhill Cranes roosting in the Platte River.
Day 1: MN to IA
I hit the road after finishing teaching my classes on Thursday in the early afternoon and drove pretty much straight to Des Moines. The area isn’t the most enthralling geologically, so I noted a few birds along the way and paused to see a few “World’s Biggest Whatever” in counties I’d never been to. Mostly, I was glad to have the audiobook of Bill Bryson’s The Lost Continent: Travels in Small-Town America, where he (hilariously) expounds upon the many virtues and tediums of small-town American life on his own (much longer) drive around part of the U.S.
My first proper birding stop was Jester Park at the Saylorville Reservoir just NW of downtown Des Moines. Since it’s early April, there wasn’t much beyond the usual woodpeckers and wintering passerines. The highlight here was a welcome flock of 40+ Rusty Blackbird. Still, it was a nice park with a great blind set up by a cluster of feeders and lot of riparian habitat that must be fantastic during spring migration!
The crazy thing about this stop was that half of the park just…wasn’t there. I mean, it was there, but it was under a staggering amount of flooding. Flooding tends to hit western Iowa and Nebraska tend to be hit particularly hard because of the density of rivers in those areas. I learned, for example, that rivers cover more of Nebraska than any other state! This year was particularly bad because of the aforementioned storms and a temperature spike that melted a lot of snow much more rapidly than usual.
I stayed overnight in a western Iowa town called Missouri Valley, so I could be starting right next to my planned morning stops. Even the hotel I was staying in had been flooded. They’d done their best to dry it out, but I’m glad I wasn’t there more than one night.
Day 2: IA to NE
The next morning, the flooding changed my plans again with DeSoto NWR (a place I was quite excited to visit) was closed, gate and all. Sigh. I pushed on to Hitchcock Nature Center, which was one a hill. Phew! And which had some early flycatchers (Eastern Phoebe and Eastern Wood-Pewee) singing for me in the morning. It also had a pretty great hawk-watching tower. The tower would have been awesome if it wasn’t impossible to see more than about 15 feet ahead of me because of the fog. Sheesh. I walked part of a short trail, counted 16 species, and got back into the car.
A few roadside surprises–a Pied-billed Grebe, and 3 Wilson’s Snipe flushed out of a ditch–brought my total Iowa tally to a rather pathetic 45 species. Well, in less than 24 hours with fog and/or flooding in all my targeted stop-offs, I guess that’ll have to do. Now I was off to where I was telling myself there were bound to be more birds: Nebraska!
There were definitely more birds in Nebraska. The weather was improving and I found some not-so-flooded lakes west of Lincoln that were great places to visit! The first was Branched Oak Lake, where a pretty quick loop turned up 29 species. The largest flocks here were (unsurprisingly) 700 Lesser Scaup, 200 Ruddy Duck, 120 American Coot, and 400 American White Pelican. Several Eastern Meadowlark were singing (slightly weird not to hear any Westerns here) and a Belted Kingfisher put on a show. A nice spot to set up your scope and have a look around!
I stopped next at Pawnee Lake. This park was great too, but it had much the same habitat (and birds) as Branched Oak, so I moved on.
As I continued west, I started encountering Sandhill Cranes. First a flock of 20, then 40, then 500, then I was approaching Kearney and they became impossible to count…
I arrived at the Platte River/Kearney area a little earlier than I had planned (having been unable to access flooded campgrounds and parks I’d hoped to bird earlier in the day). Platte River itself is “a mile wide and a foot deep” according to its slogan. Of course, that varies, but the gist is true, and that works incredibly well for the ridiculous numbers of Sandhill Cranes that congregate there. Normally, I’d have missed peak crane numbers, but with a series of intense storms a few weeks before, the cranes were delayed about a week, so my arrival was perfect. Lucky me!
I was planning only to visit Platte River early the next morning, but now I had the evening to head out an see the cranes come in to roost! After driving through fields and fields of Sandhill Cranes, I parked on the north side of the Three Bridges Trail . I had a bit of a walk with all of my gear, but I was in no rush and there were lots of Western Meadowlark singing from the prairie I passed to get to the river.
In my excitement to get out here, I hadn’t thought much about timing. I started my walk at 5PM, thinking it was late afternoon and the cranes would be around the river any time now. It turned out, as I discovered after over two hours of waiting, that the cranes really didn’t start moving in until just before sundown. It was a gorgeous spot though. I couldn’t complain. Plus, I got the best spot on the very popular bridge viewing location.
In any case, it started to get dark eventually and fellow nature enthusiasts starting showing, then the cranes. There were thousands of them…hundreds of thousands. It was cacophony, it was jaw-dropping.
More and more cranes kept moving from the nearby fields to the river to roost overnight. In flight, groups of them blanketed the distant sky, while smaller flocks loudly announced their presence before drifting gracefully overhead to settle with the others. It was absolutely astonishing.
I suppose it goes without saying that I captured lots. I took some wide shots, telephoto shots; did some digiscoping, audio on my phone, video… So I’ve posted some of my favourite stuff here, but I have to tell you: it doesn’t come close to doing justice to the real event. You’ve simply got to experience it yourself.
Day 3: NE to SD
So I did. Again! The next morning I was up well before dawn to meet the birds where I’d left them the night before. Parking on the closer side and walking in the dark to the same bridge as the night before. There was already a fair amount of sound coming from the (mostly) sleeping, massive river roost when I arrived around 6:30AM (it’s nice to get to sleep in a little when birding in the early spring at this latitude).
The sun rose behind the Sandhill Cranes and the shallow, gently rippling Platte River turned to fiery glass. I took many photos…
Soon, the remaining birds were fully awake and groups started to depart.
I diligently scoured through 10s of thousands of them looking for one of the 8 Whooping Cranes that had been spotted the day before without any luck. But no matter. What a sight!! This time with the sunrise behind them. It was absolutely astounding!
Once the majority of the cranes had departed, I headed to Rowe Sanctuary. This is the famous sanctuary along the Platte River (very nearby), where you can rent a hide and view the cranes up close. They also have some trails and a nice interpretive center. (If you’re planning a trip, be sure check on the status of their major renovations: they’ll be greatly expanding the interpretive center for educational purposes and renovating the blinds in the near future.) They counted 600,000 cranes today up and down the river. That is a lot of big birds!
No one was allowed on the trails for the next hour or so–because it could disturb the remaining cranes–so I waited patiently inside and around the center. It was no great loss though, a large mixed blackbird flock was at their feeders (including a male Yellow-headed Blackbird) and 2 Harris’s Sparrow were hanging around too. I love Harris’s Sparrows. And I’d never had a chance to get this close to them before.
The trails themselves weren’t spectacular (again, early spring), but they were nice to walk around and would surely be a warbler magnet during migration. A nice spot to visit, I thought, but it was time to hit the road again. The main attraction and primary purpose of this trip behind me, I was still excited to visit new places in northeastern Nebraska and southeastern South Dakota.
After several hours in the car, and a gorgeous Loggerhead Shrike on a wire (above), I stopped at Ponca State Park. It overlooks the Missouri River from high on a bluff, with South Dakota clearly visible on the far side. I had a quick walk around, without observing much in the way of bird life, but I should definitely try to get back to this high, wooded bluff later in the spring (it’s no wonder this place has a 235 species count on eBird).
Then, suddenly, I was in South Dakota. Home of the Badlands, the Black Hills, Custer State Park, Wall Drug…and a whole lot of nothing otherwise. Really it’s a beautiful place though, full of wonderful people. I had time before sunset to stop at Adams Homestead and Nature Preserve. This was a wonderful spot and I easily counted 30 species very late in the day in early April. I was happy to see the first Eastern Bluebirds I’d seen in a little while, several Blue-winged Teal, and a rafter of Wild Turkey. Still, I was rushed a little by a typical plains thunderstorm, which I first saw looming over some distant trees, turned around to walk back, and then started running. You don’t want to get stuck in one of those with all your optics if you can avoid it. (Don’t worry, I made it back only lightly dampened.)
Day 4: SD to MN
Since I was originally planning to visit Adams Homestead the next morning, I was able to fit in a couple of other spots in the morning instead, having stayed overnight in Sioux City. First, I ducked back into Iowa (just a short drive east) and had a really nice early morning walk around Bacon Creek Park. A mix of typical early spring passerines and 7 Pied-billed Grebe greeted me. Most exciting that morning was the first singing Hermit Thrush I’d heard this season! Maybe spring really is coming?
Next, I drove a few hours north to Sioux Falls and stopped to walk around a place called the “Outdoor Campus.” It was a nice spot with the usual suspects. The highlights were a few Vesper Sparrows in the grasses right along the trail. But it was already Sunday and I needed to get back into Minnesota and home.
My last few stops were rapid fire. Mostly, I wanted to see a few parks and habitats in southwestern Minnesota that I wasn’t likely to get a chance to see again. I stopped first at Blue Mounds SP and was greeted by more singing Western Meadowlark (I never get tired of them!). According to lore, Blue Mounds was a buffalo jump originally, but it also has several small of Sioux Quartzite mines that are still visible.
There are actually tons of Native American historical sites all over Minnesota. It’s something I find fascinating. If you’re interested in intersections between Native Americans, early European settlers, and birds, I would heartily recommend Michael Edmonds’ Taking Flight: A History of Birds and People in the Heart of America (I enjoyed it so much that I wrote a review of it for the Minnesota Ornithology Union’s Loon journal).
I’m reminded again of the Taking Flight book because I was actually more excited to go to the next place because of its history than for its birds. In one particularly thoughtfully and engagingly written chapter, Edmonds details the seasonal hunting counts for a group of 7 hunters at Heron Lake. Recovering information from their journals, Edmonds explains that these hunters typically killed 14000 in the fall. There were large numbers and a variety of waterfowl at Heron Lake to be sure, but it’s hard (and sad) to imagine such a huge take from the lake, especially since that had to be only a small fraction of the number of birds at Heron Lake.
My last stop was Walnut Lake, which was truly packed with waterfowl (I estimated around 7000 birds). It was nice to spend a chunk of the late afternoon looking for odd ducks (literally) before then returning home.
What a trip! I’m both excited and exhausted from writing about it…which is about how it felt at the time. That’s birding!