Home » Flora & Fauna » Five essential spring birding trips – #2

Five essential spring birding trips – #2

Spring is a terrific time for birds and birding.  Over the next few weeks, I will be highlighting five birding trips and experiences that all outdoor enthusiasts should consider attempting this year.  Certainly there are hundreds more out there for the taking, but I’ll start slow.  Now that we are in the latter days of winter, it is time to pencil in dates and make plans.   I began with #1 and now #2 is up today and may occur at a reservoir near you in the near future.

#2:  Gulls and eagles on ice

The brief period in late February or early March when Nebraska’s large water bodies are transitioning from ice to open water can provide exceptional viewing opportunities for large concentrations of Bald Eagles, waterfowl, and gulls.  In general, this period when ice is changing to open water is when eagle numbers reach their annual peak in Nebraska.  Thus, this period is often the best time to view large numbers across the state.  Yes, there are excellent key spots to view eagles throughout the winter which Julie Geiser recently highlighted.  However, eagles are much more widespread during what is essentially the first act of “spring” migration.  Mild weather responsible for creating areas of open water ushers in the first wave of migrant birds which quickly concentrate at the new patches of habitat.  Eagles often number in the dozens and occasionally in the hundreds at favored sites during the ice-to-water transition.  It is also a great time to sift through gulls.  More on that topic, below.  The first wave of migrants will eagerly push north if given the opportunity.  Thus, eagle and gull numbers drop off, and overall numbers and species diversity changes quickly, once the ice is gone.  Looking at the weather forecast, this birding opportunity may occur very soon, so be ready!

Dozens of Bald Eagles are typical during the period when reservoirs are transitioning from ice to open water.
Dozens of Bald Eagles are typical during the ice/water transition at the state’s large reservoirs.  These eagles were at Harlan County Reservoir 6 March 2010.

Early on, open water habitat is scarce during this period and this concentrates birds.  As water continues to open up, bird numbers increase quickly.  Viewing is typically best when lakes have both extensive areas of ice and water because eagles and gulls sit on the ice where they can be easily viewed.  Open water can also attract large numbers of waterfowl.  The deeper water in reservoirs attracts a little different assemblage than what is typically found on the central Platte River and Rainwater Basin wetlands.  Diving ducks which include Common Goldeneye, Common Merganser, Redhead, Canvasback, Lesser Scaup, among others, are all common.  I’ll stress once again, one has to be a bit nimble in making this essential trip when the time is right. Fortunately, large reservoirs are scattered across the state and a good locale is not too far away.

Bald Eagles
Large concentrations of Bald Eagles can be found roosting in trees which surround large lakes and reservoirs during the ice/water transition.  These eagles were at Pawnee Lake 5 March 2010.

The thrill of watching Bald Eagles is straightforward.  To some, the idea of getting excited about gulls may seem puzzling.  Gulls do not get much respect and pejorative terms such as “rats-with-wings” are, unfortunately, prevalent.  Such negativity is unwarranted and gull-watching or “gulling” is one of my favorite birding experiences.  Gulling can be exciting during the first act of spring migration because it is often easy to record more than a half dozen species in a day and the likelihood for finding rarities is high.   Gulls also challenge one’s identification skills.  Gulls can be tricky to identify because species are similar and it takes several, usually three to four,  years for them to acquire adult plumage.  Each sub-adult age class can have a distinct plumage.  An individual gull’s plumage can be variable.  Finally, gulls regularly hybridize.  There’s lots of fun to be had.

  •  When:  Late February/early March.  This year, a big warm up is predicted statewide this weekend and through next week.  The action may begin very soon.
  • Where:  Any of the state’s large lakes and reservoirs, but those with some ice may provide better viewing opportunities.
  • What not to miss:  Enjoy the eagles, but also take time to view and appreciate the waterfowl and gulls.
  • Tip #1:  A spotting scope is always a good idea if you have access to one.
  • Tip #2:  If you take a crack at gull identification, start simple and do not expect to be able to identify all birds to species.
  • Tip #3:  Bird numbers can change dramatically during early spring, so possibly make more than one trip.
Ring-billed Gulls
Large numbers of gulls move into Nebraska in late February and early March.  Ice sheets provide gulls excellent places to loaf , which provide birders great opportunities to sift through flocks for rarities.  These are mostly Ring-billed Gulls with a few Herring Gulls mixed in for good measure.  These gulls were at Branched Oak Lake 11 March 2008.
Glaucous Gull
The overwhelming majority of gulls found in late-winter and early spring will be either Ring-billed or Herring Gulls.  However, the careful observer will find rare species.  The large pale bird (center) in this photo is a first-year Glaucous Gull.  This Arctic breeding gull is rare but regular in Nebraska.  These gulls were at Johnson Lake 21 February 2011.
California Gull
California Gulls are very similar to Ring-billed and Herring Gulls and only occur annually at Lake McConaughy.   The species is occasionally found elsewhere in the state by careful observers.
Glaucous-winged Gull
A great find for Nebraska, Glaucous-winged Gulls are a bird of the Pacific Northwest and northeast Asia. This one at Lake Ogallala 16 February 2013 was only the fourth to be documented in Nebraska.
Snow Geese at Brached Oak
A monstrous flock of Snow and Ross’s Geese at Branched Oak Lake in early March 2008 when the lake was about 50/50 ice and water.  Also present was a nice diversity of other waterfowl species, numerous Bald Eagles, and an array of gulls.

So again, get out there and enjoy the first representatives of spring migration.  A trip to a reservoir is a nice complement to essential spring birding trip  #1.

Nongame Bird Blog

About Joel Jorgensen

Joel Jorgensen is a Nebraska native and he has been interested in birds just about as long as he has been breathing. He has been NGPC’s Nongame Bird Program Manager for eight years and he works on a array of monitoring, research, regulatory and conservation issues. Nongame birds are the 400 or so species that are not hunted and include the Whooping Crane, Least Tern, Piping Plover, Bald Eagle, and Peregrine Falcon. When not working, he enjoys birding.

Check Also

Wild Game Cooking 101

This is the time of year when wild game meat has been accumulated in the …