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Pine Ridge & Grassland Birding Information

This part of Nebraska is noted for the fragrant pine forests, the majestic buttes of the Pine Ridge, and badlands formations, as well as extensive native grasslands. Eagles, hawks, falcons, owls, turkeys, doves, woodpeckers, swallows, magpies, larks and finches are a sampling of the types of birds you will find on and around the Homestead.

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This beautiful part of Nebraska, its geographic "Panhandle," is largely a ridge-and-canyon region, interspersed with High Plains topography and steppe vegetation. It is the land that Crazy Horse died trying to protect for his people, the Oglala Sioux or Lakotas, and one laced with the bitter history of these people and Cheyennes as they fruitlessly fought to maintain their sacred lands. The pine-covered hills and escarpments remind one of the Black Hills, and several pine-dependent species that are common in the Black Hills occur only in the northwestern corner of Nebraska, such as Lewis' woodpecker, pinyon jay, dark-eyed junco, sage thrasher, western tanager, yellow-rumped warbler, Swainson's thrush, solitary vireo, pygmy nuthatch, red crossbill, and the canyon-adapted cordilleran (previously called "western") flycatcher. It also supports a few quite localized short-grass plains species such as McCown's and chestnut-collared longspurs and mountain plovers. It is also a land rich in the fossil remains of early Cenozoic mammals, as well as an eight-million-year-old fossil bird bone that appears to be identical to that of a modern sandhill crane. This would make the sandhill crane the most archaic of all known extant birds, and provides another reason for considering it a very special if not sacred bird. Sandhill cranes by the tens of thousands still pass through this region each spring and fall, but their major migratory pathway lies to the east, in the central Platte Valley.

The major birding attractions in this part of the state include the topographical diverse and highly scenic Pine Ridge area (a bird checklist representing "northwest Nebraska," based on observations of Richard Rosche, is in the supplement (NOT INCLUDED HERE). The area around Lake McConaughy is the most bird-rich location in the state, and a mecca for birders from all over the country. Not far from there is Crescent Lake National Wildlife Refuge, a wilderness jewel in the western Sandhills, with the second-largest bird list for the state (also summarized in the supplement--NOT in on-line version). To the north of Crescent Lake, in northern Garden County and southern Sheridan County, are hundreds of relatively saline Sandhills marshes that abound with waterfowl and marshland birds.


Sioux County is in the heart of the Pine Ridge region, an area of ridge-and-canyon topography that is a southern outlier of the Black Hills region of South Dakota, and is a north-facing escarpment largely covered by ponderosa pine forest and streamside deciduous forests. As such, it has several species that occur rarely if at all elsewhere in Nebraska, such as the cordilleran flycatcher (in Sowbelly Canyon). There also extensive areas of short-grass plains, much of which is included in the Oglala National Grasslands, and which support a typical high plains avifauna (Boyle & Bauer, 1994) .

A. Federal Areas

1. Oglala National Grasslands. Area 93,344 ac. The area around Sugarloaf Butte offers Brewer's sparrows, sage thrashers, long-billed curlews, Swainson's and ferruginous hawks, and chestnut-collared longspurs. Otherwise, horned larks, western meadowlarks and lark buntings are common breeders in this vast region, which extends into Dawes County. Hawks are common here (red-tailed, Swainson's and ferruginous), and golden eagles are also frequent. For information contact the Forest Service office at 308-432-4475.

2. Soldier Creek Wilderness. Area 9,600 ac. This is a large roadless area that has an extensive hiking trail network, as well as bridle trails. Water must be carried in, and facilities are lacking. Much of the area was burned in a 1989 fire. An 8-mile loop trail over ridges and canyons has its trailhead at the picnic area. For information contact the Forest Service office mentioned above.

3. Agate Fossil Beds National Monument. Not shown; see a state highway map for location. Includes nearly 2,000 acres of shortgrass plains. No official bird checklist is yet available, but 156 species have been reported for the site, including ferruginous hawk, mountain plover, burrowing owl, saw-whet owl, white-throated swift, Cassin's kingbird, pinyon jay, Townsend's warbler, western tanager, black- headed grosbeak, lazuli bunting, and three species of longspurs including both McCown's and chestnut-collared. For information call the National Park office at 308/668-2211.

4. Toadstool Geologic Park. This area of badlands (ca. 300 acres) supports rock wrens, Say's phoebes, golden eagles and prairie falcons, and sometimes also rosy finches during winter. A one-mile loop trail through part of the park that begins at the picnic area should turn up rock wrens and other topography-dependent birds. Water is at a premium here, and a canteen should be carried in hot weather. A small campground is present (call 308/432-4475).

5. Nebraska National Forest, McKelvie District. Area comprises about 5l,000 acres, including holdings in Dawes County. This area is much like the Pine Ridge Unit, and most or all of the same birding opportunities should exist (see Dawes County).

B. State Areas

1. Fort Robinson State Park. Area 22,000 ac. Although still proving good pine habitat, a forest fire in 1989 destroyed much of the best sections of the park, which does offer lodging and eating facilities (Rosche, 1990). A nesting area for white-throated swifts occurs six miles west of headquarters (Pettingill, 1981). For information call 308/665-2900.

2. Gilbert-Baker WMA, Area 2,457 ac. This is an area of ridges covered with ponderosa pines, with scattered areas of grassland at the forest fringes. Monroe Creek traverses the area and is a trout stream. Located three miles north of Harrison, via an oil-surfaced road. While in the area, a gravel road going south along the Wyoming border (turn 8 miles west of Harrison) crosses the Niobrara River and passes into ridge-and-valley topography that supports McCown's longspurs, Say's phoebes and rock wrens, as well as Brewer's sparrows, ferruginous hawks and long-billed curlews, plus chestnut-collared longspurs farther south. At about 8 miles south of the turning a road goes east and back to state highway 29 (Rosche, 1990). Hiking trails penetrate the area; for information call 308/668-2211.

3. Peterson WMA. Area 2,460 ac. This are consists of habitats alternating between mature ponderosa pine forests and grasslands in typical ridge-and canyon topography. Two streams bisect the area, There are no camping facilities.

4. James Ranch SRA.

C. Other Areas

1. Sowbelly Canyon. Although privately owned, a county road northeast from Harrison passes through a creekbottom area where on-foot birding can be done, about five miles from town . Many distinctly western species occur here, including not only the very local cordilleran flycatcher, but also white-throated swift, violet-green swallow, common poorwill, Say's phoebe, rock wren, western tanager, Bullock's oriole, prairie falcon, and other western and eastern species (Rosche, 1990).