Annual Spring Migration of the Sandhill Cranes – 80 percent of the world’s population of Sandhill Cranes (nearly 600,000) return to the Platte River valley near Grand Island, which is part of North America’s Central Flyway, for about six weeks every year. In fact, this is the only place where all sub-species of Sandhill Cranes gather and co-mingle. The very rare and endangered whooping crane also traverses this route. The central Platte River is one of the whooping crane’s principal stopover sites on its 2,400-mile migration. The area is renowned by birding enthusiasts and hosts the largest gathering of crane species in the world. For more information on crane viewing opportunities visit www.visitgrandisland.com.
More than 300 species of resident and migratory birds have been documented in the area—included are wild turkey, the introduced pheasant, sharp-tailed grouse and the greater prairie chicken, hawks, owls, curlews, the bald eagle, cranes, sandpipers, doves, woodpeckers, sparrows, crows, the blue jay, and swallows. Those that are found near the marshes and lakes are ducks, pelicans, herons, geese, swans, the American avocet, and black tern. The state bird, the meadowlark, is found here along with many song birds that include vireos, robins, warblers, grosbeaks, bluebirds, black birds, thrushes and many others.
Two national wildlife refuges near the Byway are dedicated to protecting and preserving the Sandhills wildlife with particular interest in migratory water fowl—Valentine National Wildlife Refuge and Crescent Lake National Wildlife Refuge. At these refuges the nesting water and marsh birds include American bittern, blackcrowned night heron, upland sandpiper, long-billed curlew, American avocet, Wilson’s phalarope, grebes (eared, Western, Clark’s and pied-billed), American coot, black and Forster’s terns, Canada goose and nearly a dozen species of ducks. There are also burrowing and short-eared owls, Bell’s and warbling vireos, and red-winged and yellow headed blackbirds.
National Forest Along the Byway: The Nebraska National Forest, Bessey Ranger District, near Halsey, is the largest hand-planted forest in the nation. The Bessey Ranger District lies in the heart of the unique Nebraska Sandhills grasslands. The ranger district lands encompass over 90,000 acres of a very fragile terrain with high wind erosion potential. The forest’s heritage runs deep as numerous Civilian Conservation Corps workers hand planted the over 20,000 acres of forest on the district in the 1930s. When President Franklin Roosevelt revitalized the faith of the nation with programs such as the Civilian Conservation Corps, he brought together two wasting resources, unemployed young men and the land, in an effort to save both. Currently, the Bessey Tree Nursery is the oldest Federal tree nursery in the U.S. It was established in 1902 and is producing over 3 million seedlings annually of over 40 species.
Natural Features Along the Byway:
- The Sandhills are the largest area of stabilized grass covered sand dunes in the Western Hemisphere encompassing more than 13 million acres. The Sandhills equal an area about as large as Vermont, New Hampshire and Rhode Island combined.
- The Sandhills landscape functions as a giant sponge situated atop the nation’s largest under-ground water supply. The Ogallala Aquifer is part of a larger ground water reservoir called the High Plains Aquifer, which is located under eight states. The Sandhills are blessed with the largest and most accessible amount of that water. The Loup River System (South, Middle, North Loup and Dismal Rivers) has been documented as the most constant flowing in the world.
- The Byway lies at the heart of the Central Flyway for migratory birds. The annual Sandhill Crane migration is touted as one of the greatest wildlife spectacles in the world.
- The area is one of the largest “dark spots” left in the continental United States and a highly desired destination for astronomy buffs.
- The Nebraska National Forest, near Halsey, is the nation’s largest hand-planted forest, encompassing 92,000 acres of rolling hills planted with 22,000 acres of trees.
- The Bessey Nursery, located in the Nebraska National Forest, is the oldest operational nursery in the national forest system today and one of six still in operation in the United States today.
Other Wildlife Along the Byway: The highly varied topography of the area and abundance of surface and ground water contribute to a diversity of habitats that support a wide variety and abundance of wildlife.
The most abundant large mammals are mule and white-tailed deer. Pronghorn antelope can be found in smaller numbers. Coyotes are common and are hunted for their pelts and for sport. Bob cats and foxes can be found in small numbers. Lakes and streams are home to muskrats, beaver, and mink. Other mammals found here are porcupines, badger, opossum, raccoons, prairie dogs, pocket gophers, skunks, squirrels, weasels, rabbits, kangaroo rats, moles, voles, shrews and bats.
The area streams and lakes are home to many varieties of fish. Game fish, primarily yellow perch, northern pike, largemouth bass, bluegill and carp have been introduced into many lakes. Trout, channel catfish, flathead chub and river carpsucker can be found in the streams and rivers. Some rare fish species, disjunct from their principal northern range, include the blacknose shiner, pearl dace, northern redbelly dace and finescale dace. These species are less tolerant of habitat change and are now restricted to the fairly stable headwaters of Sandhill streams.
There are several amphibians and reptiles found in the area, including salamanders, toads, frogs, turtles, lizards and snakes. The ornate box turtle is probably the most well known reptile and can often be seen crossing the roads. Blanding turtles, a northern species, appear to be fairly abundant in the area lakes and marshes. Common snakes are the bull snake and western hognose snake. The prairie rattlesnake is the region’s only venomous snake and can be found around prairie dog towns or areas with rock outcrops.
Insects are abundant in the area but have not been studied extensively. They are important as pollinators, decomposers, grazers and food for other wildlife. Many varieties of butterflies can be seen here and also many species of scarab beetles. The burying beetle, listed on the federal and state endangered list, is still found in the Sandhills in significant numbers.
For a listing of many of the sandhills wildlife inhabitants see: http://www.thenebraskasandhills.com/Animals.html
Plants and Flowers Along the Byway: The flat terrain and rich soil of the area around Grand Island provides a livelihood for farmers who plant corn, wheat, soybeans, and other row crops in this fertile flatland. Traveling northeast from Grand Island the view will change with the seasons and the distance. Close to Grand Island you witness crops being planted, harvested or safely stored in silos for the winter. Irrigation systems assist farmers in raising crops. Trees naturally grow by rivers and lakes along Highway 2 but they need tending in drier areas of the terrain. Trees have been planted near farmsteads and ranches for wind protection, to create wildlife habitat, and to provide aesthetic quality.
As you journey farther west, the flat terrain and loam become gently rolling hills with a healthy mix of crops and sandy-soil pastureland and native prairie. Northwest along Highway 2 past Anselmo, the pastures and native prairie become predominant and row crops are little more than a memory in the immense Sandhills area.
A variety of sand-tolerant plants began to take root in the shifting sands, holding the dunes in place. The sandy soil is low on nutrients necessary for crops and is vulnerable to wind and other weather conditions that cause considerable soil erosion. “The Sandhills prairie consists of approximately 700 plant species, of which only about 50 are not native – a remarkably small number for such an expansive area.” – Quoted from Jon Farrar in Birding Nebraska, page 89, January-February 2004, NEBRASKAland Magazine, Volume 83, Number 1, Nebraska Game & Parks Commission.
These plants have survived for centuries without being planted by man and provide grazing for livestock and a healthy barrier to protect the soil from the elements. The roots of grasses such as Indiangrass, little, big and sand bluestem, prairie sand reed, sand dropseed and sand lovegrass burrow into the sandy dunes and literally cover the dunes with a protective barrier from the elements.
Throughout the history of the Sandhills, droughts have occurred several times, resulting in exposure of the sands to the wind. “Blowouts” formed in the fragile landscape as a result of wind erosion. Blowouts are a natural part of the Sandhills ecosystem, creating habitat for the threatened and endangered blowout penstemon, a beautiful prairie plant with large bell-shaped, violet blooms. Blowout penstemon habitat is shrinking as ranchers carefully manage their lands in order to preserve dune stability so the lands do not revert back to a desert-like state.