Exploring Nebraska’s Incredibly Diverse Niobrara River

By September 25, 2014Science

This spring, Rocky Mountain Bird Observatory began conducting bird population monitoring surveys in a new area for us, the Niobrara National Scenic River in northern Nebraska. RMBO has been monitoring birds in Northern Great Plains Network national parks, monuments and historic sites since 2011, but the network’s Niobrara National Scenic River was just added to the survey list this year. This effort is part of our Integrated Monitoring in Bird Conservation Regions (IMBCR) program, one of the largest breeding bird monitoring programs in North America.

A native Californian, I didn’t really know what to expect out of the upper reaches of Nebraska when I first began surveying birds there a few years ago. After getting to know some of the hidden gems in the area, I couldn’t be more thrilled to call Nebraska home for a couple months in the summer. I’ve found fresh springs bursting out of the hills, morel mushrooms sprouting in recently burned forests, and an incredibly diverse array of habitats and wildlife.


White Morel in northwest Nebraska (photo by the author)

The Niobrara National Scenic River is part of the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System, created in 1968 to preserve rivers with outstanding natural, cultural and recreational values. Much of the land adjacent to the Niobrara River remains privately owned. The largest landowner along the Niobrara River is The Nature Conservancy. Its Niobrara Valley Preserve is one of TNC’s largest properties in the United States, encompassing 56,000 acres and a 25-mile stretch of land along the river. More than 1,000 species of animals and plants have been recorded on the preserve.

Phenomenal Birding, Spectacular Views

This summer, I arrived at the Niobrara River in the dusk of an early June evening and quickly figured out my first survey location. I set up a primitive camp on the sandy bluffs above the south side of the river. That evening, while eating dinner, I was serenaded by an Eastern Whip-poor-will singing nearby. This was the first time I had heard this species in my study area … a good sign!


Sunset view from sandhills above the Niobrara River (photo by the author)

The next morning at dawn, I traversed the sandhills down to the river among mature bur oak, ponderosa pine, basswood and ash forests conducting bird surveys along the way. The birding was phenomenal and the views were spectacular. The Niobrara River is known for hosting a great mix of Eastern and Western wildlife and plant species. In fact, I heard an Eastern Wood-Pewee and a Western Wood-Pewee singing within 100 meters of each other (something I’d never experienced before).

It was some time during this morning when I first saw the effects of the Fairfield Creek Fire on the landscape. In July of 2012, more than 66,000 acres burned adjacent to the Niobrara River. The fire was ignited by a lightning strike on the south side of the Niobrara River and quickly spread east engulfing both sides of the river. The ponderosa pine forest on the north side of the river was almost completely consumed by the wildfire. Two years later, we are seeing strong signs of shrub and tree regeneration all around. This has caused a shift in the composition of bird species in the area. Woodpeckers and other species that feed on insects in the burnt trees are abundant. Also, shrub-loving birds, such as Dickcissel and Blue Grosbeak, are some of the most common bird species seen in those areas.


Dickcissel: the second-most commonly detected species on the Niobrara River during IMBCR surveys this summer (photo by Bill Schmoker)

In total, two other biologists and I completed 12 days of bird monitoring surveys on the Niobrara National Scenic River. We recorded more than 2,400 birds of 77 species during our time there. We also got the opportunity to float down a secluded stretch of the Niobrara, one of the prettiest rivers in North America in my opinion. If you have a chance to visit this one-of-a-kind location, I highly recommend it … and bring your binoculars and bird guide!


Diverse forests line the edge of the Niobrara River (photo by the author)

Species detected on the Niobrara National Scenic River in 2014 during IMBCR surveys:

  • American Avocet
  • American Crow
  • American Goldfinch
  • American Kestrel
  • American Redstart
  • American Robin
  • American White Pelican
  • Bald Eagle
  • Baltimore Oriole
  • Bank Swallow
  • Barn Swallow
  • Bell’s Vireo
  • Belted Kingfisher
  • Black-and-white Warbler
  • Black-billed Cuckoo
  • Black-capped Chickadee
  • Black-headed Grosbeak
  • Blue Grosbeak
  • Blue Jay
  • Blue-gray Gnatcatcher
  • Blue-winged Teal
  • Brown Creeper
  • Brown Thrasher
  • Brown-headed Cowbird
  • Canada Goose
  • Cedar Waxwing
  • Chipping Sparrow
  • Common Grackle
  • Common Nighthawk
  • Common Yellowthroat
  • Cooper’s Hawk
  • Dickcissel
  • Downy Woodpecker
  • Eastern Bluebird
  • Eastern Kingbird
  • Eastern Wood-Pewee
  • European Starling
  • Field Sparrow
  • Grasshopper Sparrow
  • Gray Catbird
  • Great Blue Heron
  • Great Crested Flycatcher
  • Hairy Woodpecker
  • Horned Lark
  • House Wren
  • Indigo Bunting
  • Killdeer
  • Lark Sparrow
  • Mourning Dove
  • Northern Bobwhite
  • Northern Cardinal
  • Northern Flicker
  • Northern Rough-winged Swallow
  • Orchard Oriole
  • Ovenbird
  • Red Crossbill
  • Red-bellied Woodpecker
  • Red-breasted Nuthatch
  • Red-eyed Vireo
  • Red-headed Woodpecker
  • Red-tailed Hawk
  • Red-winged Blackbird
  • Song Sparrow
  • Spotted Sandpiper
  • Spotted Towhee
  • Tree Swallow
  • Turkey Vulture
  • Upland Sandpiper
  • Virginia Rail
  • Warbling Vireo
  • Western Meadowlark
  • Western Wood-Pewee
  • White-breasted Nuthatch
  • Wild Turkey
  • Yellow Warbler
  • Yellow-billed Cuckoo
  • Yellow-breasted Chat

~ Jeff Birek, Outreach Biologist