My 11 Best Bird Watching Spots in Nebraska You Should Try

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Nebraska is rich in birdlife because there are many different habitats, providing foraging and nesting places for birds. A total of 467 bird species have been recorded in the state. This rich birdlife is partly due to the central location of Nebraska and the range of habitats present here.

The best bird watching spots in Nebraska include tallgrass prairie at Spring Creek and wetlands at Branched Oak, Funk Lagoon, and Crescent Lake refuges. Rowe Canyon and Sowbelly Canyon are best for finding western species, and Fontenelle Forest is suitable for various habitats and birds.

A table giving the most exciting birds you can see at each of my top 11 birding spots in Nebraska:

Branched Oak State Recreation AreaBald Eagle and Cackling Goose
Indian Cave State ParkAmerican Redstart and Ovenbird
Crescent Lake National Wildlife RefugeEared Grebe and American Bittern
Ponca State ParkLeast Tern and Eastern Whip-poor-will
Lake McConaughy State Recreation AreaMew Gull and Iceland Gull
Spring Creek Prairie Audubon CenterHenslow’s Sparrow and Greater Prairie-Chicken
Fontenelle Forest Cerulean Warbler and Canvasback
Funk Lagoon Waterfowl Production AreaGreater White-fronted Goose and Whooping Crane
Rowe SanctuarySandhill Crane and Bell’s Vireo
Chadron State ParkPygmy Nuthatch and Pinyon Jay
Sowbelly CanyonGolden Eagle and Black-billed Magpie
Best Places to Bird Watch in Nebraska

Read further to learn about my choices for the best bird watching spots you should visit in Nebraska. You can also find out the types of birds you can see at each spot.

Best Bird Watching Spots in Nebraska
Best Bird Watching Spots in Nebraska

TIP: If you want to check out the best pair of binoculars for bird watching, we recommend a pair of waterproof and fog-proof 8 x 42 binoculars like the Celestron – Outland X 8×42 Binoculars (Amazon link).

Best Places to Bird Watch in Nebraska

Nebraska has many habitats, including hardwood forests, grasslands, wetlands, grassland dunes (also known as Sandhills), and pine forests.

1. Branched Oak State Recreation Area 

This refuge is northwest of the city of Lincoln. The main attraction here is the many Bald Eagles that arrive each spring. 

There are also lots of waterfowl on the Branched Oak Lake. You can expect species such as Common Merganser, Canada Goose, American Wigeon, Northern Pintail, Red-breasted Merganser, and Cackling Goose. Both Glaucous and Iceland Gulls have been spotted here as well.

The area is rich in birds, with 279 species recorded. You can use a checklist for this hotspot to help you know what species to look out for.

It would be best if you kept an eye out for Dickcissels, which will sing loudly in spring in the grassy areas. The cottonwood trees are where you can find Red-headed Woodpeckers and Willow Flycatchers. The two species of orioles you can find here are the Baltimore Orioles and Orchard Orioles. 

2. Indian Cave State Park

Indian Cave State Park is a 3,052-acre park situated in the southeastern section of Nebraska on the Missouri River. It has a large expanse of hardwood forests and sandstone bluffs. The park is an excellent hot spot for migrating birds, so visiting during spring is an excellent idea.

Another reason to bird watch this park is that there are southern birds that are not commonly seen elsewhere in Nebraska.

Birds in the forests and the riparian vegetation at Indian Cave State Park include Yellow-throated Vireos, Ovenbirds, Red-headed Woodpeckers, Black-and-white Warblers, American Redstarts, Northern Parulas, and Kentucky Warblers.

You should also check the forest floor for signs of a Wood Thrush or Louisiana Waterthrush. These two species are low in vegetation or ground, where they forage insects. Summer Tanagers and Scarlet Tanagers can also be seen during migration.

3. Crescent Lake National Wildlife Refuge

Crescent Lake National Wildlife Refuge is found in the Sandhills region of Nebraska. The area is known for its wetlands; there are 21 wetlands in the refuge, including shallow lakes, streams, marshland, and seasonal wetlands. 

It would be best if you kept an eye out for bird species such as American White Pelican, Eared Grebe, Western Grebe, and Pied-billed Grebe.

There are also the birds you find in the reeds and rank vegetation on the edges of wetlands. These species include the American Bittern, Least Bittern, Sora, Virginia Rail, and Marsh Wren. 

Wading birds like the American Avocet, Black-necked Stilt, White-faced Ibis, and Black-crowned Night-Heron are also usually seen in the refuge by the wetlands.

The grassland areas are home to Horned Larks, Burrowing Owls, Loggerhead Shrikes, Lark Sparrows, Grasshopper Sparrows, and Bobolinks. This 45,800-acre refuge would be near the top of my list of choices in Nebraska for seeing waterfowl and waders.

TIP: Knowing how to spot the birds in your yard is key to enjoying visits from your winged friends as much as possible! The best sources are trusted books, I recommend using the following (Amazon links):
National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America
National Audubon Society Birds of North America

4. Ponca State Park

This state park is situated northwest of Sioux City in the northeastern part of the state. It is perfect for bird watching, with more than 200 species observed here. There are guided walks that you can sign up for in spring. 

Ponca State Park is comprised of hills covered in forest and riparian vegetation, which lines the Missouri River. You can find Bald Eagles and Osprey along the river. Some fields and hills are forested. The fields attract Grasshopper Sparrows and Dickcissels. 

Forested sections of the park are where you can find the following bird species: American Redstart, Eastern Towhee, Scarlet Tanager, Rose-breasted Grosbeak, Yellow-throated Vireo, Wood Thrush, and Baltimore Oriole. 

At night, you can hear the Eastern Whip-poor-will calling. You can camp in the park, which is a good idea if you are keen on finding and hearing nocturnal birds like owls, nighthawks, and whip-poor-wills. There are sandbars in the river, providing spots for migrating shorebirds and nesting sites for Least Terns.

5. Lake McConaughy State Recreation Area

Lake McConaughy is a reservoir located on the North Platte River. It is large at 144,5 km² in size and is situated north of Ogallala.

The many gulls found on the lake in winter are a big draw for bird watchers. You can find Franklin’s Gulls, Ring-billed Gulls, Mew Gulls, Sabine’s Gulls, Glaucous-winged Gulls, and Iceland Gulls.

TOP TIP: Birds in the wild can travel long distances during the year. How do they recognize each other and their own species? Read this complete breakdown to find out. If the winter months are long and harsh, with not much food for wild birds, can you feed them? Find out in this article.

6. Spring Creek Prairie Audubon Center

This is an 850-acre preserve of the tallgrass prairie. It is located southwest of Lincoln. An Audubon visitor center is worth a visit to learn more about this area and its history.

The birds you can find at Spring Creek include Henslow’s Sparrow, Dickcissel, and Bobolink. Greater Prairie-Chicken and Upland Sandpipers are also present in these grasslands and nest in the preserve. The best time to visit the area is spring when you hear the Greater Prairie-Chickens calling.

Raptors that hunt in the prairie include Northern Harriers (which occur here in winter) and Rough-legged Hawks. 

7. Fontenelle Forest 

Fontenelle Forest comprises 1,400 acres and is found south of Omaha. This area is much more than a bottomland forest; it also has oak savannah, wetlands, and grasslands. It is this range of habitats that attracts a variety of bird species. 

A boardwalk and an observation area provide views of the Great Marsh Wetland. The observation area is actually an elevated tower, giving you a good view of a large area of the wetland.

Bird species you can look out for in Fontenelle Forest include Cerulean Warbler, Yellow-throated Warbler, and Kentucky Warbler. Summer Tanagers and Black-headed Grosbeaks are also often seen in the preserve.

Wetland species include Common Merganser, Lesser Scaup, Redhead, and Canvasback. Snow Goose and Ross’s Goose are two species that are also seen in the refuge.

The area has a record of 279 species of birds. You can print the checklist of birds found here to use on your trip. 

8. Funk Lagoon Waterfowl Production Area

Funk Lagoon Waterfowl Production Area is a  1989-acre marshy area, of which over 1100 acres are wetlands. The area has permanent water, which attracts massive numbers of birds, including waterfowl and shorebirds.

There are open expanses of water, native grasslands, and mud and marsh vegetation areas, which provide foraging and breeding sites for numerous birds. A three-mile loop and hiking trails take you through the marsh.

Many waterfowl are on the open water, like Pied-billed Grebes, Greater White-Fronted Geese, and Snow Geese.

Whooping Cranes can be found here in April and October. In summer, you should check for Black-crowned Night Herons, Cattle Egrets, Great Blue Herons, and Great Egrets.

Double-crested Cormorants and American White Pelicans are also found in the area. Marshy vegetation is an excellent place to see Virginia Rails and Sora. Least Bitterns and Black-crowned Night Herons nest in the refuge. 

9. Rowe Sanctuary

This sanctuary is in southwestern Nebraska and is located on the Platte River. This spot is a favorite among bird watchers for viewing thousands of Sandhill Cranes. These cranes are present in the Rowe Sanctuary from about the middle of February into April.

The sanctuary has wetlands and grasslands that attract more than just cranes. You can find many bird species here, including several waterfowl and shorebirds. The waterfowl recorded here include Cinnamon Teal, Green-winged Teal, Bufflehead, Canvasback, Canada Goose, Ruddy Duck, and Bufflehead.

Shorebirds are found in the shallows and muddy areas of the wetlands. Species of shorebirds to look out for in the sanctuary include Green Heron, Little Egret, White-faced Ibis, and Little Blue Heron.

You can look for Lincoln’s Sparrows and LeConte’s Sparrows on land. Chestnut-sided Warblers and Bell’s Vireos can also be seen in the refuge. For maximum benefit, you should visit when the Sandhill Cranes are most numerous in late winter into spring.

TIP: Check out my recommended products if you are looking for the best and trusted equipment for birdwatching in the wild or on your backyard (Amazon link):

10. Chadron State Park

This state park is located in the northwestern part of the state. I included this park on my list of top bird watching spots because this is where you can find species not seen elsewhere in the state. 

These birds with a western range include species such as Pygmy Nuthatch, Western Tanager, Pinyon Jay, and Say’s Phoebe.

11. Sowbelly Canyon

This is an area in which 169 bird species have been listed. You can bird from the road that passes through the canyon and continues until reaching a creek bed bottom area. 

The birds spotted in this area include raptors such as the Coopers Hawk, Golden Eagle, American Kestrel, Turkey Vulture, and Red-tailed Hawk.

Other species to look out for in this area include Black-billed Magpies and Western Wood-Pewees. Tree Swallows and White-throated Swifts can be seen flying around in the area. 

Best Time to Bird Watch in Nebraska

You can’t go wrong bird watching in Nebraska because there are always birds regardless of the season, but some species may only occur during the migration or be the most numerous during times of migration in spring and fall. 

Vireos, thrushes, and warblersSpring
Gulls and Bald EaglesWinter
Best Time to Bird Watch in Nebraska

The Nebraska State Bird

Western Meadowlark - The State Bird of Nebraska
Western Meadowlark – The State Bird of Nebraska

The Western Meadowlark was selected to be the state bird of Nebraska. The bird is famous as a state bird, having also been chosen as the state bird for five other states.

Meadowlarks are attractive birds with long legs and bright yellow underparts with a black breast band. The back and rest of the upper parts are brown with streaks of black in places, making it difficult to see the birds if they are in thick grass, where they are well camouflaged. 

However, meadowlarks are often seen singing from an exposed perch, so they are usually easy to see and identify when in an area.

Bird Watching Laws in Nebraska

In Nebraska, an Avian Protection Plan states that you are not allowed to possess any part of a bird. This also includes the nests and eggs of birds, which you are not permitted to interfere with in any way.

My Favourite Equipment for Bird Watching

Bird watching is one of the least expensive hobbies out there, but you still need some equipment to get the most out of it. 

The essential equipment to start bird watching is a pair of binoculars. My preference is 8 X 42 binoculars. The number 8 is how much the magnification is, while 42 is the field of view in millimeters of the lenses.

A pair of waterproof and fog-proof 8 x 42 binoculars like the Celestron – Outland X 8×42 Binoculars on Amazon is an excellent choice for both beginners and experts. 

In time, you can choose more expensive models and also opt to buy a spotting scope like the Celestron Ultima 80 on Amazon.

These are a lot more expensive compared with binoculars though, so if you are only a beginner, start with binoculars first. A spotting scope is only helpful for birds far away, such as out on a pond or seashore.

There are a few rules or guidelines you should abide by as an ethical birder. These are listed below.

  • Do not enter private lands without prior permission from landowners.
  • Follow all the rules in refuges and reserves, including cleaning up any garbage from your campsite.
  • Do not disturb birds on nests.
  • Do not use apps and play songs to call up birds when they are hungry, tired, and breeding during spring and summer.


Nebraska is mainly known for its tallgrass prairie, but there are also wetlands, forests, hills, and canyons, providing a range of places for birds to forage, nest, and rest during migration.

This is also a good state for seeing the endangered Greater Prairie Chicken. I would include Nebraska on a list of planned states to visit for bird watching.

TIP: If you want to check out the best pair of binoculars for bird watching, we recommend a pair of waterproof and fog-proof 8 x 42 binoculars like the Celestron – Outland X 8×42 Binoculars (Amazon link).

Rae Osborn

Rae Osborn is an avid bird watcher and holds a doctorate in Biology. Her interests in birds began as a child growing up in South Africa. She has continued to study birds and has bird watched in the United States and South Africa.

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