Whether you plan to explore the prairies, wetlands, or riparian areas of Nebraska, it’s safe to say that this is a great state to consider for your next birding expedition. While it may lack majestic natural features like deep forests and snow-capped mountains, Nebraska offers complex and diverse habitats to discover many fascinating bird species. The state no longer has the tall grass prairies that used to be in the past but there are other places that attract birds. The sandhills are the best example. These rolling grassland dunes provide an excellent ecosystem for a wide range of rare species. If you want to see the best birds in Nebraska, you’ve come to the right place.
Before looking at the highlight bird species in this state, check out the following essential birding accessories to complete your experience:
- Birder’s Journal
Anyone serious about birding needs to consider getting a special journal for jotting down essential information or making quick sketches. There are lots of notebooks that can meet the needs of birdwatching enthusiasts but few can match the durability and overall value of this Rite in the Rain Birder’s Journal. It’s an essential accessory with fully weatherproof paper that you can confidently use anywhere in the field.
Being able to take high-quality photos of the observed birds represents another important aspect of this kind of hobby. Consider getting a reliable point & shoot digital camera like the Panasonic Lumix FZ300. It’s one of the best models on the market for nature photography thanks to its performant 4K photo technology, advanced image stabilization, and rugged construction.
- Field Guide
With the help of the Birds of Nebraska field guide, you should be able to take your birdwatching fun to a new level. Instead of wasting time searching through countless species of birds, you can just focus more specifically only on the birds in this state. It’s a great reference book for any birding enthusiast who needs fact-filled information like quick bird recognition and range maps.
The spring and fall seasons in Nebraska are excellent times to spot ospreys. These raptors tend to stand out thanks to their preference for diving into the water searching for fish. It’s definitely a fascinating bird of prey that regularly visits the reservoirs of Nebraska during migration. Birders can recognize an osprey by its large size and brown-and-white plumage. The broad brown line on its white head is quite distinctive. Look for this raptor soaring over waterways concentrating for the best moment to dive in the water for its prey.
2. Northern Bobwhite
A captivating game bird, the northern bobwhite is a permanent resident in Nebraska. Although it has suffered from habitat loss, this bird can be found if you’re really determined. There’s also the issue of camouflage considering the northern bobwhite’s dappled brown plumage. The male of the species features a black-and-white striped face and a brighter brown appearance compared to the female. It’s recommended to start exploring fields and various grasslands to get a good view of this bird. The northern bobwhite has a simple call to learn even for amateur birders.
3. Grasshopper Sparrow
Grasshopper sparrows can be challenging birds to observe as they forage on the ground and hide in dense vegetation instead of flying. The bird has a fairly extensive range in the US, including throughout the whole state of Nebraska. It can only be found during its breeding season. Grasshopper sparrows are interesting for birders more for their behavior and insect-like song rather than appearance. Search for these stubby-tailed birds in overgrown pastures where they often sit perched on grass stalks. It also pays off to learn their distinctive buzzing song.
4. Sandhill Crane
Known for its elegant dancing skills and graceful appearance, the sandhill crane is an essential bird to see in Nebraska. Visiting the marshes and prairies in the state can be a rewarding experience considering how you’ll easily discover large populations of this bird. The sandhill crane has a fairly large body and drooping gray plumage. The head of the bird features a red crown. You can appreciate the crane’s majestic look even more during flight as it stretches its broad wings. Look for sandhill cranes during the summer to see their exuberant mating dance.
5. Pied-billed Grebe
A cute waterbird that’s fairly common in North America, the pied-billed grebe is a regular summer visitor in Nebraska. One of its defining characteristics is the unusually thick bill. The bird has a chunky appearance. It looks as if it has no tail which gives it a fairly compact look together with the blocky head. This grebe is a skillful swimmer and diver thanks to its lobed feet. Breeding adults show off a distinctive black stripe on the bill. Check out lakes and large ponds to spot pied-billed grebes.
6. Black-crowned Night-Heron
Although it’s a common wetland bird, the black-crowned night-heron is not as easy to find compared to similar species. Nebraska birders can spot it only at night or at dusk because that’s usually when the heron hunts for fish. During the day, the bird hides in vegetation but you might still observe its eye-catching gray-and-black plumage with a blue tinge on the head and back. The tendency to tuck its neck together with the overall stocky appearance makes the black-crowned night-heron seem hunchbacked. This is a breeding species for Nebraska so look for it in the summertime.
Willets are large and conspicuous shorebirds that will often visit Nebraska’s water bodies after wintering on the shorelines. These birds stand out through both their piercing calls and striking mottled feathers. The patterned brown plumage is more noticeable during the breeding season. Willets feature long legs and straight bills. It’s also interesting to observe this shorebird during flight. This gives birders the opportunity to check out the bold markings on the wings. These features are the most useful for proper identification considering the overall indistinct look of the bird.
8. Black Tern
The black tern is able to stand out very conspicuously when mixing with white seabirds. This is due to its distinctive gray plumage that gets darker towards the head and underparts of the bird. This tern species features impressive agility despite its overall delicate form. There are some breeding populations of black terns in northwestern Nebraska. They’re found during migration in the marshy habitats in other parts of the state. If you plan on searching for black terns in the fall or spring, keep in mind that you have to be quick as they move fast from a wetland to another.
9. Sharp-tailed Grouse
Nebraska is a solid destination for watching the sharp-tailed grouse. This game bird is a permanent resident of the grasslands in the northwestern parts of the state. Sharp-tailed grouses can be best observed at their breeding grounds where males engage in a characteristic mating dance. Females judge the performance of the males that usually involves inflating purplish air sacs. It’s recommended to visit a lek in the spring to see this fascinating behavior. In the rest of the year, this chickenlike grouse can be encountered in open fields and woodland regions where they forage on the ground.
10. Eastern Whip-poor-will
With a very distinctive song heard on summer nights, the eastern whip-poor-will represents another great bird to look for in Nebraska. This nightjar species is fairly easy to recognize by its vocalizations even by beginner birders. Getting a glimpse of the bird is a different matter considering its flawless camouflaging abilities. Eastern whip-poor-wills show complex gray/brown patterns on their bodies. This appearance makes it blend very well among leaf litter in their natural forested habitats. The bird has an aerial foraging habit and is mostly active at dawn and dusk.
A common warbler with an interesting personality, the ovenbird is quite widespread in Nebraska, mainly during the migration seasons. The bird is usually heard before it’s seen thanks to the distinctive rapid-fire singing. You might be surprised that such a loud song is performed by a tiny bird considering the size of an ovenbird. It can be recognized by its bold black spots on the underparts while the back shows off an olive-brown color. The plumage provides the bird with excellent camouflaging potential that’s useful during ground foraging.
12. Barred Owl
Barred owls are more widespread in the eastern half of the US but their range extends to Nebraska as well. With a distinctive hooting call and attractive appearance, this owl is delightful to observe for many birders. The species is quite common but you need to look for it in the right habitats – usually mature forests. Another important aspect is the timing. The barred owl is a nocturnal hunter so visiting the forest at night is your best bet for finding it. Birds can be recognized by their striped plumage in shades of brown and white. They’re bulky owls with a yellow bill and dark eyes.
13. Acadian Flycatcher
Though not a common sight in most parts of Nebraska, the Acadian flycatcher can rely on the easternmost forests of the state as stopover sites during migration. These birds don’t really stand out for their olive appearance but will draw some considerable attention through distinctive vocalizations. An Acadian flycatcher’s song boasts explosive and loud notes that will help to detect the bird visually. It tends to hang around at middle elevations in mature forests. Sometimes it can be spotted during insect hunting through the air.
14. Northern Parula
Dressed with an elegant combination of blue-gray and yellow-olive colors, the northern parula shouldn’t be missed if you go birding in Nebraska. It’s quite an attractive find considering the plumage and neat details such as the white eye crescents and darker orange/black band on its chest. Northern parulas are small warblers that prefer foraging in the upper canopy of the trees. For this reason, it’s recommended to grab a high-quality pair of binoculars to get a proper view of them. The bird lives mainly in forests with long plants such as beard lichens and can be identified by its buzzy trills.
15. Wood Thrush
If you’re adventuring deeper into the eastern forests of Nebraska, you might get lucky enough to spot a wood thrush. This is a more reclusive bird that’s quite easy to recognize just by its flutelike song with particularly loud qualities. Wood thrushes have cinnamon upperparts and white underparts spotted in darker brown. They can be seen sitting upright when performing their distinctive musical notes. The male bird sings when perching on the lower canopy. You can spot a wood thrush foraging on the ground as well but with some more effort considering the good disguise of the bird in leaf litter.
16. Scarlet Tanager
Showing off a blend of blood-red and jet-black colors, the scarlet tanager is a beautiful bird to admire. Its range extends to pretty much all eastern forests in the summer, including a few pockets in eastern Nebraska. Only the male bird has the characteristic scarlet look while the females are olive-yellow. Despite the bright appearance, it can be challenging to spot this type of cardinal. This is due to the fact that scarlet tanagers prefer high elevations in the forest. They will sit inconspicuously in the forest canopy while performing their raspy song.
17. Greater Prairie-Chicken
Nebraska is a top destination for seeing the greater prairie-chicken. This game bird has a particularly memorable mating performance as males court females through booming calls and characteristic dances. You can see greater prairie-chicken in Nebraska year-round but the populations have experienced a significant decline due to habitat loss. The best time to see this bird is during its breeding season at a lek. In the rest of the year, the male bird has a barred appearance with brown and white colors. The courtship display transforms it as the bird shows raised feathers and exposed orange air sacs.
18. Smith’s Longspur
A striking songbird that breeds in tundra regions, the Smith’s longspur visits Nebraska during migration on its way to spend the winter in warmer locations. This buffy and finely streaked bird has a few distinctive features like the pointed bill and white wing bars. It will only show more eye-catching plumage during the breeding season when the male becomes orangish with bold black-and-white head patterns. Find the Smith’s longspur in grasslands and fields where it forages on the ground in numerous flocks.
19. Rough-legged Hawk
The winter season in Nebraska could be an ideal period to see the rough-legged hawk. This bird of prey breeds in Arctic regions during the summer and will regularly visit many US regions in the cold season. It can be found in open grasslands where the bird frequently sits perched on utility poles or slender treetops. Rough-legged hawks show two plumage forms – light and dark. The bird is quite large for a hawk so it won’t be easily confused with a smaller American kestrel even though there’s some resemblance.
20. Sprague’s Pipit
While not a particularly impressive visual attraction for birders, the Sprague’s pipit grabs the attention through its spectacular song flight. It’s certainly worth searching the grasslands of Nebraska for it during the migration season. The bird has a plain buffy plumage. Males perform a downward-swirling song when flying so look for this characteristic feature to find it. The Sprague’s pipit is no longer as common as it used to be due to the disappearance of native prairies and grasslands. Visiting a wildlife refuge could be your best bet to enjoy the bird’s spectacular singing and rapid wings fluttering.
21. Wild Turkey
Seeing wild turkeys in Nebraska is quite easy year-round. These common game birds live in flocks and tend to prefer clearings and roadsides in woodland habitats. Breeding males are the most interesting to watch considering the typical feather puffing and gobbling vocalizations. The fanned tail, in particular, gives the wild turkey its distinctive appearance. It’s recommended to explore oak and hickory forests to increase your chances of finding this iconic game bird. The spring and summer seasons are the best time for hearing the loud calls of the birds.
22. American Redstart
When it comes to energetic warblers, the American redstart is definitely an important species. Found in Nebraska mostly during migration, this fairly common bird has a dark look with orange patches. The female bird is olive-and-gray with yellow patches. Both sexes show flat bills and long tails. American redstarts can often be seen flashing their expressive tails during insect hunting. The warbler is highly appreciated by birders searching for songbirds with a great personality. These birds are more conspicuous compared to similar species when foraging in the leafy canopy of forests.
23. Western Grebe
Western grebes are elegant waterbirds with slender forms dressed in blackish upperparts and white underparts. True to its name, this bird is widespread in the western half of the US. The grebes are also found in the breeding and migration seasons in Nebraska when visiting the state’s lakes and ponds. Birders enjoy watching their ballet-like courtship dances performed by both the male and female birds together. Adult western grebes show off dark caps and bright red eyes. The bird is also a graceful presence due to its distinctive S-shaped neck.
Overgrown pastures and fields in Nebraska act like the perfect environment for the dickcissel. This bird resembles the look of a meadowlark but it’s much smaller. Breeding males show off a colorful appearance with patches of yellow and rusty orange as well as distinctive black “V” on the throat. Dickcissels tend not to sit around in the same spot for too long. The birds forage on the ground for seeds and can wander quite far from the central parts of the continent. Search for this bird in Nebraska during the summer breeding period when you can hear the dickcissel’s short and clicky song.
25. Great-tailed Grackle
The great-tailed grackle stands out among other blackbirds thanks to its big body and loud calls. Male birds are the most impressive considering their long tails, bright yellow eyes, and iridescent black plumage. Female great-tailed grackles show a duller dark brown look and are smaller than the males. These birds can often mix with other species of blackbirds. They prefer open farmlands but they can be often seen foraging in urban areas as well. Great-tailed grackles show up at bird feeders and can easily intimidate smaller birds.
26. White-throated Swift
With piercing calls and a striking black-and-white plumage, the white-throated swift is a fascinating bird to watch. This species lives primarily close to canyons and cliffs but its breeding range extends to some western parts of Nebraska. White-throated swifts can delight birders with their dizzying aerial acrobatics when pursuing insects or during courtship. To identify this bird, look for a chunky body, arched wings that are considerably long, and white underparts. This type of swift is highly social and tends to roost in numerous flocks.
27. Pinyon Jay
A fairly rare bird to spot in Nebraska, the pinyon jay has an elegant faded blue appearance. Compared to other jay species, this bird lacks a crest while it also has a shorter tail and longer bill. As its name suggests, the bird prefers pinyon-juniper or other types of woodlands. It flies in noisy flocks while the birds search for food and breed together. Pinyon jays are considered nomadic birds so it can be difficult to spot them even in their range and ideal environments. Scan the tops of pinyon pines carefully when searching for them but don’t forget about checking the ground as well.
28. Common Poorwill
Named after the bird’s characteristic singing of ‘poor-willip’, this nightjar has a fairly widespread presence in western and central Nebraska. Common poorwills can only be found here in the summer when males perform their distinctive songs at nighttime. The birds have a flat head and gray-brown plumage that provides dense camouflage in their usual scrub habitat. The common poorwill is an aerial forager that needs warm temperatures at night to catch its insect prey. If you search for it during a colder night, the bird might be spotted in a state of torpor.
29. Say’s Phoebe
An open-country bird with a slender appearance, the Say’s phoebe can be seen hunting for insects in midair. Recognizing this species involves checking for a long tail and feathers with a mix of gray-brown with cinnamon tones. The bird is frequently vocal but it has moments of quietness that make it more challenging to find. Nebraska offers many great grassland locations that are used by Say’s phoebes for their breeding grounds. This bird is also known to be attracted to nest boxes if you plan on creating a bird-friendly habitat in your backyard.
30. Black-necked Stilt
Although it’s a rare presence in Nebraska, the elegant black-necked stilt is very easy to spot thanks to its bold appearance. Adults show long rose-pink legs that give the bird’s body a lanky form. As the name of the shorebird suggests, it features a black patch on the neck, as well as the head and back. The dark upperparts contrast with the white plumage on the black-necked stilt’s lower body. Even if you don’t get a proper look at it, this bird can be recognized from far away just by observing its distinctive silhouette on the move or when hearing the loud, yapping calls.