Bird Watching in the Sandhills

The Nebraska Sandhills region represents the largest natural ecosystem in the state, covering nearly 19,000 square miles, or almost a quarter of the state. It is also the largest remaining grassland ecosystem in the country that is still virtually intact both faunistically and floristically. It is a land with far fewer people than cattle, where the roads are few and where tourist facilities and accommodations are almost non-existent. Those roads that do exist are little-traveled and often consist of only slightly improved sandy trails leading to ranches.

The Sandhills region is filled with breathtaking vistas, spectacular bird populations in the hundreds of lakes and marshes, and a pioneer spirit that requires everyone to help his or her neighbor, or indeed any stranger who happens to fall afoul of trouble while on the road. It is a land adapted to naturalists who would like to study virtually unaltered prairie ecosystems, and who are prepared to deal with nature on its own terms.

U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service

Valentine Wildlife Refuge

In 2005, Valentine National Wildlife Refuge was designated a Nebraska Important Bird Area (IBA) by the Audubon Society. The IBA program is an inventory of the key sites within a state that support significant numbers and high diversity of birds. The IBA program is a conservation and education effort of the National Audubon Society and has no regulatory authority. Our application was reviewed by a technical committee which commented on the high diversity of species and the large population of greater prairie chickens found on Valentine National Wildlife Refuge.

The Refuge is also recognized as an Important Bird Area by the American Bird Conservancy ( 

In 2012, Nebraska‚Äôs Center for Great Plains Studies included Valentine National Wildlife Refuge as one of the Great Plains Top 50 Ecotourism Sites. An ecotourism site is defined as a place primarily devoted to environmental or biodiversity conservation and providing an opportunity for the public to experience nature. Professional naturalists named sites considered to offer the best, most powerful environmental experience or are ones that are ecologically the most important. The Center recognizes the importance of ecotourism in helping nearby communities to thrive economically, increasing public awareness of nature, and generating funding for conservation. More information is available at Species Checklist

The Nature Conservancy

The Nature Conservancy’s Niobrara Valley Preserve is one of the largest TNC preserves in the U.S., and a model for grassland management using bison, cattle and fire. It encompasses majestic pine-clad canyons, extensive grasslands, and a 25-mile stretch of the Niobrara River. Visitors can enjoy the beauty of the preserve year-round, and of special interest is the bison herd grazing in the vast open prairie.


Visitors are welcome to walk the new hiking trail west of the Preserve mailbox (foot traffic only, please). The trailhead includes a small parking area and information kiosk. You have your choice of the long loop or the short loop, both with grand views of the Niobrara River. You may enjoy the Norden chute at the Norden Bridge as well. Fishing is allowed with a Nebraska fishing permit. Please, no diving, camping or campfires.

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Photo Courtesy of the Niobrara Valley Preserve – Fall

Ballards Marsh State Recreation Area

Ballards March Wildlife Management Area is about 20 miles south of Valentine, NE on US Highway 83 in the heart of Nebraska’s sandhills. The large marsh and adjacent grasslands are managed by Nebraska Game and Parks Commission. It is a great place to see common birds and wildflowers of the sandhills. Perhaps you will hear a coyote or see the bald eagles which nest in trees just up the road. A free primitive campground is available with room for a half-dozen tents or trailers. There are a couple of picnic tables, fire boxes, a hand-operated water pump and an outhouse. The gravel loop road allows easy maneuvering for trailers. The campground is well shaded by large elms and is a delightful stop for a picnic during the summer. I camped here in late June, and had the place to myself. I was delighted to hear the trill of meadowlarks and the chirp of crickets and see fireflies at night. Staying at Ballards Marsh allows an early start for those who want to fish, hunt or watch birds at Valentine National Wildlife Refuge (about 3 miles to the South on Route 83).

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Big Alkali Wildlife Management Area

Consists of 47 lakeside acres plus a 800-acre Sandhills lake. Whooping cranes and sandhill cranes have been seen here during fall migration.

Bowring Ranch

Trumpeter swans forage on a marsh just north of this park, which is a working cattle ranch.

Cottonwood Lake State Recreational Area

Canada geese breed here. Five miles east of Merriman is a marsh where trumpeter swans have nested, off the north side of U.S. Highway 20.

Ft. Niobrara National Wildlife Refuge

The Niobrara River flows eastward across the refuge for 9 miles, cutting deep canyons into the limestone rocks that underlie the Sandhills. Waterfalls occur where seeps and springs flow over layers of hard rock. Over 230 species of birds have been seen here, including Sharp-tailed Grouse, Greater Prairie-Chickens and Burrowing Owls. The refuge, located 3 miles east of Valentine, also maintains herds of bison and elk Species Checklist

Merritt Reservoir State Recreation Area

This 9053-acre park with 2906-acre reservoir is located about 26 miles southwest of Valentine on Highway 97. It is adjacent to Nebraska National Forest land to the north and attracts a variety of migrant waterfowl, pelicans, western grebes, and other species. Species Checklist

Smith Falls State Park

Cross the Niobrara River on a footbridge and walk through the wooded canyon on a boardwalk to the falls in this park located 3 miles west and 4 miles south of Sparks. It has excellent riverside woodland birding. Species Checklist

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