DU event offers a front-row seat to one of Mother Nature's greatest shows

Rainwater Basin Experience participant Robert Sutherland (second from left) tries his hand at setting up DU's survey gear.

-Becky Jones Mahlum

The day was windy and gray, but the waterfowl didn't care.

Bird conditions were ideal for Ducks Unlimited's "The Rainwater Basin: Experience the Neck of the Hourglass" event held in Nebraska in March. Those participating in this major sponsor event were so excited by the numbers of birds they were seeing that the lousy weather didn't seem to bother them either.

"We took a caravan of trucks to areas where we expected to find good bird viewing and, boy, we weren't disappointed," said Dianne Kelley, DU administrative assistant, who helped with the event. "On one of our first stops, the snow geese completely covered the wetland. If we hadn't known better, we would have thought it was a huge snow drift covering the whole field."

Kelley said when the geese got up, it was as if the wind caught the corner of an enormous piece of paper, lifting it up and blowing it away. "There were lots of 'ooh', 'ahh' and 'can you believe that' heard all around."

"On one of our first stops, the snow geese completely covered the wetland. If we hadn't known better, we would have thought it was a huge snow drift covering the whole field." -Dianne Kelley, DU administrative assistant and co-organizer of the Rainwater Basin Experience

Rainwater Basin is a 4,200-square-mile area in south-central Nebraska that is extremely important to millions of waterfowl in the Central Flyway. Each spring, the birds descend on the area to rest and feed on their way to nesting grounds farther north. The food resources in this region help the birds maintain and improve body condition during the strenuous migration period, allowing them to arrive on the northern breeding habitat ready to lay eggs.

The area is also a prime spot for bird watching, especially with the hundreds of thousands of sandhill cranes seen there each spring. Nearly 260 bird species have been observed in the Rainwater Basin.

"The Rainwater Basin Experience is a great opportunity for our most ardent supporters to touch and feel our critical work in the Rainwater Basin," said Scott Stephens, DU director of conservation programs for Nebraska.

Once covered in thousands of wetlands-or basins-the area is now largely agricultural. The area's continental significance and losses in waterfowl habitat are why DU's Great Plains Regional Office established its Rainwater Basin Initiative, focused on protecting and restoring waterfowl habitat to accommodate the annual migration spectacle observed during the Rainwater Basin Experience.

The event included:

  • A vehicle tour of prime examples of Rainwater Basin wetlands
  • A field experience at DU's Verona property, where sponsors learned what is in a wetland and why ducks rely so heavily on the region
  • A history lesson about the Rainwater Basin, how it has changed over the years and why it is called the "neck of the hourglass"
  • Discussion of DU's public policy efforts in Nebraska and nationally that work to raise public dollars for conservation work in the Rainwater Basin
  • Socializing and camaraderie with other supporters who are equally passionate about waterfowl
DU Engineer Mitch Messmer explains how DU surveys land during the Rainwater Basin Experience.

"This event helps us show our major sponsors where their dollars are being spent and how these projects fit into the big picture of waterfowl conservation across North America," said Steve Donovan, DU manager of conservation programs for Nebraska.

During the event, Buzz and Kay Lohmiller became DU Life Sponsors. Adam Dehaan, DU director of development for Nebraska, Minnesota and Iowa, recognized the couple and praised their enthusiasm for the Basin.

- Becky Jones Mahlum is manager of communications and outreach for conservation programs at DU's Great Plains Office in Bismarck, N.D.