On the edge of a marsh at dusk in Nebraska's Rainwater Basin, the wonder of migration dances all around you. Streams sandhill cranes caravan overhead on their way to roost on the sandbars of the Platte River. Black-bellied plovers, avocets, yellowlegs and scores of other shorebirds flock to the shallows, while mallard and pintail whistle past low, circling the wetland several times before touching down. Every species of duck, from pintail and wigeon to redhead and canvasback will make an appearance before the sun sets.
Ducks Unlimited has identified the Platte River and the Rainwater Basin as a conservation priority because of the system's enormous importance to migrating waterfowl and shorebirds. The Rainwater Basin host 5 to 10 million waterfowl and millions more shorebirds each spring. Ninety percent of the mid-continent's white-fronted goose population visit the wetlands during the months of February, March and April, and the largest concentration of sandhill cranes on the continent—500,000 birds—can be discovered here as well. The endangered Whooping Crane is seen in area basins almost every year.
The Platte River is equally as important as the Rainwater Basin containing vital habitat for migrating waterfowl, and also providing important breeding and wintering sites. Indeed the Platte River and its adjacent wetlands that course through Colorado, Wyoming, and Nebraska contain some of the most critical spring migration habitat on the continent. Here, playas, sandbars, braided channels, beaver ponds, warm water sloughs and floodplain wetlands provide vital but declining habitat for migrating and wintering waterfowl. Land use in this initiative area is dominated by agriculture, and many wetlands have been lost or severely degraded. Yet like the neck of an hourglass, mid-continent waterfowl continue to pour into this region during spring migration.
Each spring, the skies of the Platte and Rainwater Basin still flood with waterfowl, but the wetlands systems upon which these birds depend are at increased risk. Increased demand for water, wetland degradation from sedimentation and invasive plant species, and continued drainage of wetlands threatens this vulnerable bastion of migration habitat.
In the Rainwater Basin and along the Platte River corridor, Ducks Unlimited is finding innovative ways to protect, restore, and manage wetlands. With a combination of conservation easements, fee title acquisitions, and planned gifts; critical wetlands in the system are being permanently protected.
Of additional concern to Ducks Unlimited is the decrease in the quantity and quality of seasonally flooded wetlands within the system. Habitat resources found in seasonally flooded wetlands such as seeds, tubers and invertebrates, as well as loafing and courtship sites are critical for migrating waterfowl.