The Sandhills boasts a wide range of ecosystems–spanning from marshes to dry upland vegetated sand dunes. Because of this variety, the wildlife that makes their home in this landscape are plentiful and diverse. Insects, fish, amphibians, reptiles, birds, and mammals all occupy the many Sandhill ecological communities.
The Nebraska Sandhills has a diverse insect population that reflects the multitude of habitats found across the landscape. Insects in this area have adapted to the sandy soils and dry climate. They provide many benefits to the other animals, plants, and humans that live there, although most people do not recognize their significance. Sandhill insects can be divided into four categories–pollinators, scavengers, and predators.
Pollinators are invaluable to the survival of the Sandhills. Wild bees and bumble bees are the most important. Wild bees are solitary and include sweat, sand, leaf cutter, and alkali bees. Bumblebees are social insects and live in colonies. Many wasp species also provide pollinator services. Other pollinators include butterflies and moths, such as the monarch butterfly, swallowtail, red admiral, painted lady, yucca moths, and sphinx moths. The Monarch Butterfly has received considerable attention in the last few years due to its endangered status. Adults migrate through the Sandhills on their 2000 mile journey to winter habitat in Mexico.
Scavengers clean up the abundance of animal feces as well as dead animal carcasses. They are also responsible for aerating the soils–enabling a diverse population of plants to survive. Blow flies, flesh flies, dung beetles, and carrion beetles are all scavenging insects. The American burying beetle is an endangered carrion beetle that makes its home in the Sandhills. Nebraska has one of the highest populations of this insect.
Insect predators feed on the larvae or adult form of other insects, small fish, and, aquatic invertebrates, and include the blood-sucking insects that cause distress in livestock and human populations. Mantids, ladybird beetles, aphid lions, wasp species, dragon flies, and ants control insect pests that feed on plants, crops, and other animals. They provide a service to farmers and ranchers throughout the Sandhills, by keeping pests at a manageable level. On-the-other-hand blood-sucking flies such as mosquitos, horse flies, and deer flies torment livestock and can cause significant economic losses to ranchers if not controlled. Plant predatory insects include species such as crickets, grasshoppers, cicadas, locusts, and many species of true bugs and beetles. These insects feed on the diverse variety of plants found in the Sandhills. Some feed directly on the plant and others suck the sap and living juices from the plant.
Insects in the Sandhills are diverse and abundant. “Insects are major connectors between different species…By consuming large quantities of plants and other plant parts on the one hand, and by being consumed in enormous amounts by vertebrates [and invertebrates] on the other hand, insects in great part determine the structural relationship between larger organisms” (An Atlas of the Sand Hills). They all, whether beneficial or a pest to the human population, make up a unique web of flora and fauna that is the Sandhills.
More than 75 species of fish can be found in the streams, lakes, and marshes of the Sandhills. The diversity of habitat types and relative stability of water flow, temperature, and quality ensure a robust and diverse fish population to satisfy anglers of all types. Fish species can be classified by which type of habitat they prefer – headwaters, medium-sized rivers, large rivers, or lakes.
Headwater streams in the Sandhills are small and stable. They flow at a near constant rate and are supplied by the area’s vase groundwater resource. Fish species occupying these areas are so well adapted to these areas that their survival would be affected if the streams underwent a large fluctuation in flow. Headwater species include minnows, trout, daces, sticklebacks, and shiners.
Medium-sized rivers and streams are very common across the Sandhills. These habitats generally show an increase in predator species and thus an increase in species diversity. Common carp, plains minnow, western silvery minnow, flat head chub, red shiner, suckermouth minnow, red shiner, and stone cat can all be found here. Because this habitat falls between the headwater and the large river habitats species from each can be found coexisting in many locations.
Rivers classified as large do not actually exist in the Sandhills, however typical large river fish species can be found in the Loup and Niobrara. These species include the speckled chub, silver chub, emerald shiner, river shiner, carpsucker, channel catfish, flathead catfish, walleye and freshwater drum. These fish are more tolerant of a wide variety of environmental fluctuations than their headwater cousins.
Lake fisheries in the Sandhills can be divided further into alkaline lakes and freshwater lakes. Many Sandhill lakes are too alkaline to support a fish population. Fish species adapted to alkaline habitats include yellow perch, grass pickerel, northern pike, and black bullhead. Freshwater lake species include largemouth bass, bluegill, yellow perch, black crappie, walleye, channel catfish, and northern pike. These fisheries are of special interest to anglers across the state and beyond.
Reptiles and Amphibians
The reptiles and amphibians of the Sandhills come together in a complex entwining of habitats; both wet and dry and temporary and permanent. There are 27 species, 8 of which are strongly influenced by the Sandhills. Frogs, turtles, and some of the snakes prefer wet areas near permanent marshes, ponds, lakes, and streams. Toads and salamanders prefer temporary wet areas fed by heavy spring and summer rains. While lizards and some of the snakes prefer the dry areas of the upland vegetated sand dunes.
The tiger salamander is the only species of salamander found in the sandhills. These unique creatures can many times be found far away from water in rodent burrows, however, water is necessary for the larval stage of the species. Similarly, toads can be found in drier areas, but also uses temporary ponds for breeding. The great plains toad and the plains spadefoot toad are grassland species and are found after heavy thunderstorms in the spring and summer. The rocky mountain toad prefers more permanent water habitats and can be found in gardens, under and around buildings, along rivers and streams, and in blowouts. The cricket frog is an eastern Sandhills species and can be found along rivers; while the chorus frog is distributed throughout the Sandhills and breeds in marshes, ditches, and permanently flooded areas. True frogs, such as the bullfrog and the northern leopard frog can be found in the marshes, lakes, and streams of the eastern Sandhills.
Six species of turtles can be found throughout the Sandhills in or near permanent marshes, lakes, ponds, and streams. The spiny softshell turtle is rare but may be seen in the eastern Sandhills, while the snapping turtle, painted turtle, and ornate box turtle are found throughout the entire Sandhills. The ornate box turtle is the most commonly seen turtle and can be found crossing roads in the spring and early summer. The yellow mud turtle can be found in the non-alkaline ponds and lakes. The Blandings turtle is considered endangered through out most of its range west of the Great Lakes an in Canada, but in the Sandhills the species is fairly abundant (although still protected). More than 100,000 turtles live in the area-10 times more turtles living here than there is anywhere else combined (Omaha World-Herald, 2017).
Lizards and many of the snake species can be found in the dry upland Sandhill ecosystems. The lesser earless and the northern prairie lizard prefer sparsely vegetated areas while the six-lined racerunner prefers areas with dense vegetation. The many-line skink is common in the Sandhills but rarely seen. Prairie rattlesnakes, western hognose snakes, and bull snakes are found in the drier areas of the sandhills, each occupying a slightly different habitat. The rattlesnake likes rocky outcrops and prairie dog towns, the hognose snake prefers sparsely vegetated grasslands, while the bull snake can be found in areas with dense vegetation. The green racer, milk snake, plains gartersnake, common water snake, and red-sided gartersnake choose to live in wetter habitats along rivers and marshes.
The Sandhills serve as a migratory highway for many bird species. Among these are the common loon, grebes, American White Pelican, cormorant, bitterns, herons, egrets, herons, swans, geese, ducks, bald eagles, hawks, a wide variety of shorebirds, cranes, hummingbirds, flycatchers, wrens, kinglets, thrushes, warblers, sparrows, and finches. Wintering birds species include rough-legged hawk, gyrfalcon, snowy owl, northern shrike, tree sparrow, dark-eyed junco, snow bunting, common redpoll, and evening gross beak. Birds that live in the sandhills all year long include several species of raptors, wild turkey, northern bobwhite, mourning dove, swallows, and numerous songbirds. Grassland birds that make the Sandhills their home include raptors, greater prairie chicken, sharp-tailed grouse, sandpipers, burrowing and short-eared owls. horned lark, dickcissel, sparrows, longspurs, bobolinks, and meadowlarks.
The vast number of birds that can be found in the Sandhills at any one time is due to the vegetation from peripheral areas that extends into the area. These vegetation biomes include the western conifer forest, the eastern deciduous forest, the northern arboreal forest, the short grass prairie, and the tall grass prairie. The topography of the Sandhills also plays a role. The dry upland vegetative sand dunes will support different bird species than the lower, wetland habitat found around the abundant water sources. This complex mosaic of different ecological sites provides birds with breeding, nesting, and brooding habitat all within the confines of the Sandhills.
Sandhills’ bird species that are of particular concern for conservation by the Sandhills Task Force and its partners include black-billed cuckoo, black-billed magpie, black tern, burrowing owl, Ferruginous hawk, loggerhead shrike, long-billed curlew, piping plover, short-eared owl, Sprague’s pipit, whooping crane, Bell’s vireo, trumpeter swan, the greater prairie chicken, and many migratory grassland nesting birds. These birds are the most at-risk species found in the Sandhills as defined by the Natural Legacy Project.
More coming soon!!