Crescent Lake NWR, in Nebraska's western panhandle, is certainly one of our more remote National Wildlife Refuges. Take your pick: 28 miles north of Oshkosh (on US 26, northwest of Ogallala) via a winding, sand-gravel road or 28 miles south of Lakeside (on Route 2, east of Alliance) via a single lane of asphalt; during my three hour tour I encountered only a refuge employee in his pickup and the driver of a cattle truck. Whatever route you take, the visit will be well worth your effort (just make sure you have plenty of gas in the tank).
Stretching across 46,000 acres in the westernmost section of Nebraska's famous sandhills ecosystem, Crescent Lake National Wildlife Refuge protects a chain of lakes and wetlands that lie in valleys between the grass-covered dunes. Established in 1931, the refuge provides nesting habitat, wintering grounds or a migration reststop for at least 279 bird species. Nesting birds of note include eared and western grebes, American bitterns, tundra swans, canvasbacks, bald eagles, sharp-tailed grouse, black-necked stilts, American avocets, long-billed curlews, Wilson's phalaropes, black terns, burrowing owls, marsh wrens and blue grosbeaks, among many other species. High Plains grassland residents, best observed along the roadways, include northern harriers, Swainson's hawks, American kestrels, dickcissels, lark sparrows, lark buntings, vesper sparrows, grasshopper sparrows, bobolinks, yellow-headed blackbirds and both eastern and western meadowlarks. Flocks of American white pelicans soared above the refuge yesterday morning and I also encountered a large number of white-faced ibis; late summer is also ideal for shorebird watching and Crescent Lake NWR attracts a wide variety of resident and migrant species.
In addition to the birdlife, this scenic preserve is home to coyotes, swift fox, white-tailed and mule deer, pronghorns, muskrats, kangaroo rats and an excellent variety of reptiles and amphibians; yellow mud turtles inhabit the preserve and bullsnakes are often encountered on the roadways. Of interest, Crescent Lake itself actually lies just south of the refuge boundary and is protected by the State of Nebraska; efforts to establish a sandhills wilderness area, just east of the refuge, are currently under consideration.