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 have a diverse insect population that reflects the various 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 bumblebees are the most important. Wild bees are solitary and include sweat, sand, leafcutter, 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 their winter habitat in Mexico.
A bumblebee on a shell-leaf penstemon flower
(Photo by: Haag, June 15, 2019. © NEBRASKAland Magazine, NGPC)
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. Blowflies, 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 forms 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, dragonflies, 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 may cause significant economic losses to ranchers if not controlled. Plant predatory insects include crickets, grasshoppers, cicadas, locusts, and many 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.
American Burying Beetle feeding on a fox squirrel carcass.
(Photo by Hoffman, August 1996. © NEBRASKAland Magazine, NGPC)
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). Whether beneficial or a pest to the human population, they all 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 vast groundwater resource. Fish species occupying these areas are so well adapted to them that their survival would be affected if the streams underwent a large inflow of fluctuation. Headwater species include minnows, trout, daces, sticklebacks, and shiners.
Bluegills hover over their spawning beds.
(Photo by: Fowler, May 26, 2016. © NEBRASKAland Magazine, NGPC)
Medium-sized rivers and streams are very common across the Sandhills. These habitats generally show an increase in predator species and, thus, in species diversity. Common carp, plains minnow, western silvery minnow, flathead 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 strongly influenced by the Sandhills. Frogs, turtles, and some 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 snakes prefer the dry areas of the upland vegetated dunes.
The tiger salamander is the only species of salamander found in the sandhills. These unique creatures can often 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 they also use temporary ponds for breeding. The great plains and the plains spadefoot toads are grassland species 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 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 eastern Sandhills' marshes, lakes, and streams.
The Blanding's turtle, a semi-aquatic species, is considered to be an endangered species throughout much of its range.
(Photo by: Haag, May 3, 2018. © NEBRASKAland Magazine, NGPC)
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 non-alkaline ponds and lakes. The Blandings turtle is considered endangered throughout most of its range west of the Great Lakes and 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 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.
Lizards are common across upland Sandhill pastures
(Photo by: AShley Garrelts, Sandhills Task Force)
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 bird 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.
Greater prairie chickens gather and dance as part of a spring mating ritual.
(Photo by: Fowler, April 9, 2018. © NEBRASKAland Magazine, NGPC)
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 tallgrass 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.
A long-billed curlew forages on a prairie dog colony on private property.
(Photo by: Haag, June 20, 2014. © NEBRASKAland Magazine, NGPC)
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.
The Sandhills present a wide variety of habitats for mammal species. Each habitat provides a home to over fifty mammal species, from the interdunal spaces to the dry dune tops to the damp river banks. Rodents, carnivores, and hooved animals are found across the landscape. While rodent species are adapted to a single habitat type, carnivores and hooved animals are widespread across the expansive sandy landscape.
Rodent species can be found in all Sandhills environments but tend to live in a single habitat type throughout their life cycle. The dry upland hills will boast such species as the plains pocket mouse, pocket gopher, prairie vole, deer mouse, and rabbits and hares. The wetter areas are habitats for muskrats, jumping mice, masked shrews, and meadow voles. Porcupines, beavers, ground squirrels, and wood rats tend to be found in the river corridors. Kangaroo rats are unique in that they prefer blowout areas, while the prairie dog is found in areas with shorter grasses.
A muskrat swims in a Sheridan County pond.
(Photo by: Haag, March 17, 2017. © NEBRASKAland Magazine, NGPC)
Carnivores are widespread mammals--inhabiting environments all across the region. Coyotes, foxes, and skunks distribute themselves throughout the sandhills and can be found in most habitat types. Raccoons are widespread but will be found in areas with trees or near prairie dog towns. Badger dens are commonly found on hillsides in the dryer areas of the sandhills. Mink and otters are abundant near lakes, ponds, marshes, and rivers. Bobcats, while rare, have been spotted in the Sandhills but prefer the woody areas along rivers or in the hand-planted forests across the area.
Hooved mammals such as elk, bison, and mountain sheep were once abundant across the Sandhills, but now only wild populations of elk are present in small numbers. The pronghorn antelope can be seen grazing in dry upland pastures in the Western Sandhills. Mule and white-tailed deer are the most common hooved mammals and can be seen across the region in all habitat types.
Pronghorn “family unit,” made up of buck, adult doe, and young of the year.
(Photo by: Grier, Aug. 21, 2008. © NEBRASKAland Magazine, NGPC)
The Sandhills provides a habitat for 6 species of bats. The Eastern red bat, big brown bat, hoary bat, and silver-haired bat can be found in wooded areas across the sandhills. The Western small-footed and Northern long-eared bat are found only along the Niobrara river corridor.
Mammal species of greatest concern for conservation by the Sandhills Task Force and its partners include the swift fox, river otter, and Northern Long-eared bat. These species are determined to be the most threatened and endangered. More information on their conservation status can be obtained from the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission.