Self-guided Auto Tour

Welcome! Pick up a Refuge brochure to familiarize yourself with the wildlife of Crescent Lake National Wildlife Refuge as well as the strategies used to provide habitat.

Refuge roads are narrow so please observe the 35 mph speed limit and exercise extreme caution when passing oncoming traffic.


STOP #1: Carp (non-native) and other "rough fish" can be a serious problem when managing for waterfowl. If their numbers are excessive, their bottom feeding habits will mix water and sediment, thereby causing turbid water conditions. Turbidity blocks sunlight which in turn diminishes production of plants and invertebrates eaten by waterfowl. For this reason, carp were removed from Island Lake in 2006 and game fish stocked in their place. Island Lake is open to fishing and you're invited to catch your limit of bass, bluegill, perch, and crappie. Ask the Refuge Manager about special fishing regulations.

STOP #2: National Wildlife Refuges are extremely important for migrating waterfowl and other birds. Spring and fall migration can bring 15,000 - 20,000 waterfowl to Crescent Lake NWR. A few thousand of these ducks will stay to nest. Duck species that stay at Crescent Lake NWR to nest include Mallards, Gadwalls, Blue-winged Teal, Shovelers, and Northern Pintails.

STOP #3: The fire tower is one of two such structures built on the Refuge in the early 1940's by the Civilian Conservation Corps. Although the towers are no longer used for fire observation, they are serving wildlife. Several years ago, a Barn Owl gained access to this tower through a broken window, nested and produced several young. This inspired Refuge staff to make Barn Owl nesting boxes and place them on the many windmills located throughout the Refuge. One of these boxes can be seen on the windmill west of the road. Barn owls now hatch over 50 owlets a year in these nesting boxes!

STOP #4: Crescent Lake NWR has four major habitat types consisting of wetlands, meadows, sand uplands, and choppy uplands. The sand uplands to the east represent the most abundant habitat type at Crescent Lake NWR and are home to the Grasshopper Sparrow. You can also see beautiful Yucca plants. Yucca is also called soap weed, because its root was used as soap.

STOP #5: Sharp-tailed Grouse (pictured above) have at least 45 known dancing grounds (or leks) on the Refuge where males gather in mid-April to stomp about and inflate their violet throat sacs to entice potential mates. One such lek is found to the east of here. On spring mornings, if you step out of your car you may be able to hear their low song.  Additionally, you may make reservations to use a blind at the dancing ground to see them up close.

STOP #6: Canada Geese are opportunistic in selecting nest sites. Muskrat houses, islands, dense marsh vegetation, and nesting baskets are chosen as nesting places. Baskets or tubs filled with hay are comfortable and relatively safe from predators. The Canada Goose is the first waterfowl species to nest here each spring. Approximately 250 goslings will be produced on the Refuge this year from 110 Refuge-maintained goose tubs.  

STOP #7: Refuge marshlands provide living creatures with everything needed for survival — food, water, and cover. Stems, leaves, seeds, and roots of many marsh plants are relished by ducks and other wildlife. Aquatic insects, high in protein, furnish nesting ducks and ducklings with essential building blocks for reproduction and growth. With plentiful food and water only a bill's length away, the needs of marsh wildlife for shelter are comfortably met by heavy growths of cattail and bulrush. Muskrats play an important role in keeping such heavy vegetation from choking a marsh by creating openings for their houses and food caches. Muskrat lodges protruding from the water provide excellent nesting sites for waterfowl. 

The area between Stop #8 and Stop #12 is a good location to view deer. Crescent Lake NWR is home to both White-tailed Deer and Mule Deer. There are two easy ways to distinguish between the species. The first is by their tails – Mule Deer have a white tail with a black tip; whereas the White-tailed Deer has a large tail that is white on the underside and brown above. The second way to distinguish the species is to observe their retreat when startled. White-tailed Deer run with their tail held high, and this tall flash of white is often referred to as their “flag”. Mule Deer rarely run, instead they “hop” in distinctive jumps where all four hooves are contacting the ground simultaneously. This is referred to as “stotting”.

STOP #8: During the early part of the 20th century, the Wood Duck population plummeted due to wetland drainage, timber harvesting and excessive hunting. However, Wood Ducks have benefited from the construction of fabricated nesting structures. These Wood Duck "houses" help replace the natural nesting cavities lost in timber harvest.

STOP #9: In the spring, a low lying fence can be seen paralleling the road. This is part of a research project being conducted to study the ecology of the Yellow Mud Turtle.  Each spring the turtles will migrate to Gimlet Lake from the hillside where they hibernate. The fence will interrupt this journey just long enough for the researcher to collect data and mark the individual turtles. The turtles are then released unharmed. This research project is providing basic life history information for the Yellow Mud Turtle, which is especially valuable considering this species is on the Endangered Species candidate list. The candidate list consists of species whose numbers are low enough to be considered for listing as either "threatened" or "endangered". 

STOP #10: Because trees are scarce in the Sandhills, the groves that have been planted on the Refuge attract many small passerine birds, especially during the migration. Some common visitors include the Western and Eastern Kingbirds, Yellow-rumped Warbler, American Robin and White-Crowned Sparrow. Another species which you may encounter is the Loggerhead Shrike. The shrike is another species which is on the candidate species list. Shrikes are perching birds, but are tenacious hunters, much like raptors. "Butcher-bird" is a commonly used nickname for the shrike because of its unusual practice of impaling its prey (small reptiles, mammals, birds, and insects) on thorns and barbed-wire.  

STOP #11: The two islands in Goose Lake were made in the winters of 2005-2006. American Avocets immediately started using them for nesting. Over fifty avocet nests were found in 2007. Three pairs of the endangered Piping Plover also nested, with one successful nest on the smaller island.                                      

STOP #12: Marshes are home to a lot of species and this can result in competition. Three birds compete for nesting spots here. Yellow-headed Blackbirds are the largest and therefore typically obtain the best nesting locations in the cattails over deeper water. Therefore, Red-winged Blackbirds and Marsh Wrens must compete for the shallow water habitat. These species will destroy each other's eggs, so the Marsh Wren developed an egg-shaped nest with a small hole at the top to protect its eggs from Red-winged Blackbirds and predators. You may also see a hawk like the Northern Harrier hovering over the marshes and meadows. Its hovering glide and white rump patch are good identifiers of the Harrier.

STOP #13: The grass covered dunes of the Nebraska Sandhills are characterized by low rolling hills and steep sided "choppies". The choppy habitat is characterized by steep hills with lots of bare-ground and sparse vegetation. Lark Sparrows, Ord's Kangaroo Rats, and Woodhouse’s Toads reside here. Sandhill soils are extremely susceptible to wind erosion, overgrazing, and vehicle abuse. Any of these actions can disturb the fragile grass cover and quickly result in "blow outs". Blow outs, such as the one to the north, do serve some good. They are home to the only endangered plant on the Refuge — the Blowout Penstemon. 

STOP #14: Grazing is used as a management tool by refuge managers to manipulate habitats. Removing vegetation invigorates plants, increases wildflowers and provides areas of short vegetation. Long-billed Curlews and Willets are two shorebirds that rear their young in meadows with short vegetation. Spring grazing is the most commonly utilized grazing at Crescent Lake NWR. Spring grazing is used to graze down “cool season grasses" to favor the growth of “warm season grasses".  Warm season grasses are taller and sturdier, therefore, provide better cover for  nesting birds. Summer grazing is used to provide plant diversity and fall grazing in “choppies” exposes the sand to the wind to keep blowouts moving for the Blowout Penstemon.

STOP #15: Warning: Please Stop in the Pullout Near Marker Post 15 So That Your Vehicle Will Be Visible To Other Traffic.   The large purple flowered plants found in these borrow areas are Blowout Penstemon which was once thought to be extinct. It is a pioneer of sand dune habitat but cannot compete with other plants. It was once very common in the Sandhills, but as they become more stabilized, the penstemon disappears. It is critical that we preserve this plant, because the first plants such as the penstemon that grow in the inhospitable habitat of a sand dune help to stabilize it, so other plants can become established. Although vegetation is a stabilizing force in the Nebraska Sandhills, there are many other areas in the world where blowing sand is the nature of the landscape. 

STOP #16: Blue-winged Teal are the most common upland nesting duck at Crescent Lake NWR, followed by Mallards, Gadwalls, Northern Shovelers, and Northern Pintails. Lost of nesting habitat has contributed to declines in duck populations; therefore, a primary task on the Refuge is to develop and maintain dense, tall, grassy habitat  usually preferred by ducks. Such places are relatively secure and allow female ducks and pheasants to incubate their egg clutches without being detected by predators. Techniques used to improve nesting cover include grazing, haying, prescribed burning, and reseeding of native grasses.

STOP #17: The Moore Valley, which extends from Martin Lake (north) through Lower Harrison (south) is a natural drainage. Managers have taken advantage of this drainage system to control water levels in this area. Earthen dikes, ditches, and water control structures allow managers to both draw down and flood areas to stimulate the growth of certain plants or reduce the density of others. You've learned about plant succession and the need for privacy by nesting pairs. By lowering water levels, burning the vegetation, and then flooding it again, plant succession can be slowed down. This allows for small openings to remain in the cattails and rushes. These openings provide the same  privacy as the small ponds.           

STOP #18: Smith Lake is home to the Black-crowned Night Heron, Great Blue Heron, and the White-faced Ibis. These are three of the five colony nesters found on the Refuge. Eared Grebes and Double-crested Cormorants are the other two. Two theories suggest the reason for nesting in colonies.  The "predator detection hypothesis" suggests that more eyes are better able to detect predators. The "information-center hypothesis" suggests that colonies allow inexperienced females to easily follow successful mothers to the best available foraging sites.   Forester’s and Black Terns also nest at Smith Lake.

STOP #19: Border Lake is a good place to view shorebirds. Two species common to the lake are the American Avocet and Wilson's Phalarope. The avocet can be distinguished by the pale orange and black markings on its white body. Avocets feed by moving their bills through the water surface to strain out food. The phalarope is a smaller shorebird which feeds by sitting on the water and spinning in circles to kick up its food. It can then pick the food items up from the water's surface.