VENT Nebraska: Day Four

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birders birding mullen

What a day, full of birds and beautiful landscapes. We started at Fort Kearny, where the numbers of sandhill cranes and snow geese were once again beyond belief, vast clouds rising from the water and the fields every time a bald eagle looked cross-eyed at the flocks. We could have stayed all day, entranced by the sound and the sight of sheer abundance.

But it was time to leave Platte Valley for the Nebraska Sandhills.


Rough-legged and Harlan hawks, horned larks, and trumpeter swans welcomed us to this twenty thousand square miles of dunes and grass. The birding was most exciting, though, once we were in Mullen with time to take a late afternoon walk around town.

red-bellied woodpecker, Mullen

A Harris sparrow and a red-bellied woodpecker were both mild surprises in this part of the state, and red-breasted nuthatches and pine siskins joined the cedar waxwings and robins bathing vigorously in the melt puddles on the roadsides. I’ll have to look, but I seem to remember having seen the nuthatch only once before on this tour — and the siskin might even be a new species to the cumulative list.

pine siskin Mullen

Tomorrow: sharp-tailed grouse and the big marshes of the Sandhills.

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VENT Nebraska: Day Three

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sandhill crane sounds

It was cold when we left the hotel this morning, just 17 degrees, but as soon as we arrived at Gibbon Bridge, the excitement of the cranes kept us from even noticing. A good-sized roost had formed quite close to the bridge; we appreciated its nearly topographical extent, stretching from bank to bank, as the sun rose to cast the birds in gold.

sandhill crane roost

These birds were still in the water even an hour after other roosts had noisily broken up. We could happily have stayed and watched them all morning, but breakfast and the anticipation of new sites and new sights called.

Successful as we had been yesterday in getting to see a whooping crane, we decided to move south today to Harlan County Lake, a reliable locality for early-arriving American white pelicans (and if I remember right, now a regular wintering ground for small numbers of the massive creatures). Sure enough, a soaring flock of 35 was visible from a couple of miles north of the lake, and we had good if slightly distant views of another dozen or so on the water.


The real treat here, though, was the number and variety of ducks feeding and loafing on the lake. We had outstandingly good views of redheads and canvasbacks together, and there was a massive drift of northern pintail and green-winged teal along the north bank. I’d been hoping for a rare gull or two, but we had to content ourselves with a single Franklin gull, which flew dove-like over our heads a dozen times as if eager to show us every last detail of plumage and structure.

Franklin gull

Passerines were significantly less diverse, or at least less conspicuous. We did run into three Gambel sparrows, the first the group had seen this week and a “kind” of white-crowned sparrow rare to nonexistent on most of our local patches.

A quick recalculation of our schedule revealed that we just might have time to check a couple of the Rainwater Basins, so we hastened over to Funk Lagoon. We saw a few ducks on the little water that was there, and were grateful for a tip about a great horned owl nest in a shelterbelt just up the road. Prairie Dog Lagoon was similarly unbirdful, but the eponymous squirrels were out and about, as they had been at the Harlan County dam; no long-legged owls in sight, but it is barely mid-March.

Dinner in Kearney was relaxed and good, though I took as a sign of anxious restaurateurial over-trying that many of us needed to ask the waiter to bring our food without one or another of the advertised ingredients. Does anyone really want a red wine infusion atop a blue cheese hamburger? And do mashed potatoes really need to be slathered in melted butter with truffle flakes? The food was good, but a little more simplicity — perhaps a little more modesty — would have made it even better.

Platte River evening at Fort Kearny

Not all of us went back out after dinner, but I wouldn’t have missed this evening’s flight for anything. Mass after mass of cranes, with long snaking lines of snow and Ross geese, flew in low over the Fort Kearny bridge on the way to roost, only to be startled into raucous flight by one of the dozen or more bald eagles working that stretch of the river. The walk out beneath the first stars of a cool, calm night and the shouts and rattles of cranes and geese may turn out to be the most memorable part of what is already a memorable tour.

But my bet is that the next couple of days will produce sights and sounds and experiences to rival even this, the most spectacular wildlife phenomenon in North America. Stay tuned.

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VENT Nebraska: Day Two

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Sandhill crane snow goose

We woke up to wind, light snow, and icy sidewalks, all made more annoying (for me at least) by the disorientation of having reset the clocks. Rather than go out and stand in it, I decided that we should use the first hour of the day to drive west to Wahoo, where I knew we could bird from the van if it was necessary.

I’d underestimated the doughtiness of this group. When we pulled in to Lake Wanahoo and saw birds on the water, no one hesitated to jump right out and into the wind. It paid off nicely, with a mid-sized flock of snow geese (with good looks at scattered Ross geese, too) on the lake and small flocks milling in the air to find just the right angle to land against the gale. The day’s –and the tour’s– first northern pintails and ring-necked ducks were fun, but even those handsome fowl were outdone by the song of a western meadowlark with its promise of spring.

A quick break and we were ready for the next stop, the saline marshes of Ceresco Flats. It was raw out, the temperature just below freezing and the north wind stronger by the minute. I’d hoped to walk the sparrow road with the group (the closed portion of Ashland Road, at the east end of the WMA), but there was just no point in exposing ourselves to the elements in return for quick glimpses of panicked little birds. Instead, we found a great spot where the wind was blocked by a couple of big red cedars, and enjoyed fine views of slate-colored juncos, American tree sparrows, Harris sparrows, and eastern bluebirds. A suspicious-looking distant raptor vanished below the horizon too quickly for us to get a glass on it, but reappeared several minute later to confirm out tentative identification: a dark-morph rough-legged hawk, much less common out here than the equally dashing light birds.

We weren’t quite ready for lunch, and so, after a quick visit to the great-tailed grackle flock at Havelock,  pushed on to Grand Island, where I was glad to have a break from trying to keep the van on the road. Lunchtime entertainment was offered by nearly 300 great-tailed grackles, double the size of the flock I’d been so careful to have us check off on our way west. And a dessert of anticipation was provided by a couple who kindly stopped on their way out to tell us they’d seen a whooping crane just south of the interstate.

Sandhill crane

I tend, unjustly, to be skeptical when non-birders tell me they’ve seen something fancy, and I seemed to be right when the first two big flocks of sandhill cranes we checked each included an oddly marked white sandhill — the first white-bodied with a gray neck and head, the second nearly all white with gray flecking and splotching on the back. Surely our truck stop friends had seen one of these birds in passing and leapt to an understandable conclusion.

But then Danny found a third white bird, and this one was truly white. And big. And a whooping crane.

whooping crane

This was a life bird for a couple of us, and we stayed with it for the better part of an hour as it moved through the flock, feeding almost constantly. The only thing to distract us was a small flock of Lapland longspurs that landed momentarily on the edge of the sheetwater next to the road. We’d seen hundreds, probably thousands, in big disorganized flocks as we drove around, but this time one stayed behind to let us admire it on the ground.

Lapland longspur

We were simultaneously watching one of the rarest birds in the world and one of the most abundant in the northern hemisphere.

We zipped back to Kearney for an early supper (we’ll eat better tomorrow), then took to the road again to watch the evening flight. I am not sure that I had ever seen snow goose flocks as massive as those at Gibbon; miles of sky were traced with endless drypoint lines and curls of birds. It is impossible to guess how many birds we say: if you told me a hundred thousand, if you told me a million, I would have no response but to nod, numbed by the sheer abundance.

The cranes themselves kept us waiting, no doubt unnerved by the bald eagles sitting on the sandbars next to the usual roosting waters. Not quite half an hour after sunset, though, the show began in earnest, with tens of thousands of sandhill cranes coming in to mill about over the water, finally settling down into flocks that more and more resembled small continents.

It was awesome, if I may take one small step towards restoring that word’s meaning. And we have another whole day tomorrow with the cranes and the waterfowl and whatever else this spectacular season brings us.


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Up the Missouri

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One hundred seventy-five years ago today, John James Audubon boarded a train in New York City and began an eight-month journey that would take him up the Missouri River as far as what is now the Montana state line. The party also included the painter Isaac Sprague, the taxidermist John G. Bell, and Audubon’s friend and frequent funder Edward Harris — each of whom lent his name to one of the bird species discovered (or, in Harris’s case, rediscovered) in the course of the trip.

Bell would return to New York after the journey, where he would operate the city’s most successful taxidermy shop and go down in history a second time as mentor to a young naturalist named Theodore Roosevelt.

After his return to Massachusetts, Sprague became one of the nineteenth century’s best and best-known botanical illustrators.

Harris, most famous as the great American champion of the Percheron, went back to his New Jersey farm. The only member of the expedition to keep up contact with the Audubons, Harris would no doubt have been of lasting help to the widowed Lucy, as he had long been to her husband, had he not died himself at the early age of sixty-three.

Early on, Audubon also invited his young protégé Spencer Baird to take part in the journey. Baird, who turned twenty in the winter of 1843, eventually declined, but Audubon remembered his young friend in naming another new sparrow, collected that summer in the grasslands around Fort Union. this would be the last new species Audubon would discover — though, of course, it was Harris and Bell who actually found and shot the first specimens.

William O. Ayres was another of Audubon’s young friends; like Baird, he would make significant contributions to American ichthyology. Six years older than Baird, Ayres was employed as a teacher in 1843; a dozen years later, he took his medical degree at Yale, and later served as curator of ichthyology at the California Academy of Sciences. It hardly matters that “his” woodpecker turned out to be a hybrid or backcross of the kind so abundant on the Great Plains.

The Harris sparrow, which Audubon’s party collected again and again as they moved up the eastern edge of Nebraska in May, had actually been named and described three years earlier, by Audubon’s colleague and correspondent Thomas Nuttall. There is an especially good story behind this mix-up, but this was not the only time that Audubon mistook a bird he found on the Missouri for new.

Looking back, it is not much of a surprise that Audubon should have been unaware that the blackbird he would name for Thomas Mayo Brewer was already known to science: the formal description had appeared in the Isis for 1829, and the more readily accessible reprint was still almost fifty years in the future. It would be even less reasonable to expect him to have recognized his “new” icterid in Fernandez’s cacalotototl.

Audubon’s failure to recognize the clay-colored sparrow, abundant all the way up the river that spring and at Fort Union all summer, had more complex reasons. Unaware that the “clay-colored” he had painted almost a decade earlier was in fact a Brewer sparrow, Audubon named what he thought was a new species for George Shattuck, his erstwhile companion on the trip to Labrador a dozen years earlier and subsequently a doctor in Boston. The confusion was cleared up not long thereafter, but the name “Shattuck” could still be encountered for this species into the early twentieth century.

Audubon really does not deserve to be accounted the discoverer of the sweet little LeConte sparrow, but two unfortunate circumstances — the early naming of the saltmarsh sparrow, and the explosion of the steamboat Assiniboine — would mean that neither John Latham (who published the first description in 1790) nor Maximilian zu Wied-Neuwied (who collected the bird in Nebraska in 1833) would have a valid claim to name the bird. Audubon kindly specifies that he has named the bird for the younger LeConte; if rightly I remember, the thrasher was named for his father.

And speaking of unfortunate circumstances.

If most birders know anything about Audubon’s Missouri River expedition, it is the story of the western meadowlark. In its most frequently encountered version, it goes something like this: Audubon was the first to notice that the song of the meadowlarks in the west was different from that of his hometown birds, and he named the new species neglecta to tweak Lewis and Clark for having overlooked it.

That’s how I learned it, but it’s not true. Meriwether Lewis knew full well that the meadowlarks of the Missouri Valley were different, and had he been able to publish his natural historical discoveries before descending into mental illness, Lewis would certainly be the author of the species’ name. What’s more, Audubon knew full well that Lewis had known full well, and even quotes him to that effect. The disapproval he expresses in the tendentious name neglecta is directed not at the Corps of Discovery but at those who had followed Lewis and Clark up the river in the decades since, none of whom, Audubon says, had “taken the least notice of” the bird; it’s no real stretch to read the name as in fact a gentle tribute to Lewis, who had committed suicide in 1809.

There is much more to say about the Missouri River expedition undertaken by Audubon and his friends and companions. I’ll be saying some of it in a series of lectures this jubilee year; but that is no reason that you too can’t rummage around in the documents that survive from those long-ago months on the river. You may well notice something no one else has.


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VENT Nebraska: Day One

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birders birding American woodcock
We’re off to a great start. Most important, everyone got here — a circumstance not to be taken for granted given how many of us were flying from the east coast.

Following quick introductions, we hopped into our nimble little bus and drove the five minutes to Carter Lake.

Carter Lake and Omaha skyline

It took even less time to find our target, the Harris sparrows at the only feeder in town. We’ll see more, perhaps many more, but it’s a grand bird to start the tour with, a lifebird for several of us, even.

Then across the Missouri to Lake Manawa, where got to practice our scaup identification (all lessers today) and admire the courtship antics of common goldeneye.


Lesser scaup and common merganser were the most common birds on the lake, but scanning carefully gave a nice head start to what is likely to be a very complete anatid list this week.

I was happiest to see that the Franklin gull count had risen to a good score of birds, including several loafing on the pavement at one of the pulloffs.


Another lifer for a couple of the group, and even those of us who had seen hundreds and thousands of them over the years couldn’t fail to be enchanted by this graceful gull and pink.

Daylight saving time falls awkwardly this year, so we pulled ourselves away from the lake for an early supper at La Mesa, excellent as usual. We got back to Manawa with some time to scan the big, and ever bigger, gull roost on the lake. Danny found what struck me as likely a first-cycle Thayer’s gull, with neatly patterned plumage and apparently not quite black wing tips; had it been half a mile closer it would have made the day’s list. Easier to identify was an adult lesser black-backed gull, expected nowadays but always exciting.

As the sun was getting dangerously close to the western horizon, we drove on to my favorite woodcock spot. It wasn’t outstanding this evening — too much noise from that horrible power plant — but we heard probably three birds buzzing and had good sustained looks at one in display flight against the blue and pink sky. Snow geese were passing almost continuously overhead, and one of the closer flocks had a couple of Ross geese, the first of what I suspect will be good numbers this coming week.

We were back at the hotel at 7:30, happy with the day and eager for tomorrow. Feeling good about this tour!

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