One of my favorite places and one of my favorite place names — but Sowbelly wasn’t especially Prius-friendly the other day after the snow. So we took just a quick, chilly walk into the top of the canyon before heading west.
It was quiet up there, a circumstance that only convinced me there were really great birds down lower; but it’s hard to complain about fences lined with mountain bluebirds and Brewer’s blackbirds.
A distant Pheucticus song was neatly identified when a male black-headed grosbeak flew in to investigate our presence; both species occur in spring on the Pine Ridge, and — confession time — I can’t consistently tell the songs apart, and these ears of mime don’t always pick up those chip notes at a distance.
We were hoping for Lewis’s — it’s just time for that species to arrive — but had to content ourselves with the even more stunning red-headed woodpeckers; the bird is common all across Nebraska, wherever there are trees or fence posts, but it’s still a bit disconcerting to see it against a background of shortgrass prairie and buttes.
And even more disconcerting to look down the fence and see a Cassin’s kingbird.
These no-longer-quite-so-southwestern tyrants breed in the upper canyon (and even farther north into Dakota, if I remember right), but I’d resigned myself to their late arrival when this one suddenly appeared. Who knows — this may have been the first of its species to make it to Nebraska this year. And it couldn’t have chosen a more beautiful place to land.
Much of the snow melted by 2:00 pm.
It’s one of those sentences I didn’t expect to speak on May 20 in Nebraska, but snow it did, a good inch and a half on the ground, the roofs, and the car tops when we got up that morning.
And what do we do in unexpected weather in migration? We bird, of course.
Alison’s attire required a little extemporization, but once that was done, we set off for the Soldiers Creek Campground at Fort Robinson, where we’d seen large numbers of lark sparrows, clay-colored sparrows, chipping sparrows, and lazuli buntings the day before, when it was just drizzling.
This snowy morning, the campground came through for us once again.
It’s always been one of my favorite birding sites in one of my favorite landscapes, the Nebraska Pine Ridge, but it’s rare for me to be there when the campers aren’t. On this morning, we shared the wooded grounds along the creek with a grand total of one rv’er (uncertain how to spell that one) — and loads and loads of birds.
Most impressive of all were the Swainson’s thrushes. This is a common May migrant in the Nebraska Panhandle, but we were unprepared for the flock of at least 20 bouncing around on the lawns and in the brush. We looked hard for rarer birds, but all were Swainson’s, and all the Swainson’s were olive-backed thrushes. No complaints from us, though.
The sparrow flock had grown considerably in numbers, with at least 120 lark sparrows feeding frantically on the snow, and perhaps half that many chipping sparrows joining in. Spotted towhees, probably but not certainly local breeders, whined and mewled and trilled everywhere, occasionally bounding out from their thickets to show off. These arcticus birds are the most heavily marked of all the spotted towhees, and Alison, who had most recently seen the bland oregonus birds of coastal British Columbia, exclaimed again and again when one flashed through her field of view.
There were less expected sparrows, too. A Lincoln’s sparrow was a bit on the latish side, even for western Nebraska, and a gloriously white-striped white-throated sparrow was both geographically and chronologically slightly out of place: generally uncommon at best in the Panhandle, this species is usually gone from the state entirely by May 20.
Most interesting among the emberizids were the white-crowned sparrows. At first glance, they seemed all to be dark-lored birds, thus presumably leucophrys (or maybe, just maybe, oriantha); but a closer look revealed that even though the black lateral crown stripes were thick and reached or nearly reached the base of the bill, there was invariably a gray loral patch separating that stripe from the eye line. The bill color was also intermediate between the darker-billed birds of the far north and west and the paler-billed Gambel’s sparrow; we put them down as “subspecies indeterminate,” not an uncommon label when you’re dealing with migrants — of just about any species — on the western Great Plains.
A high-pitched squeal revealed another surprise.
Broad-winged hawks are rare in extreme western Nebraska, but the weather had put down a mini-flock of three juveniles in the campground’s cottonwoods, and as the weather warmed, slightly, they took to the air, flashing from tree to tree and studiously avoiding the nervous Cooper’s hawks nesting in a tall tree nearby.
If I were a county lister, I’d have checked this one off for two, as it soared against the Cheyenne Outbreak Buttes, back and forth across the Sioux County line.
Meanwhile, the passerine show never let up. Red-eyed vireos and a locally scarce Bell’s vireo sang from the trees and thickets, and as the air attained its balmy 40 degrees F, yellow warblers, common yellowthroats, American redstarts, and an ovenbird started to hunt and sing. All of those species breed in the campground, but there were also two migrants: a nice-looking celata orange-crowned warbler, and then, feeding with the American goldfinches and pine siskins in the cottonwood buds, a grassy-backed Tennessee warbler. As abundant as that bird is in eastern Nebraska in May, I’d never seen it in the Panhandle, where it is surprisingly rare at any season.
Three hours later, we left the campground to explore a couple of other sites.
There were birds everywhere, but the true fallout seemed to be concentrated in the riparian thickets. Up in Smiley Canyon, where our way was first blocked by American bison, we found no obvious migrants at all, though a flock of seven black-billed magpies was a welcome sight — the only representatives of the species we would see anywhere in Nebraska. The Icehouse Ponds were slightly more productive, with numbers of Swainson’s thrushes plicking and plocking everywhere we turned; chimney and white-throated swifts hunted among the flock of cliff, barn, and violet-green swallows. Alison, less reverent of rarity and more easily swayed by mere beauty than I am sometimes, decided that a male Bullock’s oriole, perched out on the grass in the middle of a small flock of western kingbirds, was her favorite bird of the day.
And mine? Impossible to choose on a day like this, when the weather and the season combined to make one of the best birding experiences I’d had in a long time. Or at least since the day before.
It’s that time of year, when the long-awaited blush of green in the treetops starts to drive the warbler watchers wacky.
I can’t count the number of times during this Biggest Week that I’ve heard the old complaint: Why do all these warbler-colored, warbler-sized, warbler-shaped leaves have to come out just when the birds arrive? Just a few weeks ago, we couldn’t wait for the skeletal twigs of winter to burst their buds, and now, what we wouldn’t give for a bare branch or two up there where all that tantalizing buzzing and trilling is going on. If only the blasted habitat wouldn’t get in the way!
Plus ça change….
Félix de Azara, who celebrates his 169th birthday today (how time flies!), experienced similar frustrations in the twenty years he spent wandering South America.
It keeps to cover in tall vegetation, where it hides, coming out only when you are about to step on it; then it flies away a hundred yards or so, and if you chase after it, you’re amazed to find that it has already escaped to an even greater distance…. It is a restless, shy bird.
Azara says — good Euro-colonialist that he was — that
this bird has no name of its own, and I have given it the name of “todo-vox,” because of its song.
Hardly there in the flesh, as it darts from one reedy covert to the next, the bird is “all song,” nothing but voice — like all those disembodied chips and chirps raining down on us from the trees right now.
[Azara’s sneaky brown bird was a sedge wren, Cistothorus platensis polyglottus.]
If you’re curious about the ways nature, history, and art come together on our tours, have a look at my note about the goldfinches of Fontenay over at the VENT blog today.
See you in the field — if not in Burgundy, then at another of my 2016 destinations!
Well, it wasn’t meant to be a quiz photograph, but this bird in Berlin‘s Tiergarten last week was just a little bit too fast for me.
What is it, and how do you know?