Archive for Nebraska
They’re stately, dignified, even slightly pompous birds. But when the spirit is upon them, even greater prairie-chickens can lose control, as these two did this past week in the Sandhills of Nebraska.
Yes, it’s the season of love and battle on the prairies.
My Nebraska tour is off to a great start — and with a great group, which makes me look forward even more to the rest of the week.
We started yesterday afternoon with some waterfowl watching near the airport, relishing close-up views of lesser scaup and redheads. I’d been worried that the fancy gulls of the day before might be gone, but sure enough, one of the first we saw on approaching the bleak marina at Dodge Park was an adult lesser black-backed gull, squabbling with the abundant ring-billed gulls over surprisingly large but obviously tasty dead fish. The day’s first bald eagles were here, too, perched impassive over the whole scene.
After an early supper at La Mesa, we moved across to Lake Manawa, where many thousands of gulls were streaming in to roost. Another adult lesser black-backed joined the flock, and most of us caught at least glimpses of three or four Franklin’s gulls out there in the horde; I’m hoping for more and closer views of this most handsome of North American larids.
The coloring of the skies reminded us that it would soon be woodcock time. We took our places in a traditionally good spot and watched the creatures of the night emerge, among them a few white-tailed deer and what I imagine will turn out to be the tour’s first great horned owl. Promptly at eight came the first nearby buzzings, and a few minutes later half a dozen birds were peenting and skydancing all around us. Several flashed right through the group as they took off in display flight — happily, no puncture wounds from the big-nosed lovebirds.
Best of all? Standing in the evening light without a coat. Spring on the Great Plains: you can never tell!
Not that long ago, a lesser black-backed gull was red-letter news in eastern Nebraska. No more: this snazzy adult was only one of two individuals at N.P. Dodge Park this afternoon. The other was the first first-cycle bird I’d seen in the state (and even less obliging in matters photographic).
Plenty of bald eagles out there, too, but disappointingly low waterfowl numbers.
Our tour begins tomorrow, and if these gulls stick around, it will be a great start.
Nowadays we know that the Cassin’s kingbird is a common September bird in the Nebraska panhandle, which is where I photographed this one last year (a whole year? already?).
It was 95 years ago tomorrow, on September 6, 1919, that C.E. Mickel and R.W. Dawson first discovered this species in the state, in Sioux County. They went on to collect three specimens that week.
We leave our shotguns at home now, but there are still discoveries to be made in western Nebraska. And especially this time of year, I envy those who get to make them.
I can still lead you right to the battleship gray table in the basement of Love Library where I first made the acquaintance of Frank Chapman. It was thirty-five years ago this fall (thirty-five! years!) that I discovered the wonders of 598.2 C36, with its shocking cover and its weirdly captivating photographs of birds and birders at the turn of the twentieth century.
The travels Chapman recounts here don’t seem so exotic to me any more; but when I was sixteen, I could hardly imagine ever getting to the places Chapman and his friends got to bird.
Barrier beaches and Florida heronries, alcids on the California coast and the flamingos of Caribbean islands: it was inconceivable that I should ever be able to witness any of those sites and sights.
What really got my attention, though, was that when he wasn’t traveling around the bird world with his camera and his shotgun, this famous ornithologist and writer and museum man had actually birded my part of that world, Nebraska.
And he wrote about it in the Camps and Cruises.
The travels Chapman narrates were all undertaken in the quest for specimens for new habitat groups at the American Museum. In the Autobiography, Chapman would wax nostalgic when it comes to prairie-chickens: during his boyhood in New Jersey,
the desire to form a collection … found expression in gathering the feathers and wings of birds. Of the latter I acquired what I should now term a “large series,” willingly cut by our cook from Prairie Hens which, in season, at that period (1872-1876) festooned butcher shops.
Thirty years later, when birds were needed not under glass but behind it, the eastern chicken — the famous heath hen — was long gone from New Jersey, and trains no longer supplied east coast gourmands with barrels full from the prairies of the west.
When, therefore, I made inquiry of various correspondents concerning a place where I might count on finding Prairie Hens in numbers, I was advised to go to the sand-hills of Nebraska…. [where] the bird proved to be abundant and here, doubtless, it will make its last stand.
Chapman, accompanied by the principal players in the creation of the museum’s habitat groups — the famous painter Bruce Horsfall and the equally well-known preparator Jesse D. Figgins — arrived in Lincoln on May 1, 1906, where they got their permits in order and were joined by Lawrence Bruner, one of the leading lights of natural history at the University of Nebraska and author of a book I already knew well.
The party must have driven to Halsey (not yet the site of a unit of the Nebraska National Forest), as Chapman says that they reached the collecting site on May 3 and were finished there by May 6; indeed, they were already in Tucson on May 10.
When they arrived on the banks of the Middle Loup, the birders found the northward migration “at its height,” with many passage birds mingling with the local breeders. Like generations of happy observers after him, Chapman was impressed with the mix of typically eastern and typically western birds on Nebraska’s Great Plains:
The Prairie Hen, for example, extends more than half-way across the state where it meets the Sharp-tail Grouse or Prairie Chicken; the Great-crested Flycatcher meets the Arkansas Kingbird, the Blue Jay the Magpie, to mention a few of many similar cases.
The most abundant species recorded in the sandhills around Halsey was, then as now, the western meadowlark.
Its “hurried, ecstatic, twittering, jumbled” flight song making a big impression on Chapman, so much more used as he was to the “clean-cut fifing” of the eastern meadowlark.
On May 4, Bruner took Chapman and colleagues out to the lek of the greater prairie-chickens, where the easterners
listened for the first time to their booming, with doubtless much the same feeling that an ardent music-lover first hears the voice of a world-renowned singer. The birds were distant about a mile, but their pervasive, resonant, conch-like notes, came distinctly to the ears through the still, clear air.
I distinctly remember my mind’s wandering from that evening’s calculus homework to ponder the meaning of that inscrutable “conch-like.” There was no google for me to consult back then, remember.
By the way, if you want to bird Nebraska in Chapman’s footsteps, consider joining me next March.