Archive for Nebraska

Mar
13

Nebraska with VENT: Day Three

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Nebraska

It was cold and windy and spitting snow when we arrived at Fort Kearny this morning to watch the moon set and the sandhill cranes rise. It’s still, 40 years on, one of the most moving experiences I’ve ever had in the outdoor world — rivaled only by the evening flight, which we witnessed tonight a half dozen miles downstream, tens of thousands of birds pouring in over our heads, shouting and gurgling and rattling and laughing.

In between we birded south of the Platte, from Kearney to almost Grand Island, marveling at cranes and arriving flocks of western meadowlarks out on the windy fields. Perhaps the most surprising bird of the day was hunkered down out of the elements on one of those fields, a gray blob that had me making one of those simultaneous screech-to-a-halt-and-make-a-U-turn maneuvers that mark us, sure as our binoculars, as birders.

Nebraska

I don’t know offhand how many migrant peregrine falcons I’ve ever seen in this state, but I’m guessing that a quick digital tally would likely involve neither of my feet.

Tomorrow: the cranes again, of course, and then a day of northing and westering into the most heartbreakingly beautiful landscape on the continent.

Stay tuned, and come with us next year.

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Mar
11

Nebraska With VENT: Day Two

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sandhill crane

The first full day of our tour ended with an hour and a half of the bird in the photo: this is the second year in a row that we’ve lucked into an early whooping crane, and only the fourth or fifth time, if rightly I remember, that we’ve managed to score this rare bird at all on this trip. Peak migration for the species on the Platte River in spring falls a good month from now, in the second week of April or so, and I assume that this individual — which we watched somewhere in Kearney County for a good hour and a half in the early evening — wintered inland in north Texas or somewhere nearby, where it fell in with a group of sandhill cranes and has adopted, I hope only temporarily, their seasonal rhythm.

sandhill crane

The afternoon belonged to cranes, as it inevitably does on the central Platte in March. The “official” tally from a few days ago is 406,000 on this stretch of the river, and we found it easy to believe. Sandhill cranes were never out of sight or glorious, glorious sound once we reached easternmost Hall County, and though scanning the flocks on the ground and the air failed to produce a third gruid species, we did come across no fewer than three “cinnamon” sandhills, juveniles that for some reason skipped their molt in late summer of 2016 and retained their first plumage, stained brown with the mud of the tundra and now ragged and worn. I rarely see three such birds over the course of a season, and that many in a single day was a treat.

We started the day on the floodplain of the Missouri River, where a pair of pileated woodpeckers called and drummed and were all in all impressively incongruous. The skies were dull and the air cold, but red fox sparrows were in full song. The barred owl flying down the bottom of the bluffs landed out of sight to become a “leader-only” species, but maybe we’ll fix that on our return end of the week. Meanwhile, cranes!

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Mar
11

Nebraska with VENT

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Franklin's gull

We’re off to a fine start on this 2017 Victor Emanuel tour to Nebraska, with an afternoon of good birding and great company behind us.

The pretty little Franklin gull in the photo was a good find. The big flocks won’t be appearing for another three weeks or so, and I’d suspect that this bird was one of those that for whatever reason linger all season far north of the usual South American wintering grounds.

Lake Manawa produced a smattering of waterfowl, including half a dozen hooded mergansers and a nice gang of 35 or so canvasback among the couple of hundred lesser scaup. That we weren’t the only ones watching ducks this afternoon was made clear by the roost flight of bald eagles: at least 30 came out of the trees around the lake to seek safer perches on the Nebraska side of the river.

This tour is often very nice for mammals, and I hope we didn’t use up all our luck today. We started off with excellent looks at a black-morph eastern fox squirrel, one of the handsomest of the squirrels. Then at Lake Manawa we were serenaded in the late afternoon by a pack of coyotes, beautiful noise that never fails to send a shiver up the spine.

If there was a disappointment today, and I don’t think there really was, it was the woodcock show. The first started to buzz at 6:40 pm, but we had only fleeting views of three birds flying in early to display, and not a single good look at any of the birds up in the sky. It was getting chilly and the wind came up, so we kicked it in half an hour later. We’ll try again at the end of the tour — tomorrow it’s west to look for cranes, gray ones and white ones and maybe, fingers fervently crossed, one with a black and white neck….

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Jun
17

Happy Birthday, Fontenelle Forest

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It’s one of my favorite places on earth. I learned to bird there, and I go back every spring — and whenever else I can — to catch up with the birds and the trees and the people I have been so fond of so long.

Rick at Fontenelle Forest

Fontenelle Forest was officially dedicated one hundred years ago this afternoon, when three thousand people gathered to celebrate this precious chunk of woodland just south of the largest city on the northern Great Plains.

The program began — perhaps inevitably — with a performance of Grieg’s “Morgenstimmung.” A certain Miss Hazel Silver then offered a piece less familiar to us (or at least to me) now, “The Hermit Thrush,” by F.S. Converse and Arvia MacKaye.

It seemed to be a voice of love/ That always had loved me… / My wandering love, lost yet forever heard.

Then came the afternoon’s prime attraction, a performance of Percy MacKaye’s “Sanctuary” with an epilogue specially composed for the occasion. MacKaye’s masque may have been short on dramatic tension, but its conservation message could not have been clearer — or more appropriate to the day.

 A compact, then… that when we go/ Forth from these gracious trees/ Into the world, we go as witnesses/ Before the men who make our country’s laws,/ And by our witness show/ In burning words/ The meaning of these sylvan mysteries:/ Freedom and sanctuary for the birds!

Those words still burn, and Fontenelle Forest, if it remains in hands wise enough to privilege conservation of a scarce resource over entertainment and spectacle, will keep its sylvan mysteries for another century to come.

Fontenelle forest

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May
24

Sowbelly Canyon

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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.

Rick and Gellert, Sowbelly

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.

Red-headed woodpecker

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.

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.

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