Archive for Nebraska
Every spring is different, but this one was more different than most.
We’d pushed our March WINGS tour to Nebraska’s Platte River back a week to the end of the month, but the first few days of our time together felt more like winter than like early spring; only mid-week did the winds finally switch to the south and the temperatures climb above freezing, and the snow was replaced on our last morning’s hike by rich black sticky mud.
If from some perspectives the weather wasn’t ideal this time around, it could hardly have been better for the birder’s purposes: waterfowl, often enough already gone by the time our tour rolls around, were still lingering in impressive numbers (try 2,500 Richardson’s Cackling Geese in a single flock, or daily tallies of Redheads and Lesser Scaup in the hundreds), and junco diversity was still gratifyingly high, with Oregon, Pink-sided, and Cassiar Juncos to be found among the abundant Slate-coloreds.
Sandhill Crane numbers were good, too, of course, with estimated totals of 50,000 to 75,000 roosting on the Platte during our stay; we had brief views of a single Whooping Crane at one roost.
We were lucky to find Pine Siskin and Purple Finch still present, too, both irregular wintering species only rarely seen on this tour. Bald Eagle migration was still underway, and two Ferruginous Hawks—the first recorded on this tour—were a good find in the Sandhills, as were two Northern Shrikes.
But there were signs of springtime hope, too. The still snowy fishponds at Schramm State Park attracted an arriving Eastern Phoebe, and a Hermit Thrush (another tour first) and two Myrtle Warblers hunted the forest edge there.
Wood Ducks and Blue-winged Teal, typically two of the latest waterfowl species to arrive, trickled steadily in, and on our last evening we saw what must have been nearly the first Pied-billed Grebe and Double-crested Cormorant of the season.
And the weather made no difference at all to the springtime antics of the prairie grouse, with some 70 male Greater Prairie-Chickens on a single afternoon lek, followed by five dancing Sharp-tailed Grouse the next morning.
Already famous for its birds, our March tour is also gaining a reputation for great mammal watching. This year we added two large and especially appealing species to our cumulative list: a single Red Fox sniffed the edges of Carter Lake while we watched ducks on our first afternoon, and fifteen extremely photogenic Pronghorn made their gingerly way across the prairie-chicken lek a couple of days later.
Next year may be warmer, or colder, or snowier, or rainier, or drier, or even, hard as that would be to imagine, birdier; but we can only hope that it’s as much fun as this year’s edition of one of my favorite tours turned out to be.
A more detailed account of our days afield is here.
A hundred thirty-five years ago today in Omaha, a female Red-winged Blackbird gave her life for science. Collected by R.W. Shufeldt, the skin would later serve as the type of the race fortis, named by Robert Ridgway for what he considered a short, stout bill.
There is considerable skepticism nowadays about the usefulness of any subspecies concept in describing variation in this species, but as the measurements in Ridgway’s BNMA so eloquently assure us, fortis — a western and northern breeder — is a bird of no mean size and bulk, so much larger than phoeniceus that males should be distinguishable in the field on that character alone.
I’m a little embarrassed to say that I’ve never looked. But if you live in a part of the world (say, eastern Nebraska) where fortis can be expected in mixed flocks with its smaller cousins, give it a try. And why not say a silent thank you to USNM 88092 while you’re at it.
Perched at the very center of the continent, Nebraska is just one of those thousands of great places strangely neglected by birders.
Everyone knows the spectacular March migrations of cranes and waterfowl, but there’s much more to this state than just the central Platte River: dense deciduous forest in the east, ponderosa pines in the west, abundant marshes in the Sandhills.
This variety of habitats is matched by an astounding variety of birds. Indigo and Lazuli Buntings, Black-headed and Rose-breasted Grosbeaks, Eastern and Western Meadowlarks, and Swainson’s and Broad-winged Hawks all breed in the state, sometimes on adjacent territories, and a vast range of migrants pour in from the east and the west, the north and the south.
My new two-week springtime tour covers many of the finest birding areas in the state, from the Pileated Woodpeckers and Prothonotary Warblers of the southeastern forests to the Long-billed Curlews and Sharp-tailed Grouse of the grassy Sandhills and the Pygmy Nuthatches and Mountain Bluebirds of the Pine Ridge.
Join me in May 2014! It promises to be a great time.
I’ve reached that age where I sometimes think that everything was better when I was a boy. This spring’s WINGS tour of Nebraska provided a stunning counterexample: in 33 years of March visits to the central Platte River, I had never beheld so stunning a sight as the quarter of a million noisy Sandhill Cranes that streamed over our heads to land in the shallows of the river on one of our evening visits to the Gibbon Bridge. The birds were eventually packed so tightly that they look in the dusky light like topographic features, huge wide “sandbars” where the river had been empty just minutes before.
The sight—and the sound—of that terrific horde could have made our next morning’s visit to a riverside blind 20 miles downstream an anticlimax. But as the sun rose on the mere tens of thousands of birds on that roost, we discovered that they had been joined in the night by a lone adult Whooping Crane, one of only about 300 individuals making up the mid-continent flock and only the second ever recorded on a WINGS tour to Nebraska.
Our week was full of such surprises, most of them attributable to the incredibly warm weather and violent southerly winds with which we started the tour. The spring-like weather cost us the expected waterfowl show; though we tallied 23 species, including Ross’s and Cackling Geese and a somewhat easterly Cinnamon Teal, we never saw more than a few hundred waterfowl gathered at any single site.
Many raptors had also apparently taken advantage of the breezes to move north, but we were just in time to catch a fine lingering Harlan’s Hawk south of Rowe Sanctuary, even as the first of the Turkey Vultures were appearing.
Shorebirds, as might be expected, were unusually diverse for the date, with nine species over the week (including seven in the little puddle off the parking lot of our Grand Island hotel). In fact, it was a sandpiper that started our tour: at least three American Woodcock braved the winds to peent and twitter over the grassy fields of Lake Manawa on our first evening. We had time before the evening show to scan the massive gull flock, among which we discovered the only Franklin’s Gulls we would find on the tour.
The next morning was still warm and still windy, but we wandered the Missouri River floodplain of Fontenelle Forest, astonished at the silt and debris left by last year’s great flood; many of the trees still showed high water marks well above our heads.
But river bottom forest is nothing if not resilient, and plants were already sending shoots up through the sand. An Eastern Gray Squirrel was an exciting surprise at the very northern edge of its limited Nebraska range, and painted turtles sunned on the logs. Red Fox and Swamp Sparrows were just on the cusp of their “normal” arrival dates, and two Eastern Winter Wrens sang from the flotsam. One of Nebraska’s rarest breeding birds, the Pileated Woodpecker, was represented by at least two individuals; after nearly a century’s extirpation, this wildest of the picids is slowly re-establishing a population in the state’s remnant deciduous forests.
Lunchtime found us at Runza Hut, Nebraska’s delicious contribution to the fast-food universe.
And then it was time to head west. Apparently inspired by the early migrants, we briefly overshot our destination; soon enough, though, we were standing, buffeted by the winds, on the shore of Branched Oak Lake, where we eventually found a staked-out Neotropic Cormorant, a species still only casual in the state. We rejoined the interstate west of Lincoln and pressed on, greeted by our first Sandhill Cranes just on the Hall County line. We birded the feeders at the Crane Trust, picking up the first White-throated Sparrow ever recorded on this tour, then drove west along the south bank of the Platte to Gibbon Bridge, where the crane flight was better than any I had ever witnessed. With their throaty rattles still echoing in our ears, we enjoyed a steak dinner in Grand Island and looked forward to what the next morning would bring.
What the next morning brought was the threat of rain. It was still dry when we arrived on the southern edge of the vast Taylor Ranch, though, and we soon found ourselves scoping a gang of half a dozen male Greater Prairie-Chickens dancing on a distant lek. Hunger and the first raindrops hit at precisely the same time, and the skies broke just as we decided to break for breakfast. Car birding was in order, and there’s no better place for that than the Grand Island cemetery, which was covered with Dark-eyed Juncos of three subspecies and scattered Harris’s and White-crowned Sparrows.
By the time we felt the need to stretch our legs, the rain had ended and the sky was clearing. We could feel the wind moving into the north, but we braved the light chill—perfectly normal for March, but a shock after the warm days before—to walk the rail trail at Fort Kearny.
Juncos and Harris’s Sparrows were common here, too, and they were joined by two singing Field Sparrows; even just ten years ago, those birds would have been notably early, but nowadays, arrival is expected in the last days of March. A fine male Myrtle Warbler was the only parulid we found all week; it was also, as we discovered on reviewing our list that evening, the first for that species in the history of our tour.
The next morning was our earliest—but well worth the sacrifice of a few minutes’ sleep. We were in the blind at the Crane Trust at 6:30 am, listening to the murmur of the tens of thousands of Sandhill Cranes just outside the windows.
As the sun rose, we picked out a white bird, a truly white, huge, thick bird unlike the delicate leucistic Sandhill Crane that had made our hearts skip a beat the day before. This was the real thing, an adult Whooping Crane, two or three weeks early at this latitude. Even at the peak of their migration in April, this is a hard bird to find in Nebraska, and indeed the species had been recorded only once before on this tour.
We followed a celebratory breakfast with the drive south to Harlan County Reservoir, right on the Kansas border. The expected American White Pelicans were present in unexpectedly large numbers; 90 birds is a big flock for March.
Harlan is always a promising site for gulls too, and we added American Herring Gull to our list before ducking south for a few minutes into Kansas, where our state list—comprising a single species, Harris’s Sparrow—was high in quality if not in quantity.
After lunch in Alma, we visited a few of the wetlands in the western Rainwater Basin. This region in south-central Nebraska is one of the continent’s most important waterfowl production areas, and the shallow marshes and lagoons are very attractive to migrants, too. An Eared Grebe was early at Funk Lagoon, and a drake Cinnamon Teal on the outskirts of Holdredge was near the eastern limit of that species’ usual migration route in the state. Prairie Dog WMA gave us more views of its eponymous squirrel, but even this warm spring it was still too early for the owls we’d hoped to find in the dogtown.
We’d set aside the next day to visit the eastern Sandhills, but almost changed our minds when we saw the drizzle falling. It’s as good to be wet in the hills as anywhere else, though, so we drove north—and soon found that we’d left the rain behind and would enjoy bright sunshine the rest of the day. A roadside pond near Burwell was devoid of waterfowl, but the surrounding cedars hosted a flock of some 50 Cedar Waxwings, a bird always worth admiring at length. Southern Holt County’s Swan Lake, in contrast, was paved with ducks, and we enjoyed excellent close views of several species we had only glimpsed up to that point. Surprisingly enough, it was here that we saw the only White-tailed Deer of the week.
Something must have happened while we were at lunch in a local-colorful cafe in Burwell: the afternoon was nearly birdless. We made do with the spectacular scenery of Calamus Reservoir, then visited Fort Hartsuff, where a Red-bellied Woodpecker and a singing Eastern White-breasted Nuthatch were clear reminders of Nebraska’s transitional place in North America’s zoogeography.
We topped off the day with another “bridge watch,” listening to the masses of Sandhill Cranes as they returned once again to the river. Mist and then drizzle chased us back to the motel, but we wouldn’t have passed up that one more chance to witness this ancient spectacle.
The rain had let up by the time we left the next morning, but fog lay heavy over the Platte valley. The Harvard sewage ponds had a good selection of ducks and geese coming in and out of the fog, and what might well have been our largest flock of Snow Geese the entire week passed invisible overhead. But once again we found ourselves going the right direction: by the time we were back in eastern Nebraska, we’d left the unpleasant weather behind and were birding beneath blue skies.
Schram Park looked and sounded like the eastern forest it is, with Tufted Titmice and Carolina Wrens singing away, while yet more Harris’s Sparrows fed on the woodland edge. The small mitigation wetland above Wehrspann Lake, just a few miles away, gave us our last looks at a small selection of waterfowl, and then, already, the airport beckoned.
We’ll be back.
We’ll see hundreds of thousands of Sandhill Cranes, and if our timing is just right, we may run into nearly a million waterfowl, including something like 80% of the continent’s population of Greater White-fronted Geese.
We’ll spend at least one morning watching the antics of Greater Prairie-Chickens on the lek.
There’ll be passerines, too, most likely including good numbers of Harris’s Sparrows.
You’ll love this trip. Half a million cranes can’t be wrong!