Archive for Nebraska

Mar
26

VENT Nebraska: Day Seven

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Dawn found us back at the Alda bridge, in a light breeze and light sleet, listening to the cranes wake up and the endless flocks of snow geese overhead. As the skies grew brighter, against all odds, Danny picked a white dot out of the vast crane islands — an adult whooping crane, almost certainly the one we had enjoyed a few days earlier just a mile or so down the road.

The weather wasn’t improving, so we pushed on to Gretna and Schramm State Park, where all was quiet but for a noisy belted kingfisher nervously hunting the old fish ponds. A walk along the densely wooded blufftops was hardly any birdier, with a heard-only myrtle warbler our only feathered reward.

Schramm Park

Schram on a sunnier winter’s day than we had this year

The drive back to Omaha should have been shorter than it was, and traffic was still jammed when it came time to head out for dinner. But we got there, and slept the happy sleep of the bird-sated as we looked forward to the return home.

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Mar
24

Other People’s Bird Books: A New Jersey Family

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This is Montclair State University’s copy of John Francis McDermott‘s edition of the 1843 journal of Edward Harris, friend, patron, and frequent field companion of John James Audubon.

Eleanor Darrach Sappington to D. d'Arcy Northwood

Like most of that library’s general natural history titles from mid-century, this book was a gift from J. D’Arcy and Anne Ardrey Northwood, familiar names indeed in Pennsylvania and New Jersey birding circles: D’Arcy was the first curator of Mill Grove, and the couple’s “ramshackle cottage” at Cape May would eventually become New Jersey Audubon’s Northwood Center.

But this particular volume has another layer of provenance, attested by the inscription to D’Arcy Northwood from Eleanor Darrach Sippington. Good old Google helped me pin her down as one of the six children of Susannah Ustick Harris and Alfred Darrach; Susannah Harris was one of the four children of Edward Harris and his second wife (and first cousin), Mary G. Ustick.

What made my smile especially broad on reading the inscription was the fact that I had the pleasure of dinner with another of Harris’s descendants a couple of years ago in the Bahamas. She is certainly too young to have known her cousin Eleanor, but the connection shows once again just how small the world of birding can be, not just in space but over time.

 

 

 

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Mar
15

VENT Nebraska: Day Six

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greater prairie chicken videoAnother early morning and another prairie grouse species in display — this time greater prairie-chickens, 20 minutes straight north of Mullen. Unlike the whirligig antics of the sharp-tails, the booming of the prairie-chickens is a stately affair, but no less deadly serious to the performers.

greater prairie chicken, Nebraska, MarchThis lek was a bit on the small side last year, but today we counted no fewer than 32 males at one point, no doubt drawn in by the apparent presence of an early hen or two doing a little window shopping.

The eerie moaning was still echoing in our ears when we left the lek for breakfast. Eggs and hashbrowns sounded awfully good, but we wound up making one unscheduled stop for a big dark bird on a telephone pole.

ferruginous hawkFerruginous hawks are uncommon winterers and scarce breeders in the Nebraska Sandhills, and we don’t always get the lingering views this one granted us; we were even able to step out of the shuttle for photos, and the bird was still perched above the road when we left.

After breakfast — another good one at the Meadowlark Cafe — we bade farewell for the drive south to North Platte, interrupted by a quick stop to look at a couple of roadside pronghorn (much better views than the pair we’d had at a distance the day before).

cackling gooseThe pond at Cody Park gave us the expected close views of cackling geese, often standing or swimming right next to Canadas; there was also a lone trumpeter swan, and the usual congregation of ducks included scattered redheads, common goldeneye, and lesser scaup.

And then back to civilization — or at least to what passes for civilization in the form of interstate 80. We zipped along to Grand Island, checked in to our hotel, and had dinner before driving south to the Alda bridge for another fine evening with the cranes. The stiff breeze cleared the human crowds out pretty quickly, nd by the time we left there was nothing to hear but the roar of the flocks settling above and below the bridge. Just as it should be.

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Mar
13

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.

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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Mar
12

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.

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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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