Archive for Victor Emanuel Nature Tours
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.
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.
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.
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!
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….
Am I the only one who wakes up on the plane at the end of a transoceanic flight completely, entirely, thoroughly, almost irretrievably discombobulated?
I stumbled out of the Venice airport this morning fully disoriented. Happily, the time it took me to walk the ever-widening circles required to find the car rental area was also the opportunity for the first of the day’s many score pygmy cormorants to fly over — and with that I was on my ornitho-feet again, reminded that I hadn’t landed just anywhere in Old Europe, but was on, indeed in, the Adriatic Sea.
I spent the day re-familiarizing myself with the area and the birds, and even got to witness two common kingfisher behaviors I never had before. I suspect that neither is rare, but it’s unusual that I get to linger over this bird, so often just an electric-blue flash and a nails-on-the-chalkboard squeak as it darts past on its way to one end or the other of its necessarily linear territory.
Today, though, I watched two different individuals hunting the “lagoon” at Lio Piccolo, a tiny insular peninsula or peninsular island with a single road so narrow that I could swear a time or two I was propelled merely by the rotation of the axles.
In any event, my slow progress was a chance to watch one kingfisher actually hovering over the water for a couple of seconds; it was less skilled than so many of the larger aquatic alcedinids are, but I was still impressed, especially since this was the first time I think I’d ever seen the species treading air at all.
Not long thereafter, I was more surprised to see a blue dot on a distant telephone wire: a common kingfisher, hunting from a perch far higher and far more exposed than I would ever have expected. Twice the little blue dart flicked its way down to the water, but twice it came up empty, no doubt to the amusement of the great cormorants hulking on the wires and poles around it.
A nice start to what is sure to be an exciting tour!
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!