Birds of the Day

East Ash Canyon

East Ash Canyon is one of the most reliably birdy spots on the Nebraska Pine Ridge. Over the years, I’ve seen some very “good” birds there, including my only gray flycatcher ever for the state.

Today’s haul may have been even better.

We started at dawn in Chadron, driving south in an attempt to beat the traffic on Table Road. We had one target species, and I’d almost given up on it when a flash of white in the ditch caught my eye. I think I was the only one in the vehicle to get a decent look at this sharp-tailed grouse before it flushed — but it landed not far away on the wheat stubble, and we all got excellent scope views of the sweet-faced bird. It quickly became apparent that “this” grouse was in fact “these” grouse, and we tallied eleven before the approach of a stock truck inspired us to move on.

The grouse was a life bird for most of the group, but it got better. At the switchback on East Ash Road, a different flash of white from the top of a burnt pine puzzled us for the moment it took me to stop the car, quickly resolving itself into a Clark’s nutcracker. I’d been dreaming for decades of seeing that species in Nebraska, and my first soon became a second, then a third, until we had a dozen or so nutcrackers milling around the steep canyon walls, where they were mercilessly and inexplicably harried by American robins.

Clark's nutcracker, Dawes Co., Nebraska

We found another gang of four birds a couple of hours later at the bottom of the canyon, and a single individual bade us farewell as we left late in the morning.

Clark's nutcracker, Dawes Co., Nebraska

Things are afoot, as the large numbers of red crossbills and pine siskins also suggested. It could be a very interesting winter out here on the western plains.

East Ash was full of red-headed woodpeckers and northern flickers of all colors, too. Noisy Nelson’s white-breasted nuthatches gave us the best views yet, and were joined by smaller numbers of red-breasted and pygmy nuthatches in the pines. An eastern phoebe haunted the creek while a Townsend’s solitaire fluttered in the brush and spotted towhees mewled and whined from every thicket and brush pile. While most of the bluebirds on our way in had been ethereally blue mountain bluebirds, down in the canyon they were all easterns, flocking with the robins and siskins.

Flush with success, we drove over to West Ash to see if there were nutcrackers there, too. It was very quiet, a surprising contrast to the scene just five miles downstream, so we took a short walk in the delightful cool of the late morning and set out for the highway.

Cassin's kingbird

Our progress was halting, as it always is for birders. A fine Cassin’s kingbird posed for its portrait; as expected, this has been the only common kingbird — indeed, nearly the only kingbird at all — on the trip, with most western kingbirds well on their way south already.

As we approached the highway, two big raptors overhead revealed themselves to be neither turkey vultures nor red-tailed hawks, both species that were increasingly common as the day warmed. These two, though, were different: an adult and a juvenile golden eagle, soaring close to each other and wheeling repeatedly to give us unexcelled views. We’d seen an adult in Sowbelly Canyon a few days ago, but the sight of these birds, low against the bright blue skies of autumn, the adult’s golden nape flashing nearly as bright as the juvenile’s wing and tail patches, is likely to be one of the finest and most enduring memories of the entire trip.

After lunch in Hay Springs (our second mid-day meal at the Bar J, home of the best steaks in the panhandle), we moved south along the very western edge of the Sandhills. Hardly had we left town when two big bobcat kittens appeared on the roadside. There’s a certain injustice in the way mammals immediately push thoughts of even the rarest and most dashing birds from our minds.

The big lakes had a good selection of ducks, including the first redheads of the week, but shorebirding was a disappointment: killdeer, stilt sandpipers, lesser yellowlegs, and Baird’s sandpipers were all present in just small numbers. The only common wader was the American avocet, with 172 on one lake; a juvenile peregrine falcon, a scarcish bird out this way, kept them wary. That same lake gave us our first white-faced ibis and Franklin’s gulls, both birds I’d expected to see much earlier and neither the less welcome for the tardiness of its appearance.

Tomorrow: the Wildcat Hills. I can’t wait.

red-tailed hawk, Dawes Co, Nebraska



Fort Robinson snow

Much of the snow melted by 2:00 pm.

It’s one of those sentences I didn’t expect to speak on May 20 in Nebraska, but snow it did, a good inch and a half on the ground, the roofs, and the car tops when we got up that morning.

And what do we do in unexpected weather in migration? We bird, of course.

Alison snow boots in May

Alison’s attire required a little extemporization, but once that was done, we set off for the Soldiers Creek Campground at Fort Robinson, where we’d seen large numbers of lark sparrows, clay-colored sparrows, chipping sparrows, and lazuli buntings the day before, when it was just drizzling.

This snowy morning, the campground came through for us once again.

fort robinson in the snow

It’s always been one of my favorite birding sites in one of my favorite landscapes, the Nebraska Pine Ridge, but it’s rare for me to be there when the campers aren’t. On this morning, we shared the wooded grounds along the creek with a grand total of one rv’er (uncertain how to spell that one) — and loads and loads of birds.

Most impressive of all were the Swainson’s thrushes. This is a common May migrant in the Nebraska Panhandle, but we were unprepared for the flock of at least 20 bouncing around on the lawns and in the brush. We looked hard for rarer birds, but all were Swainson’s, and all the Swainson’s were olive-backed thrushes. No complaints from us, though.

white-throated sparrow

The sparrow flock had grown considerably in numbers, with at least 120 lark sparrows feeding frantically on the snow, and perhaps half that many chipping sparrows joining in. Spotted towhees, probably but not certainly local breeders, whined and mewled and trilled everywhere, occasionally bounding out from their thickets to show off. These arcticus birds are the most heavily marked of all the spotted towhees, and Alison, who had most recently seen the bland oregonus birds of coastal British Columbia, exclaimed again and again when one flashed through her field of view.

There were less expected sparrows, too. A Lincoln’s sparrow was a bit on the latish side, even for western Nebraska, and a gloriously white-striped white-throated sparrow was both geographically and chronologically slightly out of place: generally uncommon at best in the Panhandle, this species is usually gone from the state entirely by May 20.

Most interesting among the emberizids were the white-crowned sparrows. At first glance, they seemed all to be dark-lored birds, thus presumably leucophrys (or maybe, just maybe, oriantha); but a closer look revealed that even though the black lateral crown stripes were thick and reached or nearly reached the base of the bill, there was invariably a gray loral patch separating that stripe from the eye line. The bill color was also intermediate between the darker-billed birds of the far north and west and the paler-billed Gambel’s sparrow; we put them down as “subspecies indeterminate,” not an uncommon label when you’re dealing with migrants — of just about any species — on the western Great Plains.

A high-pitched squeal revealed another surprise.

Broad-winged hawk

Broad-winged hawks are rare in extreme western Nebraska, but the weather had put down a mini-flock of three juveniles in the campground’s cottonwoods, and as the weather warmed, slightly, they took to the air, flashing from tree to tree and studiously avoiding the nervous Cooper’s hawks nesting in a tall tree nearby.

Broad-winged hawk

If I were a county lister, I’d have checked this one off for two, as it soared against the Cheyenne Outbreak Buttes, back and forth across the Sioux County line.

Meanwhile, the passerine show never let up. Red-eyed vireos and a locally scarce Bell’s vireo sang from the trees and thickets, and as the air attained its balmy 40 degrees F, yellow warblers, common yellowthroats, American redstarts, and an ovenbird started to hunt and sing. All of those species breed in the campground, but there were also two migrants: a nice-looking celata orange-crowned warbler, and then, feeding with the American goldfinches and pine siskins in the cottonwood buds, a grassy-backed Tennessee warbler. As abundant as that bird is in eastern Nebraska in May, I’d never seen it in the Panhandle, where it is surprisingly rare at any season.

Three hours later, we left the campground to explore a couple of other sites.

Pine Ridge in snow

There were birds everywhere, but the true fallout seemed to be concentrated in the riparian thickets. Up in Smiley Canyon, where our way was first blocked by American bison, we found no obvious migrants at all, though a flock of seven black-billed magpies was a welcome sight — the only representatives of the species we would see anywhere in Nebraska. The Icehouse Ponds were slightly more productive, with numbers of Swainson’s thrushes plicking and plocking everywhere we turned; chimney and white-throated swifts hunted among the flock of cliff, barn, and violet-green swallows. Alison, less reverent of rarity and more easily swayed by mere beauty than I am sometimes, decided that a male Bullock’s oriole, perched out on the grass in the middle of a small flock of western kingbirds, was her favorite bird of the day.

And mine? Impossible to choose on a day like this, when the weather and the season combined to make one of the best birding experiences I’d had in a long time. Or at least since the day before.