18 July 2017

NPPD Forces Feds to Nix Attendance of FWS Official at Community Meeting

A phone call from a federal office in Washington D.C. prevented Robert Harms of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service from attending a private meeting in Thedford on the afternoon of July 17, 2017.

Officials of the Nebraska Public Power District had learned of the meeting via an online posting, and called the Denver and Grand Island office of the federal agency, but were told by an agency head in Nebraska that the question and answer meeting was still a go, according to details provided by a meeting sponsor. Because of communication with an office in Washington, D.C., Harms received notice that he could not attend the meeting. It was conveyed that NPPD thought that it looked like Harms was “going behind their back” and made the FWS look biased.

Harms, from the Nebraska Field Office, had planned to answer questions regarding the R-Project. He was already in Thedford, when he received the notification to not attend, within the hour prior to the start of the meeting.

Prior to the start of the meeting, two NPPD representatives were sitting in a back corner of the meeting room of the venue. They were kindly asked to leave, initially balked as they were told to attend by some lawyer and then erroneously said that Mr. Harms would be present. Once told that it was a private meeting and they did not have reservations, they were escorted to the exit and it was made certain that they left, according to the hostess of the meeting. While the meeting was underway, an attendee that arrived a short time after it had started, saw two people in an NPPD truck driving around, taking pictures of parked vehicles and their license plates, she said.

Ranchland Community Gathering

Despite the lack of a guest that would have been greatly appreciated, the meeting continued with discussions on these key items:
* the Section 404 application made to the Army Corps of Engineers where NPPD has asked for a type of permit which does not address fill being placed in wetlands for the required long-term powerline and power-pole maintenance; they have also requested a permit that was prepared in a manner that would not allow public review, as associated with an individual permit. Information on this application was received three Freedom of Information Act requests. Any decision is still pending.
* change in r-project alignment: the alignment map in the ACE document does not match the alignment indicated in other draft documents that have recently been submitted for public review; there are obvious substantive changes.
* lack of legal agreements for many portions of the proposed powerline route as obvious due to the few easements filed in deed records of two counties which the powerline will traverse, notably Blaine county.
* NPPD and regulatory agencies undertaking an environmental review and other considerations for a project where the final route of the powerline is hypothetical due to the lack of legally-indicated easements.
* how is it that NPPD can identify itself as a “quasi-public” corporation; this company has even indicated that it is a public corporation or a political subdivision, according to documentation received via the FOIA request; an action item indicated at the meeting was to have the Nebraska Attorney General issue a finding that will provide a final answer as to the type of company designation for NPPD. It is impossible for NPPD to be a "political subdivision" as the term is applicable to incorporated villages, towns and cities.
* pending opportunity for further public comment on the draft environmental impact statement and other project documents, comprising about 1500 pages; additional weeks will be provided, based upon details which are expected to be issued this month in the Federal Register.
* matters regarding the legal statutes of the state of Nebraska Open Meetings Act, including how these statutes have recently been violated in association with public meetings on the r-project and wind turbine planning efforts in Cherry county.
* plans for ongoing activities to keep industrial powerlines and unwanted wind turbines from being placed in the sandhills, a place that is special for each person in the meeting, and for future generations, as stated multiple times by speakers. Cattleman Steve Moreland from Merriman put it very succinctly: “Just say no” to unwanted turbines and powerlines.

The private meeting was hosted by Dan and Barb Welch of the Brush Creek Ranch which is primarily west of Brownlee, with their south unit a short distance south of Thedford, along with great involvement from "members" of the advocacy group “Preserve the Sandhills.” More than 65 people attended, including Merriman, Valentine, Wood Lake, the Brownlee area, Brewster, Burwell, and Thomas County residents. There was also a representative or two from local planning boards or county commissioners that attended to hear the commentary.

There were many successful ranchers present, sitting on the chairs in the rooms. Their names could be mentioned individually, but that will not happen here because it was a community meeting where a bunch of special ranch country decided to splice out personal time during a busy summer season to be present at a meeting for common causes.

Lots of cowboys hats were upon the heads of cattlemen. There were boots a bit of distance above the floor spread about. The crowd was completely respectful. They listened. They learned because among those present are a few people which have spent multiple hours dealing with government, wind turbines and an industrial powerline. Most importantly, everyone, yes everyone was given a chance to speak. Everyone listened attentively in each instance.

The meeting was one more example of sand hill ranchland residents gathering to work towards conservation of their home place now as well as for their future generations.

Blaine county is now initiating efforts to develop zoning regulations, according to comments made at the meeting and details mentioned at the meeting of the Cherry county commissioners on July 11th. An initial meeting is pending.

30 June 2017

Wren Antics

Two small bits of feathered birds have been very busy continuing their seasonal presence at a north Valentine space which is their particular place. They are an established pair of House Wrens that have been together for weeks since an early spring arrival. He still sings from a horse shed roof while she feeds the young and might gather one twig or more for a nest in a medium-sized pipe with a nice suitably-sized entrance to a sheltered haven where eggs were laid because it was a safe-space to raise young.

For some weeks now the pair has been caring for their family of this breeding season. Mr. Wren is being attentive to making sure their birdly home is safe from any adjacent wrens that have any intent to impose on his seasonal residence. He sings, especially in the morning, as that is when so many birds express their presence, and as the day continues, he gets busy during foraging efforts to find some bit of an insect to provide to incessant and hungry youngsters. Mrs. Wren is especially very active in the neighborhood and has been very busy all day to make certain that eggs were kept warms and then nestlings are well fed from results of local forays.

The dynamic duo tend their nest all day, as obvious from my short distance away vantage place near where they fly with extent here and there. Activities are prominent these tiny mites search for forage, while other nearby wild birds are also taking care of demanding young.

Was it the same pair that nested at this same place last year? No matter, another generation was the result of such attentive care for their progeny this breeding season.

Most recently the nest builder of the duo found a nice bit of a stick to add to the nest. It was thought to be the right size, yet there was a problem that became readily apparent. While carefully grasped in the beak, multiple efforts were made to get the woody thing placed at home. Various angles did not work despite one turn or another of the wren’s head. Finally the too long stick was dropped to the ground.

Mrs. Wren did make sure to dart into the family abode until quickly departing on the day’s tasks. The antics of the morning of 29 June, after a mid-night bit of rain were a wonderful expression of a fresh morning as the wrens were attentive as they continued efforts of this particular wild bird season.

16 June 2017

May Birds in the Vicinity of Valentine

During the month, there were some new arrivals while others had already raised their brood of the year. There was nothing prominently exciting, nor where any rare birds seen. It was a basic month of wild bird occurrence in north-central Nebraska.

The usual bird haunts in the Valentine vicinity were traversed via bicycling or walking as appropriate during the month, especially along the trails at the city park.

Other special places within the sandhills were bird surveys were done have already been reported on. Especially notable was the May 6 visit to Anderson Bridge WMA because this was the first place in Cherry county visited to do some bird watching, 35 years ago! During the month, 876 distinct observations became database records.

This is a tally of the 74 species noted during the month, for seven different dates. These are some comments:

  • Canada Goose: the large number noted at the end of the month were multiple family groups at the Valentine Fish Hatchery and there were more goslings than adults
  • Trumpeter Swan: the two birds were present for just a short time at the Valentine Mill Pond
  • Wood Duck: present at the Mill Pond and on Minnechaduza Creek at the city park; there was no indication of ongoing occurrence during the breeding season
  • Wild Turkey: the birds seen can be very intermittent at the shack, though a hen is most regularly seen foraging in the morning, and calling as if she was asking to be joined by others
  • Great Blue Heron: there were at least two occupied nests in the trees just eastward of the city park; their forage grounds include the mill pond, fish hatchery ponds and other unknown places in the vicinity
  • Turkey Vulture: it is not known where they might be nesting but the sighting of this species is a regular and appreciated occurrence every day as they soar so gracefully above the landscape; there is a regular nagging, personal question: What is available here that they can eat?
  • Eurasian Collared Dove: noted daily
  • Mourning Dove: also noted daily
  • Common Nighthawk: finally seen at the end of the month
  • Chimney Swift: seen as they appreciated buggy skies and the few chimneys - especially in downtown - where they can find a safe haven to raise a family as they have for so many years as they strive to survive
  • Belted Kingfisher: heard less than might be expected though this species certainly continues to be extant
  • Eastern Phoebe: two bridges across Minnechaduza creek at the city park are appreciated as they provide a safe place for a pair to build a nest where their young will thrive
  • House Wren: breeding birds find their preferred nest place and this does not always mean some artificial nest box of which there are many at the western extent of Lake Shore Drive
  • Purple Martin: there are multiple nest structures in the Heart City but not all of them get used; House Sparrows are unwanted squatters; a surprise of the month was finding a few birds nesting at an apartment on the north side of Cherry Hills Estate
  • Grey Catbird and Brown Thrasher: residents, and as a birder, their is a certain appreciation of when the catbird expresses its "mew" song rather than sounding off like a thrasher, which thankfully makes no effort to sound like a catbird
  • Audubon's Warbler: very vocal along my daily route but gone after the first week of the month
  • Spotted Towhee: heard very regularly and none of their compatriot seen
  • Rose-breasted Grosbeak: very well seen along Lake Shore Drive and west end of the city park
  • Northern Cardinal: have only a limited occurrence since they are irregularly heard and less often seen; perhaps more searching is needed?

Based upon regular and ongoing occurrence of wildbirds, it is obvious why Valentine is a birding hotspot as designated on ebird. There are the "big" places like Fort Niobrara NWR and Valentine NWR while also importantly are the many public spaces so close to Valentine where anyone wanting to take the time to enjoy nature's life can venture forth, whenever, and have a personal time of outdoor discovery.

Proper Name        Julian date > 122 127 136 139 146 150 151
Canada Goose 6 8 17 - - - - 12 47
Trumpeter Swan - - - - 2 - - - - - - - -
Wood Duck 3 - - 1 - - - - - - - -
Mallard - - - - 3 - - - - - - - -
Wild Turkey 1 - - - - 3 - - 2 - -
Great Blue Heron 1 - - - - 3 - - - - 2
American White Pelican - - - - - - 2 - - - - - -
Turkey Vulture 5 4 19 - - 1 2 4
Bald Eagle - - - - - - 1 - - - - - -
Red-tailed Hawk - - - - - - 1 - - - - - -
Killdeer - - 1 1 - - - - - - 1
Spotted Sandpiper - - - - 1 1 - - - - 1
Rock Dove - - - - 10 - - - - - - - -
Eurasian Collared Dove 5 - - 12 - - - - 6 - -
Mourning Dove 3 - - 4 - - 2 2 1
Great Horned Owl 2 - - - - - - - - - - 1
Common Nighthawk - - - - - - - - - - - - 1
Chimney Swift - - 9 9 28 1 4 - -
Belted Kingfisher - - - - - - - - 1 - - 1
Red-headed Woodpecker - - - - 1 1 1 - - 1
Red-bellied Woodpecker - - - - 1 - - - - - - - -
Downy Woodpecker - - - - 1 - - 1 1 - -
Hairy Woodpecker 1 - - - - - - - - - - - -
Northern Flicker 2 - - 1 - - 1 2 - -
American Kestrel - - - - - - - - 1 - - - -
Eastern Phoebe - - - - 3 - - 3 - - - -
Eastern Wood-Pewee - - - - 1 1 1 1 - -
Western Kingbird - - 1 6 - - - - - - - -
Eastern Kingbird - - - - 4 - - - - 2 1
Great Crested Flycatcher - - - - 3 - - 4 2 2
Bell's Vireo - - - - - - - - 1 1 - -
Warbling Vireo - - - - 1 - - - - 1 2
Red-eyed Vireo - - - - 1 - - 2 - - - -
Blue Jay 2 - - 3 - - 1 1 - -
American Crow 2 - - 1 - - 1 1 - -
Cedar Waxwing - - - - 13 - - 1 2 - -
Black-capped Chickadee 3 2 2 - - - - - - - -
Purple Martin - - 2 12 - - - - - - 6
Northern Rough-winged Swallow 3 1 3 - - 2 7 1
Barn Swallow - - - - 2 1 - - - - 1
American Cliff Swallow - - - - - - 1 - - - - - -
House Wren 5 7 13 - - 4 3 2
White-breasted Nuthatch 2 - - 3 - - 1 - - 1
Grey Catbird - - - - 5 3 4 1 - -
Brown Thrasher 1 1 1 1 - - 1 - -
Common Starling 2 - - 5 6 7 - - 2
Eastern Bluebird 3 2 - - - - 7 - - 1
American Robin 12 - - 62 - - 8 10 6
House Sparrow - - 2 20 - - - - - - 2
House Finch 6 4 12 - - - - 7 2
American Goldfinch 5 12 15 - - 4 2 2
Ovenbird - - - - - - - - - - - - 1
Common Yellowthroat - - - - 4 - - 2 3 2
American Redstart - - - - 6 - - 7 - - - -
American Yellow Warbler - - 2 4 - - 2 3 2
Audubon's Warbler 2 2 - - - - - - - - - -
Yellow-headed Blackbird 1 - - - - - - - - - - - -
Western Meadowlark - - - - 1 - - - - - - 2
Baltimore Oriole - - - - 4 - - - - - - - -
Orchard Oriole - - - - 4 - - - - 2 3
Red-winged Blackbird 30 - - 15 - - - - - - 5
Brown-headed Cowbird 6 - - 2 21 5 4 4
Common Grackle 26 - - 49 - - 7 4 - -
Song Sparrow 1 - - - - - - - - - - - -
Lincoln's Sparrow 2 - - - - - - - - - - - -
White-crowned Sparrow 7 1 - - - - - - - - - -
Chipping Sparrow 9 14 19 - - - - - - 1
Field Sparrow 1 - - 1 - - 2 1 - -
Clay-colored Sparrow - - - - 4 - - - - - - - -
Lark Sparrow - - - - 8 - - - - 2 2
Spotted Towhee 2 - - 3 3 1 2 1
Rose-breasted Grosbeak - - - - 1 1 - - - - - -
Northern Cardinal 1 - - 1 - - - - - - - -
Indigo Bunting - - - - - - - - - - 1 - -

The tally for May 2016 was 87 species, but this is likely the result of records being available for 17 different dates. Overall, there have been 92 species denoted for this month in the past two years, with particulars available for 22 different julian dates for these periods of time.

Every day was an opportunity to listen and learn while riding my bicycle around.

On the day when this report was written, my left shoe had a blowout and a sock is exposed to the regular cycling breezes. So my usual pair of shoes are now worthless and another option needs to be determined. It is not acceptable to have pathetic, old and broken shoes worn in public and the shoelaces have absolutely no quality. The henceforth direction that needs to be taken in now unknown. There will be something done! I'd like to have a treasured pair of cowboy boots? My former pair disappeared so many years ago, so a new version is needed. There was one night in the Mother Lake country when a pair of spurs were worn. It was such an experience for a man of eastern Nebraska was present because of the wildbirds.

With a pair of exposed boots while wearing fine denim, a nice country sort of hat and scarf, opposing anyone wanting to threaten the values of the sand hills will get a new reality! Besides words, of which is a personal skill, my hope, and which has been a personal endeavor for years, some time there will be a cowboy respect. My garb would be appropriate and distinctive, as looking for a final picture that can be sent to my mom in her final months. I am not a cowboy, but the cowboy way is part of every day of my life.

Ranchers Oppose R-Project Through Sandhills

Article copyright 2017 James E. Ducey. All rights reserved. This article may not be reissued in any print or online publication without written permission.

Opposition to the proposed R-project was very evident at a meeting where public comments were presented on a draft environmental impact statement for this industrial transmission line that is proposed to be built through the sand hills region.

Many attended and a fewer number spoke. Most of the speakers were associated with the ranch community. It was evident that the majority of the ranch country people that attended do not want this powerline built across a unique landscape. For some, the indicated route would traverse their property. And they do not accept the imposition of something unwanted on range land they have carefully managed to conserve grassland resources that include cattle forage, native vegetation, wildbirds and other natural features.

The meeting at the Thedford fair grounds building was hosted by staff of the Nebraska field office of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), with Eliza Hines their primary spokesperson. Biologist Robert Harms was also present.

The three documents being considered comprise about 1500 pages. An initial speaker asked why the documents associated with this public review were not made available in Thomas and Blaine counties, and that it also needs to be readily available at Valentine.

There was a limit of three-minutes imposed on speakers, to which one rancher responded: “We didn’t drive 30 miles for three minutes” in which to speak. Others drove much larger distances. Because of the need for the court reporter to properly record the dialogue, speakers were required to speak into a microphone at the front of the crowd.

Barb Welch, a ranchwife at the Brush Creek Ranch near Brownlee, was the first speaker during the public comment period. She said the cumulative impact statement was incomplete and thus invalid, and also shared some words from a letter from the American Bird Conservancy which is opposed to the powerline. Dan Welch was the third speaker. The couple have worked for decades to establish their ranch property, which has a unit south of Thedford, across which Nebraska Public Power District (NPPD) proposes to place the powerline through rangeland that has a “high conservation value” as recognized by a study by Nebraska flora expert Kay Kottas, and which was financed by the ranch couple. Mr. Welch also indicated how NPPD has trespassed on his land.

Plastic markers indicating tower locations were left behind. NPPD has no legal authority to place these markers, according to research, so they are nothing but trash.

It was indicated by one speaker that NPPD has changed the route from the expressed “final” route indicated in documents, based upon a personal observation. Also, the utility company cannot build any powerline on property where they do not have a legally binding agreement on many segments of the proposed corridor. “How can an environmental review be done in regards to a hypothetical corridor,” was asked. Later in the meeting, biologist Harms indicated that following an email he had received, a request had been made about two weeks prior to NPPD asking for details denoting any route changes. There had been no response received as of the night of the meeting.

Voices heard at the meeting were strong and prominent. Names are not given here in complete respect to them. Those sorts of details will eventually be available in the public transcript of this meeting as well as those at Burwell and Sutherland, since a transcriber was present and kept a record.

The “sandhills are a national treasure ... very special and unique attention needs to be given” to continue these values, according to a rancher where the industrial powerline would bisect their range.

“There is no ecosystem similar to the sandhills, anywhere in this nation” said a Brownlee area, multi-generation rancher.

A neighbor with a heritage dating to the first years of ranching in the Cherry county sand hills said that “it would be a shame to put a transmission line through pristine hills.”

Each speaker received a round of applause after they had conveyed their comments. Continuing with comments heard:

“Visual and cultural impacts will be devastating to one of Nebraska’s most pristine areas” was spoken by a landowner that appreciates the several majestic Trumpeter Swan that spend the winter along the Dismal River and where Bald Eagle also appreciate the land that provides a seasonal haven.

Steve Moreland drove from Merriman to orate that the FWS “should just say no.” NPPD should “move along and quit wasting our time,” he said. Ranchman Moreland has part of a great legacy for a sandhills ranch family and his comments were indicative as he asked “Why do people want to ruin the hills for future generations.” His view that no incidental permit should be granted was completely agreed with by others, and the crowd as indicated by the applause of thanks for his spoken words.

A ranchwife from the east Thedford area does not accept that NPPD wants to ruin their ranch place for future generations, including her children.
Someone living nearby, spoke about how the proposed route for the transmission line has been altered at least two times. An additional impact would occur because of access roads that might be detrimental because they might provide means for trespassing.

In this same vicinity, another landowner expressed that on a portion of their ranch, about 1263 acres, NPPD proposes to build eight access roads which would include gates to provide the company access at times they would select.

This is “a total assault on their little place on the ranch east of Thedford,” she said. “NPPD can’t take away from what we have now.”
There was also a comment made about erosion associated with current power poles of the transmission line grid already present in the area and that regular power outages occur. “NPPD can’t take care of what they have now,” she said.

Especially significant was that after the moderator had gone through his numbers associated with people that indicated their intent to comment – and with additional time available – some people added to their three minute comment period. Others walked strongly to the microphone so they could share their individual views at this public forum.

The sandhills are a “different and special world that needs protection,” said a speaker representing more than a century of ranch legacy, not only in Thomas county but also in the great ranch county of Cherry county north of Hyannis. Details were given for nesting Bald Eagle in close proximity of the proposed powerline route.

A question was raised as why there has been no consideration of soil features. Details indicated convey that there is a great variance in soils so towers placed at various spots will result in barren land. At least two speakers indicated that character of the Dismal River sand hills should be a special concern.

Another speaker, that has personally taken the time to look at sites where there are powerline towers, has realized that the ground vegetation has not regrown during their multi-year observations.

A key item expressed was how the construction and placement of powerline towers might affect the local groundwater aquifer? This indicated concern especially pertains to southern Holt county where wet meadows and land wetlands obvious on the landscape indicate the presence of surface- and ground-water features.

During the meeting, questions were asked. Both Harms and Hines cordially provided answers, especially in regards to why the endangered American Burying Beetle and Whooping Crane are of particular concern.

An obvious theme by speakers was that the electronic documents were difficult to read. There had been problems with online access. Also obvious was the expense to print documents comprising about 1500 pages, with one attendee stating that it costs ten cents per page for black-and-white copies, and to get a color copy was 49 cents per page.

Concerns were expressed about how the construction of the R-Project could result in further degradation of the sandhills landscape as wind turbine facilities or solar-power development is expected to follow once a regional distribution powerline becomes available to transport energy to elsewhere.

Landowners in the area have already received letters from companies promoting industrial solar power facilities, or observed scoping activity along Highway 83.

The meeting on June 13th was at the Thedford fair grounds. Agency representative Hines gave a short presentation on key items regarding the project and the public review process before the comment period of the two-hour meeting. Several handouts were provided.

There were 68 people that signed in, including attendees from Thedford, Brownlee area, Brewster, Valentine, Kilgore and Merriman as well as an owner of local land from Red Oak, Iowa. Representatives from NPPD were present but did not give any remarks, and did not indicate their presence until a member of the crowd insisted that they identify themselves.

Comments on the project documents will be accepted by FWS until July 11, 2017. There have been from 30-40 requests to extend this comment period by at least 30 days, Hines said at the meeting. Several people that spoke also asked for an extension, as it is currently a busy time in ranch country.

A final decision on the incidental take permit for the burying beetle is tentatively scheduled for early November, 2017.

10 June 2017

Bird Conservancy of the Rockies Does Surveys in Sandhills

June 8, 2017. Grant County News 132(45): 1. 5.

Birders watchers associated with the Bird Conservancy of the Rockies recently did surveys in the central and western Sandhills.

At the end of May, there was a survey done at the Apache ranch south of Hyannis, with another done the previous day at the French Ranch south of Mullen.

“We appreciate that land-owners provide access,” Michael Nicosia, a seasonal employee of the Colorado-based conservancy.

The localities visited are based upon a random selection that conforms to scientific rigors, with the hope that owners of the land will allow access.

During dawn and the first hours of the morning on the 31st, Nicosia was at work recording wild birds present at a selected grid on the south Hyannis ranch, which included prairie habitat adjacent to a wetland.

Following particular protocols, it took a few hours to denote essential details for about 160 acres with sixteen distinct grid points, as designated by Global Positioning Satellite spots that were randomly selected. These surveys require that birds noted at a specific grid point be denoted by particular details along with a requirement to indicate vegetative characteristics.

There were 53 species observed, Nicosia indicated during our conversation at the Valentine Public library.

Pervasive on the sandhills prairie were Grasshopper Sparrow. Other avifauna present in the vicinity were Long-billed Curlew, a Willet, Forster’s Tern, subtly present American Bittern, and Bobolinks in the meadow. Nicosia was effusive in mentioning that there were “tons” of small Marsh Wren, Red-winged Blackbird and Yellow-headed Blackbird appreciating marshland habitat.

There was a pair of Trumpeter Swan with six cygnets, though their occurrence was not amidst the survey grid, but was an ancillary observation. Other smaller-sized waterfowl also present included Blue-winged Teal and Canvasback.

At the Apache Ranch there is a setting something like a “like a mini-Valentine National Wildlife Refuge,” Nicosia said during a conversation at the Valentine library. In explaining the significance of the species variety, he said that a “high species richness indicates diversity representative of an ecologically healthy habitat.”

There is a great variety of land in the sandhills which are valuable to local flora and fauna.

Based upon more than one conversation, visitors from other states certainly enjoy birding in the sand hills because of their assignments. Other ranches may be visited.

Surveys by the BCR have and will occur elsewhere in Nebraska. Places that employees have already visited include McKelvie National Forest, Bessey National Forest. There are visits pending for the valley of the Niobrara National Scenic River and then multiple surveys along the multi-state Missouri River.

During their travels, the three men met have been reliant on local campgrounds, are known to linger at the Valentine Public Library to get work done, and have spent time looking at birds at local habitats during days when they did not have to work.


An additional survey was done June 5th at the Double RR Guest Ranch north of Mullen and 56 species were recorded by another surveyor.

30 May 2017

Survey of Late-Spring Birds at Vanderploeg Ranch

There was an unusual bird convergence during the Memorial Day weekend, because Anne Quigley is attentive at the Valentine Public Library. She was an essential link that brought together visiting birders with local bird-watchers. Mrs. Quigley made the introduction at the Valentine Public Library. Conversation ensued on a Friday afternoon with many topics of discussion, but most importantly was an agreement to have the visitors go along on a previously scheduled visit to the Vanderploeg Ranch on Sunday morning on the 28th, where Marvin Venderploeg was once again a gracious host.

Along with Mike Nicosia (from New York state) and Dan Horton (from Colorado) – both seasonal employees for the Bird Conservancy of the Rockies (BCR) – was Gordon Warrick, of Valentine.

Morning hours were spent traversing the ranch looking for different wild birds. Records were kept of specific sightings, with 62 different species observed, nearly all of them breeding season residents.

Resident Bald Eagle were lingering around their nest, and one of them was defensive as we drove past, protecting young that were likely present on a heap of sticks atop a stunted pine. We did not linger here to ensure minimal disturbance. Nearby, at the Niobrara valley marsh, only a single Trumpeter Swan was seen. Vanderploeg mentioned later that the swans did have a cygnet, but that it was a difficult season for these waterfowl because the beaver had left and the water levels kept changing, rather than being maintained at a nominal level due to the waterworks of the mammals. Despite an effort by Warrick to determine the location of a nest, it was not noticeable.

These are some notable sightings. Along the northern extent of Schlagel Creek there was a singing Black-headed Grosbeak, which has a regular range further to the west. A short distance away, was a Blue Grosbeak. Great Crested Flycatcher were pervasive among the lowland bur oak trees. Red-headed Woodpecker were boisterous, and they were certainly appreciative that there were no insidious starlings that might steal their nest cavity. There was the Orchard Oriole and the Baltimore Oriole. Both outstate visitors really enjoyed a nice bunch of Stilt Sandpiper foraging on the riverine marsh. Warblers seen included the diminutive Common Yellowthroat, American Redstart, Yellow Warbler, a vociferous Yellow-breasted Chat in a brushy swale along Schlagel Creek, and a single Ovenbird at The Island, one of the many special ranch spaces as named by our host.

Another highlight was the unusual co-occurrence of both the Eastern Wood-Pewee and Western Wood-Pewee, within the area of the Niobrara River valley well recognized for occurrences of bird hybridization as the range of a western species overlaps with one typical of the east.

A bunch of Brown-headed Cowbird were enjoying the corn spread near the house. Wild Turkeys thrive on the same source of food. He is also every attentive to the life of birds. He explained that a House wren was nesting in a tree limb cavity outside his home window, and then, there it was bringing food to its young. Nearby was a nest box occupied by a pair of Wood Duck and another by two American Kestrel.

Notable for Horton was seeing Scarlet Tanager, a pair present being a new addition to his life list of birds seen, as discovered by three birders walking among the trees, binoculars pointed in the arboreal realm to determine the bird that was singing at his place among the trees.

Because of the many wild birds present on this particular day of late spring, the known tally of species for the ranch increased to 111 from 97. A notable addition were many Swainson’s Thrush, common among the oaks of the riverine terrace. Other sorts were newly realized because there had not ever been a thorough breeding season survey completed. Shallow water conditions were conducive for the foraging sandpipers. The increase was also because the bird men present each had different skills, and as a team, there was a dramatically better result.

The last but not least species of the outing was a Loggerhead Shrike, busy hunting for lunch near the ranch entrance.

Marvin Vanderploeg is a birdman of daily occurrence from his south window, and very less often, international occurrence. This honorific is deserving he cares about birds every day, and the attention given to land management at the ranch south of Valentine. Each of us birders there on Sunday morning were in agreement. A special treat for the outstate visitors was being able to appreciate his personal collection of special birds, as carefully kept.

The BCR duo were in Valentine to enjoy some days off prior to doing contract surveys at McKelvie Forest and along the Niobrara River. They came to the Heart City, and spent dollars, because the area is a “good place to bird,” said Nicosia. They had “great birding” at Fort Niobrara NWR and then Valentine NWR where 79 species were seen on Saturday.

The work crew will eventually include eight people, as they continue eastward to surveys along the Missouri River. Their scientific protocol includes denoting bird occurrence at specific, measured grids and denoting vegetative characteristics.

Nicosia and Horton were very impressed with the unique birdlife and habitat conditions of the Vanderploeg Ranch. It was a great bird-watching field trip and each of us appreciated the uniqueness of this place where Marvin and Martin Vanderploeg are dedicated to care of the land and its natural life, big or small.

By the way, each of the two heart city visitors were given a bull-sale cap as a souvenir, having heard some words about livestock, the local sale barn and cattle grazing particulars.

The field trip was a great way to end Migratory Bird Month in Nebraska.

This is a list of the species seen.

  • Canada Goose
  • Trumpeter Swan
  • Wood Duck
  • Green-winged Teal
  • Wild Turkey
  • Common Pheasant
  • Turkey Vulture
  • Bald Eagle
  • Red-tailed Hawk
  • Killdeer
  • Stilt Sandpiper
  • Mourning Dove
  • Great Horned Owl
  • Belted Kingfisher
  • Red-headed Woodpecker
  • Red-bellied Woodpecker
  • Downy Woodpecker
  • Northern Flicker
  • American Kestrel
  • Eastern Phoebe
  • Western Wood-Pewee
  • Eastern Wood-Pewee

  • Western Kingbird
  • Eastern Kingbird
  • Great Crested Flycatcher
  • Loggerhead Shrike
  • Warbling Vireo
  • Red-eyed Vireo
  • Blue Jay
  • American Crow
  • Cedar Waxwing
  • Black-capped Chickadee
  • Purple Martin
  • Northern Rough-winged Swallow
  • Barn Swallow
  • Marsh Wren
  • House Wren
  • Blue-grey Gnatcatcher
  • Red-breasted Nuthatch
  • White-breasted Nuthatch
  • Eastern Bluebird
  • Swainson's Thrush
  • American Robin

  • American Goldfinch
  • Ovenbird
  • Common Yellowthroat
  • American Redstart
  • American Yellow Warbler
  • Yellow-breasted Chat
  • Western Meadowlark
  • Baltimore Oriole
  • Orchard Oriole
  • Red-winged Blackbird
  • Brown-headed Cowbird
  • Grasshopper Sparrow
  • Chipping Sparrow
  • Field Sparrow
  • Lark Sparrow
  • Spotted Towhee
  • Scarlet Tanager
  • Black-headed Grosbeak
  • Blue Grosbeak
  • An accipiter hawk seen was seen flitting above the valley ridge, but was too far away to determine an accurate identification.

    26 May 2017

    Sesquicentennial Count for Sandhill Places in Nebraska

    There is an event underway to report personal sightings of 150 bird species associated with the 150th anniversary of when Nebraska was established, that being in 1867.

    So here is my report as derived from sightings in the Valentine vicinity and several quite fine places in the eastern Sandhills, and as prepared on 20 May 2017. It conveys a personal report of wild bird occurrence from kept records as has been done for decades, because the essentials convey a real-time reality and also have historic value. It is exciting to have met the minimal requirement of 150 species early in the year and during the spring month of May, because there will certainly be additional species during the still to occur weeks and months of this year.

    The variety of places visited could be indicated, but that would be an ancillary effort that might sublimate the primary focus of this missive.

    Species are listed in alphabetical order and the value given is the number of times the species has been observed. Particular details are kept in my personal database that has nearly 155,000 records associated with bird observations made by many people during the years since 1886.

    1. American Avocet: 1 sighting for two birds at an ephemeral wetland along 846 road, and never was there any realization that such a bureaucratically indicated name which has absolutely no originality would be a place of ornithological interest but of course the two avocets were completely indifferent to any sort of name because they were only interested in finding something to eat at a haven without unwanted disturbance
    2. American Bittern: 3; this species always deserves attention
    3. American Cliff Swallow: 9
    4. American Coot: 12 counts of these birds busy in swimming about and being a subtle can be a very obvious part of avifauna at many water places in the Great American Sandhills
    5. American Crow: 46, usually flying hither and yon
    6. American Goldfinch: 60
    7. American Herring Gull: 4
    8. American Kestrel: 17
    9. American Redstart: 2 counts which does not represent the number of these birds actively singing and flitting among the trees at Valentine City Park
    10. American Robin: 107 distinct counts for individual sites
    11. American Tree Sparrow: 4
    12. American White Pelican: 5
    13. American Wigeon: 9
    14. American Yellow Warbler: 12 counts which indicate the numbers of these subtle arrivals of spring and breeding season residents
    15. Audubon's Warbler: 4
    16. Bald Eagle: 15; it was nice to find a pair nesting in the immediate vicinity of Goose Lake WMA, and to watch this pair of our national symbol spent a significant time perched on different trees and simply sat there in the evening, as they both obviously knew that their parental duties were taken care of for the day; they were relatively close together and knew their mate was nearby and necessities had been dealt with, so they could relax; certainly they would have snagged a ready meal if very obvious, but no more such activity was observed, so these adults knew that requirements of the day had been fulfilled
    17. Baltimore Oriole: 2, and then more as they are an active species at the heart city
    18. Barn Swallow: 16
    19. Bell's Vireo: 1 strongly singing on public land north of Valentine on a late-May day and such a subtlety, but obviously the vivid song a territorial male is completely indifferent to anything other than attracting a male to its territory
    20. Belted Kingfisher: 10; they like the Minnechaduza Creek environs and if not there, around the Mill Pond
    21. Black Tern: 4
    22. Black-capped Chickadee: 36
    23. Black-necked Grebe: 2
    24. Blue Jay: 31; it was quite eloquent when a rancher said that their call was "thief"; a resident of Valentine shared their experience that one of these birds pulled a relatively newborn House Wren from a nest box
    25. Blue-grey Gnatcatcher: 1
    26. Blue-winged Teal: 39; these fowl appreciate and rely upon wetland spaces of the plains
    27. Bobolink: 9; their song is truly wonderful music of the lowland meadows of the Sandhills!
    28. Brown Creeper: 1; to have finally seen this species was an exciting day at the Valentine City Park as an expectation finally met reality
    29. Brown Thrasher: 14
    30. Brown-headed Cowbird: 33
    31. Bufflehead: 3
    32. Burrowing Owl: 1; a fine bunch at a prairie-dog town south of Thedford, with the exciting expectation when the adults will have young that move around a burrow
    33. Cackling Goose: 4
    34. Canada Goose: 60
    35. Canvasback: 1
    36. Cedar Waxwing: 12
    37. Chimney Swift: 7; cool temperatures have not been conducive to the dispersal to brreding season temperatures, as noted at Valentine
    38. Chipping Sparrow: 31
    39. Cinnamon Teal: 1; a simply beautiful male at Brownlee place, where is was hanging out with more numerous Blue-winged Teal
    40. Clay-colored Sparrow: 4
    41. Common Grackle: 58
    42. Common Merganser: 5
    43. Common Nighthawk: 1; more prevalent than indicated
    44. Common Pheasant: 6
    45. Common Starling: 51; these are not Europeans
    46. Common Yellowthroat: 9
    47. Cooper's Hawk: 1
    48. Dark-eyed Junco: 33; numbers of these active snowbirds during cold months make winter more tolerable
    49. Double-crested Cormorant: 11
    50. Downy Woodpecker: 34
    51. Eastern Bluebird: 37
    52. Eastern Kingbird: 13
    53. Eastern Meadowlark: 26
    54. Eastern Phoebe: 11
    55. Eastern Wood-Pewee: 2
    56. Eurasian Collared Dove: 65
    57. Field Sparrow: 8
    58. Franklin's Gull: 5; experiencing the occurrence of these birds might make anyone realize the wonderful exuberance that birds can express
    59. Gadwall: 20
    60. Grasshopper Sparrow: 5
    61. Great Blue Heron: 20
    62. Great Crested Flycatcher: 3
    63. Great Egret: 1; a number of one does not convey the reality of the great occurrence of a flock at Goose Lake WMA
    64. Great Grey Shrike: 2
    65. Great Horned Owl: 13
    66. Great Northern Loon: 1
    67. Greater Prairie-Chicken: 12; how many people in Nebraska took the time to visit a lek this year? That could certainly be a goal to achieve.
    68. Greater Yellowlegs: 2
    69. Green-winged Teal: 7
    70. Grey Catbird: 4; keeping records of this species would be much simpler if they would quit sounding like the Brown Thrasher
    71. Hairy Woodpecker: 15
    72. Harris's Sparrow: 1
    73. Hooded Merganser: 2
    74. Horned Grebe: 2
    75. Horned Lark: 24; this is a true bird of prairie lands of the sandhills and can be easily seen during any drive through the domain
    76. House Finch: 49
    77. House Sparrow: 47
    78. House Wren: 22
    79. Killdeer: 36
    80. Lark Bunting: 1; three were seen along a county road in the Gracie Flats area
    81. Lark Sparrow: 15; these are busy little prairie birds with plumage very indicative as each one of them traverse the land where they survive
    82. Least Flycatcher: 1
    83. Least Sandpiper: 1
    84. Lesser Scaup: 6
    85. Lesser Yellowlegs: 3
    86. Lincoln's Sparrow: 6
    87. Loggerhead Shrike: 3; more observations of this species would be appreciated
    88. Long-billed Curlew: 1
    89. Long-billed Dowitcher: 1; anyone that owns land where this species occurs, has a place to treasure
    90. Mallard: 60
    91. Marsh Wren: 5
    92. Merlin: 1; a bird vividly vivacious
    93. Mourning Dove: 59
    94. Northern Bobwhite: 1
    95. Northern Cardinal: 36
    96. Northern Flicker: 65
    97. Northern Harrier: 4
    98. Northern Pintail: 1
    99. Northern Rough-winged Swallow: 7
    100. Northern Shoveler: 19
    101. Orchard Oriole: 5
    102. Pectoral Sandpiper: 1
    103. Pied-billed Grebe: 3
    104. Purple Martin: 3; some people in Valentine make an effort to provide nesting structures and the places might require a "battle" with unwanter English Sparrow pair which like to take advantage of any suitable cavity where they can raise a brood
    105. Red Crossbill: 2; don't even ask me which subspecies these birds were...
    106. Red-bellied Woodpecker: 11
    107. Red-breasted Nuthatch: 20
    108. Red-eyed Vireo: 1
    109. Redhead: 2
    110. Red-headed Woodpecker: 7
    111. Red-tailed Hawk: 23
    112. Red-winged Blackbird: 77
    113. Ring-billed Gull: 2
    114. Ring-necked Duck: 5
    115. Rock Dove: 18
    116. Rose-breasted Grosbeak: 2 males singing from a tree-top on the west edge of the Valentine City Park
    117. Rough-legged Buzzard: 1
    118. Ruby-crowned Kinglet: 5
    119. Ruddy Duck: 8
    120. Sand Martin: 1; their further occurrence is pending
    121. Sandhill Crane: 2; I was looking forward to a visit to the Niobrara valley to discover them nesting, but this will not occur because of the manager of the Hutton Niobrara Valley Wildlife Sanctuary where they have nested since 2012 and are even present this season, striving to raise a colt or two
    122. Say's Phoebe: 1
    123. Sharp-shinned Hawk: 3
    124. Sharp-tailed Grouse: 1
    125. Snow Goose: 2
    126. Song Sparrow: 16
    127. Spotted Sandpiper: 4; this is my species of the month because it lives on the fringe of ever-changing water habitats while being readily seen
    128. Spotted Towhee: 13 which are a regular and appreciated subtlety of the area wildlands
    129. Swainson's Hawk: 1
    130. Townsend's Solitaire: 4; they became obvious as they prefer tree-top places to convey their presence
    131. Tree Swallow: 13
    132. Trumpeter Swan: 2; there is a personal curiosity why two of these magnificent birds were about Valentine Mill Pond in mid-May
    133. Turkey Vulture: 27; if there is one question that I'd like to get an answer to is what do these birds eat during their summer occurrence in the vicinity of Valentine ... there is no one that can provide any sort of factual details so, alas, it is a situation where nature provides!
    134. Upland Sandpiper: 17
    135. Vesper Sparrow: 1
    136. Warbling Vireo: 3
    137. Western Kingbird: 10
    138. Western Meadowlark: 50 in country settings, but a singing male was also appreciated late in the month as it sang on a late-May date along the Cowboy Trail at the Valentine Livestock Auction Company place
    139. Western Osprey: 3
    140. White-breasted Nuthatch: 49
    141. White-crowned Sparrow: 13
    142. White-faced Ibis: 2; there are few opportunities to see a signinficant number of these birds so the flock that gathered at Goose Lake WMA was a special occurrence
    143. Wild Turkey: 22
    144. Willet: 2
    145. Willow Flycatcher: 1
    146. Wilson's Phalarope: 6
    147. Wilson's Snipe: 7
    148. Wood Duck: 29
    149. Yellow-bellied Sapsucker: 1; it was a highlight day to see a bird active on a tree at the Valentine City Park
    150. Yellow-headed Blackbird: 15

    As this missive was being revised near the end of the month, Lark Sparrow were active outside the shack window, as well as some House Finch and an active pair of Eastern Kingbird. A male Red-winged Blackbird was striving to attract a female for the season, but alas, it was more than obvious that his efforts would have no success. His vivid wing-spreading display was none-the-less appreciated while he was perched on the top of a fence post.

    Because of potential opportunities to visit more land places this year than in 2016 the tally increased. In 2016 the number of species seen during the year was 152. Being able to visit Goose Lake WMA and its associated environs in the spring of 2017 has been a boon to seeing a greater variety of species.

    There needs to be more surveys done to record species occurrence and how important that the Great American Sandhills is for wildbirds of North America. There is a special need to do surveys in the western extent of the area, notably at prominent lakes and wetlands.

    Perhaps a particular day was special because of some specific observation. This is not the case. Every bird observation deserves a similar consideration. All wildbirds are important. It is a grand to be able to be able to indicate how birds are an essential facet of Nebraska lands.