14 May 2019

Renovation Beneficial to Wildfowl at Pelican Lake

Benefits following lake renovation efforts have been obvious for wild birds this spring at Pelican Lake at the Valentine National Wildlife Refuge.

On April 29th, there were thousands of fowl present as estimated by refuge staff. There were five to ten thousand ducks at the lake, according to Juan-Carlos Giese, refuge manager. This included a notable number of shorebirds.

Ten species were observed, according to a checklist available at ebird.org. Atop the list were estimated counts of 1000 for both the Ring-necked Duck and Wilson’s Phalarope. A count of 500 was estimated for Gadwall, American Wigeon and Mallard. Blue-winged Teal and Northern Shoveler were also very abundant. There was also a bunch of American Avocet.

A similar response has been observed at Watts Lake, Giese said.

In September 2018 this lake nearly 800 acres in extent, in association with an aquatic habitat renovation project – focused on getting rid of common carp – occurred at several large lakes at the refuge. This is a cooperative effort associated with the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Ducks Unlimited is also involved with renovation of lakes east of Highway 83.

Getting rid of carp improves water clarity and notably improves conditions for the growth of aquatic vegetation. Wild birds throng to Sand Hill lakes where there is an abundance of vegetation and clear waters where they can feed.

18 April 2019

Cedar Tree Removal to Continue in Vicinity of McKelvie Forest

April 11, 2019. Additional funding to help rid of red cedar trees. Grant County News 134(37): 1, 4.

Ongoing efforts to get rid of invasive red cedar trees at the eastern extent of the Samuel R. McKelvie National Forest will continue in earnest with a recent approval of additional funding.

The overall cost of clearing cedars from 2600 acres along Steer Creek is $250,000. Four partners will now be providing funds, including the U.S. Forest Service ($129,000), Nebraska Environmental Trust ($100,000 as approved at their April 4th meeting), Ducks Unlimited ($16,000) and the Rainwater Basin Joint Venture Group ($5000). DU is the project sponsor, having submitted the grant request.

“We are very excited to get the funding and move ahead with this multiple-partner project on Steer Creek,” said Angelina Wright of Valentine, representing Ducks Unlimited, the primary project sponsor.

“Steer Creek’s riparian habitat and surrounding grassland provides quality stopover and nesting habitat for waterfowl,” said Wright. “The area, however, has been degraded due to eastern red cedar encroachment.”

The goal of the project is to ensure its habitat remains intact not only for the benefit of waterfowl, but also for other flora and fauna, as well as the public.

“Residents and non-residents utilize this public land for both recreational and grazing activities and this project will improve the quality of this public use area,” Wright said.

McKelvie Forest is the largest publicly owned tract of land in the Sand Hills.

Land tracts where cedar eradication work has been, or will be completed, in the vicinity of McKelvie Forest. Image from grant application submitted to the Nebraska Environmental Trust.

The pending tree removal will be a continuation of work on forest lands, Nebraska lands, private property and land managed by the Board of Educational Lands and Funds. These projects are associated with the eastern extent of Steer Creek and the Snake River below Merritt reservoir.

Efforts to eradicate unwanted cedar trees began in 2001 on a 7600 acre BELF tract along the Niobrara River and southward along the eastern edge of the forest land. Between then and through 2019 there will have been $352,929.50 dollars spent, with $225,634 in cost share with the Nebraska Forest Service and USDA EQIP program, according to Kelly Sudbeck, BELF spokeswoman in Lincoln. Agency cost has been $127,292.50.

“We view cedar tree removal as required maintenance, so our goal by removing trees is to actually maintain the value of our property,” said Sudbeck.

“Were we to allow a total infestation of cedars, the value of our property would most certainly be negatively affected. We focus on maintenance, therefore our goal is to maintain our rent, which requires that we control cedars, similar to any other invasive species.”

Nearby, the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission partnered with the Wild Turkey Federation to remove many cedars from the Niobrara River floodplain at Anderson Bridge WMA. This opened up the landscape increasing the native vegetation, as well as providing a nice walking route rather than a situation of hampered travel through dense branches of cedars.

Along the Snake River, the agency has had tree removal done on about 1000 acres owned by private landowners with property along the river valley. Removing the cedars has improved water quality since rather than runoff from bare ground, a ground cover of grasses limit the extent of soil erosion, according to details associated with considerations by people and agencies paying the bill.

The Forest Service completed work in 2016 on another tract of 2600 acres in 2016, and located just to the south of the pending project area.

“The Steer Creek corridor is the largest riparian system within the Samuel R. McKelvie National Forest,” said Julie Bain, district ranger for the Forest Service. “Maintaining its ecological integrity is important to the agency, as well as the wildlife that call this system home. Because this project builds on the larger complex of efforts by multiple organizations and private landowners, it serves to protect the project footprint, but also discourages cedar encroachment into adjacent intact pastures and previously completed project areas.

“Grassland birds are in rapid decline range-wide; cattle grazing acres can be reduced by heavy cedar encroachment; public use of these lands is meant to reflect an intact system and the wildlife that system supports. Through these efforts, all of the above have been addressed – wildlife, cattle grazing and public user experiences,” Bain said.

Cedar removal would also be beneficial for the Steer Creek Research Natural Area, established in 2012 and just to the west of the project area. This grassland and riparian area would thus not be threatened by any encroachment of unwanted invasive trees.

With the NET funding now available, a request for bids will soon be issued. Once a contractor is selected, work will commence depending upon their availability.

We want to get the work done on a “timely basis,” and hopefully have it underway by late summer or early autumn, said Greg Wright, of the forest service.

04 April 2019

Site Management for Missouri River Wildlands to Revert to Corps

Mitigation lands along the Missouri river are being returned to management by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Following the Corps purchase of five areas along the Missouri River, the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission agreed to be responsible for active management. The sites include William Gilmour/Tobacco Island south of Plattsmouth, Hamburg Bend in Otoe County as well as Kansas Bend, Upper Brownville Bend and Langdon Bend in Nemaha County.

Staff at the Corps Missouri River Project Office north of Omaha will be responsible for area management on October 1, 2019. The Corps has established many additional mitigation areas associated with the Missouri River.

“We plan to make the management change as transparent as possible,” said Larry Janis, recreation and natural resource branch chief with the Corps. There may be some difference in the area roadways and grassland management practices. A significant item prompting the change was that current Nebraska agricultural agreements would not allow “trade services to be done with local entities,” he said.

NGPC has managed some of these sites for more than 20 years, or since the 1990s, according to Pat Molini, assistant division administrator for the agency. The agency also owns other properties, including the Peru Bottoms WMA. “These sites are special places for birds along the river.”

There are currently no planned changes in management responsibilities at the five areas including no expected dramatic change in the outdoor activities available – including bird watching, fishing, hiking, hunting and nature study – on these public lands. Similar areas are owned and managed on the Iowa side of the river by the Iowa Department of Natural Resources.

Camping will continued to not be allowed. Collecting of any flora and fauna is also not allowed.

Further information on Omaha District mitigation areas associated with the Missouri River is available at the Missouri River Recovery Program website.

Turkey Antics Amidst Valentine Birdland

Jake turkeys are busy gobbling in the ponderosa pine clad hills north of Valentine. It is the time of their season to strut about with their particular flock of gathered hens.

The males display all of their avian splendor with tail feathers raised, wings drooping and with multihued coloration obvious on their head and neck. Their beard is obvious and well as a dangling wattle. The display is suitably impressive for the hens.

The local flock on a first couple of days this April has dwindled to 16 though it had numbered more than 20 about ten days ago. There are two jakes and the remainder females gathered until they disperse to raise a brood.

Usually the birds keep close as they walk about foraging on natural foods but some diverge to eat readily available bird seed. They especially like the sunflower seeds when more is put out for the other wildbirds such as juncos and red-winged blackbirds, because the big poultry return to eat again at least two or three times a day. In the morning they have to compete with some bigger white-tailed deer that prefer being fed rather than having to forage on a lesser growth of not yet green plants on a nearby hillside.

Breeding season antics were especially noticeable on April 2nd, a warming and sunny morning. Some hens were moving around the “top tom” and soon the king acted to interact to establish another generation. After moving around behind a particular hen ready to submit, he went into action as she crouched on the ground. The top turkey did this three times within 15 minutes. When the alternate “tom turkey” had a female showing particular interest, the “king” ran over to prevent any action by some interloper. This was very frustrating to the male lower in the hierarchy as it reacted with faux action of breeding.

After each distinct coupling, the female would walk away, shaking her feathers and then quickly getting back to the basics of finding something edible on the ground. One female ran a few circles until eventually deciding to return to the flock. The “tom turkey” is a heavy weight during its time standing atop the lesser weight females.

On some occasions a hen or two might return to the seed buffet without the flock because they know where to get something to eat without being disturbed by congeners. This is an indication of the flock already dispersing. Even on the 3rd, the males noticeably displayed less. Vocal gobbles were fewer.

Soon this particular flock – and many others of a similar ilk in the birdly wildlands – will disperse and the big toms will wander around since their time of importance is finished. They will continue to eat and thrive as part of a bachelor group while the hens will be at a nesting place where she can safely incubate eggs and then care for little turkeys in a manner to ensure their survival for many months and at least until next year after winter when the cycle of the spring will repeat.

The activities are a time of the season and this birdly behavior is a sight in many parts of the local country.

On the morning of the 4th, the flock size had returned to 24 individuals as seven hens and one jake returned. During the morning, even some of the hens were being antagonistic towards each other, and even getting in shoving matches.

Survey About Prairie Meadows Sent to Random Ranches

March 28, 2019. Grant County News 134(35): 1.

A survey asking ranchers for their response to a number of questions regarding prairie meadows was recently mailed to randomly selected ranchers in Cherry and Holt counties.

The goal of the questionnaire was to “help us to understand ranchers’ prairie haying practices and awareness of wild game birds and prairie song birds,” according to an introductory letter sent by Matthew P. Gruntorad, a human dimensions analyst at the School of Natural Resources, University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

“We have been reading some papers abut hay cutting practices and we were intrigued to find more information about what hay cutting practices were in Nebraska and the views of the landowners concerning different types of birds,” Gruntorad said in a supplemental email. About 1000 surveys were mailed.

Survey questions were grouped into four categories:

1) Ranching operation: ranching background, experience with prairie meadows, including when haying was typically initiated and finished.
2) Wildlife awareness: six similar questions each about the mallard, greater prairie-chicken, western meadowlark and bobolink.
3) Standing water in prairie meadows: would the rancher be willing to retain standing water in meadows during the spring and fall migration?
4) Hunting and organization membership: what animals are hunted and has the rancher been a member in nine possible groups.
5) Willingness to adjust haying practices: a basic tenet was focused around how waiting to cut meadow hay until after July 15 would improve the survival of nesting birds. Two questions had a range of selectable answers on whether or not it would be likely the rancher would delay haying until after mid-July and what portion of meadow acreage could perhaps be cut after this date.

There were also a few blank lines where the respondent could provide comments.

“We have a deep appreciation for the Sandhills and the views of landowners there. If not for them, it would not be one of our favorite places in Nebraska,” Gruntorad said in his email.

Responses to the questionnaire will be tabulated later in spring, with the results then issued online.

Feeding Wildlife at a Valentine Shack

At a shack on the northern edge of Valentine, with its country setting, bird seed has been provided to local wildbirds since 28 December 2017. The seed has been provided year-round but the most bird visits occur during late autumn and winter months. There are no feeders but the seed is placed on a 10’ by 12’ concrete pad. A number of species have been obviously appreciating something to eat during the frigid weather at Valentine. February ended and March began with snow cover nearly everywhere.

Keeping track of the species seen has been especially easy. My front door glass is covered with a towel, so peeks can be made without disturbing the 26 species recorded.

Wild Turkey: a bunch of eight until mid-autumn when they departed to join the local winter flock. A fine flock of sixteen returned in late March and continued to be around in early April.
Eurasian Collared Dove and Mourning Dove.
Eastern Bluebird: common during the seasons, but most often seen chasing insects from atop the fence of the horse pens.
House Finch and American Goldfinch.
Yellow-headed Blackbird; Red-winged Blackbird: after breeding large numbers throughout the days, making the sacks of bird seed get emptied quickly; Brown-headed Cowbird. Rusty Blackbird: four arrived on December 5, 2018 and two continued to linger at least through mid-March. Also, Common Grackle.
Song Sparrow; Harris's Sparrow; Dark-eyed Junco: the most prevalent winter visitor; American Tree Sparrow; Chipping Sparrow; and, Clay-colored Sparrow. Northern Cardinal

Species that have shown up only once include the:

Blue Jay: permanent resident locally but apparently don’t prefer eating seeds.
Horned Lark: a rare occurrence was 21 that flew in on 40 m.p.h. winds of the blizzard on March 14th. They didn’t figure out a seed-eating routine immediately, but did soon. Prevalent snow cover meant there were few other places to eat.
Brown Thrasher: summer resident locally amidst the shrubs.
Common Starling: a discoverer eventually jumped from the porch rail to the ground and got busy eating. Though only one in front of the shack, but a flock was been seen regularly since at the west trees.
Lincoln's Sparrow; Savannah Sparrow; and Lark Sparrow. Lazuli Bunting.

Overall the local Valentine bird tally is 152 species.

Other visitors appreciating the seed buffet are roaming deer on occasion to nibble up every seed they can find. Up to six typically occur.

Cottontail rabbits busily scrounge upon any little tidbit present. There is a pair seen jumping around near the hay shed where they will certainly raise a brood. It is quite nice to see them run around outside the north window of the shack. Another rabbit stays closer to the shack and seemingly has a bonanza because of the buffet.

From the tree line to the west a squirrel occasionally ventures forth to the pad, and quickly feeds before running back to its arboreal haven.

A perfect triad is a bunny eating, some doves picking at the seeds and juncos busy getting their daily meal.

Thus is country life at Valentine, a place where many residents appreciate wildbirds and help them survive by providing food daily.

20 March 2019

A Sunday Drive in Cherry County Country

March 20, 2019. Pre-spring visions. Valentine Midland News 47(43): 12.

Beneath a beautiful cloud-free cerulean sky and with warming temperatures, Gordon Warrick and I took a drive amidst a bit of Cherry county country on a pre-spring Sunday the 17th. During our foray, my sharpened pencil was kept busy writing notes. Then later, more time was taken later to derive a suitable geographic designation for a bunch of bird observations.

Across the land southward of Valentine, there was lots of ice but some birds were indifferent because flocks of geese arrived or were flying into local habitats as wintry conditions moderated.

During our drive, we once again focused on the spaces along the Brownlee Road, with a start at the Heart City, down Highway 97 and then beyond to see what wildbirds were present.

A great grey shrike was on a wire at the Mcsky Ranch. Merritt reservoir was nearly 100% ice-covered. Three fishermen from Nebraska county 15 were huddled aside the dam looking at their nearby gear. They gave a hearty wave as we drove quickly past because there were no birds on the ice-covered waters.

In the vicinity of Gordon Creek along Highway 97, waterfowl of the day became especially obvious. There were lots of Canada geese obvious in the meadows as flying above. Most dramatic were eight trumpeter swans at the lowlands. They were waiting for ice-free water where they might establish a home for the pending breeding season.

Near the top of a big meadow tree a pair of bald eagles built upon a seeming balcony – because they reside at a nest of historic renown – were easily seen from the highway, while being attentive to their season’s brood. What were they doing during the so recent blizzard? Hope was no choice for them but it seems they did their work well and the nest survived the blasting winds with blowing snow and frigid cold.

Eventually we reached our Brownlee Road route, a uniquely scenic drive way amidst country with lakes, valleys and high country hills. There were plowed away snow drifts at more than one place.

Another couple of trumpeter swans were seen at Packingham Lake. With the water still ice-covered, we pondered how they might avoid any nightly wanderings of coyotes looking for a meal. They certainly have the right moves to avoid that sort of trouble.

A strutting common pheasant rooster was along the road in Wamaduze Valley (isn’t that a distinct name of historic derivation). Territorial red-winged blackbirds were prevalent at many places and numerous at more than one place. Rough-legged buzzards were obvious. There was even a common pheasant that added some color to the scene.

Many meadow expanses were filled with water topped with ice that will soon melt. These places will be hay meadows later this year.

We two bird-watchers were excited upon seeing two vividly blue birds atop some fence posts in the valley. They were soon identified as mountain bluebirds. Neither of us had seen them for a long time. The last reported record of this species in the county was in 2009 at Merritt Reservoir. That is a historic matter. To actually to see these two birds togetherly active in Cherry county supersedes many things.

A bunch of birds were notably active along the North Loup River in the Brownlee vicinity. Mallards were flying around. Red-winged blackbirds were busy in moving north or selecting a territory for the season. Migratory common mergansers were lingering as the flowing river was a haven.

During our transit of more than 20 miles along the road, there was only one pickup loaded with a big round bale, and then, later, two other vehicles east of Brownlee.

We tried to visit Rat and Beaver Lake WMA but the road was too muddy, rutted and not very suitable for vehicular travel. County ranchers have to deal with this reality every day, but we experienced a single effort and turned around. Ranchers deal with these conditions know much more on how to successfully deal with any travel issues. We gave up since the pending route was so tentative even while 4x4 travel was available. It was a vivid reality associated with country life.

Northward along Highway 83 upon our travel back to the city, and just a relatively short distance south of the Y, a field usually associated with corn, many geese had congregated on ice covered. There will be no plow on this ground for a particular time.

The overall bird tally for the day was 34 species, with raptors (six species including a vivid view of a beautifully colored ferruginous hawk and a singular American kestrel), waterfowl and flocks of red-winged blackbirds being notably prevalent.

It was a quite nice drive that can be appreciated any day. Our Sunday outing was a fine time to look around for the birds of the pending spring. Various landscape features of the hard surface Brownlee Road are a certain treasure of Cherry county. Any time spent along this route is an opportunity to appreciate a special sand hills setting.