29 June 2010

Intensive Rains Affecting Tern and Plover Season

The 2010 Least Tern and Piping Plover season in Nebraska is being dramatically impacted due to flooding from the extensive, recent rains. Nests have been lost due to flooding, and renesting is currently underway.

"Heavy rainfall on June 12-14 caused flooding on the Niobrara River, Ponca Creek and Choteau Creek, all of which drain into the Missouri River above Lewis and Clark Lake, the reservoir formed by Gavins Point Dam," according to Gregory Pavelka, program manager for the Tern and Plover program operated by the Army Corps of Engineers, Omaha District.

"The lake rose nearly four feet which partially inundated the sandbar complex constructed by the Corps of Engineers to provide nesting habitat for least terns and piping plovers. A survey on June 15 of the complex found that 21 plover and 18 tern nests were lost to flooding. However 52 plover and 86 tern nests survived the flooding. Surveys on the complex on June 22 and 23 found that 16 new plover and 33 new tern nests had been initiated since June 15."

There was additional high water levels associated with tributary rivers in the region of the Missouri National Recreation River.

"The same widespread rain event that caused Lewis and Clark Lake to rise also caused flooding on the tributaries below Gavins Point Dam," Pavelka said. "The James River flows into the Missouri increased from 4,400 cubic feet/second (cfs) to over 24,000 cfs. The Vermillion River rose from 380 cfs to 4,400 cfs.

"The Missouri just below the confluence with the James was running at more than 57,000 cfs and the river gage below the James River confluence at Gayville rose three feet," according to Corps' officials. "The Maskell gage near Vermillion, SD rose 3.5 ft. and the gage near Ponca, NE rose five ft. Flows at Ponca probably were in excess of 62,000 cfs.

"These high flows completely inundated the Corps' constructed sandbars at River Mile (RM) 795.5, 775.0 and 774.0 and partially inundated the constructed sandbars at RM 791.5, 781.5 and 777.7. A total of 59 piping plover and 50 least tern nests below Gavins Point were lost to flooding by the high flows.

There have been five successful Piping Plover nests thus far this season, and 12 active nests remain in this same section of the Missouri below Gavins Point Dam.

"Surveys completed by June 25 show that eight new piping plover and 37 new least tern nests have been initiated on the sandbars at RM 791.5, 781.5 and 777.7, since the flooding that occurred on June 14," according to the Corps.

Prior to the recent rains Gavins Point releases were varying between 26,500 and 28,000 cubic feet per second, said Michael Swenson, of the Water Management Division, of the Army Corps of Engineers. "Releases were cut to 22,000 cfs (June 12), to 15,000 cfs earlier the week of June 21, but are being increased again," he said. They were then increased to 33,000 cfs (June 14) as the Gavins Point pool increased after additional rain, and in order to bring the reservoir back down to its normal operating level."

"The increase to 33,000 cfs would probably have had little effect on tern and plover nesting in itself," Swenson said. "However, the widespread rain also increased flows on the James River from 6,000 cfs to 22,000 cfs, which did flood many nests on the river.

"The increased flows of up to 34,000 cfs, will likely not have much additional impact," on the terns and plover, Swenson said.

Survey crews are continuing to assess the impacts to the terns and plovers.

"The previous highest flows below Gavins Point Dam occurred in November 1997 when an average 70,000 cfs was released from the dam," according to Corps records. "Inflows from the downstream tributaries would have been negligible in November. The high releases out of Gavins Point were done to evacuate water out of the three upper reservoirs, Fort Peck Lake, MT Lake Sakakawea ND and Lake Oahe ND and SD."

28 June 2010

Seasonal Martin Phantasmagoria Underway Midtown

On a late June evening, rather than continuing an indoor activity, it seemed appropriate to bicycle forth to see if the most appreciated birds of Omaha were gathering together. My expectation was correct in very way, as the wonder of the Purple Martins midtown was once again underway along Farnam Street, above Saddle Creek, which is a thoroughfare in Omaha.

Birds on the wires, along 41st Street. These were mostly European Starlings.

The martins - along with congregations of grackles and starlings - were in flight about a site which has provided such a grand sight for bird watchers.

After a day of heat and humidity, the Saturday evening was a spectacle as it always is when watching the martins. And rather than a simple sky of mundane blue, there were clouds and an immense portrayal of color as a backdrop on the horizon.

The martins about were all airborne, swirling and floating in their birdly manner. Anymore comment would be worthless on this event, as the human language in no manner can convey the thoughts and perspectives of the airborne martins, which much of the time look down upon the human landscape.

Sounds of the gathering were readily carried across the urban scape, as the first cool tinge of the pending night was expressed by a soft breeze upon the hill-slope below 40th street, and a block or two south of Dodge Street, with its inconsiderate traffic.

Midtown martin sky on a Saturday evening.

The Purple Martins - exquisite denizens of the limitless sky - eventually descended to their now well-known roost, first discovered in 2008 by an attentive bird watcher. Action included the regular motions, now somewhat known since their gathering has been seen and documented in two previous years. When they swoop around and then dart in from the west to land in the trees, their antics - and from a view on the scene - superb flight skills are so expressive and timely as to present one of the top wonders of the bird world of Omaha.

There were about 500 martins present, along with a few hundred grackles, a bunch of starlings and a few of those usual bugeaters of Omaha sky, chimney swifts.

During the time of watching, the spectacle was indicative of what would continue, what would expand to be a grand sight in subsequent weeks. Starting with this day, the martins clan will only increase and each day convey a most distinctive spectacle, a relative phantasmagoria of their times, and for those people which make a proper decision to watch with attention.

While at the right street on Saturday evening, my shirt sleeve was adorned by a splat from some bird above. It was a privilege and an honor to get the first mark of the 2010 season, being one of the three martineers. The other two will soon be on the scene - one time or another, and then yet again because we enjoy the event, freely expressed by martins, indifferent to rating, but most concerned with survival and having a safe haven.

The butterfly decals on the windows of the hazardous walkway still remain, but the banners which help to inform the flying birds of a threat, are not in place.

Incoming helicopter. The flight path is now directly east of the bird roost.

While watching the goings on, the medical helicopter arrived and dominated the setting as it came in to land. It alighted at a different place, just east of the medical towers, and actually within the range where martins and other birds swirl around the buildings before they roost, based upon previous observations. How this significant situation might influence the Purple Martin gathering is not known, but a helicopter landing amidst a swarm of birds would not be a good situation.

The martins have arrived at midtown, establishing by three days, the first date for this congregation, in comparison to their known arrival in 2009. Many wonderful days will follow, and certainly be appreciated by many whom enjoy the wonder they present in a spectacle unique in mid-America. Perhaps this year, the phenomena will get even more appreciation and recognition, with more visitors from the region. This event deserves a documentary!

25 June 2010

Discussion Points - Highway 34 and Bellevue Bridge

While considering what is going to happen at the La Platte Bottoms because of an expansion of U.S. Highway 34 and an addition of a new bridge south of Bellevue, the following items came to mind, so it seemed appropriate to record and share them with the very few forward-thinking or concerned people that may actually care about what happens at this place. We are a minority, but we still do strive to protect a place for our feathered friends, as they have no advocate, and government agencies will ignore those without a voice. Many others are mute, and uncaring about what will be foisted upon a place so important to wetland bird-life at this most-important place in the Missouri River valley.

Highway Bridge

Was the alternative of replacing the bridges at Bellevue and Plattsmouth considered as a project alternative? Why is a completely new highway required? Two bridges can be built at a much lesser cost than a completely new highway of many miles.

Cultural Impact

The Platte River received it name more than 27 decades ago, when French explorers floated past the site while on a journey which included a traverse down the Missouri River. The moniker, is possibly the first modern-era name ever mentioned in recognizing the geography of the current state of Nebraska. This cultural significance was not found in any manner in the final EIS, as prepared by staff - and other ancillary agencies - of the two transportation state agencies which want to build a bridge less than a half-mile away from this point of such a dramatic importance.

Rather than having something which resembles the original condition, though only slightly, this road project would make the predominant feature a bridge and highway, with vehicular noise, its obstructions across the northern horizon and no consideration of how the preeminent feature could give attention to history instead of development. The sound of the river's flow should be what would be heard at this place, rather than the endless drone of semis, truck and cars.

The Nebraska Historical Society didn't mention this aspect, only considering cultural sites where native people may have been present for a sufficient time for relicts to occur.

Apparently the Back to the River organization is concerned with the conservation of the land where the Platte River empties into the Missouri. BTTR seems to not be currently involved with any considerations at this locality, based upon current communications of inquiry.

Wetland Impacts

The Army Corps of Engineer permit for this project - recently issued - addresses an impact of only 4.97 acres - based upon their legal definitions, so the Nebraska Department of Roads considers that this is the entire amount of wetland for which they need to mitigate. Yet, an Iowa Department of Transportation document specifically denotes that more than 16 acres will be filled, based upon a detailed map available online and ancillary documentation.

This map does not even indicate additional wetlands present in 2010, when water conditions are optimal - for birds and related wetland features.

The Corps is using the lowest possible value, and this is what mitigation decisions were being based upon, in a manner ignorant of an apparent reality when unmoving levels of water provide a great haven for birds, among aquatic vegetation, and in an enduring manner. It seems that defined law supersedes reality.

When there is standing water, wetland vegetation and water dependent birds present, the place is a wetland, yet the actual extent of the marsh at the La Platte Bottoms is being minimized in comparison to the place being appreciated and enjoyed by birds and birders during the summer of 2010.

Only direct impacts have been considered. Yet, what is the effect on adjacent wetland habitat of placing a multi-lane highway directly through a larger extent of wetland. Enclosing a bit of wetland by a multi-lane highway or access road will certainly diminish the value of a tiny bit of wetland squeezed between the two. But since the bit of land is not directly filled - or "impacted" in the government lingo - this is not even considered.

If the project proponents do not have a permit for any and all wetland filling, their project cannot proceed.

Impacts to the Saint Mary's Bend Wildlife Area

The proposed alignment from Interstate-29 in Iowa will cut through the southern portion of the St. Mary's Island mitigation site. This tract was specifically bought and established in order to protect fish and wildlife. A highway is not in any appropriate for a tract which was supposed to be a haven for wildlife.

Any easement or property addition will not mitigate for the impact of having a highway bisecting the tract. The value of this site for wildlife will be dramatically reduced once a highway becomes the prominent feature of the site.

Why can't the alignment go north of the Iske Park Residential Area, with more highway placed upon the Saint Mary's Bend Mitigation Site. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has already sanctioned a roadway through the place, so why not use this place of former cropland as the highway right-of-way, instead of imposing the thing upon a relict wetland.

This possibility was also not considered by any of the project developers.

Migratory Birds

Wetlands at the La Platte Bottoms have been used repeatedly by the Least Tern, a threatened species, yet this particular bird foraging use at the site was not mentioned in any manner by the environmental impact statement, though its potential nesting along the Platte was considered.

The EIS did not recognize how more than 130 species of birds occur and have used the project site during the past 25 years, and undoubtedly many previous years.

The economic value of the site for the myriad of migratory birds - with an obvious valuation exceeding $2 million - was not considered when the environmental review was done.

The appreciation and importance of the La Platte Bottoms to birders of the region was not considered in any manner by the draft, or final EIS. This facet should have been among the items addressed, yet has not been.

Not even the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officials considered this. Apparently they were ignorant of these facts - which would seemingly be their responsibility as "professional biologists" to be aware of - yet there is no mention in the final EIS of the bird species diversity and how its occurrence will be altered by having a highway through their habitat.

Information on bird occurrence is readily available, based on contributions by a variety of people whom have posted comments on the NEBirds forum.

One of the best features of the current La Platte Bottoms setting, is that anyone can enjoy the birds. You could walk there from La Platte. Most people do drive there, and are able to see, or hear - without any background noise, from a passing train, for example - the species spending time in the marsh. And this can be done from the current roadway, without having to make a hike. This makes the setting especially appropriate for everyone, including someone who may have limited mobility, yet can easily watch from their vehicle, for as long as they may want to appreciate the birds, the dragonflies or any of the other features of nature at this unique place, which can never been replaced.

Oreapolis Mitigation Site

The northern edge of the proposed mitigation site is bordered along its entire northern extent by a dual-track railroad right-of-way. The noise and disturbance are negative impacts which have not been considered in any manner in documents concerning the mitigation site.

There is no indication that there will be public access to the tract, as there is a roadway only on the western extent of the site, and it has not be mentioned in any project documents, whether this is a public right-of-way.

Without any vehicular access, the wildlife observation values of the tract for people with mobility challenges, could not drive up to the place, and watch the birds and other bits of nature from their vehicles. They can now do this at the La Platte Bottoms.


Officials of the state agencies responsible for this project have said that some of the issues mentioned above were not considered because "no one told us" during the public hearings or expressed these comments in any manner while project planning was underway.

This is not a valid reason for these items not having been considered. It is the responsibility of agency staff - including people working for the Iowa Department of Transportation, Nebraska Department of Roads, Nebraska Game and Parks Commission and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service - to consider any and all pertinent details.

Yet, based upon a cursory review of available documentation, this did not occur. Each of the above mentioned items are not directly and specifically included among the topics within the many pages of government documents which supposedly were prepared in a manner meant to review and consider the various factors involved with building a highway south of Bellevue.

Only when the above items are recognized, considered, and addressed, should this project move forward! The pending construction of a mega-highway is now being looked upon by people who care as a boondoggle designed in a careless manner without any concern for important natural values.

Birdly Anecdote – World Series Finale at Rosenblatt

There was a great and harrowing adventure at Rosenblatt Stadium late in the afternoon of June 24th. The event was not significant in any dramatic way, but was a time of peril for one unwilling participant among the many other activities on the scene.

While on the south plaza of the stadium – at Fan Fest – and selling a book which chronicles the history of the place, there was a little chirp heard right beneath the table where people were lined up to get their copy autographed by the primary author. And the only place where there was a bird watcher present.

It was a fledgling, female House Sparrow, as indicated by a bit of downy featheration still remaining. Seemingly it had walked across a section of the plaza which thronged with fans, ticket sellers, 4x4 vehicles going to and fro and a whole hubbub of people and things which could have easily have ended the little birds life in a moment. Apparently the sparrow had fledged from a portion of the stadium structure, about 50 feet across this space.

This little bit of a bird, stopped and crouched on the pavement, in the shade and obviously resting, but it was a spot where it could not remain.

So it was carefully captured and placed in the shade of a cardboard box, atop a nearby planter. There it quietly sat, looking about yet ignoring completely all the sports-related action. With the box eventually to be taken away, the little sparrow was moved over a couple of feet, into the shade of the plants.

There it sat some more, still lively yet still. My co-worker kept looking to see how the bird was doing and nothing changed except her increasing concern for its fate.

Eventually it was given some goldfish crackers, as perhaps this would help. The disturbance of placing the crumbs nearby, caused it to fly a short distance, just a short ways west. Its tail was still short and not entirely grown, and the wings were stubby and capable of providing a limited ability to fly, basically nothing more than a few feet.

The little sparrow only made it to the front of the adjacent booth, where one of the girls shrieked at the sudden arrival of the unexpected bird where there should be customers.

It was obvious the little thing had to be captured and put back at a safe place, or its demise was probable.

A first attempt at capture was not successful – the little sparrow made a weak flight over to in front of another booth. There it was slowly yet certainly caught, to the surprise of the women at the adjacent booth, as they perhaps wondered how some guy could capture a bird?

Back the House Sparrow went to its previous haven, where it sat, chirped occasionally - as loud as it could - because as it was certainly getting hungry. There was no response from any of the adult sparrows flying around in the immediate vicinity, but it would have been difficult for a sparrow chirp to overcome the sound of a ball-game announcer, and that unceasing noise of people and vehicles, including a plane droning overhead, pulling an advertising banner.

Concern by my coworker increased, and she kept looking every few minutes to see how it was doing. It was doing fine, but its fate was certainly unknown. Nature would pitch its own outcome, there were plenty of ways it could be put out of the game.

When it was time to close the booth for the day, the sparrow had departed to somewhere. By listening closely, it could be heard a few feet to the south, at another big planter.

Then, when looking towards the little bird’s place on the corner of the planter, there was an adult House Sparrow – its father – was giving the fledgling a bit to eat. Along came Mom as well, doing the same and this portion of the clan were reunited, and junior was once again getting proper attention from its parents.

A dismal prospect changed, with a great potential for the little sparrow to survive another day, and hopefully long enough for it to fly to a safe haven.

This whole little escapade took place while tens of thousands were focused on a hard ball, when the real adventure was the fate of a little bit of bird life.

This is the only birdly anecdote for the finals days of the College World Series, in its waning hours at its home for decades, the revered Johnny Rosenblatt Stadium which will soon be torndown, as a new stadium is being built as a replacement.

21 June 2010

Considering Issues - Highway Construction at La Platte Bottoms

The following two emails were sent June 21, 2010, with copies also sent to the local press and bird discussion group. Images shown are from the various government documents associated with the Highway 34 - Bellevue Bridge project, developed by the Iowa Department of Transportation and Nebraska Department of Roads.

Authorization of Placing Fill in Wetlands

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is responsible for authorizing the filling of wetlands. According to a ACE officials, a permit was recently issued that provides authorization for impacting 4.97 acres. Yet according to this document online there will be more acres filled than that allowed by this particular permit. This discrepancy was the reason that the following email was sent to an ACE official.

"Since the attached document - dated April 2009 and issued by the Iowa Department of Transportation - indicates that there will be more than 4.87 acres of wetlands impacted by the Highway 34 Bridge and roadway, when will the Nebraska Department of Roads or Iowa Department of Transportation be applying for a permit to allow them to fill the additional acreage?

"According to the 404 regulations, as I understand them, only those acres for which a permit is issued could be filled. As the project proponents only have authorization for 4.87 acres through a completed permit process, yet something like 15 acres in Nebraska will be filled as the document indicates, the project cannot proceed as they are not authorized to fill more than 4.87 acres of wetlands.

"If any further fill would be needed, they would need to get a permit, and I request that the entity responsible for the project go through the entire application process for any fill required for the additional acreage. When this occurs, I would specifically ask that a public meeting be held in order that the people impacted by the destruction of wetlands at the site, be given an opportunity to voice their opinions."

The following graphic indicates the "impacted wetlands" as defined in 2007.

This is a graphic of the impacted wetlands as indicated in July 2009. Note the obvious increase in the extent of the designated wetlands to be filled.

It is also obvious that additional wetland acres will be affected, though they may not be directly filled, or impacted in government lingo. Their will be little value, if any for the bits of wetland between the constructed bridge ramps, and as any birds at these places could be readily hit by passing vehicles, there should not be any wetland habitat kept at these spots.

Railroad Track at Mitigation Site

This is a copy of an email sent to personnel at the Nebraska Department of Roads.

"I am writing to ask how a wetland mitigation site could be selected that is bounded on its entire north side by a railroad right-of-way, that is regularly and consistently used?

"Birds make essential use of any wetlands and having the ongoing disturbance of passing trains would have a dramatic impact on the value of the tract as an undisturbed place for migratory species including birds and other wildlife.

"Having train traffic would also make the place less than appealing for anyone that might want to come to the sight to observe visiting birds. The noise would make it very difficult if not impossible to listen for the calls or songs of birds which might be present. Just ask bird watchers at the Fontenelle Forest bottoms what they think of the train traffic.

"It seems obvious, from a birder's perspective, that this is not a suitable mitigation site, based on its potential value for wild birds.

Did the Fish and Wildlife Service provide any input into the selection of this mitigation site? It would seem that having a major railroad track present would have been an indication to select some more suitable site.

"The Nebraska Department of Roads needs to realize their extent of their mistake in selecting this site, and not move ahead with any effort to develop a mitigation site at Oreapolis. When will your agency deal with this error?"

The following is a figure which indicates the site of the proposed wetland mitigation.
Note the RR tracks on the north side, with a passing train along the entire stretch of the proposed mitigation site. Also note that the eastern portion of the area does not have vehicular access, which a primary value for the La Platte Bottoms, where people with mobility challenges can readily park along the road and watch the bird action in the marsh. The vehicular access at Oreapolis is limited to the western portion, and it is not known whether or not this is even a public access road.

18 June 2010

A Pictorial Memorial of a June Day at La Platte Bottoms

With sunny skies to start the summer's day, a visit was made to the La Platte Bottoms on June 18th. It was a fine morning to get a look at one the last June days for this place, which will soon be dramatically changed with the construction of a huge highway and an equally imposing interchange and access roads.

View to the southwest.

View to the south.

A southerly view.

A view to the southeast.

A view to the northwest, from the west side of Harlan Lewis Drive.

A view to the northwest, from La Platte Road, east of Harlan Lewis Drive.

A view of the crop field on the west side of Harlan Lewis Drive.

A view of the wetland area on the south side of La Platte Road, showing the La Platte water tower in the background.

The Interstate-type highway alignment as developed and approved by bureaucrats, will slice right through the middle of the best wetland spot at this locale.

The 21 species noted in the early morning visit were: Canada Goose (2 observed), Wood Duck (2), Mallard (4), Hooded Merganser (2), Wild Turkey (1 heard in the woods to the south), Pied-billed Grebe (5), Great Blue Heron (4), Great Egret (4), American Coot (2), Killdeer (a minimal count of 8), Least Tern (1), Mourning Dove (1), Eastern Kingbird (2), Blue Jay (1 heard in the nearby woods), Cliff Swallow (a minimal number of 15), American Robin (2 heard in the nearby woods), Dickcissel (2), Red-winged Blackbird (10, and more), Eastern Meadowlark (1), Yellow-headed Blackbird (1), and Common Grackle (at least 20).

The egrets and herons were probably after some of the numerous frogs present.

Lots of dragon flies were along the wetland's edge.

A grackle that was found dead along the county road. It was probably struck by a motor vehicle, and shows what happens a bird at a wetland split by a road.

This was the final view of the morning, showing the storm clouds moving in from the northwest. It seemed to be an apt metaphor for the impending, dark changes which will be occurring at this place.

R.I.P. La Platte Bottoms.

The La Platte Bottoms on June 18, 2010. View looking west.

17 June 2010

Property Considerations at the La Platte Bottoms

With plans being made to have a meeting to discuss the pending project to build a highway through wildlife lands east of La Platte, Nebraska, there have been additional findings about this development.

On the Iowa side of the Missouri River, the highway will bisect the Saint Marys Island mitigation site, which was purchased by the Army Corps of Engineers to provide fish and wildlife habitat.

Just east of La Platte, two tracts of land where many of the notable birds have been observed in the area, are owned by the Metropolitan Utilities District. The property was bought several years ago, to provide mitigation wetlands.

MUD property tracts along the La Platte road. Information on parcel boundaries from the website of the Sarpy County Assessors office.

Project Purpose

"The purpose of the Project is to improve connectivity and fulfill transportation needs of the region (the southern Omaha metropolitan area, including eastern Sarpy County and Bellevue as well as western Mills County) by providing a safe and free-flowing connection across the Missouri River from U.S. 75 to I-29."

The following figure shows the alignment of the highway to be built through wetlands east of La Platte. This figure is from the environmental impact statement prepared for the project.

Birding Voyage Among the Sandhills of Nebraska

With an invitation conveyed, and a means of transport ready, it was time to leave the river city and head to the sand hills. The primary reason was to observe and document the cattle branding at a big ranch in western Cherry County, but whenever an opportunity is available to get to the region, bird-watching at the hills' prairie, lakes and wetlands, is always a preeminent objective worthy of any devoted time and effort.

Departure was on Sunday afternoon, the day before Memorial Day, and this was readily obvious upon arriving at the first place which might have been a place to observe some birds. Wrong! People and vehicles and boats were all about Goose Lake WMA like it was the day of a big sale at the Nebraska Furniture Mart. The boat ramp was busy with other craft upon the lake's waters. Camping rigs and other vehicles were strewn all about the mown grass, so the first thing done was to leave and continue the trek west.

Swan Lake, on the west side of southern Holt County also had people fishing, but only a few, so a drive-about was done to look and listen for its birds. The first species of note was a Chimney Swift, foraging about the school near the highway to the east of the lake. This was the first time this species has been noted here, despite many years of bird observations. The chimney was small in size but obviously enough to provide a season's haven.

Perhaps this bugeater found the place a haven because there were no other unoccupied chimneys in the area, and at least this one isolated building was a proper place to spend the summer.

As the day continued, and after more onward driving, the Rock County lake district was reached without any harassment, and as the sun set on the green hills, my spot for the night was at the Twin Lakes Rock County WMA south of Bassett in the Fish Lake District. It was a fine evening, yet somewhat humid, yet still tolerable for camping with comfort.

The next morning the usual route was taken to see what was about in this section of the hills. The drive went southward to Peterson Lake first, then back a bit to the north along the county road, then eastward to the some more viewable wetlands. There were 54 species noted during the morning, including some of those eastern Long-billed Curlews, seen at their typical place.

Then it was time to drive some more miles, towards the western horizon.

After getting to Highway 20 at Bassett, that small town, the route went to Valentine, to Crookston and beyond Kilgore to the little bot of a place, Nenzel where a sharp turn to the left was taken to reach the Niobrara River for a hike about the Circle J Reserve with its land-owner and her hard-working companion. There were going to Merritt Reservoir to eat at the restaurant, but I took off down the river to hike some time up the slope, and for an overnight at Anderson Bridge WMA.

After a morning about the wildlife lands, a strong summer storm slashed through, but thankfully the car was able to escape the valley despite the muddy - thus slick - roads and unforgiving hail. While heading on the local highway route south of Nenzel, there were windrows of the fallen ice along the road. The ice which fell on a warm valley made for a picturesque scene at the Niobrara River.

Onward my travels continued southward for a bunch of miles along a patchy and rough course to the end of the road country. Notes were kept for Badger Lake. The longhorn steer at Farm Flat, where the weather was changing and presenting a mix of sun, clouds and rain made the scene quite picturesque. There some birds seen here as well.

This locale had everything going to represent the sand hills from its first history to modern time: a longhorn, a windmill, a modern ranch herd, a center pivot and a communications tower upon the top of the hill. At least there wasn't a condominium.

The overnight spot was at the Steer Creek Campground - where the ranger's cabin has been abandoned. The subsequent morning was spent to the west, looking at birds around a few of the roadside lakes. The highlight was an adult Bald Eagle at Twomile Lake. There was only one seen at an empty nest, which had probably been used in previous seasons. This was the first time the species had been observed in the area, collectively known as the Cutcomb District, named after Cutcomb Valley, with its regularly redug ditches.

Finally, it was time to get along to the big ranch for the cattle branding days. During the drive, a short stop occurred to delve into what was around the mitigation wetland along the Niobrara River, south of Merriman. There was nothing exceptionally exciting, but the north hill always offers a fine look at the unique valley scenery. The obvious Turkey Vultures readily indicated the setting was a place suitable for them to hang around.

Between Round Lake and the Snake River

The morning of June 3rd, was the first morning for some days at the big ranch. After getting up before 6 a.m. - in the hours when the sunshine touches the skies clouds with a bursting palette of color - notes were kept on the birds seen and heard about the ranch headquarters, with its trees, meadows and prairie all contributing places essential for those species which became a name on the days' tally.

There were nearly 25 species noted before it was time to crawl into the Piper Cub and go into the air.

Once airborne, there was grandeur obvious all across the land. Hills were spread with green. Little dapples of blue, with an occasional tiny bit of alternate color indicative of something notable. The skies were nothing less than magnificent.

Especially notable were two Trumpeter Swans in the South Valley, and nine American White Pelicans on Evy Lake.

After a safe landing, an alternate means of transport ensued. The horsepower went from mechanical to biological as the custom chuckwagon, with support vehicles made their way along Interranch Highway One, to reach the cabin at the camp-site on the Snake River, some ten miles across the hills.

Upon arrival - since notes were being kept for my times at the ranch places - a bird list was started. It was quite nice to be able to observe birds for a place where there has never been any previous records of birdly observations. Once again there was nothing especially significant, but when dawn arrives with the loudest sound that of an everflowing river, and bird action all about, nothing could be finer than to be at the Snake River in the morning. A whole set of verse could be written by any poet present at the place, anytime.

Hanging around did not last long, as there was important work to get done, but only after a hearty breakfast was served by the ranch cook, did everyone split to do the known tasks. Horse riders went forth to gather cattle for another day of branding on the family ranch. My direction was southward - along that infamous highway - on the back of a 4x4 to the Abbott International Airport, for another morning's ride in the plane driven by Chris Abbott.

During the one hour and 40 minutes aloft, many pictures were taken during the well-mixed ride, with a siren moving cattle, dipping wings, a roller-coast effect and other subtleties that indicated to the ground crew, details of where cows and calves needed to be gathered or where the pasture was clear. The branding went smoothly, but there were no notes on birds as any attention was diverted by a greater action.

After lunch, more birds were noted in the afternoon at camp, once cowboy work was done and the ranch family and crew, along with gathered friends and neighbors, congregated about the fire along the Snake. The evenings meal was once again simply superb.

The next day, apparently it was Friday, though while among the hills without clocks, television or any other intrusive means of time's passing, the day started with an adult Bald Eagle flying westward along the river. It was dramatically apparent again the slope of a steep hill to the north. While noting what was around, someone asked what birds were about? There were several mentioned, and the folks were somewhat surprised that it was possible to determine such a variety without seeing anything, but while hearing what was essential for a suitable identification.

Branding ensued, and after the essential tasks were suitably done, and lunch had been served, camp closed as everyone made their way back to the ranch headquarters. That would be ten miles south along Interranch Highway One, which was well traveled by quite a variety of vehicles ranging from a horse-drawn wagon, riders on sturdy horses which take them across the grass-covered dunes, small 4x4 powered by foreign-made horsepower, and different sorts of larger motor vehicles carrying a whole bunch of the necessary gear.

The next day was Sunday, and it was a time to enjoy the ranch scene. Early in the morning some of us went southward towards Round Lake. My first stop was a hike about Puckett Lake, where about 18 species were noted on a fine morning. Others continued just to the south where the fish were biting. A hefty crappie was the mornings best catch from the boat afloat on Round Lake.

After getting back to the ranch hq, and after being provided a suitable pickup, my route was one intent on seeing some more birds. The first stop was Jew Lake. Then Kirchner Valley, and eventually after slow travel along the Snake River Lane, to Indian Hill, a promontory on the northeast portion of the ranch. Nothing special seen except for a bright-red thrasher. It was quite a drive, with the speed limit of 20 m.p.h. along Interranch Highway One (though higher when on a 4x4), about 5 m.p.h. along the lane, and about 1-3 m.p.h. across dunes to get to the top of the hill to a parking spot near the geodetic marker adorned with four colorful bits of cloth.

After an interlude gaving across a free expanse of sky and prairie, the wind and dull skies of gray clouds meant it was time to keep moving. My task included going to the cabin to the west, loading up the remnants still remaining from the previous days' residence, and getting the things back to the ranch.

The entire travel was done without mishap, and thanks to there being a rope atop the bunk bed in the cabin, the contents on the back of the pickup were roped in and nothing fell off along the way.


A break from the ranch occurred on the 7th, as the Bicycle Ride Across Nebraska was arriving for an overnight stay in Hyannis. The chuckwagon was loaded on a trailer and taken to town, and some tasty Philly sandwiches - prepared with the tasty Sandhills Own beef - were bought again and again as the riders arrived.

Afterwards, my route diverged as during the afternoon and into the evening area lakes were scanned to see their summer birds. Wolfenbeger Lakes, Frye Lake WMA, Avocet WMA, Doc Lake and Whitman were visited. The overnight was at Defair Lake WMA southward of Hyannis, as big rains fell, lightning flashed, thunder roared and winds buffeted the small car which was the haven from the storm.

Some Sort of Birdday

In the morning, after looking about the overnight's scene among the Sandhills National Natural Landmark, more gas-guzzling driving was necessary to get to the Birdday being conducted by the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission at Crescent Lake NWR. It was nice to see what was there, but the sponsored event was basically a waste of time.

The scheduled start time was 9 a.m., which is already getting late into the morning when the sun arced above the eastern horizon about three hours earlier, yet the appropriate agency staff had not arrived when it was 9:30. So things got started anyway. My observations denoted the number of each species seen at each particular site. Yet when the group eventually gathered, the NGPC people (there were eight of them, with two having driven from Lincoln, and the others from Alliance and in several pickups) had records which had been kept from Alliance, near Lakeside and basically while they drove around, and were not kept for a particular site and there were no counts. It was explained to me that my apparent method was not their reason for the event. So my route required going back to a few lakes that had already been visited by government workers, in order to be able to denote the specifics birds present.

Records were made for Crescent Lake, Smith Lake, Gimlet Lake as denoted by curlew investigator Cory Gregory, Goose Lake, Rush Lake, Tree Claim Lake and Island Lake on the western edge of the refuge.

On the way back to the Abbott Ranch, some time was spent looking about Steverson Lake WMA. Most notable here was a heronry, readily obvious by the birds loud sounds from the treetops.

Back at the ranch, additional notes of determination helped to indicate an overall list of species, with more than 60 denoted during the days when the visitation occurred. After a big storm during the night of the 9th, it was time to get back to the city.

Creek Flooding

The final night out was spent in the Lakeland district of southwest Brown County, after a one-hour travel time detour because of flooding along Goose Creek. A detour of many miles was necessary because of the problem with going 100 yards where water several inches deep flowed across the county road. My parking spot for the overnight was at Willow Lake Brown County WMA. Once again it rained.

The Lakeland county road was slick in the morning. Carefully and slowly it was traversed northward, along Enders Lake and up to Long Lake. A bit further along, a low spot was flooded, also covered by several inches of water. This stopped any further progress, so Philbrick Lake and AGA Marsh WMA could not be visited.

After a slow drive along the route already traveled, the hard road was reached, and the intriguing observation of the day was a half-dozen Franklin's Gulls at the Chain of Lake. Then back to the west, and a return visit was made to Goose Creek, near Elsmere, with its flood flows. Indicative of the situation was a Wilson's Snipe sitting atop a power-line pole, which was certainly much drier than a grassy meadow beneath waters from an overflowing creek.

Nesting activities of lowland birds had undoubtedly been flooded out in the area. Any species such as the snipe, yellowthroats, eastern meadowlarks or other ground nesting species would have been inundated, and because of the time of the season, likely meant the demise of newly hatched young. The extensive amount of rain was a natural tragedy.

After looking about, some hours of driving then ensued to the return to the river city.

The time in the western country was all good.

Observations from this outing provided a great set of records for my 29th consecutive year of bird watching among the subtle grandeur of the Nebraska Sand Hills. There have been more than 53,000 records personally gathered from 986 distinct sites. Expectations are great for many more outings and to surpass that mythical tally of having been at more than 1000 places among the dunes!