17 June 2010

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!