22 January 2013

Comparison of Birdlife at Eastern Sandhills Lake

Bruner Lake is located in the eastern sandhills of southwestern Holt County (Section 11, T25N, R16W) (Figure 1). The area around the lake was where Lawrence Bruner, one of the founders of the Nebraska Ornithologists' Union, made some of the first comparative studies of birdlife in Nebraska. His records from decades ago can be compared with current information to provide a perspective on changes in birdlife that have occurred.

Figure 1. The Bruner Lake area of Holt County showing the Bruner property and areas birded in 1990.

The area was first visited by Bruner in 1883-84 when he filed a claim on 160 acres about 1.5 miles south and east of the lake (northeast quarter of section 24). Others in the Bruner family claimed additional acres in the same vicinity. At this time he marked out the property, which included a marsh, and planted some trees and shrubs. The Bruners filed their claim under the Timber Culture Act that allowed tree-claims to be filed on 160 acres once 16 acres of trees were planted and had two years of successful growth (R.G. Cortelyou, pers. comm.).

When Bruner staked his claim and visited the family property, he also made a list of the birds seen. In 1883 he visited during the latter days of June and early part of July. His 1884 visit started earlier than in 1883 and ended in the end of May or early June. Bruner returned to his property in 1901 and kept records of the birds seen during this summer visit. He then made a comparison of the birdlife present in 1901 to the sightings made in 1883-84 (Bruner, L. 1902. A comparison of the bird-life found in the Sand Hill region of Holt County in 1883-84 and in 1901. Proceedings of the Nebraska Ornithologists' Union 3:58-63.)

A comparison to the historic period was done by Blake, who first located the tract of land owned by the Bruner family by finding it on a 1904 Hon County land map. Bruner Lake area was then visited several times to assess the current birdlife. Visits were made to the area on 27 April, 18 May, and 23 June 1990. The Leushen Birders from Norfolk helped record bird species on the 23 June field trip. A brief trip was also made on 13 July to confirm the presence or absence of a couple of species.

Bruner Lake is predominantly open water with rushes growing on about one-half of the shoreline. Two small islands in the lake are covered with vegetation. The marsh has open water in its center and shore-line. Land close to the water is covered with a mix of rushes, grass, and scrub willow.

Areas around Bruner Lake that were also covered included a shelterbelt about 0.5 mile to the southeast that is a mix of ash and mulberry. A planting of young cedar trees and a few cottonwoods grow on the west side. Another shelterbelt, predominantly green ash trees, and marsh is 1.5 miles to the southeast. The shelterbelts are not grazed by cattle but there is not much woody understory. Areas of sandhills prairie were also covered.

Bruner recorded 55 species, about evenly divided between wetland, grassland, and woodland habitats (Table 1 and Table 2). It is notable that in 1901 there were several species—Say's Phoebe, Pinyon Jay and Lazuli Bunting—that are more typical of the western part of Nebraska. These could have been rare vagrants or possibly misidentifications.

Table 1. List of species recorded historically and in 1990 in the Bruner Lake area of southwestern Holt County, Nebraska
Species A B C D Species A B C D
Eared Grebe - - C - Mourning Dove A B - D
Am. Wh. Pelican - - - D Yellow-b. Cuckoo A - - -
D-c. Cormorant - - C - Great Horned Owl - - C -
American Bittern A - C D Burrowing Owl A - - -
Great Blue Heron - - - D Short-eared Owl A - - -
White-fr. Goose - B - - Common Nighthawk A - - D
Canada Goose - B C D Red-head. Woodp. A - C D
Green-wing. Teal - - C D Downy Woodpecker - B - -
Mallard A B - D Northern Flicker A B C D
Northern Pintail - B C D Eastern Phoebe A - - -
Blue-wing. Teal A B C D Say's Phoebe A - - -
North. Shoveler A - C - Western Kingbird A - C D
Gadwall A - - D Eastern Kingbird - - C D
Redhead - B C D Horned Lark A - C D
Lesser Scaup - - C - Purple Martin A - - -
Ruddy Duck - B C D Barn Swallow A - C D
Northern Harrier A - - - Blue Jay A - C D
Swainson's Hawk A - C D Pinyon Jay A - - -
Red-tailed Hawk - - - D American Crow - B C D
Rough-leg. Hawk A - - - Bl-c. Chickadee - - C D
American Kestrel - B - - House Wren - - - D
Ring-n. Pheasant - B C D Marsh Wren A - - D
G. Prairie-Chick. A B C D Eastern Bluebird A - - -
Sharp-tailed Gr. A - C - American Robin - B C D
N. Bobwhite A - - - Gray Catbird A - - -
American Coot A B C - Brown Thrasher A - C D
Sandhill Crane A - - - Loggerhead Shrike - B - -
Killdeer A B C D Warbling Vireo - - - D
American Avocet - B - D Yellow Warbler A - C D
Less. Yellowlegs A - C - C. Yellowthroat - - C D
Willet A - - - Lazuli Bunting A - - -
Spotted Sandpiper - - - D Dickcissel A - - D
Upland Sandpiper A - C D Field Sparrow - - - D
Long-bill. Curlew A - - - Lark Sparrow A - C D
Marbled Godwit - B - D Grasshopper Sp. A - C D
Semipalm. Sandp. - - C - Bobolink A - C D
Least Sandpiper A - C - Red-wing. Blackbird A B C D
Baird's Sandpiper A - - - West. Meadowlark A B C D
Stilt Sandpiper - - C - Yellow-h. Blackb. A B C D
Long-b. Dowitcher - B - - Common Grackle A B C D
Common Snipe - - - D Br-head. Cowbird A B C D
Wilson's Phalar. A - C D Orchard Oriole - - - D
Forster's Tern A - - - Northern Oriole - - - D
Black Tern A - C D Am. Goldfinch - - - D
Rock Dove - - - D House Sparrow - - C D

A - 1880s-1901; B - 27 April 1990; C - 18 May 1990; D - 23 June 1990

A B C D - Dates as above, but a probable nesting species

One of the most drastic changes Bruner noted was that Sandhill Cranes no longer nested. In 1883-84, a young Crane was brought to camp and became a companion of the people. A wetland species that would have been associated with marsh habitat like that used by the Sandhill Crane would have been the Northern Harrier. Bruner noted this species but it was not recorded on the 1990 field visits. The extensive wetland meadows present when this area was first settled would have provided ideal nesting habitat for this raptor.

There were 72 species recorded in 1990. Almost half of the birds seen were associated with water and wetland habitats (Table 2). The majority of the remaining species were associated with woodland habitats and there were close percentages of these species noted during the surveys. There was a decrease in grassland species which comprised a lower percentage of the total species recorded in the 1990 surveys. This is due to the larger number of migratory waterfowl and shorebirds noted in 1990 in comparison to the historic bird sightings made by Bruner.

Table 2. Habitat affinity of birds recorded in the Bruner Lake area.
Habitat Affinity 1880s - 1901 1990
  Number (Percent)
Limnic 19 (34%) 33 (46%)
Grassland 17 (31%) 14 (19%)
Woodland 18 (33%) 22 (31%)
Miscellaneous 1 (2%) 3 (4%)
Total 55 72

Other differences were noted in the occurrence of species associated with wetland habitats. The Long-billed Curlew, Willet and Forster's Tern were noticed historically but not currently. Several migratory waterfowl and shorebirds were noted currently but not historically, including the Lesser Scaup, Marbled Godwit, Semipalmated Sandpiper, Stitt Sandpiper and Long-billed Dowitcher. The Common Snipe occurs now and could possibly nest. It is very puzzling that Bruner did not note the Common Yellowthroat which would have been expected in the wetlands during either of the two periods he made his bird records.

Potential new breeding waterfowl include the Canada Goose, Redhead, and Ruddy Duck. These species were noted on each 1990 visit but were not observed by Bruner during either of his extended visits. The Canada Goose would have been reintroduced and would utilize areas from which they had been extirpated when historic hunting decimated resident populations.

The Great Blue Heron was recorded in 1990 but not on prior historic visits. There is now a large nesting colony within a few miles of Bruner Lake. Historically, the lack of large cottonwood trees used as nesting habitat might have been a limiting factor for the summer occurrence of this heron. The cottonwoods were planted decades ago to create shelterbelts. The growth of these larger trees would also provide habitat for birds such as the American Kestrel, American Crow, American Robin, Warbling Vireo, and Northern Oriole. Other differences in woody habitat species are the Yellow-billed Cuckoo and Gray Catbird which were recorded only historically and utilize available shrubby habitat.

The Red-tailed Hawk and Black-capped Chickadee were noted in 1990 but not in either of the historic visits. The Burrowing Owl and Short-eared Owl were not recorded in 1990 whereas they were present historically. The Sharp-tailed Grouse also was not present though it has historically nested in Holt County (Ducey, J.E., Nebraska Birds: Breeding Status and Distribution) and occurs elsewhere in the Sandhills region.

The Rock Dove and House Sparrow were not present historically but occur now. Their presence can be attributed to nesting habitat provided by barns and other buildings that were not formerly present. The House Sparrow probably did not occur until about 1940 when this introduced species spread westward from eastern Nebraska. The Ring-necked Pheasant is also an introduced species.

Fewer species would have been recorded if migratory birds were not recorded. Migratory species that would not have occurred during the summer time period when Bruner also did his field work include the Greater White-fronted Goose and Rough-legged Hawk.

There have been changes in the birdlife of the Sandhills region around Bruner Lake. Tree plantings and the growth of woody plants has increased the available habitat. Despite the increase in species diversity, the loss of nesting species such as the Sandhill Crane indicates very obvious changes in Sand hills avifauna. No sightings of the Burrowing Owl and Short-eared Owl could indicate changes in the summer distribution of these species, especially the latter owl. The Short-eared Owl has had a decrease in range and has not been recorded as nesting in Nebraska in recent years.

We would like to thank Jim, Cliff, and Bob Taylor of Taylor Land and Cattle Inc. for permission to visit this area.

Loren Blake and Jim Ducey. December 1990. A comparison of historic and modern birdlife at an eastern sandhills lake in Nebraska. Nebraska Bird Review 58(4): 100-104.