29 June 2013

Proposed Niobrara Wildlife Area a Unique Bird Haven

A property being considered for a forestry and wildlife management area in Cherry County is a known haven for a great many birds.

This is a list of the twenty-one dates when bird surveys were done on the property, with the owner's permission. Several times, especially early in the summer, she was also present, doing her best to keep the bird feeders full. The setting changed from the first years here with new ownership at the time, ca. 2004, to the contemporary setting. Public funding through a grant was used to fence the area. There is now a trailer, a ready source of water via a developed pump and electricity via a buried powerline. These are modern accoutrements in this area of the Niobrara River valley, especially for what is essentially a nature reserve, with a designed name of Circle J Reserve. The J represents people involved with the place, and a circle to indicate that they came together to make it happen and understand the avifauna of this area of the Niobrara valley, south of Nenzel.

Niobrara River at the Circle J Reserve; May 31, 2010.

My first visit here was in February 2004, based upon an email from a UNL professor of ornithology suggesting a sort of business endeavor to do bird surveys for someone on their newly acquired property. The reality of that situation was soon realized to be not be a bona fide financial proposal.

Since there was a nice variety of birds present, the site was attractive for that particular reason. That first day of boots on the ground, the most exciting thing heard was the song of a Marsh Wren in the terrace wetland nourished by flows from a groundwater spring. Then to add to the excitement, a Wilson's Snipe was also present. Also at the place, were Red Crossbills flying southward from the upland pines and across the running water. During the winter of 2004-2005, a Virginia Rail was a resident. The occurrence here led to further searching and notable discoveries of a similar sort, elsewhere during the winter weeks along the central Niobrara River valley.

Especially because of the wintering species, the place piqued my interest, and so subsequent visits occurred. This is the tally of dates when the place was hiked and the number of bird species noted. Most of the twenty surveys were on the north side of the river.

02/27/2004: 16
03/09/2004: 11
03/17/2004: 20
03/18/2004: 6
04/06/2004: 26
04/20/2004: 30
06/06/2004: 48 species representing breeding season birds
06/15/2004: 54 species representing breeding season birds
10/12/2004: 23
11/16/2004: 10
11/17/2004: 22
12/15/2004: 6
12/16/2004: 21

02/18/2005: 12
10/23/2005: 8
01/11/2006: 8
06/10/2006: 35
06/22/2006: 38
05/31/2010: 37
09/27/2011: 21 species

Additional details would further denote the variety of species present in this site's habitats's along the Niobrara River. These sorts of information would further indicate the value of the valley habitats for wild birds in a region where there are few details of the avifauna. Prominently missing is a focus on bird hybridization, in a valley where it is well known to occur, based upon studies in decades past by prominent scientists.

This property of about 460 acres is a great option for a new public wildlife and forestry management area. It has a nice habitat diversity, including that distinctive meadow on the north side of the river, and a tangly swamp on the south side.

What will happen with the recreational trailer and its wooden shelter, the recently rebuilt garage across the county road, isn't known? The owner of the property was not disclosed by the newspaper report in later June. Apparently there was also a public hearing in Valentine, but its date and time are unknown as details could not be found online.

Based upon a few hundred records of distinction, this is a list of species observed at this area.

Canada Goose
Wood Duck
Common Merganser
Ring-necked Pheasant
Sharp-tailed Grouse
Wild Turkey
American White Pelican
Great Blue Heron
Turkey Vulture
Bald Eagle
Northern Harrier
Sharp-shinned Hawk
Cooper's Hawk
Red-tailed Hawk
American Kestrel
Virginia Rail
Sandhill Crane; aerial migrant
Spotted Sandpiper
Upland Sandpiper
Long-billed Curlew; on the nearby upland
Wilson's Snipe
Mourning Dove
Black-billed Cuckoo
Yellow-billed Cuckoo
Great Horned Owl
Long-eared Owl
Common Nighthawk
Belted Kingfisher
Red-headed Woodpecker
Red-bellied Woodpecker
Downy Woodpecker
Hairy Woodpecker
Northern Flicker
Western Wood-Pewee
Alder Flycatcher
Willow Flycatcher
Eastern Phoebe
Great Crested Flycatcher
Western Kingbird
Eastern Kingbird
Loggerhead Shrike
Bell's Vireo
Warbling Vireo
Red-eyed Vireo
Blue Jay
Black-billed Magpie
American Crow
Horned Lark
Tree Swallow
Northern Rough-winged Swallow
Barn Swallow

Black-capped Chickadee
Red-breasted Nuthatch
White-breasted Nuthatch
Brown Creeper
House Wren
Winter Wren; among the aquatic habitats provided by springwater seeps
Marsh Wren; an iconic winter occurrence
Golden-crowned Kinglet
Eastern Bluebird
Mountain Bluebird
Townsend's Solitaire
American Robin
Brown Thrasher
European Starling
Cedar Waxwing
Orange-crowned Warbler
Yellow Warbler
Yellow-rumped Warbler
Black-and-white Warbler
American Redstart
Common Yellowthroat
Yellow-breasted Chat
Spotted Towhee
American Tree Sparrow
Chipping Sparrow
Field Sparrow
Lark Sparrow
Lark Bunting
Savannah Sparrow
Grasshopper Sparrow
Song Sparrow
Lincoln's Sparrow
White-crowned Sparrow
Dark-eyed Junco
Northern Cardinal; a far-western occurrence
Rose-breasted Grosbeak
Black-headed Grosbeak
Blue Grosbeak
Indigo Bunting
Red-winged Blackbird
Western Meadowlark
Common Grackle
Brown-headed Cowbird
Orchard Oriole
Baltimore Oriole
House Finch
Red Crossbill
American Goldfinch

There are additional subtle details of significance for the birds, the particulars expressed by the actual records, though the specifics are not publicly available. Also pertinent to the history of this place, the owner did research on the Yellow-breasted Chat, and received a PhD degree from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

What the future would involve under public ownership, is unknown. There are some advantages, and some uncertainties. At least the site would always be accessible. The addition of hunting would be an unwelcome seasonal intrusion. The property will be subject to greater disturbance, possibly more trash. Someone may decide a camp and want to have a campfire, which will mean cut trees and a mess left behind.

It is very unlikely that the current place name will be continued. Two public meetings in July - The Nebraska Environmental Trust and Nebraska Game and Parks Commission - are scheduled when decisions will be made regarding the acquisition of this site.

Parcels of the proposed wildlife area in Cherry County, along the Niobrara River.