24 May 2014

Considering a Nebraskan's 35-Year Birding History

During a spring day in April 1979, there was a personal urge to get outdoors to see what was happening outdoors. There must have been fine weather, since the drive of that one day meant an arrival at Ninemile Prairie, the well-known refugia of tallgrass prairie northwest of Lincoln. Any recollections of the visit are long gone, but a few trivial details are known because of a brief article in the "Babbling Brook" newsletter of the Wachiska Audubon Society. Bird species noted were a Great Horned Owl, Eastern Meadowlark, and the Black-capped Chickadee which was certainly bouncing about the few trees in the draw.

This is where my birding history began, 35 years ago when any looking above or below to determine identity of some sort of bird was an entirely new endeavor. An entire perspective started then in a small manner. It became more a month later.

My perspective on watching birds shifted dramatically when a grant was awarded to a research team at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln through a competitive process associated with the Student-Originated Study program of the National Science Foundation. My preparatory efforts meant being selected as the student director. This meant hiring five other UNL students, determining research methods, planning for multiple site visits and other assorted protocols for a summer-season study on two farms in Douglas county, Nebraska. There is the recollection of driving the research crew from Lincoln on the first day in May, when a deer was struck and killed as it crossed the county road. The summer crew conducted research primarily on the Akerlund Farm near Valley from May to July. There was also the subsequent analysis of data and preparing reports.

The records from May 22, 1979, based upon an area grid used to depict bird territories, are essentially the origins of my birding heritage. Those representative maps, showing species occurrence based upon a four-letter code, are still among the small portion of the paper trail associated with past bird endeavors. It was only within the past few months that they were carefully reviewed and evaluated, with any appropriate records added to the historic birds database.

Saline wetlands came into focus some months later. Federation Marsh — now the publicly-owned Frank Shoemaker Marsh — was an especially interesting habitat place, repeatedly visited. It's still a wetland complex with a wonderful variety of species, along North 27th Street. I'd been vaguely aware of this place from years earlier, having spent many childhood days at Cobhill to the south.

Influences of habitat upon birds became a particular focus in the spring of 1981. It's an obvious connection documented in pursuit of an advanced degree. Funding came from the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission. The intent had been to do the research at UNL but that was not to be. A return to Omaha and UNO occurred instead. Dr. Roger Sharpe was my tepid adviser in the Biology Department. The degree program worked and a M.A. was received. The thesis title based upon standard bird surveys of particulars habitat areas at Twin Oaks WMA in Johnson County Nebraska was: "The Effects of Habitat Management on Nongame Birds." Diamond Lake WMA was originally meant to be the study site, but a dearth of vegetative variety resulted in a geographic change. By attending UNO, the degree was an M.A. rather than an M.S. All is certainly better than some. This research subject set the tone that still continues.

There was a slightly lesser interest in birding during the mid- to latter-1980s. One primary effort of this time period was compiling breeding bird records, which resulted in the publication of "Nebraska Birds: Breeding Status and Distribution in 1988" with its computer-generated maps prepared with the assistance of UNO remote sensing personnel.

A key decision occurred in the early 1990s, when paper-based bird observations were transferred into an computer database format (starting with Paradox and continuing with MS Access). It was an arduous effort go page by page through sheets of paper to suitably enter and edit the observations. This was, however, a key decision in providing a means to enter an extensive number of records from sources of interest. There is the ability compare and evaluate details for particular places, regions and many other particulars.

During the 1980s, the kept details of significance include records derived from:

  • weeks of summer-time employment along the Missouri national recreational river, investigating the Least Tern and Piping plover, while employed with the wildlife division of the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission
  • various travels throughout the state when a vehicle was available and there was cash to pay for gas and necessities; it was May 1982 when the first visits were made within the Sand Hills vicinity, especially to Anderson Bridge WMA along the central Niobrara River, with numerous other trips made to other publics lands along this river valley through 1988; a side-trip in 1984 Valentine NWR in June provided the first document record of Cattle Egrets nesting within Nebraska, and there also a fine variety of other fowl to enjoy during outings on two-days with Don Emerick, refuge staff (see Nebraska Bird Review 52(4): 76). It was surprising to note that the breeding bird observations from this visit had not been included with the expansive sandhills' database. This situation was immediately rectified.
  • regular visits to the various sites associated with the north Lincoln saline wetlands, most notably to Shoemaker Marsh and Arbor Lake, and less often to the Little Salt Forks

In 1989, there was a dramatic shift in focus. The sand hills became the primary area of interest for birding endeavors. It was a region of little knowledge, based upon my wide-spread research, so a decision was made to rectify this short-coming in knowledge of the state's avifauna. A worthwhile, gray GMC 4x4 was purchased for travel purposes. Thenceforth, any vacation-time available from working as an information specialist at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, within the Computing Services Network, was all allocated to traveling among the western expanses of western Nebraska. The suv was my living quarters, and a with all things arranged appropriately, it was a comfortable respite. On only a few occasions were the mosquitoes a pest.

When not traveling, paper research provided further details from publications noting avifauna history.

In 2000 a second book was published denoting the early history of all birds in Nebraska, as presented in "Birds of the Untamed West - The History of Birdlife in Nebraska, 1750 to 1875." Obviously some time previous to its public appearance time was taken to find a publisher, going through an onerous review process, get written permission for visual material, consider costs and other miscellany; these were the responsibilities of the editor. Eventually it happened.

During this ordeal, the focus was subliminally upon other places. Many subsequent years, and lots of money and time, were spent traveling about the region to observe and records bird occurrence at hundreds of sandhills' places. It was all good, and eventually led to moving to the region, dwelling at Swan Lake, southwest of Brownlee for some months. Cash was always missing so living in the sandhills did not work, this time nor another time at Ainsworth. Eventually my residence became Omaha once again.

That bird focus never flew away. It has changed and adapted to conditions, and grown in some manner, but always thoroughly documented. In particular, the results are within three databases, upon one blog, and conveyed by numerous ancillary photographs:

The top ten localities visited, based upon records in the historic birds database:
¶ Levi Carter Park
¶ Carter Lake
¶ Elmwood Park Ravine
¶ Wood Creek, Elmwood Park
¶ Carthage (now at 81 species)

¶ Federation Marsh and Frank Shoemaker Marsh
¶ Happy Hollow Creek
¶ Shadow Lake, Elmwood Park
¶ Memorial Park
¶ Levi Carter Pond
  • historic birds: 41,607 records starting on 3 April 1979 but really getting underway on 22 May 1979; the records are from a few more than 325 distinct localities; the most recent additions include the addition of a Blackpoll Warbler and the Chestnut-sided Warbler to the tally for Carthage
  • sand hills: 53,684 records from 6 May 1982 through 2 October 2011 from more than 1000 distinct localities, especially from 1) Swan Lake, Pass Creek; 2) Mother Lake; and 3). Carson Lake; records include observations from the Niobrara River valley.
  • bird strikes: 1949 records from Lincoln and Omaha, starting on 26 March 2007
  • originating and maintaining the Wildbirds Broadcasting blog since April, 2007
  • thousands of associated photographs which have been carefully cared for, appropriately identified as to place and subject; most of them are in an electronic format with many photographic slides to soon be scanned into a digital format to make them available to use and to have a "backup" for the originals. Hundreds document the plethora of bird-window strikes observed in Lincoln and Omaha.
  • developed during a period of more than fifteen years is the unique Ancient Avifauna database, an effort which started small, continued through the years bit by bit, and then became a particular focus with an intention to document so many details for all of northern America, for thousands of years prior to 1885. The project has been the primary focus during the past few years.

More than 97,200 distinct personal records are among the overall tally. There are also many thousands of others sightings within the recordbase, as conveyed by a vast multitude of other observers.

In recent years, especially most lately, many of the bird outings have been surveys done via bicycle. This included visits to the north Lincoln wetlands while residing on the southern edge of downtown Lincoln. It was a long ride then and it is still a long ride upon the same bicycle which has been repaired so many times. Nearly all of the bird-strike surveys are done using the same bicycle, since it continues to get fixed as it is the primary means of transportation.

Ongoing Birding

Year 36 is now underway, starting on a May day with morning rains that stymied an outing to look for the latest collision fatalities. My clothes are soggy from going to and from the college library.

For pending times of birding, there is no expectation for some new rare species, as this has never been of any special interest. Instead, there will some more bicycle outings for surveys to document how many birds occur and where, especially east Omaha parks. This is not being done as a good time, but in order to document the value of green spaces for a wonderful variety of wildbirds. There will be more public discourse on how to retain and manage public lands for the good of urban wildlife in Omaha, and maybe elsewhere as time slides along.

If my focus had been on something other than birds, it would have been a completely different life. There are no regrets though during recent years it has been a difficult trail due to the lack of spendable cash. Being a bird advocate is not a lucrative profession.

This does however, not matter when a disabled bird is carefully picked up and moved to a safer place in eastern Omaha, after it has struck a pane of glass. Their pain is great. Perhaps a bird or two has been able to recover undisturbed to continue their seasonal migration.

There may come the day when my personal records will exceed 100,000 records ... it will not be about the numbers, but it will be results of many days of enjoyment outdoors appreciating the wonderful variety of wildbirds in Nebraska.

This is post number 1600 on Wildbirds Broadcasting.