A special place to be for birders interested in local avifauna of the magnanimous Sand Hills is Cherry County. In addition to sightings of species new to the region, there have been several other important avian occurrences in recent weeks.
A Canyon Wren lingering at the Crooked Bar D Ranch in the Goose Creek country is especially prominent, as reported online. Having never been seen anywhere else within the Sandhills, a single bird arrived in late October, and continued to occur through the end of November.
Initially noted at the ranchyard by Mary Sue Shoemaker, and as then reported by a visiting birder friend, other bird enthusiasts from Lincoln, Ames and Creighton, Nebr., as well as Sioux City, Iowa, enjoyed the welcoming ranch hospitality to visit and see the antics of this itty-bitty wren. The significance is that this birds' usual range is the Black Hills and other places in western states.
Online reports convey some tidbits about the behavior of this bird which has become famous in Cherry county. A jacuzzi was mentioned as a point of perspective. One day it got into the ranch house and moved about until it was directed back outside, with the occurrence denoted by some few pictures posted online. During another time, when Mrs. Shoemaker drove about 5 miles of travel, she realized that the wren went along for the ride, as reported on the NEbirds forum. During the wrenly days, a visiting photographer got some right-nice images that will be useful in confirming the species’ occurrence for the state bird group which keeps records on distinct occurrences. When two bird watchers from Bellevue and Omaha carpooled for a trip westward during the second weekend of December, the little bit of wren was not seen. Real cold temperatures had happened during the previous and the days of this late season visit, so weather could be a prominent influcence.
During a Sunday bird outing, Gordon Warrick and I once again visited the Vanderploeg Ranch. A first highlight subtly seen a short distance away from the man’s house, was a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker active on a tree snag. It was not vocal as its “cat-like” call is distinctive but was obvious due to its active antics on a tree snag. This sighting is the first record for this species in Cherry county. We both realized that this would be the highlight of our outing.
After driving onward along a country road through prairie and then treescape of pine and oak land, more birds were seen. A Greater Yellowlegs was surprisingly seen walking its way along shallow waters of the Niobrara River. This is the first winter record for the region. This wader regularly occurs from spring to autumn, but notably not during cold times.
Each of these details are known because of a personal database, extending back to 1886 and comprising more than 152,000 distinctive records. Records have been carefully kept by many people for many decades during this period.
Another significant sighting during recent days about the Heart City was on Thanksgiving day at Government Canyon. Just after pondering about the possibility of Red Crossbills, they were heard nearby, feeding atop a pine tree. There were about ten, and then suddenly a flock of another 45 or so, flew past above the creek. This is the greatest number of this species ever seen within the Sand Hills, where they most typically occur in the Niobrara valley.
On November 23rd, a flight of birds on the north side of town was exciting because of the numbers, based upon a birdly perspective. The prominent calls from the flock were those of the Eastern Bluebird. Most of the flighty birds landed for a short time on an available powerline perch. A quick count indicated there were 45 bluebirds (another distinctive extent of occurrence), about 110 American Goldfinch and more than 50 House Finch. These birds continued to occur in the vicinity for another few days.
Two Trumpeter Swan occurred at the Valentine Mill Pond on the first day of December. It is always a joy to see them stand around, as they are so distinctive, being the largest waterfowl in North America. On Sunday the 4th of December, there were two standing around on a Niobrara River sandbar, on the north side of the Vanderploeg Ranch haven for birds.
When the big freeze descended in December, avifauna activities were adaptive. The hundreds of Canada Goose present at the Mill Pond went elsewhere. With a potential food source gone, a soaring Bald Eagle was no longer seen. Mallards were not apparently present, as well, not a one was noted eastward along Minnechaduza Creek, below the dam where they were seen last winter when flowing waters continued.
Permanent bird residents do continue to occur, as our feathered friends strive to survive. Bark-eaters seen after days of sub-zero, brutal, weather included hearing one or two White-breasted Nuthatch. Among the trees are a Downy or Hairy Woodpecker or two. Some very few Black-Capped Chickadee appreciated at least one feeder along Lake Shore Drive. Crows continue to course in the area skies as they search for something edible on the landscape places. These are the resident crows, notable different from those crows that deceided to fly elsewhere and were seen only on one day or another.
Some Canada Goose continue to fly above the city-scape. They have not been stopping the most recent week at the Mill Pond, but continue northward to feedings grounds. Open water habitat is their refuge, and shallow-water habitat along the ever-flowing Niobrara River provides a place for them to roost and survive during winter times of extreme cold.
Trees of these local places currently experience multiple days of hearty below-freezing temperature - day and day again - at least have a flicker or two at the Valentine Mill Pond. On the ground, a minimal few Dark-eyed Junco have continued to forage for any available seed on ground where there is a lot of snow.
There is significant interest in birds by many people residing at Valentine. Bird feeders are present at many residences. For someone that cares to look, many sorts of birds can be seen in a particular discovery on any day if time is spent looking and listening.
Perhaps, with some potential excitement is an enthusiasts plan to do a first ever winter bird count about Valentine. There is a protocol that is regularly followed during decades of these surveys, but this requirement may not be met locally due to time constraints. Plans being considered would make sure that the several fine, known birding spots would be visited by people with finding aids, birds would be counted, and results might be reported, remembered and subsequently known and appreciated.
There is a phantasmagoric variety of local birds. Our friends are anywhere, though they will not indicate any human presence - as it may be somewhat insignificant - as these bit of birddom are busy living during their few years of avian survival.
More than 300 different species of birds have been noted to occur in Cherry county. Some of these most recent observations contribute to this number.