18 July 2017

NPPD Forces Feds to Nix Attendance of FWS Official at Community Meeting

A phone call from a federal office in Washington D.C. prevented Robert Harms of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service from attending a private meeting in Thedford on the afternoon of July 17, 2017.

Officials of the Nebraska Public Power District had learned of the meeting via an online posting, and called the Denver and Grand Island office of the federal agency, but were told by an agency head in Nebraska that the question and answer meeting was still a go, according to details provided by a meeting sponsor. Because of communication with an office in Washington, D.C., Harms received notice that he could not attend the meeting. It was conveyed that NPPD thought that it looked like Harms was “going behind their back” and made the FWS look biased.

Harms, from the Nebraska Field Office, had planned to answer questions regarding the R-Project. He was already in Thedford, when he received the notification to not attend, within the hour prior to the start of the meeting.

Prior to the start of the meeting, two NPPD representatives were sitting in a back corner of the meeting room of the venue. They were kindly asked to leave, initially balked as they were told to attend by some lawyer and then erroneously said that Mr. Harms would be present. Once told that it was a private meeting and they did not have reservations, they were escorted to the exit and it was made certain that they left, according to the hostess of the meeting. While the meeting was underway, an attendee that arrived a short time after it had started, saw two people in an NPPD truck driving around, taking pictures of parked vehicles and their license plates, she said.

Ranchland Community Gathering

Despite the lack of a guest that would have been greatly appreciated, the meeting continued with discussions on these key items:
* the Section 404 application made to the Army Corps of Engineers where NPPD has asked for a type of permit which does not address fill being placed in wetlands for the required long-term powerline and power-pole maintenance; they have also requested a permit that was prepared in a manner that would not allow public review, as associated with an individual permit. Information on this application was received three Freedom of Information Act requests. Any decision is still pending.
* change in r-project alignment: the alignment map in the ACE document does not match the alignment indicated in other draft documents that have recently been submitted for public review; there are obvious substantive changes.
* lack of legal agreements for many portions of the proposed powerline route as obvious due to the few easements filed in deed records of two counties which the powerline will traverse, notably Blaine county.
* NPPD and regulatory agencies undertaking an environmental review and other considerations for a project where the final route of the powerline is hypothetical due to the lack of legally-indicated easements.
* how is it that NPPD can identify itself as a “quasi-public” corporation; this company has even indicated that it is a public corporation or a political subdivision, according to documentation received via the FOIA request; an action item indicated at the meeting was to have the Nebraska Attorney General issue a finding that will provide a final answer as to the type of company designation for NPPD. It is impossible for NPPD to be a "political subdivision" as the term is applicable to incorporated villages, towns and cities.
* pending opportunity for further public comment on the draft environmental impact statement and other project documents, comprising about 1500 pages; additional weeks will be provided, based upon details which are expected to be issued this month in the Federal Register.
* matters regarding the legal statutes of the state of Nebraska Open Meetings Act, including how these statutes have recently been violated in association with public meetings on the r-project and wind turbine planning efforts in Cherry county.
* plans for ongoing activities to keep industrial powerlines and unwanted wind turbines from being placed in the sandhills, a place that is special for each person in the meeting, and for future generations, as stated multiple times by speakers. Cattleman Steve Moreland from Merriman put it very succinctly: “Just say no” to unwanted turbines and powerlines.

The private meeting was hosted by Dan and Barb Welch of the Brush Creek Ranch which is primarily west of Brownlee, with their south unit a short distance south of Thedford, along with great involvement from "members" of the advocacy group “Preserve the Sandhills.” More than 65 people attended, including Merriman, Valentine, Wood Lake, the Brownlee area, Brewster, Burwell, and Thomas County residents. There was also a representative or two from local planning boards or county commissioners that attended to hear the commentary.

There were many successful ranchers present, sitting on the chairs in the rooms. Their names could be mentioned individually, but that will not happen here because it was a community meeting where a bunch of special ranch country decided to splice out personal time during a busy summer season to be present at a meeting for common causes.

Lots of cowboys hats were upon the heads of cattlemen. There were boots a bit of distance above the floor spread about. The crowd was completely respectful. They listened. They learned because among those present are a few people which have spent multiple hours dealing with government, wind turbines and an industrial powerline. Most importantly, everyone, yes everyone was given a chance to speak. Everyone listened attentively in each instance.

The meeting was one more example of sand hill ranchland residents gathering to work towards conservation of their home place now as well as for their future generations.

Blaine county is now initiating efforts to develop zoning regulations, according to comments made at the meeting and details mentioned at the meeting of the Cherry county commissioners on July 11th. An initial meeting is pending.

30 June 2017

Wren Antics

Two small bits of feathered birds have been very busy continuing their seasonal presence at a north Valentine space which is their particular place. They are an established pair of House Wrens that have been together for weeks since an early spring arrival. He still sings from a horse shed roof while she feeds the young and might gather one twig or more for a nest in a medium-sized pipe with a nice suitably-sized entrance to a sheltered haven where eggs were laid because it was a safe-space to raise young.

For some weeks now the pair has been caring for their family of this breeding season. Mr. Wren is being attentive to making sure their birdly home is safe from any adjacent wrens that have any intent to impose on his seasonal residence. He sings, especially in the morning, as that is when so many birds express their presence, and as the day continues, he gets busy during foraging efforts to find some bit of an insect to provide to incessant and hungry youngsters. Mrs. Wren is especially very active in the neighborhood and has been very busy all day to make certain that eggs were kept warms and then nestlings are well fed from results of local forays.

The dynamic duo tend their nest all day, as obvious from my short distance away vantage place near where they fly with extent here and there. Activities are prominent these tiny mites search for forage, while other nearby wild birds are also taking care of demanding young.

Was it the same pair that nested at this same place last year? No matter, another generation was the result of such attentive care for their progeny this breeding season.

Most recently the nest builder of the duo found a nice bit of a stick to add to the nest. It was thought to be the right size, yet there was a problem that became readily apparent. While carefully grasped in the beak, multiple efforts were made to get the woody thing placed at home. Various angles did not work despite one turn or another of the wren’s head. Finally the too long stick was dropped to the ground.

Mrs. Wren did make sure to dart into the family abode until quickly departing on the day’s tasks. The antics of the morning of 29 June, after a mid-night bit of rain were a wonderful expression of a fresh morning as the wrens were attentive as they continued efforts of this particular wild bird season.

16 June 2017

May Birds in the Vicinity of Valentine

During the month, there were some new arrivals while others had already raised their brood of the year. There was nothing prominently exciting, nor where any rare birds seen. It was a basic month of wild bird occurrence in north-central Nebraska.

The usual bird haunts in the Valentine vicinity were traversed via bicycling or walking as appropriate during the month, especially along the trails at the city park.

Other special places within the sandhills were bird surveys were done have already been reported on. Especially notable was the May 6 visit to Anderson Bridge WMA because this was the first place in Cherry county visited to do some bird watching, 35 years ago! During the month, 876 distinct observations became database records.

This is a tally of the 74 species noted during the month, for seven different dates. These are some comments:

  • Canada Goose: the large number noted at the end of the month were multiple family groups at the Valentine Fish Hatchery and there were more goslings than adults
  • Trumpeter Swan: the two birds were present for just a short time at the Valentine Mill Pond
  • Wood Duck: present at the Mill Pond and on Minnechaduza Creek at the city park; there was no indication of ongoing occurrence during the breeding season
  • Wild Turkey: the birds seen can be very intermittent at the shack, though a hen is most regularly seen foraging in the morning, and calling as if she was asking to be joined by others
  • Great Blue Heron: there were at least two occupied nests in the trees just eastward of the city park; their forage grounds include the mill pond, fish hatchery ponds and other unknown places in the vicinity
  • Turkey Vulture: it is not known where they might be nesting but the sighting of this species is a regular and appreciated occurrence every day as they soar so gracefully above the landscape; there is a regular nagging, personal question: What is available here that they can eat?
  • Eurasian Collared Dove: noted daily
  • Mourning Dove: also noted daily
  • Common Nighthawk: finally seen at the end of the month
  • Chimney Swift: seen as they appreciated buggy skies and the few chimneys - especially in downtown - where they can find a safe haven to raise a family as they have for so many years as they strive to survive
  • Belted Kingfisher: heard less than might be expected though this species certainly continues to be extant
  • Eastern Phoebe: two bridges across Minnechaduza creek at the city park are appreciated as they provide a safe place for a pair to build a nest where their young will thrive
  • House Wren: breeding birds find their preferred nest place and this does not always mean some artificial nest box of which there are many at the western extent of Lake Shore Drive
  • Purple Martin: there are multiple nest structures in the Heart City but not all of them get used; House Sparrows are unwanted squatters; a surprise of the month was finding a few birds nesting at an apartment on the north side of Cherry Hills Estate
  • Grey Catbird and Brown Thrasher: residents, and as a birder, their is a certain appreciation of when the catbird expresses its "mew" song rather than sounding off like a thrasher, which thankfully makes no effort to sound like a catbird
  • Audubon's Warbler: very vocal along my daily route but gone after the first week of the month
  • Spotted Towhee: heard very regularly and none of their compatriot seen
  • Rose-breasted Grosbeak: very well seen along Lake Shore Drive and west end of the city park
  • Northern Cardinal: have only a limited occurrence since they are irregularly heard and less often seen; perhaps more searching is needed?

Based upon regular and ongoing occurrence of wildbirds, it is obvious why Valentine is a birding hotspot as designated on ebird. There are the "big" places like Fort Niobrara NWR and Valentine NWR while also importantly are the many public spaces so close to Valentine where anyone wanting to take the time to enjoy nature's life can venture forth, whenever, and have a personal time of outdoor discovery.

Proper Name        Julian date > 122 127 136 139 146 150 151
Canada Goose 6 8 17 - - - - 12 47
Trumpeter Swan - - - - 2 - - - - - - - -
Wood Duck 3 - - 1 - - - - - - - -
Mallard - - - - 3 - - - - - - - -
Wild Turkey 1 - - - - 3 - - 2 - -
Great Blue Heron 1 - - - - 3 - - - - 2
American White Pelican - - - - - - 2 - - - - - -
Turkey Vulture 5 4 19 - - 1 2 4
Bald Eagle - - - - - - 1 - - - - - -
Red-tailed Hawk - - - - - - 1 - - - - - -
Killdeer - - 1 1 - - - - - - 1
Spotted Sandpiper - - - - 1 1 - - - - 1
Rock Dove - - - - 10 - - - - - - - -
Eurasian Collared Dove 5 - - 12 - - - - 6 - -
Mourning Dove 3 - - 4 - - 2 2 1
Great Horned Owl 2 - - - - - - - - - - 1
Common Nighthawk - - - - - - - - - - - - 1
Chimney Swift - - 9 9 28 1 4 - -
Belted Kingfisher - - - - - - - - 1 - - 1
Red-headed Woodpecker - - - - 1 1 1 - - 1
Red-bellied Woodpecker - - - - 1 - - - - - - - -
Downy Woodpecker - - - - 1 - - 1 1 - -
Hairy Woodpecker 1 - - - - - - - - - - - -
Northern Flicker 2 - - 1 - - 1 2 - -
American Kestrel - - - - - - - - 1 - - - -
Eastern Phoebe - - - - 3 - - 3 - - - -
Eastern Wood-Pewee - - - - 1 1 1 1 - -
Western Kingbird - - 1 6 - - - - - - - -
Eastern Kingbird - - - - 4 - - - - 2 1
Great Crested Flycatcher - - - - 3 - - 4 2 2
Bell's Vireo - - - - - - - - 1 1 - -
Warbling Vireo - - - - 1 - - - - 1 2
Red-eyed Vireo - - - - 1 - - 2 - - - -
Blue Jay 2 - - 3 - - 1 1 - -
American Crow 2 - - 1 - - 1 1 - -
Cedar Waxwing - - - - 13 - - 1 2 - -
Black-capped Chickadee 3 2 2 - - - - - - - -
Purple Martin - - 2 12 - - - - - - 6
Northern Rough-winged Swallow 3 1 3 - - 2 7 1
Barn Swallow - - - - 2 1 - - - - 1
American Cliff Swallow - - - - - - 1 - - - - - -
House Wren 5 7 13 - - 4 3 2
White-breasted Nuthatch 2 - - 3 - - 1 - - 1
Grey Catbird - - - - 5 3 4 1 - -
Brown Thrasher 1 1 1 1 - - 1 - -
Common Starling 2 - - 5 6 7 - - 2
Eastern Bluebird 3 2 - - - - 7 - - 1
American Robin 12 - - 62 - - 8 10 6
House Sparrow - - 2 20 - - - - - - 2
House Finch 6 4 12 - - - - 7 2
American Goldfinch 5 12 15 - - 4 2 2
Ovenbird - - - - - - - - - - - - 1
Common Yellowthroat - - - - 4 - - 2 3 2
American Redstart - - - - 6 - - 7 - - - -
American Yellow Warbler - - 2 4 - - 2 3 2
Audubon's Warbler 2 2 - - - - - - - - - -
Yellow-headed Blackbird 1 - - - - - - - - - - - -
Western Meadowlark - - - - 1 - - - - - - 2
Baltimore Oriole - - - - 4 - - - - - - - -
Orchard Oriole - - - - 4 - - - - 2 3
Red-winged Blackbird 30 - - 15 - - - - - - 5
Brown-headed Cowbird 6 - - 2 21 5 4 4
Common Grackle 26 - - 49 - - 7 4 - -
Song Sparrow 1 - - - - - - - - - - - -
Lincoln's Sparrow 2 - - - - - - - - - - - -
White-crowned Sparrow 7 1 - - - - - - - - - -
Chipping Sparrow 9 14 19 - - - - - - 1
Field Sparrow 1 - - 1 - - 2 1 - -
Clay-colored Sparrow - - - - 4 - - - - - - - -
Lark Sparrow - - - - 8 - - - - 2 2
Spotted Towhee 2 - - 3 3 1 2 1
Rose-breasted Grosbeak - - - - 1 1 - - - - - -
Northern Cardinal 1 - - 1 - - - - - - - -
Indigo Bunting - - - - - - - - - - 1 - -

The tally for May 2016 was 87 species, but this is likely the result of records being available for 17 different dates. Overall, there have been 92 species denoted for this month in the past two years, with particulars available for 22 different julian dates for these periods of time.

Every day was an opportunity to listen and learn while riding my bicycle around.

On the day when this report was written, my left shoe had a blowout and a sock is exposed to the regular cycling breezes. So my usual pair of shoes are now worthless and another option needs to be determined. It is not acceptable to have pathetic, old and broken shoes worn in public and the shoelaces have absolutely no quality. The henceforth direction that needs to be taken in now unknown. There will be something done! I'd like to have a treasured pair of cowboy boots? My former pair disappeared so many years ago, so a new version is needed. There was one night in the Mother Lake country when a pair of spurs were worn. It was such an experience for a man of eastern Nebraska was present because of the wildbirds.

With a pair of exposed boots while wearing fine denim, a nice country sort of hat and scarf, opposing anyone wanting to threaten the values of the sand hills will get a new reality! Besides words, of which is a personal skill, my hope, and which has been a personal endeavor for years, some time there will be a cowboy respect. My garb would be appropriate and distinctive, as looking for a final picture that can be sent to my mom in her final months. I am not a cowboy, but the cowboy way is part of every day of my life.

Ranchers Oppose R-Project Through Sandhills

Article copyright 2017 James E. Ducey. All rights reserved. This article may not be reissued in any print or online publication without written permission.

Opposition to the proposed R-project was very evident at a meeting where public comments were presented on a draft environmental impact statement for this industrial transmission line that is proposed to be built through the sand hills region.

Many attended and a fewer number spoke. Most of the speakers were associated with the ranch community. It was evident that the majority of the ranch country people that attended do not want this powerline built across a unique landscape. For some, the indicated route would traverse their property. And they do not accept the imposition of something unwanted on range land they have carefully managed to conserve grassland resources that include cattle forage, native vegetation, wildbirds and other natural features.

The meeting at the Thedford fair grounds building was hosted by staff of the Nebraska field office of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), with Eliza Hines their primary spokesperson. Biologist Robert Harms was also present.

The three documents being considered comprise about 1500 pages. An initial speaker asked why the documents associated with this public review were not made available in Thomas and Blaine counties, and that it also needs to be readily available at Valentine.

There was a limit of three-minutes imposed on speakers, to which one rancher responded: “We didn’t drive 30 miles for three minutes” in which to speak. Others drove much larger distances. Because of the need for the court reporter to properly record the dialogue, speakers were required to speak into a microphone at the front of the crowd.

Barb Welch, a ranchwife at the Brush Creek Ranch near Brownlee, was the first speaker during the public comment period. She said the cumulative impact statement was incomplete and thus invalid, and also shared some words from a letter from the American Bird Conservancy which is opposed to the powerline. Dan Welch was the third speaker. The couple have worked for decades to establish their ranch property, which has a unit south of Thedford, across which Nebraska Public Power District (NPPD) proposes to place the powerline through rangeland that has a “high conservation value” as recognized by a study by Nebraska flora expert Kay Kottas, and which was financed by the ranch couple. Mr. Welch also indicated how NPPD has trespassed on his land.

Plastic markers indicating tower locations were left behind. NPPD has no legal authority to place these markers, according to research, so they are nothing but trash.

It was indicated by one speaker that NPPD has changed the route from the expressed “final” route indicated in documents, based upon a personal observation. Also, the utility company cannot build any powerline on property where they do not have a legally binding agreement on many segments of the proposed corridor. “How can an environmental review be done in regards to a hypothetical corridor,” was asked. Later in the meeting, biologist Harms indicated that following an email he had received, a request had been made about two weeks prior to NPPD asking for details denoting any route changes. There had been no response received as of the night of the meeting.

Voices heard at the meeting were strong and prominent. Names are not given here in complete respect to them. Those sorts of details will eventually be available in the public transcript of this meeting as well as those at Burwell and Sutherland, since a transcriber was present and kept a record.

The “sandhills are a national treasure ... very special and unique attention needs to be given” to continue these values, according to a rancher where the industrial powerline would bisect their range.

“There is no ecosystem similar to the sandhills, anywhere in this nation” said a Brownlee area, multi-generation rancher.

A neighbor with a heritage dating to the first years of ranching in the Cherry county sand hills said that “it would be a shame to put a transmission line through pristine hills.”

Each speaker received a round of applause after they had conveyed their comments. Continuing with comments heard:

“Visual and cultural impacts will be devastating to one of Nebraska’s most pristine areas” was spoken by a landowner that appreciates the several majestic Trumpeter Swan that spend the winter along the Dismal River and where Bald Eagle also appreciate the land that provides a seasonal haven.

Steve Moreland drove from Merriman to orate that the FWS “should just say no.” NPPD should “move along and quit wasting our time,” he said. Ranchman Moreland has part of a great legacy for a sandhills ranch family and his comments were indicative as he asked “Why do people want to ruin the hills for future generations.” His view that no incidental permit should be granted was completely agreed with by others, and the crowd as indicated by the applause of thanks for his spoken words.

A ranchwife from the east Thedford area does not accept that NPPD wants to ruin their ranch place for future generations, including her children.
Someone living nearby, spoke about how the proposed route for the transmission line has been altered at least two times. An additional impact would occur because of access roads that might be detrimental because they might provide means for trespassing.

In this same vicinity, another landowner expressed that on a portion of their ranch, about 1263 acres, NPPD proposes to build eight access roads which would include gates to provide the company access at times they would select.

This is “a total assault on their little place on the ranch east of Thedford,” she said. “NPPD can’t take away from what we have now.”
There was also a comment made about erosion associated with current power poles of the transmission line grid already present in the area and that regular power outages occur. “NPPD can’t take care of what they have now,” she said.

Especially significant was that after the moderator had gone through his numbers associated with people that indicated their intent to comment – and with additional time available – some people added to their three minute comment period. Others walked strongly to the microphone so they could share their individual views at this public forum.

The sandhills are a “different and special world that needs protection,” said a speaker representing more than a century of ranch legacy, not only in Thomas county but also in the great ranch county of Cherry county north of Hyannis. Details were given for nesting Bald Eagle in close proximity of the proposed powerline route.

A question was raised as why there has been no consideration of soil features. Details indicated convey that there is a great variance in soils so towers placed at various spots will result in barren land. At least two speakers indicated that character of the Dismal River sand hills should be a special concern.

Another speaker, that has personally taken the time to look at sites where there are powerline towers, has realized that the ground vegetation has not regrown during their multi-year observations.

A key item expressed was how the construction and placement of powerline towers might affect the local groundwater aquifer? This indicated concern especially pertains to southern Holt county where wet meadows and land wetlands obvious on the landscape indicate the presence of surface- and ground-water features.

During the meeting, questions were asked. Both Harms and Hines cordially provided answers, especially in regards to why the endangered American Burying Beetle and Whooping Crane are of particular concern.

An obvious theme by speakers was that the electronic documents were difficult to read. There had been problems with online access. Also obvious was the expense to print documents comprising about 1500 pages, with one attendee stating that it costs ten cents per page for black-and-white copies, and to get a color copy was 49 cents per page.

Concerns were expressed about how the construction of the R-Project could result in further degradation of the sandhills landscape as wind turbine facilities or solar-power development is expected to follow once a regional distribution powerline becomes available to transport energy to elsewhere.

Landowners in the area have already received letters from companies promoting industrial solar power facilities, or observed scoping activity along Highway 83.

The meeting on June 13th was at the Thedford fair grounds. Agency representative Hines gave a short presentation on key items regarding the project and the public review process before the comment period of the two-hour meeting. Several handouts were provided.

There were 68 people that signed in, including attendees from Thedford, Brownlee area, Brewster, Valentine, Kilgore and Merriman as well as an owner of local land from Red Oak, Iowa. Representatives from NPPD were present but did not give any remarks, and did not indicate their presence until a member of the crowd insisted that they identify themselves.

Comments on the project documents will be accepted by FWS until July 11, 2017. There have been from 30-40 requests to extend this comment period by at least 30 days, Hines said at the meeting. Several people that spoke also asked for an extension, as it is currently a busy time in ranch country.

A final decision on the incidental take permit for the burying beetle is tentatively scheduled for early November, 2017.

10 June 2017

Bird Conservancy of the Rockies Does Surveys in Sandhills

June 8, 2017. Grant County News 132(45): 1. 5.

Birders watchers associated with the Bird Conservancy of the Rockies recently did surveys in the central and western Sandhills.

At the end of May, there was a survey done at the Apache ranch south of Hyannis, with another done the previous day at the French Ranch south of Mullen.

“We appreciate that land-owners provide access,” Michael Nicosia, a seasonal employee of the Colorado-based conservancy.

The localities visited are based upon a random selection that conforms to scientific rigors, with the hope that owners of the land will allow access.

During dawn and the first hours of the morning on the 31st, Nicosia was at work recording wild birds present at a selected grid on the south Hyannis ranch, which included prairie habitat adjacent to a wetland.

Following particular protocols, it took a few hours to denote essential details for about 160 acres with sixteen distinct grid points, as designated by Global Positioning Satellite spots that were randomly selected. These surveys require that birds noted at a specific grid point be denoted by particular details along with a requirement to indicate vegetative characteristics.

There were 53 species observed, Nicosia indicated during our conversation at the Valentine Public library.

Pervasive on the sandhills prairie were Grasshopper Sparrow. Other avifauna present in the vicinity were Long-billed Curlew, a Willet, Forster’s Tern, subtly present American Bittern, and Bobolinks in the meadow. Nicosia was effusive in mentioning that there were “tons” of small Marsh Wren, Red-winged Blackbird and Yellow-headed Blackbird appreciating marshland habitat.

There was a pair of Trumpeter Swan with six cygnets, though their occurrence was not amidst the survey grid, but was an ancillary observation. Other smaller-sized waterfowl also present included Blue-winged Teal and Canvasback.

At the Apache Ranch there is a setting something like a “like a mini-Valentine National Wildlife Refuge,” Nicosia said during a conversation at the Valentine library. In explaining the significance of the species variety, he said that a “high species richness indicates diversity representative of an ecologically healthy habitat.”

There is a great variety of land in the sandhills which are valuable to local flora and fauna.

Based upon more than one conversation, visitors from other states certainly enjoy birding in the sand hills because of their assignments. Other ranches may be visited.

Surveys by the BCR have and will occur elsewhere in Nebraska. Places that employees have already visited include McKelvie National Forest, Bessey National Forest. There are visits pending for the valley of the Niobrara National Scenic River and then multiple surveys along the multi-state Missouri River.

During their travels, the three men met have been reliant on local campgrounds, are known to linger at the Valentine Public Library to get work done, and have spent time looking at birds at local habitats during days when they did not have to work.


An additional survey was done June 5th at the Double RR Guest Ranch north of Mullen and 56 species were recorded by another surveyor.

30 May 2017

Survey of Late-Spring Birds at Vanderploeg Ranch

There was an unusual bird convergence during the Memorial Day weekend, because Anne Quigley is attentive at the Valentine Public Library. She was an essential link that brought together visiting birders with local bird-watchers. Mrs. Quigley made the introduction at the Valentine Public Library. Conversation ensued on a Friday afternoon with many topics of discussion, but most importantly was an agreement to have the visitors go along on a previously scheduled visit to the Vanderploeg Ranch on Sunday morning on the 28th, where Marvin Venderploeg was once again a gracious host.

Along with Mike Nicosia (from New York state) and Dan Horton (from Colorado) – both seasonal employees for the Bird Conservancy of the Rockies (BCR) – was Gordon Warrick, of Valentine.

Morning hours were spent traversing the ranch looking for different wild birds. Records were kept of specific sightings, with 62 different species observed, nearly all of them breeding season residents.

Resident Bald Eagle were lingering around their nest, and one of them was defensive as we drove past, protecting young that were likely present on a heap of sticks atop a stunted pine. We did not linger here to ensure minimal disturbance. Nearby, at the Niobrara valley marsh, only a single Trumpeter Swan was seen. Vanderploeg mentioned later that the swans did have a cygnet, but that it was a difficult season for these waterfowl because the beaver had left and the water levels kept changing, rather than being maintained at a nominal level due to the waterworks of the mammals. Despite an effort by Warrick to determine the location of a nest, it was not noticeable.

These are some notable sightings. Along the northern extent of Schlagel Creek there was a singing Black-headed Grosbeak, which has a regular range further to the west. A short distance away, was a Blue Grosbeak. Great Crested Flycatcher were pervasive among the lowland bur oak trees. Red-headed Woodpecker were boisterous, and they were certainly appreciative that there were no insidious starlings that might steal their nest cavity. There was the Orchard Oriole and the Baltimore Oriole. Both outstate visitors really enjoyed a nice bunch of Stilt Sandpiper foraging on the riverine marsh. Warblers seen included the diminutive Common Yellowthroat, American Redstart, Yellow Warbler, a vociferous Yellow-breasted Chat in a brushy swale along Schlagel Creek, and a single Ovenbird at The Island, one of the many special ranch spaces as named by our host.

Another highlight was the unusual co-occurrence of both the Eastern Wood-Pewee and Western Wood-Pewee, within the area of the Niobrara River valley well recognized for occurrences of bird hybridization as the range of a western species overlaps with one typical of the east.

A bunch of Brown-headed Cowbird were enjoying the corn spread near the house. Wild Turkeys thrive on the same source of food. He is also every attentive to the life of birds. He explained that a House wren was nesting in a tree limb cavity outside his home window, and then, there it was bringing food to its young. Nearby was a nest box occupied by a pair of Wood Duck and another by two American Kestrel.

Notable for Horton was seeing Scarlet Tanager, a pair present being a new addition to his life list of birds seen, as discovered by three birders walking among the trees, binoculars pointed in the arboreal realm to determine the bird that was singing at his place among the trees.

Because of the many wild birds present on this particular day of late spring, the known tally of species for the ranch increased to 111 from 97. A notable addition were many Swainson’s Thrush, common among the oaks of the riverine terrace. Other sorts were newly realized because there had not ever been a thorough breeding season survey completed. Shallow water conditions were conducive for the foraging sandpipers. The increase was also because the bird men present each had different skills, and as a team, there was a dramatically better result.

The last but not least species of the outing was a Loggerhead Shrike, busy hunting for lunch near the ranch entrance.

Marvin Vanderploeg is a birdman of daily occurrence from his south window, and very less often, international occurrence. This honorific is deserving he cares about birds every day, and the attention given to land management at the ranch south of Valentine. Each of us birders there on Sunday morning were in agreement. A special treat for the outstate visitors was being able to appreciate his personal collection of special birds, as carefully kept.

The BCR duo were in Valentine to enjoy some days off prior to doing contract surveys at McKelvie Forest and along the Niobrara River. They came to the Heart City, and spent dollars, because the area is a “good place to bird,” said Nicosia. They had “great birding” at Fort Niobrara NWR and then Valentine NWR where 79 species were seen on Saturday.

The work crew will eventually include eight people, as they continue eastward to surveys along the Missouri River. Their scientific protocol includes denoting bird occurrence at specific, measured grids and denoting vegetative characteristics.

Nicosia and Horton were very impressed with the unique birdlife and habitat conditions of the Vanderploeg Ranch. It was a great bird-watching field trip and each of us appreciated the uniqueness of this place where Marvin and Martin Vanderploeg are dedicated to care of the land and its natural life, big or small.

By the way, each of the two heart city visitors were given a bull-sale cap as a souvenir, having heard some words about livestock, the local sale barn and cattle grazing particulars.

The field trip was a great way to end Migratory Bird Month in Nebraska.

This is a list of the species seen.

  • Canada Goose
  • Trumpeter Swan
  • Wood Duck
  • Green-winged Teal
  • Wild Turkey
  • Common Pheasant
  • Turkey Vulture
  • Bald Eagle
  • Red-tailed Hawk
  • Killdeer
  • Stilt Sandpiper
  • Mourning Dove
  • Great Horned Owl
  • Belted Kingfisher
  • Red-headed Woodpecker
  • Red-bellied Woodpecker
  • Downy Woodpecker
  • Northern Flicker
  • American Kestrel
  • Eastern Phoebe
  • Western Wood-Pewee
  • Eastern Wood-Pewee

  • Western Kingbird
  • Eastern Kingbird
  • Great Crested Flycatcher
  • Loggerhead Shrike
  • Warbling Vireo
  • Red-eyed Vireo
  • Blue Jay
  • American Crow
  • Cedar Waxwing
  • Black-capped Chickadee
  • Purple Martin
  • Northern Rough-winged Swallow
  • Barn Swallow
  • Marsh Wren
  • House Wren
  • Blue-grey Gnatcatcher
  • Red-breasted Nuthatch
  • White-breasted Nuthatch
  • Eastern Bluebird
  • Swainson's Thrush
  • American Robin

  • American Goldfinch
  • Ovenbird
  • Common Yellowthroat
  • American Redstart
  • American Yellow Warbler
  • Yellow-breasted Chat
  • Western Meadowlark
  • Baltimore Oriole
  • Orchard Oriole
  • Red-winged Blackbird
  • Brown-headed Cowbird
  • Grasshopper Sparrow
  • Chipping Sparrow
  • Field Sparrow
  • Lark Sparrow
  • Spotted Towhee
  • Scarlet Tanager
  • Black-headed Grosbeak
  • Blue Grosbeak
  • An accipiter hawk seen was seen flitting above the valley ridge, but was too far away to determine an accurate identification.

    26 May 2017

    Sesquicentennial Count for Sandhill Places in Nebraska

    There is an event underway to report personal sightings of 150 bird species associated with the 150th anniversary of when Nebraska was established, that being in 1867.

    So here is my report as derived from sightings in the Valentine vicinity and several quite fine places in the eastern Sandhills, and as prepared on 20 May 2017. It conveys a personal report of wild bird occurrence from kept records as has been done for decades, because the essentials convey a real-time reality and also have historic value. It is exciting to have met the minimal requirement of 150 species early in the year and during the spring month of May, because there will certainly be additional species during the still to occur weeks and months of this year.

    The variety of places visited could be indicated, but that would be an ancillary effort that might sublimate the primary focus of this missive.

    Species are listed in alphabetical order and the value given is the number of times the species has been observed. Particular details are kept in my personal database that has nearly 155,000 records associated with bird observations made by many people during the years since 1886.

    1. American Avocet: 1 sighting for two birds at an ephemeral wetland along 846 road, and never was there any realization that such a bureaucratically indicated name which has absolutely no originality would be a place of ornithological interest but of course the two avocets were completely indifferent to any sort of name because they were only interested in finding something to eat at a haven without unwanted disturbance
    2. American Bittern: 3; this species always deserves attention
    3. American Cliff Swallow: 9
    4. American Coot: 12 counts of these birds busy in swimming about and being a subtle can be a very obvious part of avifauna at many water places in the Great American Sandhills
    5. American Crow: 46, usually flying hither and yon
    6. American Goldfinch: 60
    7. American Herring Gull: 4
    8. American Kestrel: 17
    9. American Redstart: 2 counts which does not represent the number of these birds actively singing and flitting among the trees at Valentine City Park
    10. American Robin: 107 distinct counts for individual sites
    11. American Tree Sparrow: 4
    12. American White Pelican: 5
    13. American Wigeon: 9
    14. American Yellow Warbler: 12 counts which indicate the numbers of these subtle arrivals of spring and breeding season residents
    15. Audubon's Warbler: 4
    16. Bald Eagle: 15; it was nice to find a pair nesting in the immediate vicinity of Goose Lake WMA, and to watch this pair of our national symbol spent a significant time perched on different trees and simply sat there in the evening, as they both obviously knew that their parental duties were taken care of for the day; they were relatively close together and knew their mate was nearby and necessities had been dealt with, so they could relax; certainly they would have snagged a ready meal if very obvious, but no more such activity was observed, so these adults knew that requirements of the day had been fulfilled
    17. Baltimore Oriole: 2, and then more as they are an active species at the heart city
    18. Barn Swallow: 16
    19. Bell's Vireo: 1 strongly singing on public land north of Valentine on a late-May day and such a subtlety, but obviously the vivid song a territorial male is completely indifferent to anything other than attracting a male to its territory
    20. Belted Kingfisher: 10; they like the Minnechaduza Creek environs and if not there, around the Mill Pond
    21. Black Tern: 4
    22. Black-capped Chickadee: 36
    23. Black-necked Grebe: 2
    24. Blue Jay: 31; it was quite eloquent when a rancher said that their call was "thief"; a resident of Valentine shared their experience that one of these birds pulled a relatively newborn House Wren from a nest box
    25. Blue-grey Gnatcatcher: 1
    26. Blue-winged Teal: 39; these fowl appreciate and rely upon wetland spaces of the plains
    27. Bobolink: 9; their song is truly wonderful music of the lowland meadows of the Sandhills!
    28. Brown Creeper: 1; to have finally seen this species was an exciting day at the Valentine City Park as an expectation finally met reality
    29. Brown Thrasher: 14
    30. Brown-headed Cowbird: 33
    31. Bufflehead: 3
    32. Burrowing Owl: 1; a fine bunch at a prairie-dog town south of Thedford, with the exciting expectation when the adults will have young that move around a burrow
    33. Cackling Goose: 4
    34. Canada Goose: 60
    35. Canvasback: 1
    36. Cedar Waxwing: 12
    37. Chimney Swift: 7; cool temperatures have not been conducive to the dispersal to brreding season temperatures, as noted at Valentine
    38. Chipping Sparrow: 31
    39. Cinnamon Teal: 1; a simply beautiful male at Brownlee place, where is was hanging out with more numerous Blue-winged Teal
    40. Clay-colored Sparrow: 4
    41. Common Grackle: 58
    42. Common Merganser: 5
    43. Common Nighthawk: 1; more prevalent than indicated
    44. Common Pheasant: 6
    45. Common Starling: 51; these are not Europeans
    46. Common Yellowthroat: 9
    47. Cooper's Hawk: 1
    48. Dark-eyed Junco: 33; numbers of these active snowbirds during cold months make winter more tolerable
    49. Double-crested Cormorant: 11
    50. Downy Woodpecker: 34
    51. Eastern Bluebird: 37
    52. Eastern Kingbird: 13
    53. Eastern Meadowlark: 26
    54. Eastern Phoebe: 11
    55. Eastern Wood-Pewee: 2
    56. Eurasian Collared Dove: 65
    57. Field Sparrow: 8
    58. Franklin's Gull: 5; experiencing the occurrence of these birds might make anyone realize the wonderful exuberance that birds can express
    59. Gadwall: 20
    60. Grasshopper Sparrow: 5
    61. Great Blue Heron: 20
    62. Great Crested Flycatcher: 3
    63. Great Egret: 1; a number of one does not convey the reality of the great occurrence of a flock at Goose Lake WMA
    64. Great Grey Shrike: 2
    65. Great Horned Owl: 13
    66. Great Northern Loon: 1
    67. Greater Prairie-Chicken: 12; how many people in Nebraska took the time to visit a lek this year? That could certainly be a goal to achieve.
    68. Greater Yellowlegs: 2
    69. Green-winged Teal: 7
    70. Grey Catbird: 4; keeping records of this species would be much simpler if they would quit sounding like the Brown Thrasher
    71. Hairy Woodpecker: 15
    72. Harris's Sparrow: 1
    73. Hooded Merganser: 2
    74. Horned Grebe: 2
    75. Horned Lark: 24; this is a true bird of prairie lands of the sandhills and can be easily seen during any drive through the domain
    76. House Finch: 49
    77. House Sparrow: 47
    78. House Wren: 22
    79. Killdeer: 36
    80. Lark Bunting: 1; three were seen along a county road in the Gracie Flats area
    81. Lark Sparrow: 15; these are busy little prairie birds with plumage very indicative as each one of them traverse the land where they survive
    82. Least Flycatcher: 1
    83. Least Sandpiper: 1
    84. Lesser Scaup: 6
    85. Lesser Yellowlegs: 3
    86. Lincoln's Sparrow: 6
    87. Loggerhead Shrike: 3; more observations of this species would be appreciated
    88. Long-billed Curlew: 1
    89. Long-billed Dowitcher: 1; anyone that owns land where this species occurs, has a place to treasure
    90. Mallard: 60
    91. Marsh Wren: 5
    92. Merlin: 1; a bird vividly vivacious
    93. Mourning Dove: 59
    94. Northern Bobwhite: 1
    95. Northern Cardinal: 36
    96. Northern Flicker: 65
    97. Northern Harrier: 4
    98. Northern Pintail: 1
    99. Northern Rough-winged Swallow: 7
    100. Northern Shoveler: 19
    101. Orchard Oriole: 5
    102. Pectoral Sandpiper: 1
    103. Pied-billed Grebe: 3
    104. Purple Martin: 3; some people in Valentine make an effort to provide nesting structures and the places might require a "battle" with unwanter English Sparrow pair which like to take advantage of any suitable cavity where they can raise a brood
    105. Red Crossbill: 2; don't even ask me which subspecies these birds were...
    106. Red-bellied Woodpecker: 11
    107. Red-breasted Nuthatch: 20
    108. Red-eyed Vireo: 1
    109. Redhead: 2
    110. Red-headed Woodpecker: 7
    111. Red-tailed Hawk: 23
    112. Red-winged Blackbird: 77
    113. Ring-billed Gull: 2
    114. Ring-necked Duck: 5
    115. Rock Dove: 18
    116. Rose-breasted Grosbeak: 2 males singing from a tree-top on the west edge of the Valentine City Park
    117. Rough-legged Buzzard: 1
    118. Ruby-crowned Kinglet: 5
    119. Ruddy Duck: 8
    120. Sand Martin: 1; their further occurrence is pending
    121. Sandhill Crane: 2; I was looking forward to a visit to the Niobrara valley to discover them nesting, but this will not occur because of the manager of the Hutton Niobrara Valley Wildlife Sanctuary where they have nested since 2012 and are even present this season, striving to raise a colt or two
    122. Say's Phoebe: 1
    123. Sharp-shinned Hawk: 3
    124. Sharp-tailed Grouse: 1
    125. Snow Goose: 2
    126. Song Sparrow: 16
    127. Spotted Sandpiper: 4; this is my species of the month because it lives on the fringe of ever-changing water habitats while being readily seen
    128. Spotted Towhee: 13 which are a regular and appreciated subtlety of the area wildlands
    129. Swainson's Hawk: 1
    130. Townsend's Solitaire: 4; they became obvious as they prefer tree-top places to convey their presence
    131. Tree Swallow: 13
    132. Trumpeter Swan: 2; there is a personal curiosity why two of these magnificent birds were about Valentine Mill Pond in mid-May
    133. Turkey Vulture: 27; if there is one question that I'd like to get an answer to is what do these birds eat during their summer occurrence in the vicinity of Valentine ... there is no one that can provide any sort of factual details so, alas, it is a situation where nature provides!
    134. Upland Sandpiper: 17
    135. Vesper Sparrow: 1
    136. Warbling Vireo: 3
    137. Western Kingbird: 10
    138. Western Meadowlark: 50 in country settings, but a singing male was also appreciated late in the month as it sang on a late-May date along the Cowboy Trail at the Valentine Livestock Auction Company place
    139. Western Osprey: 3
    140. White-breasted Nuthatch: 49
    141. White-crowned Sparrow: 13
    142. White-faced Ibis: 2; there are few opportunities to see a signinficant number of these birds so the flock that gathered at Goose Lake WMA was a special occurrence
    143. Wild Turkey: 22
    144. Willet: 2
    145. Willow Flycatcher: 1
    146. Wilson's Phalarope: 6
    147. Wilson's Snipe: 7
    148. Wood Duck: 29
    149. Yellow-bellied Sapsucker: 1; it was a highlight day to see a bird active on a tree at the Valentine City Park
    150. Yellow-headed Blackbird: 15

    As this missive was being revised near the end of the month, Lark Sparrow were active outside the shack window, as well as some House Finch and an active pair of Eastern Kingbird. A male Red-winged Blackbird was striving to attract a female for the season, but alas, it was more than obvious that his efforts would have no success. His vivid wing-spreading display was none-the-less appreciated while he was perched on the top of a fence post.

    Because of potential opportunities to visit more land places this year than in 2016 the tally increased. In 2016 the number of species seen during the year was 152. Being able to visit Goose Lake WMA and its associated environs in the spring of 2017 has been a boon to seeing a greater variety of species.

    There needs to be more surveys done to record species occurrence and how important that the Great American Sandhills is for wildbirds of North America. There is a special need to do surveys in the western extent of the area, notably at prominent lakes and wetlands.

    Perhaps a particular day was special because of some specific observation. This is not the case. Every bird observation deserves a similar consideration. All wildbirds are important. It is a grand to be able to be able to indicate how birds are an essential facet of Nebraska lands.

    18 May 2017

    May Bird Surveys at Eastern Sandhill Places

    Survey effort sponsored by Preserve the Sandhills.

    Starting on the morning of May 10 another survey effort was initiated to determine bird occurrence at specific locales in the eastern Sand Hills. It was a rainy morning and the ongoing precipitation continued upon reaching ranchland spaces on the southern edge of Holt county where 846 Road was vividly wet. Travel could be done but only slowly and carefully to avoid mishaps due to the prevalent mud and water on the road.

    Results of the required time to make a safe traverse meant documentation of the presence of avifauna along the road, with observations occurring at both Holt and Wheeler county locales, depending on whether looking north or south. Details of bird occurrence were kept for many essential sites.

    This is a summary of observations, starting at an eastern extent of county road 846, and then continuing westward. Thankfully the newly available county-wide directories were available to provide essential details for localities.

    At the intersection of 846 Road and 510 Avenue, there is a shelterbelt, the county road and cropland with a pivot in the northwest corner; this spot has a shelterbelt, a county road and the pivot land. The white plastic markers indicating the proposed location of r-project powerline towers were obvious on the south side of the county road. This site has no special significance of bird occurrence.

    East of 509 Avenue, the plastic markers indicating an r-project construct are on the south side of 846 road. This situation continues to 510 Avenue.

    The line markers are on the south side of 846 road for an extent, while the r-project plan indicates that the area substation would be on the north side of 846 road. Published details do not match reality as seen. Documentation by NPPD says they will build the substation on pivot cropland. How will NPPD deal with county road 510 and the shelterbelt at this confluence?

    To the west, there are irrigation pivots present on both sides of 846 road. Eastward of 506 Avenue, there is an obvious change in the landscape. There is predominantly agricultural land with farmsteads, small feedlots and numerous areas of mature trees. It is not a typical sandhill landscape.

    There are many obvious habitat features along county road 846, especially on the flat lowlands.

    An obvious feature noted along the county road were the plastic markers placed to indicate the place where r-project feature would be placed. They were in lowland wet meadows and the wires would extend over areas of standing water present in this spring season.

    A regional powerline occurs along 506 Avenue and then extends eastward on 846 road.

    By 504 Avenue, the indicated route moves northward a half-mile for a distance until it returns to an alignment along 846 road.

    Eastward of 502 Avenue, there are wetland ponds on both sides of the county road, which are used by a variety of wild birds. These are the species noted in habitat in Wheeler county: Blue-winged Teal, Northern Shoveler, White-faced Ibis among tall meadow vegetation, Lesser Yellowlegs, Willet, Wilson's Phalarope, Barn Swallow, American Cliff Swallow, Yellow-headed Blackbird, Bobolink and Red-winged Blackbird.

    There are also significant places of wetland habitat between 497 Avenue and 500 Avenue, with bird observations most prominent to the south of the county road, so that would be in Wheeler county. These were the species seen in this vicinity: Mallard, Blue-winged Teal, Northern Pintail, Wild Turkey, Greater Prairie-Chicken, American Avocet, Killdeer, Wilson's Snipe, Upland Sandpiper, a few Wilson's Phalarope, Mourning Dove, Red-headed Woodpecker, Eastern Kingbird, Barn Swallow, Brown Thrasher, American Robin, Bobolink, Eastern Meadowlark, Red-winged Blackbird, pervasive Brown-headed Cowbird and Lark Sparrow.

    Lowland meadow along Road 846 along the southern edge of Holt county. The white marker is an indicator for a proposed powerline tower.
    A relict tree planting along Road 846 along the southern edge of Holt county. The white marker is an indicator for a proposed powerline tower construct.

    There were fewer birds on the portion of 846 Road west of Highway 281. Area features include a lowland dry prairie with many invasive cedar trees. On the north side are meadows and woodland and then further west, lowland wet meadows. Powerline markers were seen on the north side of the roadway.

    After miving along for hours in sloppy roads where mud was more than abundant and pound clinged to the Dodge Ram pickup being driven, travel for the once rainy day ended at Goose Lake WMA. During the overnight stay — while continually trying to be comfortable in the constricted cab and pickup seats — it was the ending tally that was the essential essence. There were 50 species observed whose occurrence would not have been known without my presence. Nature may get slighted but that is only because someone has not made the effort to learn how nature is expressive every day.

    This area is quite significant and has more features suitable for migratory wild birds than previously realized, especially the meadow habitats.

    These are some of the more prominent and existential observations.

    • Blue-winged Teal: prevalent at the ephemeral wetlands in lowlands of the eastern sandhills, as well as permanent lakes.
    • Greater Prairie-Chicken: seen along Holt county Road 846 and a number heard at Goose Lake WMA, but since the lek activity was not seen the basic, minimal number of 1 had to be indicated, though there was certainly a larger number present.
    • White-faced Ibis: the number that roosted overnight at Goose Lake WMA is the largest count ever for this species in the sandhills region, as based upon an evaluation of 284 available records. The number of birds present could be counted when the flock would take flight and then fly about over their roost place. The number seen in a tall grass wet meadow along county road 846 indicates that the species roosts at the wildlife area and then venture to adjacent wetlands to forage during the day. A flock of this species was seen flying from the lake at a level only tens of feet above the treetops.
    • Great Egret: the 34 that roosted at Goose Lake WMA is by far the greatest number of this species ever seen in the sandhills region, as based upon an evaluation of 63 available records.
    • Double-crested Cormorant: the 115 birds that roosted - once again at Goose Lake WMA - indicates the value of the lake to this species. During the visit, the birds present earlier in the evening were enhanced by additional small numbers that arrived as dusk settled.

      Goose Lake WMA is one short mile north of the proposed industrial-scale power line with all of its wires and towers and disturbances that will occur to natural lands. For anything to be built that might threaten the bird integrity of this public area would be a complete and utter travesty! It is obvious that some species roost at the lake and then venture forth to nearby wetlands to forage during the day. Other species know that features of the lake environs provide a haven and that is why they occur, again and again. This is an important bird area where 152 species are known to occur, based upon an evaluation of more than a thousand records.

    • Bald Eagle: nesting in a tree planting west of 496 Avenue and north of County Road 846. There are three items which indicate the occurrence of these breeding birds: 1) adult soaring over the trees where the nest occurs; 2) adult landing at the nest and then perching for a while on an adjacent branch, and during this time the head of an eaglet was observed; and 3) a pair of adult eagle roosting on the south side of nearby Goose Lake during the evening. This nest is within .5 mile of the alignment of the proposed r-project transmission line. This nest was not surveyed this year by the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission, according to the nongame biologist Joel Jorgensen, since it had not been used in 2016. Eagles did also nest here in 2015, according to agency records. Details indicate how there can be no reliance upon NGPC records as their survey efforts are not done in a manner to document eagle nesting though there may be a gap in occurrence. It is not acceptable to ignore a prime nesting locale just because there is not nesting activity for a single year, following a year when adult birds had been actively nesting.
    • Wilson's Snipe: the few seen or heard in habitats along county road 846 indicate the obvious value of the many wet prairies for this species.
    • Long-billed Dowitcher: a small flock was foraging in ephemeral water in a livestock pen at the Ballagh Ranch home place.
    • Long-billed Curlew: in a meadow just to the south of the German Valley Cemetery on the Shipporeit Ranch. This is a distinctive sighting because the species’ more typical range is further west.
    • Spotted Sandpiper: along the shore at Goose Lake WMA and along the North Loup River at Horn Land and Cattle.
    • Wilson's Phalarope: lesser numbers at ephemeral wetlands but many on the waters of Swan Lake.
    • Franklin’s Gull: several smaller sized, transitory flocks; occurrence similar to that of those present in April.
    • Black Tern: many of these were foraging at a marsh area just west of Goose Lake WMA which was the result of high water which flooded land which was typically dry; during the evening many of these birds moved over to the lake. The west wetland was a prominent foraging area as it was mostly surrounded by trees so the birds could more readily find something edible on waters with a lesser extent of water-surface turbulence. There were also numerous swallows taking advantage of the situation.
    • Burrowing Owl: the number of adults present on the Brush Creek Ranch south of Thedford - early in the breeding season - is distinctive. There appeared to be at least four occupied burrows. If each pair raises a typical brood, this would result in a significant count for this species which has a very limited occurrence in the sandhills due to the few prairie dog towns which remain among the ranch lands.
    • Common Nighthawk: more prevalent than indicated as this species is typically only seen in the evening or heard in the dark hours as it forages for insect fare just above the hills.
    • Chimney Swift: two in the country appreciating the fine chimney at the Schneidereit ranch home. In German Valley, they apparently utilize the chimneys at St. John's Church and its associated residence. This species typically occurs only in area villages where there are various buildings with suitable chimney shelter.
    • American Cliff Swallow: this species appreciates a tolerant building owner at the Schneidereit Ranch (nesting okay on the barn but not the house) and at the Nygren Ranch (adults building nests on two buildings). This species also regularly occurs on bridges over waterways, such as the many adults building nests on a bridge over the North Loup River amidst the Hawley Flats.
    • Bobolink: regularly noted at suitable lowland prairie habitats, and especially at lowland prairie prevalent along County Road 846. Lowland meadows are so important to this species, and the actual importance needs to be determined by scientific research. During this survey, the lovely song of the territorial males was heard in all of its magnificence.

    The next prominent wetland visited in the area was Swan Lake, were 36 species were observed, including a nice number of Wilson’s Phalarope. American Coot were common. Numbers of Sand Martin and American Cliff Swallow were foraging above the lake waters but more obviously perched on wires among the trees at the northeast portion of the lake.

    A visit to the Ballagh Ranch was notable because the rains meant there was ephemeral wetland habitat used by shorebirds. In a north pasture, there were Lesser Yellowlegs and Least Sandpiper. Among the ranch buildings was a small flock of Long-billed Dowitcher. This is a nice ranch that would be split by steel lattice towers if the r-project is built.

    While driving onward, a stop was made a place with wetlands along the county road in the northwest corner of Garfield county. There was a white marker in the immediate vicinity. There were Blue-winged Teal and Northern Shoveler appreciating the local habitats.

    Further west, along Gracie Creek Avenue just east of 450th Avenue, a couple of Black Tern were foraging at the pond. A female Mallard was also present. There were 16 species seen, a tally that includes a couple of species just to the southwest, but within a quarter-of-a-mile.

    On Friday, the 12th, the morning started with a visit to the Schneidereit Ranch westward on the German Valley Road. A unique feature of the place is the number of American Cliff Swallow nesting on the north heights of the barn. There is also a resident flock of Rock Dove. After a nice visit with rancher Ivan, some time was spent scanning the waters of the nearby lake and then looking and listening in the immediate vicinity along the road. The overall tally was 41 species, including more than 75 Canada Goose adults on the lake and upon adjacent meadows.

    A few hours were then spent in German Valley, starting with an initial stop at St. John’s Lutheran church. There were some Chimney Swift here, apparently taking advantage of the chimney on the two buildings. The next stop was the Shipporeit Ranch and the German Valley Cemetery. A most notable sighting was a Long-billed Curlew in the meadow south of the cemetery, and where there were several singing Bobolink. Their song has such a fine melody that hours, if not early days of every summer could be spent by someone that cares to learn more about the life of the Bobolink.

    Saint John's Luthern Church in German valley which has a history dating back to the 1880s. Chimney Swift appreciate the chimneys. The R-Project would establish an industrial power line to the east, across the highway. This means that a perspective reprsenting more than a century of heritage would be destroyed in a year.

    This abandoned building of a former ranch is a haven for a Turkey Vulture. They probably have a nest but there was no investigation made as that would have be an imposition upon the space which the bird appreciate, and probably more than once.

    While at the Nygren Ranch, details were given on further habitat spaces in the valley, so they were also visited. A Turkey Vulture flew from an abandoned granary building, indicating again how this species takes advantage of these places to nest. Barn Swallows were taking advantage rafters in an abandoned barn.

    Continuing the day’s birding, a visit to Horn Land and Cattle ranch west of Brewster was limited because there were guests. Despite this, a nice variety of species were observed about the ranch buildings, along the North Loup River as well as along the adjacent county road.

    The final place visited during this day were the Hawley Flats and North Loup River environs. Because of its unique occurrence, a new placename was derived for the meadow and other lowland features along Hawley Flats Avenue and a relatively short distance north of West North Loup Road. The itty-bitty wetland at the corner of a section was being appreciated by Mallard and Blue-winged Teal. There were Bobolink singing here, where the industrial r-project powerline would be imposed upon the open landscape. Much of the remainder of this overall geographic locality is typically more dryland. At least the American Cliff Swallow continue to appreciate a county bridge over the waterway.

    Cattle on the Brush Creek Ranch Cherry county on a Saturday morning. These steers were grazing cattle country grassland which is not powerline country.

    The last place visited - along with Twyla Witt - during this survey period was the prairie-dog town on the Brush Creek Ranch south of Thedford on Saturday morning. The dogtown is nestled among the sandy hills and is a fine place for several Burrowing Owl to reside, with the number present a distinctive occurrence. Other typical prairie birds occur, including Horned Lark, the diminutive Grasshopper Sparrow that can perch on a blade of grass, Lark Sparrow and the pervasive Western Meadowlark. Access was made available because the lock and chain had been moved so the gate could be opened. The owner of this property has found that this impediment is necessary to prevent trespass by people that are not welcome.

    The overall tally for these places was 97 species. There were at least a couple of nice days during an outing that started while it was raining and ended when the winds were too excessive to conduct bird surveys.

    Deplorable Lights in the Night Sky

    One disturbing facet of my overnight at Goose Lake WMA were a few incessant red-blinking lights obvious on the horizon to the southeast. These are apparently wind turbines miles away in Antelope county. Being in the country should mean fewer lights in the night sky, yet industrial developments continue to degrade this once unique feature of the Great American Sandhills. If someone wanted to enjoy a sky-scape without lights at this time in history, they would have to dig a hole and limit their perspective to a constricted zone straight upwards. It is now impossible to be atop one of the hilltops in the region and not see some despicable light flashing, flashing, flashing, flashing, ad nauseam in their deplorable manner! Stars should be the primary feature of night skies not man-made constructs built for money-making reasons.

    08 May 2017

    Niobrara Valley Wildlife Area Bird Resurvey After 35 Years

    There was distinctly unique outing for birding purposes on May 6th, 2017 to Anderson Bridge WMA along the Niobrara River in northern Cherry county, Nebraska. Along with gracious driver and compatriot Gordon Warrick, we left Valentine on a fine spring, Saturday morning. Temperatures were warm and wind was slight at the start. It was the start of a fine spring day in the Great American Sandhillstm.

    We watched and I kept track of the wildbirds seen. Notable along the county road near the Stoner Ranch southwest of Kilgore — and just east of a proposed wind turbine facility — was an especially fine view of a Swainson’s Hawk sitting on a fence post, adjusting its wings as it basked in the morning sun. Suddenly a Loggerhead Shrike darted away to the south. This bit of roadside watching resulted in the only observation of these two species for the day. An Upland Sandpiper was also expressive here, and was an initial indication of their return for another breeding season. The environmental assessment done for the project two years ago did not record the occurrence of the Swainson's Hawk. Of course the developers consultant company did not do any May surveys.

    Proper Name May 1982 May 2017
    Canada Goose - - 7
    Wood Duck 6 6
    Mallard 2 2
    Blue-winged Teal 2 9
    Wild Turkey 0 - -
    Common Pheasant 0 - -
    Great Blue Heron 0 - -
    Turkey Vulture 6 4
    Swainson's Hawk 0 - -
    Red-tailed Hawk 0 1
    Killdeer 0 - -
    Upland Sandpiper 0 1
    Mourning Dove 0 10
    Great Horned Owl 1 - -
    Belted Kingfisher 1 1
    Red-headed Woodpecker 0 - -
    Downy Woodpecker 0 1
    Northern Flicker 0 1
    American Kestrel 0 1
    Least Flycatcher - - 1
    Western Kingbird 0 - -
    Blue Jay 0 1
    American Crow 0 1
    Cedar Waxwing - - 8
    Black-capped Chickadee 0 8
    Horned Lark 0 - -
    Northern Rough-winged Swallow 0 2
    Barn Swallow 0 - -
    House Wren 0 8
    White-breasted Nuthatch - - 1
    Eastern Bluebird - - 2
    American Robin 0 1
    American Goldfinch 0 3
    Common Yellowthroat 0 1
    Western Meadowlark 0 1
    Red-winged Blackbird 0 25
    Brown-headed Cowbird 0 6
    Common Grackle 0 5
    Song Sparrow - - 1
    Lincoln's Sparrow - - 1
    White-crowned Sparrow - - 1
    Chipping Sparrow 0 6
    Vesper Sparrow 0 - -
    Lark Sparrow - - 2
    Spotted Towhee 0 10
    Northern Cardinal 0 2

    Upon reaching the valley of the running water river, the actual reason for this outing became prevalent. There was a greater focus on bird activity and my pencil was active on paper to denote the details. After crossing the running water river of grandeur, a true sense of time descended.

    It was May 6, 1982 when my first visit was made to this itty-bitty wildlife area of just 137 acres. Though small in size it is a special place with a very nice variety of wildbird species and is very conducive to an overnight stay. There are no facilities, but only weaky people rely on this aspect when they might decide on where to enjoy the natural glories of the Niobrara river.

    Because this is a public place was the reason for my first visit to birding in the greater sandhills’ region on a May day in 1982. A bird list was kept but it did not include the number present for all of the 37 bird species observed. Being a complete rookie interloper from an urban setting, this visit was an initial experience to just get used to being at a wild place in newly realized Cherry county ... so different from natural areas visited while birding in eastern Nebraska — some specific outings associated with research work needed to get a M.A. degree in biology while considering the effects of habitat managment on nongame birds occurring with surveys at Twin Oaks WMA in Johnson County, NE. Further visits did ensue to this wildlife area in July with a few notes kept at Merritt Reservoir, and the eventually many more sandhill spaces of known recognition. There were many multitude of visits that occurred on a continual basis, involving a drive to multiple hundreds of distinct localities – some many times – and recording species seen and numbers present. If it was not an actual count there was a number designated based upon the presence of a species, the extent of available habitat and then approximation. It is completely impossible to count the number of Red-winged Blackbird at a expansive place like Carson Lake, but there is certainly more than one of this species present when a number is given. Wherever possible, an accurate count has been indicated.

    A Legacy Visit

    The 2017 visit on May 6th was not by two “spring-chickens” so we appreciated the recently established mown grass route to stroll westward from the parking area and then on the north side of the marsh.

    In past years, I’d have hiked up the southern slope of the valley, after pausing to look at the cabin remains, then making sure to look and listen to anything birdly on the upland, continuing by walking a distance westward to stop and linger and relax at one of the best overlooks in this section of the river valley and then plunged down the steep hillside to the bottoms for further exploration.

    Having a mown trail along nearly level land now makes it much simpler and certainly easier on aching bones. In past years it would have be a difficult to hike some areas of the WMA due to the too thick growth of invasive cedar. Habitat management has cut away invasive trees. Prescribed burns have been planned for the area.

    Two notable site features noted during our outing were 1) a seemingly newly prominent cellar of stone walls and an eastern doorway very near what had been a bubbling spring until the water feature was inundated by pondworks of the beaver, and 2) cowpies and tracks of cattle though there did not seem to be any signs of any grazing, so were these transitory livestock?

    Species Considerations

    During our outing in May 2017, there were 35 different species observed. This visit was a bit early in the season – though it was a day with high temperatures in the lower 80s – as there are bird lists for dates later during May when there is a much greater bird occurrence, including even the Barn Swallow as well as the appreciated and so vividly expressive Yellow-breasted Chat.

    The number of species noted on our outing in 2017 compare to 37 species in 1982 on the same calendar date.

    Combining the results to these two particular visits, the tally is 46 species. Spotted Towhee and House Wren were prevalent among the woods. It was great to see what was apparently a male “wing-fluttering” Black-capped Chickadee courting another chickadee, which was probably a female. The prominent bird’s call was different and its behavior that neither of us two bird men had ever seen, despite conglomerate decades of experience. This instance conveys that there is always something to learn by listening, looking and giving attention to the regular activities of wildbirds. That exhibitory chickadee was incessant in its purpose; the other chickadee went nowhere as the pair — obviously a couple — kept together in their arboreal realm.

    Nearby was a cavity in a box elder where a pair of these special little birds had seemingly found a home for the season. Remember that their vocalizations include a sound which can be easily interpreted as sounding everything like “hello” as they go about daily actions for their survival. If you hear this sound, it means that you will have a great day because these little songsters have conveyed a message that needs to be appreciated?

    Overall for this locality there are more than 800 records available for 120 species of wildbirds, when all available records are considered.

    Any visit to this area is not about deriving records to comparison. It is most essentially a hike where birds and natural land features can be seen and appreciated. Especially noted at the state wildlife management area was the “huge” beaver lodge in the marsh. The construct was been present for a multitude of years. The residents have extended their water environs from what was present decades ago. The earthworks constructed bit-by-bit by the “little paws” of busy beavers. They have done a supreme job as they are natural experts of engineering, knowing just where to place mud to constrict a flow and improve their swimmable living space. They are also know how to take advantage of landscape features, including stabilizing tree trunks to facilitate their efforts. Also enjoyed here — for a brief interlude — were the pushing activities of two small burying bettle pushing along — with their hind legs — a bigger bit of dung, as they went about their big task of the day.

    Hand Exclosure, McKelvie Division

    While in the area, we also visited the Hand Exclosure at the McKelvie Division of the Nebraska National Forest. It is just a relatively short distance of travel eastward down the country road. Along the way we noted the occurrence of additional species. They were prairie birds vibrant along the way and near the Forest Service property. We added a Western Kingbird sitting on a fence wire, more than one Grasshopper Sparrow, a Vesper Sparrow in the same space and some Horned Lark of the prairie. It seemed that each time that a bird on the fenceline became an intent of our attention, it flew away. Thankfully some of the "little brown jobs" stayed stationary long enough. A special appreciation for one of us birders was enjoying a so subtle tinge of the feather coloration of a Grasshopper Sparrow.

    At the forest service property, there were as least two strident Red-breasted Nuthatch in the pines south of the Niobrara valley wetland space on Forest Service property. On the river bottom was a vivid flycather of the willow sort. A Red Crossbill flew above the place while we took a few minutes to rest at a place where the most vibrant plant colors of this day of the season were bits of moss clinging to a tree trunk on the edge of the marsh. A Common Yellowthroat was heard as it sang among the thick vegetation.

    There were some distinct colors of bryophytes on a fallen snag on the southside of the marsh. It was too mucky to traverse the few feet to get a photo. Any temptation to collect a specimen was thwarted by the thought that it might be too much of an imposition on someone else to rely on an identification, and it would take years of study from some unknown guide to identification to learn the minutia essential to personally indicate a proper name.

    After the trek at this public property with too many cedars and steep terrain, and trying to adhere to property boundaries, we had to go back up the valley slope. We found what may have been a former roadway, so hiking was easier as it had become quite warm. Upon getting back to our ride, there was a working water pump right there and our thirst was slaked and surely eased the rigor and dry mouth from strenuous hiking. We also realized the best route to take if any future visit occurs?

    It was a great day of birding amidst distinct Niobrara valley spaces. It was done because two Valentine guys cared enough to travel, look and listen, and partake in natural learning.

    Nesting cavity of Black-capped Chickadee pair at Anderson Bridge WMA. A pair of these birds were seen here.

    A pair of flat black-colored burying beetles were seen moving this dung. The activity was noted by Mr. Warrick as we hiked along; he was looking at the ground and saw movement so we stopped and took a closer look. The beetles were working hard at their existential chore.

    During our time outdoors we pondered what this place might have looked like in 1857 when the Warren expedition travelled traversed the north side of the valley. Certainly the mighty men of local tribes could have readily ridden their horses along through the valley. Any such effort would now be impossible due to a relatively uncontrolled invasion of red cedar trees as well as an increased growth of pine trees.

    This chatter has meant further personal ponderings. What will this habitat space look like in a century? Will it be such a distinct natural haven that a permit will be required for anyone wanting to make any sort of visit? Will access be available only to certain approved scientists on governmentally approved tasks and restrained to only approved activities? What is the preferred condition of the wild land habitat, and what metrics will be used to determine its condition? There is no steady-state in nature and so any indicated situation has to be dynamic and changing on a timeline of several years! Will regulations constrict the use of controlled burns, as they degrade air quality and might be a hazard to country resident with breathing problems? This could effectively shut down the use of this well-used habitat management tool during 2017. What funds will be available to ensure that federal and state areas get the attention they require?

    Certainly modern-era tools will have to be used. Will aerial drones be used to present a view of wildlands to the public because a place is off-limits in order to conserve the resource and avoid any possible degradation? Will these drones have acoustical recognition equipment able to listen to ambient sounds to a degree that bird songs can be recognized? It would be relatively easy to have a grid established where the drone would hover for a specified amount of time, record sounds and then move to the next spot of a survey area, as breeding residents obviously sing to express their claim to a territory. Imagery could be kept to denote species that may not be heard. A technician in a laboratory would then do an analysis to determine specifics. There would be software available to analyze bird songs and readily identify the species. Technology could readily and regularly denote a consistent record of wildbird occurrence, and this could be done much easier than what is now being done by human efforts. Significantly, there would be aberrant visitors allowed because the natural havens would have to be strictly protected from any environmental degradation because so much of the natural world has been ruined.

    Conservation of wild lands is a long-term proposition, and it needs to be done in a manner to ensure long-term survial of their myriad features. The question is, how is this essential goal being addressed now by the state and federal agencies which own public lands? What are the next generations realities for the Sand Hills and Cherry County?

    Too many questions without answers!