24 April 2017

April Bird Surveys of Sandhill Spaces

Survey sponsored by members of Preserve the Sandhills

In order to evaluate wild bird occurrence at particular places primarily associated with the corridor for the proposed R-Project transmission line, bird surveys were done at numerous sandhill spaces during mid-April. Surveys were also done at some selected ranches of interest. Additional details were kept at some villages along the travel route in order to evaluate the occurrence of the Eurasian Collared Dove because of a personal interest and the need to know.

After an initial overnight stay at the Calf Creek Valley Ranch in southeast Cherry county - which included an evening stroll that resulted in a quite fine record for more than 20 species. In the morning of the 12th while driving to Thedford, travels started with a fine morning view of a bunch of Trumpeter Swan along a creek place which these most magnificent of Northern American waterfowl found to be a space to linger.

Within Thedford, particular details were taken care of, discussed at a kitchen table were there was a fine morning meal provided by Tom and Twyla Witt, whom know what it means to be hospitable. And this is conveyed each day as so many American Goldfinch gather to feast on the seeds in feeders outside. There was even a Red-breasted Nuthatch outside the patio windows, which was a surprising occurrence. Birds are so special and many people appreciate their color and their activity that can occur at home by simply using known practices to put up a feeder with suitable feed. The results are more than worth the investment.

With a workable key in hand for a fine Chevrolet pickup, support of two great couples and that had a simple but so essentially profound perspective: they were enthusiastic. With some actual trepidation the travel route to discover, learn and provide results, this multi-day bird expedition started on a Wednesday morning of great significance. There were a bunch of vibrant American Goldfinch on the north side of the house, and there appreciation of seeds to eat was a vivid marker of the importance of wild birds, and that my effort needed to be done in a "smooth" manner. Any vocal Eurasian Collared Dove present nearby were ignored because of a greater directive and there are already previous details confirming their presence.

While traveling eastward along Highway 2, a diversionary first drive around survey was done at Dunning, along the ever-flowing North Loup River, since it would be hours before reaching the intended places of greater importance. Time is an aspect and sometimes, delays due to postponements are a good thing and might lead to a rememborable discovery.

Another survey was done at Taylor, along Highway 91. This is an interesting village because it has so many fake people. They can be seen everywhere. This condition applies to an ice man, a sheriff, a couple at the old-time hotel, a gal with a bicycle, a mom and her son getting the mail, a courting couple and a couple of kids at the town square. These objects of art convey a distinctive and unique aspect to the place. Their seems to be some vitality here.

At Ericson, both the streets of the village and at Lake Ericson were cruised. A special sighting was a Great Northern Loon at the lake. New additions to the seasonal occurrences were the Eastern Phoebe and Brown-headed Cowbird. The lake housing is flourishing as several newly built residences were obvious.

There were no records gathered at Burwell, because the place is too big. There is a nice park along the North Loup River, but only the grocery store and a gas station were visited to partake of essentials. There may be a great radio here but birds records are lacking by someone that should be involved in the Nebraska bird community.

Upon reaching Highway 281, the route went northward. Beyond Bartlett, there was suddenly a smoke-filled landscape with the haze predominant. A drive along the county road through the Herd Co. facility, showed so many, many hundreds of cattle in meadows, and in pens and generally immensely prevalent. There were numerous cattle confinement places where concrete feeding-bunks had been recently constructed, and four cement trucks were still parked among the buildings and large feeding buildings. They are typically large numbers of blackbirds present here, and this was the same situation.

Since this mega-cattle-feeding locality was too far south of the R-Project corridor, only minimal records were kept. It was however, interesting to realize that the company had bought more than 10,000 acres of land in Loup county, with the transaction occurring relatively recently. There are community-wide maps that express details of property ownership.

Flowing well and pond in southern Holt county.
Driving with the essential press of a foot on the gas-pedal meant a continuation of moving along Highway 281 and then westward on county road 846. Survey efforts were done along a six mile portion of this road.

Records were kept for two localities: the road section and a pond westward of 489 Avenue and 846th Road. A prominent feature of this area was a very nice flowing well to the east of 489 Avenue that was appreciated by a pair of Blue-winged Teal. A Loggerhead Shrike was present in the area. This country is very level, and the powerline corridor is dominated by natural meadows and road ditch wetlands. The various water features present seem to indicate a shallow depth to the groundwater. One meadow with standing water was being appreciated by a migrant Greater Yellowlegs.

Eastward of Highway 281, the indicated powerline corridor would make a jog to the south for a distance, and then return to an alignment along county road 846. Another six-mile portion of the county road was then surveyed. A regional powerline is present along the north side of the road.
The terrain is also flat, with extensive natural prairie (i.e., hay meadows) and similar wood lots, predominantly cottonwood trees. There are more pivots present than west of the highway. There is a very nice marsh southwest of 502 Avenue, which would place it in Wheeler county. Present here were Gadwall and Mallard, as well as a small flock of Double-crested Cormorant. One of the best sightings of this survey effort was a fine flock of about 35 Pectoral Sandpiper foraging amidst the low growth vegetation in a hay meadow. This was an unexpected sighting, and provides a newly discovered feature of the area meadows, and conveys a new value of the meadow habitats.

The evening of the 12th was spent at Goose Lake WMA, so observations were kept for a few hours from late afternoon until dark. These are the species present and numbers observed:
Canada Goose, 20
Gadwall; 11
American Wigeon; 2
Mallard; 5
Blue-winged Teal; 4
Northern Shoveler; 16
Bufflehead; 3
Ruddy Duck; 25
Common Pheasant; 1
Pied-billed Grebe; 1
Great Blue Heron; 1
American White Pelican; 120
Double-crested Cormorant; 325, most of these birds were present for the duration, but as dusk settled there were small numbers that flew in from elsewhere
Cooper's Hawk; 1
Northern Harrier; 1 foraging over the eastern part of the lake
Bald Eagle; 2, an adult and a juvenile; the presence of an adult at this time of the year is indicative of the likelihood of breeding, and the occurrence of a juvenile may represent young previously raised
American Coot; 75
Franklin's Gull; 375 of these “diva” birds that have such a beautiful coloration and are so vocal that their presence is immediately conveyed. There were multiple flocks that flew in, landed on the lake and fluttered about as an obvious means of “refreshment” and then after splashing for a few minutes, they continued their northward migration. This is one of the most vocal of water birds and what they are communicating to one another is a great mystery of nature, but it is obvious that “talk” is a prominent part of their behavior.
Ring-billed Gull; 3
Mourning Dove; 3
Northern Flicker; 1
Tree Swallow; 25
American Robin; 3
Yellow-headed Blackbird; 3
Western Meadowlark; 3
Red-winged Blackbird; 750

Thursday morning was so foggy that is was impossible to see anything on the lake. The travel route was along the north road from the wma. It was quite wet. A significant effort of post-dawn hour or two was upon seeing a calf outside the nearby pasture, a few minutes were taken to express this situation at the closest ranch place resident so that the newborn animal would have a better chance of survival.

My route then continued to Chambers where a town bird survey was done; this was also done at Amelia, the village of water which has always been a fine place to visit. I’ve somewhat a bias about this place, as a story done years ago resulted in receiving a Nebraska Press Association award.

Going southward down Highway 11, it took two stops of learning to eventually reach the Ballagh ranch, where there was a fine discussion with Amy Ballagh, a Great American that has worked so diligently on issues associated with the R-Project. After a discussion of items of concern, some bird watching was done as the fog was gone.

After considering things associated with birds, there was another great discussion with Lynn Ballagh. He indicated that Greater Prairie-Chicken living on the ranch have been trapped and transported elsewhere to establish new populations of this species. Obviously the Ballagh Ranch is a haven for this species that has endured this activity while continuing to thrive. Yet, the r-project transmission line would split right through the place. NPPD officials are blatantly indifferent to the value of this country for prairie grouse.

My route went northward. A survey was done at Clear Lake, on property of Rowan Ballagh and then at the historic landmark of Swan Lake. This Clear Lake had never been visited and among the 16 species seen was a Horned Grebe. At Swan Lake, the tally was 24 species including numerous Northern Shoveler and American Coot, as well as a Black-necked Grebe denoted after discerning identicative marks.

The evening was spent at Carson Lake, in northwest Garfield county. Numerous visits have been made to this locality so it was nice to return to a place associated with past times. Canada Goose were prevalent and it was especially nice to hear Wilson’s Snipe vocalizing in the marsh. Coursing above the place were a Northern Harrier and a Ring-billed Gull going along again and again.

Newly known roads were the route on my next day. Maps were an essential aid. Upon eventually getting to a road designated as Gracie Creek Avenue, the despicable route of the r-project line became obvious. There were plastic markers placed at intervals. They had lettering indicating a structure number and a date. Many miles were driven in a Silverado pickup through country where grassland was the sole and primary feature. Upon getting to a water place just northeast of 450th Avenue, there was a despicable plastic marker just to its south. The bird species tally was more than a dozen. The landscape in the area is very hilly and there are several areas of bare sand. Just one wetland in the area and NPPD plans to place a powerline structure and wire adjacent to the place!

There might be something to be said associated with a visit to the Shovel Dot Ranch, but comments will be limited to conveying that it was nice to see a few Redhead and Common Merganser at the ranch pond.

The plastic markers indicating the placement of towers are prominent along Highway 183, as sited on privately-owned property of the Shovel Dot Ranch.

Brewster was the next destination where the fine hospitality at Uncle Buck’s Lodge was greatly enjoyed and appreciated. This is a fine place to stay and enjoy the local community.

Turbine blade transportation.
The proposed transmission line corridor is problematic here, as it would traverse property where it is not welcome. In the vicinity, including German Valley, generations have worked for more than 100 years to establish a legacy, yet this heritage would be destroyed by a public utility company that has ignorantly decided to impose a powerline upon places where people do not want it. A visit to the well-kept German Cemetery conveyed the long-time legacy of this area. The residents have a pride in the heritage and it is expressed daily. A powerline intrusion is a pathetic placement which is not wanted by current families which are descendants of earlier generations. They have a legacy now which they want to continue. There are more members of the family that will live on their land in this valley and they don’t want a huge and ugly powerline across their driveway and through their home meadow.

There were an indicative event while driving to Shipporeit marsh. Instance one was the caravan of escort vehicles along the highway along with three semi-trucks transporting wind turbine blades. If wind turbine energy is presented as being “green,” how much fuel and time is associated with the transport of one complete turbine?  It took three semis and five escort vehicles just for the blades!
While seeing the white markers, a question became obvious. What legal authority does NPPD have for placing plastic markers on private property? They may have a legal basis for property access, but there seems to be no legal basis for placing markers, especially on places where there is opposition. Any markers placed without any legal authority are nothing more than trash on the land. They should be removed and mailed to NPPD headquarters! And, there has been no approval by the Fish and Wildlife Service of the final route for the powerline so NPPD officials are being presumptive.
Signage in German valley.

At the drive into the Nygren Ranch along Highway 7 – there in German Valley – there were three features at the same spot which indicate the fundamentals in regards to the r-project: a ranch sign representing cattle country legacy, a Preserve the Sandhills sign and next to it, a plastic marker indicating the place where a powerline tower would be placed. This spot is also a corner so there would not only be a tower, but land impacts would be greater since a “pull-station” would be required.

To the west, the same sentiment is prevalent. A ranchland owner does not want the powerline on the property, yet NPPD continues its “gorilla” tactics. At another ranch, the managers question why the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission so-called “legacy project” has not done anything to promote conservation of sandhills landscapes. The powerline here would once again traverse sandhill grass pastures.

At the Hawley Flats those plastic markers piercing the ground were also obvious. While driving on county roads with particular attention to the r-project corridor, it was very obvious that NPPD is basically indifferent in regards to impacts on the landscape.

At a first wetland found during my drive, there was a plastic marked basically next to the only standing water area along a portion of the West North Loup Road. The only seen bit of wetland would be the place where a huge metal tower would be placed, and since it is a corner where the line would go from north-south to going westward, there would need to be a “pull-station” so the corner wetland would be dramatically impacted. As this line goes across the hills to the west, it would be on the southern fringe of the flats and be prominent on the horizon for residents to the north, for a significant distance along the county road. It could possibly be seen from every residence as far along as Purdum.
Wetland on the Hawley Flats. Note powerline structure marker.

After another fine overnight stay at the ranch in Calf Creek valley, and after appreciating a hearty country breakfast prepared by Merrial and Marion Rhoades, a drive up the road brought me back to a North Loup River Ranch to discover what species were present. The eggs situated for a family event celebrating Easter were bits of color at the ranch place. Bits of feather colors were then obvious on the waterfowl languishing at a pond in the hills.

Continuing along back on Highway 83, there was a bit of a stop to denote the species at Miles Lake. Sam Miles and Craig Miles are great opponents of wind turbines, and they have made the effort to place a Preserve the Sandhills sign to convey their position.

A diversionary drive was then made to Brownlee – where the county road department has its “stuff” spread about wherever – where it nice to see another one of the always expressive Belted Kingfisher, along the “wolf” river and a few Redhead at the bayou southwest of the bridge.

There was also a nice variety of wild birds on the flats north of Brownlee Road westward from Highway 83 on April, 16th. These are the species present at the ponds and places where there was water for the fowl: Canada Goose, Wood Duck, American Wigeon (numerous in their fine extent), Mallard, Blue-winged Teal (at least 45 birds), Cinnamon Teal (a beautifully colored male and a species which has not been personally observed for years), Green-winged Teal in their diminutive glory, Bald Eagle (an adult, and this species nests in the vicinity), an expressive Northern Flicker, a subtle Loggerhead Shrike in a roadside tree and it needs to said again that this is a species of concern, American Robin, Western Meadowlark, Eastern Meadowlark, and many Red-winged Blackbird.


Overall, the r-project has been designed in a manner to make the greatest possible negative impact to natural sandhill’s grassland places. The pathetic route chosen was one selected to avoid anthropomorphic places which means that natural landscapes would instead be destroyed forever.

“Nasty People Promoting Destruction” is a more than proper attribution for NPPD. This company does operate in Nebraska but they do not have any respect for may Nebraskans. They represent the worse sort of corporation minions that have no personal consideration of those values of land and country that make the Sand Hills such a great and unique landscape space. There are so many ranchers that care for the land, yet the bureaucrats of NPPD and other elsewhere power people have decided to impose a destructive ruination. How sordid. A 345 kv tower should be placed in each of the yards of the power district people making decisions. The tower would include a megaphone issuing forth the typical noise of an operational wind turbine, and it would occur every hour of every day. How easy it is for bureaucrats in an office to impose something on someone else while not taking any responsibility for the land and heritage impacts that others would have to deal with on a daily basis.

It is obvious that NPPD is operating in a manner to bully people and that they have to accept their demands. How sordid and actually pathetic they are!

Why is it that absentee landowners accept the r-project? It is all about the money, apparently?

Further Commentary

My favorite observation of this foray were the Franklin’s Gulls at Goose Lake WMA. This state property is an important bird haven, and it matters nothing what-so-ever that there is a problem with an unwanted milfoil plant species.

My travels were made comfortable by Merrial and Marion Rhoades, and via a vehicle provided by Tom and Twyla Witt, with hospitality from Amy and Lynn Ballagh where it was an appreciated opportunity to once again experience the words of supreme wisdom by a sandhill’s couple.

Especially appreciated was an opportunity to appreciate the recognized legacy of Marilyn Rhoades at Brewster whom is a community treasure at the lodge. It was very nice to experience the community celebration of her birthday on the 15th at the Legion Hall, where there was something like five times the village population of Brewster present to talk, share and enjoy some fine victuals. My departure to go elsewhere was too early and meant missing some fine fiddling that could have been an opportunity to hear a musician that knows music and sent forth tunes that were probably nothing but were a majestic time to tap a foot or two in tune. This event conveyed the roots of the sand hills.

The lodge near the wolf river may be small but it is in a big country where there are great opportunities to be appreciated by an individual or a family. There is so much heritage present nearby that every mile can provide a learning experience.

Sandhillians want hills of green, meadows with water, vivid lake expanses not marred with blinking lights or imposing towers where powerlines traverse the land. This is a place with fine herds of cattle that are essentially appreciated and so important. At these same spaces – every season – are also so many wild birds singing sing their individual tribute to land that is an essential part of their enduring and ongoing cycle continuing the life of birds during so many ages of every-year prairie-land heritage.