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!

Bird Species Present at Valentine in April, 2017

A great variety wild birds were noted in the vicinity of Valentine during the month of April. There were several sightings that were new additions to the area birdlist. There were also some occurences many days prior to a date previously indicated.

Notable during the spring days were:

  • Waterfowl: eight species represented with a flock of Green-winged Teal a special treat
  • Wild Turkey were less prevalent than a year ago. Usually only a single female would occur and any larger numbers were earlier in the month
  • the gathering of Turkey Vulture above the hills north of Valentine and a bit more north of Minnechaduza creek was at a locality designated as Water Tanks Tract, the moniker being obvious to anyone that might visit the publicly-owned landspace. The Heart City area is also a significant place for autumnal gatherings of this species. Currently, these seasonal residents have been noted to roost overnight atop a wireless tower on the east side of downtown Main street. The count is one of the largest for the number of birds recorded. What they eat is beyond my comprehension! Valentine City Park is the locality where in September, 2001 there were 100 of these birds reported, and which is the largest number that have ever been reported for the Sandhills and Niobrara Valley regions. Significant is that there are places for birds to roost because snag trees are prevalent due to past-times wildfires. Also, the hills along the Minnechaduza Creek valley provide ground conditions conducive to aerial soaring.
  • a Western Osprey spent some time feeding on fish in Minnechaduza Creek and at the Valentine Mill Pond
  • the Franklin's Gull were a single, transitory group in flight
  • Shorebird: the sighting of a Greater Yellowlegs was a new addition to the species list for the area
  • the local pair of Great Horned Owl were especially vocal during the month; the adults have not yet directly responded to call imitations artificially issued in the night hours
  • Songbirds: two new additions to the area birdlist were the Say's Phoebe and Blue-grey Gnatcatcher. A male Common Yellowthroat was also a significant sighting, as it occurred many days prior to the initial sighting in 2016. A surprising brief sighting was the flock of Red Crossbill that landed for moments on a powerline outside the shack window, but lingered long enough to be able to get them into view with a spotting scope and make an identification, with the crossed bills a prominent feature quickly seen. They were likely moving from one copse of pines to another. The ongoing presence of White-throated Sparrow was especially appreciated. When it comes to towhees, they are more often heard than seen, however, whenever they are directly observed they have been the Spotted Towhee, either skulking amidst a shrub or perched atop a bit of woody vegetation. Following an initial occurrence of Chipping Sparrow, they then occurred in numbers so obviously heard singing among the coniferous trees. As to Cedar Waxwing, they seem to be a permanent resident, though not regularly seen. They are obvious when seen, but not obviously seen. Their habits would be worthy of detailed consideration.

Breeding activity was especially notable by Eastern Bluebird and American Robin carrying nesting material. Obviously Eurasian Collared Dove and Common Grackle were active in getting a nest site established. House Wren appreciate the many nest boxes along Lake Shore Drive, and once again one of these little wrens is taking advantage of a hole in a shed pipe to once again nest.

This is the tally of the 63 species noted on the ten days for which observations were recorded; with 221 individual records from 2017 and 152 from 2016. Often, more records are kept because of a significant sighting.

Weather conditions during the April days were very variable with warm-day interludes and then windy days with cold temperatures. The extent of snow was minimal, with no really significant snow falls.

Proper Name             Julian date > 96 97 99 100 109 112 115 116 117 118
Canada Goose 16 - - 7 19 11 30 - - - - - - 8
Wood Duck 2 - - 2 4 2 2 3 - - - - - -
Gadwall - - - - 8 - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
American Wigeon - - - - - - - - - - 2 - - - - - - - -
Mallard - - 2 - - - - - - - - - - - - - - 1
Blue-winged Teal - - - - 4 6 - - 12 - - - - - - - -
Northern Shoveler - - - - - - 1 - - - - - - - - - - - -
Green-winged Teal 6 - - - - 9 - - - - - - - - - - - -
Wild Turkey - - 6 - - 2 6 1 - - 1 2 - -
Great Blue Heron - - 1 - - 1 - - 1 - - - - 3 1
Double-crested Cormorant - - - - 24 - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
Turkey Vulture 12 80 3 - - 12 - - 9 - - - - - -
Western Osprey - - - - - - - - - - 1 - - 1 1 - -
Sharp-shinned Hawk - - - - - - - - - - - - - - 1 - - - -
Bald Eagle - - 1 - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
Red-tailed Hawk - - 1 - - - - 1 - - - - - - - - - -
Killdeer 1 - - - - - - - - 1 2 - - - - - -
Greater Yellowlegs - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - 1
Franklin's Gull - - - - - - - - 79 - - - - - - - - - -
Rock Dove 7 - - - - - - - - - - - - - - 3 - -
Eurasian Collared Dove 11 - - 6 - - - - - - - - 6 2 12
Mourning Dove - - 1 1 - - 1 2 - - - - 3 - -
Great Horned Owl 1 - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - 2
Belted Kingfisher 1 - - 1 - - - - - - 1 1 - - - -
Red-bellied Woodpecker - - - - - - - - - - 2 - - 1 - - - -
Downy Woodpecker 1 - - - - - - 1 1 - - - - 1 - -
Hairy Woodpecker - - - - - - 1 - - 1 - - - - - - - -
Northern Flicker 2 - - 1 - - 2 2 - - 1 - - 1
Eastern Phoebe 1 - - 2 - - 1 1 - - 1 - - - -
Say's Phoebe - - 1 - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
Blue Jay 2 - - 1 - - 2 1 - - - - 1 2
American Crow 2 - - - - 2 - - 1 - - - - 1 1
Cedar Waxwing - - - - - - - - - - - - 26 - - - - - -
Black-capped Chickadee - - 3 2 - - - - 2 - - 2 - - - -
Tree Swallow - - - - - - - - - - - - 6 - - - - - -
House Wren - - - - - - - - 1 1 - - - - 1 - -
Blue-grey Gnatcatcher - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - 1 - -
Red-breasted Nuthatch - - - - - - - - - - - - 2 - - - - - -
White-breasted Nuthatch 4 - - 2 - - - - 1 - - - - - - - -
Brown Thrasher - - - - - - - - - - - - - - 1 - - - -
Common Starling 2 - - - - - - - - 4 - - 6 - - - -
Eastern Bluebird 3 - - 2 - - 2 2 - - - - 4 1
American Robin 40 - - 45 - - 20 5 - - - - 30 - -
House Sparrow 15 - - 3 - - - - - - - - 15 - - 10
House Finch 16 - - 12 - - 4 6 - - - - - - 4
Red Crossbill - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - 12
American Goldfinch 23 - - 30 - - 4 4 - - - - - - 10
Common Yellowthroat - - - - - - - - - - - - - - 1 - - - -
Audubon's Warbler - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - 2
Western Meadowlark - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - 3 - -
Red-winged Blackbird 25 - - 25 - - 10 20 - - 25 - - - -
Brown-headed Cowbird - - - - - - - - 4 - - - - 4 1 1
Common Grackle 37 42 54 - - 25 20 - - - - - - 65
Song Sparrow - - - - 1 - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
Lincoln's Sparrow 1 - - - - 2 - - - - 2 - - 2 - -
White-crowned Sparrow - - - - - - - - - - - - 15 18 24 21
Dark-eyed Junco 6 7 10 - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
Chipping Sparrow - - - - - - - - 3 3 - - - - 18 - -
Field Sparrow - - - - - - - - 2 - - - - - - - - 1
Clay-colored Sparrow - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - 2
Lark Sparrow - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - 2 - -
Spotted Towhee - - - - - - - - 1 1 2 - - 1 - -
Northern Cardinal - - 2 1 1 1 - - - - - - 1 - -

There were 53 species denoted for eleven survey dates in April 2016. One notable difference is that there were 221 records kept for April 2017 and 152 during this month in 2016. It often occurs that records are kept for multiple species when a significantly different species occurs. Overall, there have been 70 species noted during April of 2016 and 2017. My personal tally for birds in the area is 132. Since the year 2000, there the record list for this area includes 155 species. Without any date restriction, the total is 168 species, each which has been appreciated enough to become a legacy record of wild bird occurrence.

At least two window-strikes occurred this year. One was a Dark-eyed Junco that took a few hours to eventually fly away and another was a female Red-winged Blackbird that was able to depart in less than an hour. There were also a few glancing strikes where the bird hit but continued its flight.

More flycatchers will be welcomed in May. Attention will need to be given to get records for migratory warblers seen in past years at local places that are havens for wildbirds.

05 May 2017

White-crowned Sparrows Appreciated During Spring Days

There have been numerous days in the local environs when the temperature and other conditions express a wintery condition rather that anything like a balmy day of spring. Snow has been on the ground. Even the Cherry County commissioners discussed a local paradigm: once the Long-billed Curlew arrive there will be three more instances when their foot-marks will be in snow upon the land.

And then there was a discussion of “diddle birds” at the commissioner meeting on April 25. This was an instance of where the behavior of Wilson’s Phalarope was obvious on a home place residence and their action resulted in an attribution that has been known for a Wood Lake family for years. This is an obvious derivation of “whirly bird” as phalaropes spin around to activate things so they can better find what they feed upon.

The diddle bird discussion occurred at the 25 April meeting of the Cherry County Commissioners. There was also a telling discourse about the Frederick Peak attribution for the new local golf course.

Sometimes government action in the commissioner room reverts to a discourse on specifics and particulars. This is some appreciated dialogue where it might be possible that each person present learns something.

Anyway! Upon the multi-distance walk to-and-from my humble residence, there were subtle calls of migratory transients prominently heard. It soon became obvious that the sounds were expressions by White-crowned Sparrows lingering in the vicinity as they appreciated local conditions before their eventual departure to the lands further north of Nebraska. The Dark-eyed Junco were gone away by the last days of April.

The local bunch of the White-crowned Sparrow have been a special sort of wild bird life of this land with seed which upon they feed were very active on 25-28 April, and not only in suitable places north of Valentine but also a fewer number within the heart city. Hours could be spent in an effort to convey what each of these colorful itty-bits of wild birds are doing as their behavior could be constrained into research protocol and result in a scientific study.

Alas, there is no birdology scientist – and there is no known person that wants to be a known bird-watcher or even an ornithologist – that will ever study the dates of occurrence, number of birds present, habitat features, time of occurrence and other minutiae associated with the occurrence of sparrows and so many other special avian species that strive as they survive their time in the Valentine vicinity.

There is however a great appreciation of these vivid bits of wild birds by someone or others with an interest in the outdoors and its wonders. For the small sparrows, an identification can be obvious because of the great white stripe on the crown of their head. Once an id is known, particular attention can be given to their prominent antics. It appears that they feed on seeds as noticed by their well-done land scratching behavior – mimicked by a couple of Wild Turkey hens in the evening – and skulking among the ground vegetation. Nearby at some time during the day, there were also one or two of the big Eurasian Collared Dove, some blackbirds of more than one sort or size and the little finches marked with red plumage.

When some finely colored White-crowned Sparrows occur in numbers mere feet away during a day, and then many more are so subsequently active, and then again, these are times for a bird watcher to appreciate, again and again. While these sparrows have been most appreciated at a country-scape they also skulk amidst some bits of unkempt foliage within the heart city.

There was nothing nice when a couple of the birds bounced off the big north window of my shack. They have been so active outside and it is a sorrowful situation when they want to carry on and there is an artificial construct which is a blunt danger. No deaths occurred, thankfully.

The sparrow routines were something to appreciate while temperatures were winter-like, with cloudy skies prevalent and the benevolent days of spring were missing in latter April. Even as weather conditions changed and were more temperate, a few of these birds continued to occur into early May. During the first couple of days of May numbers were similar, but then the extent of occurrence lessened. By the day when the 4th be with the birds, very few were noticed among the vegetation and foraging places where they had been previously prominent.

These wonderful bits of bird life have an actually limited indicative coloration for their plumage. It is mostly associated with their head, as their front exterior has no color. Their rather drab colored lower back also has a lack of distinctive marks that might be useful to determine any indicatory marks of particular identification.

White-crowned Sparrow have been an obvious indicator of the season.