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.
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?
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.
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!