Archive

Archive for the ‘Nature’ Category

Nebraska Trifecta & More (Day 6)

June 12th, 2017 2 comments

cropped-cropped-Good-Birding-to-You.jpg(Previously on Nebraska Trifecta & More – NE Day 1, NE Day 2,  NE Day 3, NE Day 4, and NE Day 5.)

It’s dark.

And it’s cold.

And the wind just won’t stop blowing…..which makes the cold even more biting….especially to someone sitting in the dark trying to be perfectly still and quiet.  No talking is allowed in the blind where I sit shivering and holding my breath worried that I might make some inadvertent noise that would not only ruin the adventure for me but also for everyone else huddled in this blind.

The blind is an old yellow school bus with all the seats removed along with all the windows along one side of the bus. We sit as comfortably as possible on plastic folding chairs that we’ve pulled up to the window openings as closely as we can where we are straining to hear…well, at this point, anything……anything that might signal that there is something out there in the darkness in the Lek besides us.

Lek define1

And then as if on cue, we hear the clear beautiful sounds of a Western Meadowlark as he sings to greet the morning sun. Then, faintly at first, we start to hear the clicking and booming of the Sharp-Tailed Grouse, our target bird.  Suddenly, it sounds like they are all around us but we are still totally in the dark and I try with some difficulty to follow the sounds with my eyes to catch even a fleeting glimpse of the birds to no avail.

As the sky lightened behind the bus/blind, I could sense movement out there in front of me in the dark. Jerry leaned over and whispered asking me if I could see the white tails out in front of us along a small ridge about forty feet away.  I couldn’t…but that’s why we have binoculars so I raised the glasses up to my eyes and…..behold, the birds were there….right there in front of us.

grouse at dawnThe Grouse were spread out all along the little ridge which formed the outer edge of this Lek. They were “dancing” – heads down, wings spread, walking to and fro, clicking and booming all over the place.  There was a little preening, some strutting…and just a few territorial squabbles among the males doing the dancing.  Without the binoculars – nada; with the binoculars – a whole lotta shaking going on.

dancing2As the morning sun filled the Lek and the blind with warmth and light, we could see more clearly, the cameras came out and the soft click and whir of photographs and videos being taken added to the sounds around us. Everyone had put electronics on mute so the predominant sound would be the clicking and booming of the birds in front of us.  We didn’t dare speak or make any sound that might scare the birds away.

Of course, the males were the ones doing all the dancing – trying to get the attention of one of the females who had started to show up about daylight…. after the males had been dancing for some time. And, as expected, the females walked around the Lek nonchalantly as if there weren’t even any males there at all let alone dancing right in front of them. They acted as if they just couldn’t be bothered with all this nonsense.

female grouse2

sharp tailAnd then, a female Prairie Chicken showed up! Two life-birds for us in one fell swoop!  We had signed up to see Prairie Chickens tomorrow so this little female was a preview of things to come. But what was she doing here at the Grouse Lek?

hybridAnd the appearance of the female raised another question. We wondered if Prairie Chickens and Sharp-Tailed Grouse ever mated….being that their Leks were relatively close together in the Sandhills and the birds were somewhat similar. Jerry whispered the question to our guide who pointed to a bird right there in front of us in the Lek…..a bird that looked a little different…a little bit bigger than the other Grouse males and with coloring just a little bit “off” when compared to the others…..it was a hybrid.  He was quite the dancer…..the guide told us (in whispers) that, although the hybrid had been coming in to dance for several years, there was no indication that the he had ever been successful in breeding with or producing offspring with any of the Grouse females.  The hybrid hadn’t been seen up at the Prairie Chicken Lek so perhaps he thought he was a Grouse rather than a Prairie Chicken.

dancing

sexy2I took an unbelievable number of photos.  I knew that many were destined for the digital trash can on my computer so I took as many as possible in the time allowed hoping for some good ones. Too soon, it seemed the guide alerted us that it was time to go. We headed out of the opposite side of the bus and walked silently and quickly back down the hill to where another old yellow school bus was ready to take us back to the ranch.

Creeping awayThe rest of the day was scheduled to be a blur of tours and activities…we needed a break after such an amazing morning. So, after breakfast and a presentation on Bald Eagles, everyone else set out on festival activities and we headed back to the cabin for a brief rest. The cabin was actually a small house that we were sharing with two other couples……..note to self – next time, get there for an early check-in so you get the master bedroom and not one of the extra bedrooms.  The house has a lovely view of Gracie Creek so after a nice shower, I found a big ole easy chair in front of the picture window and just contented myself enjoying that view and any birds that happened to come along.

GracieWe headed back to the big barn at the ranch for lunch and afternoon activities….which for us meant birding around the Calamus Reservoir Lake.  But first, there was a presentation on land management and the arduous task of removing non-native Spruce Trees from the Sandhills.  I’d never thought about trees being the problem but it appears this non-native species has become quite invasive and is changing the ecosystem but not in a positive way. So we learned more about controlled burning than I ever thought possible…such is the way of briefings at conventions.

straw flowersThe festival offered optional tours for the morning and afternoon giving participants three options that would allow one to do two out of three – a ranch tour, birding at the lake, or birding around town at Burwell. As noted, we rested during the morning tours and took the lake birding option for the afternoon.  We opted to follow the school bus this time in our own vehicle….lots more comfortable that way.

waxwingsWe enjoyed the afternoon birding which started near Gracie Creek so that everyone could get good looks and photographs of the American Pelicans there. The weather had changed…the sun had brought warmth and the wind died down….for the first time since we’d traveled north into the Sandhills…..and without that breeze, it got downright hot. We spotted lots of fishermen – the people kind as well as the bird kind – along the lake and quite a few picnickers as all the locals seemed to come out to enjoy the beautiful day

owlThe prize of the day though (well, other than the Grouse) had to be the Long Eared Owl that was nesting right there on the ranch. I had seen a group of people heading out and looking like they were intent on something over in the trees by the cabins. I took a chance and followed them taking a moment to wave wildly at Jerry to come too. If you’re out and about and see a bunch of people standing and gazing upwards into a tree, then you’d best follow them and see what’s going on.

The reward was the afore-mentioned Owl – rare even for Nebraska. She was nesting up in one of the trees and we could only see her head and those long ears…but it was enough. I tried to get photos but there were just too many branches and twigs in the way…this mama had chosen her nest well.  But just to see the bird was enough to get me doing the “lifebird” dance. Yes, it was turning out to be a great trip.

storytellerEvening brought dinner and a wonderful presentation by a local storyteller, Ms. Cherrie Beam-Callaway, who was just amazing. One minute she was giving us an overview of how she got into telling stories in the first place and the next she was a lonely pioneer living on the prairie with her husband and ten children just trying to survive the harsh winters and never ending wind and sand. I was spellbound as she told “her” story which actually was a concoction of the stories of many pioneers that the storyteller had gathered over the years. She had stitched them all together flawlessly into one fifty year saga like some scrap-work quilt detailing the hardships for one small family living on the prairie in the late 19th century.

Since we had just visited the Dowse Sod House, in my mind, this strong Irish immigrant and her family was living right there in that little house near Comstock.  I could see them going about their daily chores, cooking, sometimes getting together with friends, working the fields, rounding up cattle, growing what vegetables they could in that unyielding ground, and generally just living out their lives trying to make do.  Okay, I realize that the Dowse House wasn’t built until 1910 and really wasn’t associated with these stories at all……but in my imagination, it all worked out somehow…..so much so that, when the storyteller recounted the horrors of a great raging thunderstorm that flooded the area and tore out one whole wall of the little sod house destroying almost everything they owned, I could see it happening right there to that tiny house we’d just visited.

Needless to say, this was one talented storyteller and she ended the evening with a bang for us. After the presentation, we found that we’d been sitting at the table with the lady’s husband and grand-daughter both of whom looked very twenty-first century and had been discussing the lack of wi-fi and which roads to take back to Omaha so that the grand-daughter could practice her driving skills.  Back to reality it is…

We headed on back to our cabin intent on getting to bed early that night…..the next morning we’d be up before dawn again and looking for Prairie Chickens. We were ready.

robin

Links:
Sandhills of Nebraska.
Burwell
Switzer Ranch/Calamus Outfitters
2017 Prairie Chicken Festival
Gracie Creek
Calamus Lake.

Itinerary:
April 3 – Baltimore, MD to Omaha, NE (via Minneapolis, MN): 1153 Miles
April 4 – Omaha to Grand Island (via Route 30): 160 Miles
April 5 – Grand Island to Kearney (via Interstate 80): 49 Miles
April 6 – Meandering around Kearney and Gibbon (Interstate 80 and the Back Roads): ?? Miles
April 7 – Kearney to Calamus Outfitters/Burwell (Route 10/Route 2/Route 183/Route 96): 122 Miles
April 8 – Calamus Outfitters/Switzer Ranch, Calamus Lake: Maybe 25 miles around & about.

Sites Visited Thus Far:
ADM Grain Company Driveway (Day 2)
Audubon’s Rowe Sanctuary (D3 & D4)
Calamus Outfitters & Switzer Ranch (D6 & D7)
Calamus Reservoir (D6)
Crane Trust (D3)
Dowse Sod House (D5)
Eagle Scout Park (D3)
Fort Kearney Historical Park (D4)
Fort Kearney State Recreation Area (SRA) (D4)
Freemont State Recreation Area (SRA) (D2)
Gracie Creek (D5 & D6)
Grandpa’s Steak House (D4)
Great Platte River Road Archway (D4)
Higgins Memorial (D2)
Mormon Island State Recreation Area (SRA) (D3)
Townsley-Murdock Trail Site (D2)
Windmill State Recreation Area (D4)

Birds spotted

Nebraska Trifecta & More (Day 5)

June 1st, 2017 2 comments

If you missed Days 1 – 4 of this series, you can catch up here (NE Day 1, NE Day 2,  NE Day 3, and NE Day 4).

sandhills

The Sandhills were calling. Not the Cranes – the prairies and the Sandhills of Nebraska. The plan this morning was to sleep in, have a leisurely breakfast, pack up and drive back to Grand Island, then take the Sandhills Scenic Byway (Route 2) due west over to Route 183 and then head north to Burwell.  That was the plan but the plan didn’t take into consideration that we had become smitten with the Sandhills – the Cranes – and we needed just one more opportunity to see these wonderful birds before we headed on to the next birds in our Trifecta. So, while we were being called by the Sandhills (the hills) to leave, we were also being lured by the Sandhills (the birds) to stay.

cranes at dawn

So, sleeping in and the leisurely breakfast were plans were canned and we jumped up at dawn and headed up to Gibbon for one last look at the Cranes. We knew that going to the Sanctuary was out – we hadn’t made reservations for a morning visit to the blinds and the visitor center would not yet be open at that time of morning. But we also knew there was an observation deck at the bridge right up the road and we hoped we’d get good views of the Cranes heading out from the river for a day of feasting in the cornfields.

There were a few people at the deck on the river but not many Cranes. And we discovered that sitting in the chilly morning air watching a group of about 100 birds sitting in the river and waiting for them to depart the river in small groups of three or four at a time wasn’t as thrilling as we’d supposed. Seeing a Wild Turkey sitting high up in a tree across the river was pretty cool….and watching the Swallows swooping up and down over the river was also very cool…..but the Cranes were a bit boring just sitting there in the river. Wow, did I just say that? Well…they were…actually. We were not to be dismayed though because we knew that there would be plenty of action along the road behind the Sanctuary that we had found on the previous day…so we headed there.

Bobwhite

We were not disappointed. The farmer’s pond was hopping with Teals and Shovelers. The Meadowlark was singing again up by the road sign at the corner and we saw several Ring-Necked Pheasants – the males – strutting around the fields looking for love this fine spring morning. This time though, we got a special treat when a female Pheasant flew out of her hiding place and swooped right across the road in front of us. And at the blind, there were plenty of Cranes and Snow Geese and Killdeer. As we left the blind and headed back to the hotel, we spotted several Northern Bobwhite Quail moseying around grazing along the side of the creek right across the road from the blind. Nice!

The birding was great but we knew we couldn’t linger any longer. Burwell and the Prairie Chickens were waiting for us up north and we needed to check in at Calamus Outfitters in the afternoon.  So, it was back to the hotel, grab a quick bite to eat, and toss everything into our bags and head for the Sandhills.

Map day 5

Our original plans to travel back to Grand Island to connect with the Sandhills Scenic Byway (Route 2) were altered. We opted to travel north straight through Kearney on Route 10, intersect with the Scenic Byway at Hazard, then travel northwest on Route 2 over to Ainsley where we’d pick up 183 and head north past Taylor and on up to Route 96 taking us right to the Switzer Ranch/Calamus Outfitters just north of Burwell, NE.  Not too big a change – we just cut off part of the Sandhills Scenic Byway.  I had only one real stop planned along the way – the Dowse Sod House which was off Route 183 somewhere between the highway and Comstock.

sandhills 2

But first, let me say a little about the Sandhills. I suppose I was thinking of great dunes of sand like you’d see near the coast. But all I saw was low grass-covered hills stretching into the horizon on either sides of the road. Although the guidebooks mentioned lots of wildlife like Bison which I thought would be totally awesome to see, we didn’t see any Bison…or much else…just grass and a few small towns. The towns were small and the hills were endless…and, oh yeah, the wind never stopped blowing. Can you imagine being a pioneer and traveling across this endless country with no roads and no clear landmarks, just more hills and the wind constantly blowing lots of, you guessed it, sand into everything? We were in this lovely climate-controlled car so didn’t get the full impact of the wind but still I could sense the utter loneliness and despair that a small family traveling in a covered wagon might have felt traveling across this land.

sand and thatch

As we drove, we started to notice areas where the hillsides were cut away to accommodate the road and the ever-present railroad tracks and the truth was revealed. These hills were, in fact, made of sand with maybe five or six inches of thatch growing on top. Sod….like one big sod farm.  I’ve read that there are several different kinds of grass growing there but it all looked the same to me.

There weren’t any trees to speak of – not wonder the houses were made of sod. I wondered how anyone could possibly have farmed this land. Seriously? Once you plowed off the thin layer of grass, there would be nothing left to plow – no nice loamy topsoil left in which to plant crops. You might get one crop the first year but, after that, the wind would just blow the land away. There just wasn’t anything to compost once that layer of thatch was gone. Yep, I could certainly understand dust storms.  I was later to learn that the successful farmers raised cattle, not corn or grain. The cattle grazed on the thatch but didn’t destroy it so could be moved from pasture to pasture year after year without totally decimating the land. But still, it would have been a hard and very lonely life. On the other hand, now I know where those delicious Omaha Steaks come from.

dowse

We found the Dowse Sod House with very little trouble. (Now, how is it that our GPS could not find a great big ole Holiday Inn in Kearney because it was on the south side of the road rather than the north but managed to find a little house made of sod in the middle of nowhere with an address that was basically mile something or another on a dirt road with just a number and no name?)  I had heard this old sod house was one of the few, if not the only, sod houses left in Nebraska so, seeing that it was somewhat near the main road, had added it to our “definitely” list.

The Dowse Sod House (or the William R. Dowse House) is a small house made of sod that was built by the Dowse family in 1900 and occupied by the family until 1959.  It was restored in 1981 and opened as a museum in 1982. I don’t want you to think that this is a museum in the usual sense.  The house is there but there weren’t any people there – no docents or anyone minding the store so to speak – just a house in the middle of the sandhills.

open door

To our delight, we found that the door was unlocked – after we’d peeked in all the windows trying to see inside, Jerry decided to try the door. Apparently, the door is always unlocked so that a visitor can just walk in and explore the place from top to bottom. What an amazing concept – that a “museum” is open to anyone who just might show up and want to take a look?

phone

So who makes a house out of sod? Well, in an area with few trees, a sod house could be built relatively easily and quickly at little cost which was important to the pioneers, many of whom had put their life savings into the wagons and oxen that brought them out to the prairie. Per Wikipedia, the sod was cut into large squares – maybe 20 inch squares – and stacked row upon row to build walls. Some had just sod on the roof also but others had a rudimentary framework of wood covered in tar paper with a layer of sod. On the inside, the walls were shaved smooth and plastered with lime or a mixture of clay and sand or ashes to keep out the bugs and make it a little more airtight.

stove

piano

The sod houses were relatively comfortable because of the thick walls which made the house cool in the summer and well insulated in the winter. And the thick walls were proof against the ever-present winds and storms. It is interesting that people continued to build and live in sod houses even into the middle of the twentieth century although wood was made available in the area by the advent of the railroad many years earlier. The Wikipedia site for the Dowse House gives a great deal more information about the house, how it was built, and about the family who lived there for over half a century….way more than I can provide, so I will refer you to that article for more information. (By the way, the house, although a museum now, continues to be maintained by members of the family and I must say, it was very neat and clean…considering all the sand, it was relatively dust free.)

stairs

dinner table

bedroom

We found the house fascinating and explored every room except we didn’t attempt the steep stairs up to the attic.

poem

home book

The grounds also contained old farm implements that Jerry spent a good deal of time examining…his favorite was a horse-drawn contraption that appeared to be used for running barbed wire along the fields for making fences. Thankfully, it was not motorized so he couldn’t spend time trying to get it cranked up and moving so he could better see how it worked. (We might still be there if that were the case.)

patching plaster

pocket knife

barbed wire

Then it was back to the highway and, after a stop for photographs of a church or two around Taylor, and a trip on down to Burwell for lunch (lovely local restaurant called the Sandstone Grill that I would highly recommend if you find yourself there with time on your hands), and then we checked in at the Switzer Ranch/Calamus Outfitters for the 2017 Prairie Chicken Festival.

The festival started that evening with supper – prepared by the Sandstone Grill – and an overview of Prairie Chickens and Sharp-Tailed Grouse – bird numbers 2 & 3 on our Nebraska Trifecta. There were several guest speakers to open the festival and we learned way more about land management and controlled burns to rid the prairie of invasive spruce trees that were destroying the prairie ecosystems than we ever thought we’d want to know.

On the way back to our cabin, we took a side trip down to the reservoir to Gracie Creek where we had spotted some big white birds that I thought might be Snow Geese so wanted to check them out. Nope. They were American White Pelicans – hundreds, maybe thousands of them, on Calamus Lake. This was totally unexpected. We had never seen so many White Pelicans before…just amazing!

pelican

We were well on our way now to having this Trifecta mission accomplished….and then some.

Itinerary:

April 3 – Baltimore, MD to Omaha, NE (via Minneapolis, MN): 1153 Miles
April 4 – Omaha to Grand Island (via Route 30): 160 Miles
April 5 – Grand Island to Kearney (via Interstate 80): 49 Miles
April 6 – Meandering around Kearney and Gibbon (Interstate 80 and the Back Roads): ??
April 7 – Kearney to Calamus Outfitters/Burwell (RT 10/RT 2/RT 183/RT 96): 122 Miles

Sites Visited Thus Far:

ADM Grain Company Driveway (Day 2)
Audubon’s Rowe Sanctuary (D3 & D4)
Crane Trust (D3)
Dowse Sod House (D5)
Eagle Scout Park (D3)
Fort Kearney Historical Park (D4)
Fort Kearney State Recreation Area (SRA) (D4)
Freemont State Recreation Area (SRA) (D2)
Grandpa’s Steak House (D4)
Great Platte River Road Archway (D4)
Higgins Memorial (D2)
Mormon Island State Recreation Area (SRA) (D3)
Townsley-Murdock Trail Site (D2)
Windmill State Recreation Area (D4)

Birds Spotted On The Trip Thus Far – Total Species Identified – 46: table photo

%d bloggers like this: