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Nebraska Trifecta & More – Day 8

July 7th, 2017 No comments

(Previously on Nebraska Trifecta & More – NE Day 1, NE Day 2,  NE Day 3, NE Day 4,  NE Day 5,  Day 6, and Day 7.)

viz ctrLast days are for doing last things. But this time, the last day was an extra day. We had allowed more travel time to get back to Omaha from Burwell so we hadn’t anticipated having a whole day available for one last adventure in Nebraska…well, not only Nebraska.

Do not assume that I hadn’t added a few possibilities to my list of things to do just in case we had extra time. Yep, I knew there were two National Wildlife Refuges near Omaha that would just be perfect for filling in any extra time that we had.  So, after breakfast, we headed up the Missouri to DeSoto National Wildlife Refuge (NWR) …..which is technically in Iowa…I think.

Day_8

Nebraska Trifecta Day 8

Okay, it is in Iowa although the actual spot might have once been in Nebraska since the two states are separated by the great Missouri River. The Refuge sits inside what used to be a loop in the river…but at some point the US Army Corps of Engineers (COE) went in and cut the loop off and made a channel that made the river straighter and the leftover loop became a lake inside the refuge.  Why did the Engineers do this way back in the 1800’s, you might ask? Well, I will tell you what I got on good authority – they did it to help the steamboat industry – they cut out some of the loops on the river making it easier to navigate.  You don’t hear about that kind of thing much anymore what with all the environmental groups wanting to leave natural things alone and let rivers flow whichever way they have flown (sounding like birds now….oh my) for thousands of years.  I’m thinking that should be “flowed” now that I ponder on it…..it gets rid of the bird’s part in it if I use “flowed” instead of “flown” so “flowed” it is.  And, yes, the Government does still tinker in terraforming and manipulating rivers but maybe not as much as they did back a hundred years or so ago.

desoto on riverBut, both the “loop” that’s now a lake and the steamboats on the river both play a part in the history of DeSoto Refuge which is the first of two refuges we visited on our last day in Nebraska.  Because of the river and the locations where the bridges are built, we seemingly took the long way up to the Refuge – first in Nebraska, then in Iowa, then back to Nebraska…..seemingly for miles.

loop

I found out later, we could have just turned left out of the hotel parking lot and drove north for maybe fifteen or so miles and gotten there with a whole lot less travel time and without crossing state lines but the route we took was the one the GPS told us to take via the Interstate.  But these things happen when you’re in unfamiliar territory – you stick to the map and you go where the GPS tells you to go and sometimes it takes you the long way.

tealBut we got there all the same with no big problems. From the very start, we found birds. There are nice wetlands and impounds right along the entry road to the refuge and, although most migrating birds had left the area, there were still enough to keep our interest as we drove into the refuge.

The visitor center was quite attractive. You never know what you’re going to find in the National Wildlife Refuge system – some sites have large modern and beautifully built visitor centers and some are very small with buildings that are much more rustic and little more than an office with bathrooms, which are a good thing to have…..to heck with nice visitor centers, give us the bathrooms.

The visitor center at DeSoto was of the former type.  It was large and the architecture included just a touch of prairie style embellishments that really added to the overall effect of the building.  Almost all of the visitor centers, which are sometimes called nature centers, include small museums or natural wildlife displays and local geography type overviews to help you understand the area where you are birding. DeSoto was no different from the other refuges in that respect. But, this refuge also included a museum of another sort altogether……DeSoto has a museum which includes all the treasures found in the wreck of the Steamboat Bertrand which was lost on the Missouri on April 1, 1865……before the “loop” was removed which might explain why the loops were removed in the first place.

boat model

The Bertrand was built in Wheeling, West Virginia in 1864. She was built for river cruising in shallow water on the river.  (Who knew they ever built boats in Wheeling?) She left St. Louis under the command of Captain James Yore in March 1865 fully loaded with general merchandise and lots of mercury which was used for gold extraction (there was a gold rush going on a little further west at the time, don’t ya know).  They were headed west to the headwaters of the Missouri bound for the mining towns near Fort Benton in Montana territory. On that fateful morning in April, just about a mile from DeSoto, Nebraska, the 161 foot boat hit a snag and sunk going down in just about ten minutes flat…..gone….just like that. The passengers and crew were saved but the boat and all its cargo was lost….for just about 100 years.

carboys

It was the mercury that someone finally thought about….worth a fortune if you could find the boat and recover the goods. Two treasure hunters, Jesse Pursell and Sam Corbino, set out to find the wreck and recover the mercury in 1967….working in cooperation with the Federal Government who now owns the property.   The excavation was completed in 1969 and about 150 tons of cargo were recovered. While some mercury was recovered, the treasure hunters did not find enough to make them rich…..not even close……only 9 carboys out of the expected 500 were ever found.  (A carboy is a lead container used to transport mercury.)  I’m wondering if some previous treasure hunters didn’t get to that boat and the mercury before 1967.

betrand stuff

mud drum

But, even without all the mercury, the items that were found tell a story of life on the river in the 19th century and it is all there in the museum in the Refuge Visitor Center for anyone to see…and for various academic types to study and write about in their various academic journals. It is interesting to say the least. The only downside is that everything is stored behind glass walls so you cannot really get into the museum area and explore. Alas, it is sad but museums do have to protect things from unscrupulous thieves and….well, treasure hunters.

bertrand site

But, wait, there’s more. This had to be one of the best nature/visitor centers I have ever seen. Okay, the nature displays were nice and the Bertrand Museum was unique but what I really loved was the huge observation area at the back of the center.

obs deckRemember that “loop” from the river that became a lake (Loop Lake, by name) in the refuge? Well, the back of the visitor center has an observation area built to overlook the lake making it very convenient and very warm in the winter to come and see the thousands of migrating waterfowl that come to the river and lake each year. Most had already headed north for their breeding grounds when we visited but, having spent many winter days shivering in the cold on a refuge watching Snow Geese and Tundra Swans, etc., I can tell you that a large, warm, glassed-in visitor center built right over the lake would be just the ticket for winter birding.  As noted, I absolutely fell in love with that observation room…I really think Jerry thought I was a little bit crazy….but I’m telling you, warm birding in winter is way better than freezing birding….I’m just saying.

sparrow

We did actually find some time to bird while we were on the refuge. They have a great nature drive around the southern end of the lake and along the river.  We enjoyed about an hour roaming around outside and then headed on down to Boyer Chute National Wildlife Refuge.

Which proved to be a bit trickier than we had anticipated….because this is where we had our last, and maybe most interesting GPS glitch of the trip.  We headed out of DeSoto, grabbed lunch at the next town up the road, added the address for Boyer Chute to the GPS, and headed out.  Nothing too complicated – continue down the main drag, hang a left, drive a few miles, then another left onto a gravel road….which was not unusual, all the secondary roads were dirt roads.  We were driving along checking out the scenery and didn’t pay too much attention to the huge gravel trucks that kept passing us headed back towards town…..right up until we came to the top of the ridge and found ourselves outside the main gate of what appeared to be a quarry. The GPS showed the road continuing through the area and indicated that our destination was less than a mile away…straight ahead…….straight ahead through that gate.

quarry
We debated a moment and then decided that maybe going through a quarry wasn’t really the best idea…even if the people in the office inside the gate allowed us to pass….and there had to be another way to the refuge. So, we turned around (after we checked out the quarry view by the side of the road) and headed back down the road.

quarry 2

I did manage to talk Jerry out of knocking on the office door and asking about work. Turns out he has this idea about checking out jobs at certain industrial type places and then working for maybe a week or two until he learns all about the place – sort of like getting an extended operational tour of the place – before quitting and moving on. I reminded him that he was in his 60’s and working even a week in a quarry might be just a tad bit too much – some dreams are for younger men, I’m thinking.

We turned back onto the main road and, after going through a much smaller community a mile or so down the road, found a nice brown nature sign indicating that we should turn left again to get to the refuge.  I surmised that the old road had gone through the quarry prior to there being a quarry there and that we would find the other side of that road ahead of us prior to actually finding the refuge. And we did. But this the south side of the road had a barrier showing that the road was closed to through traffic – that would be us. A similar sign on the north end of the road might have been good too.

Boyer Chute Refuge was established in 1992, includes just over 4000 acres and is just southeast of DeSoto Refuge. Both refuges lie on the Missouri River. The name comes from a channel, the Boyer Chute, which was cut as part of a channelization project for flood control and navigation of the river. You guessed it, the Corps of Engineers (COE) again.

lewis and clark

There are two basic roads inside the refuge or, maybe just one…..turn left at the entrance to explore the north side of the chute or turn right for the south side of the chute. The refuge is much more rustic than DeSoto. While there are a few wilderness type bathrooms – composting toilets, etc. – there are no other facilities there. There are several hiking trails and, had the weather not turned cold, we might have checked them out.  At the end of the road on the south side of the chute, we did actually get out of the car and head down one trail that traversed a ditch spanned by a wooden bridge. Jerry wanted to find out what was on the other side but we had only traveled a hundred yards or so when the cold biting wind off the river cut right through our jackets and helped us to decide to cut that walk short. Crikey, it was cold there…something we hadn’t noticed up the way at DeSoto Refuge.  And what was on the other side? Well, not much really, just the trail leading down by the chute into the brush…but nary a bird in sight.

dutchmans breeches

We headed back to the car and I put the hand warmers from my gloves over my ears and held them there until I could feel my ear lobes again.  I might have looked silly but my ears were getting warm.  As we left the refuge, I noticed a road named Abbott Road – and that’s where I realized that this was the road that would take us right back to our hotel….we were just about 8 miles north of the airport and maybe a couple more to our hotel.

Our adventure was almost over. Tomorrow we would have an early wake-up and head to the airport and home.  What a successful journey it has been! We’d met our birding goals and then some. Okay, we’d only wanted to see three birds to start with but they were great birds and they were lifebirds.  We’ve chased a lot of birds in the past and we have not always been successful in seeing them….this trip was a resounding success but it was time to go and it would be good to be home.

Links:
DeSoto National Wildlife Refuge
Boyer Chute National Wildlife Refuge

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 (I80 and the Back Roads): ?? Miles
April 7 – Kearney to Calamus Outfitters/Burwell (RT 10/RT 2/RT 183/RT 96): 122 Miles
April 8 – Calamus Outfitters/Switzer Ranch/Calamus Lake: @ 25 miles around & about.
April 9 – Calamus Outfitters to Omaha (via Route 11 and Interstate 80): 247 Miles
April 10 – DeSoto NWR & Chute-Boyer NWR: 69 Miles
April 11 – Omaha, NE to Baltimore, MD: 1153 Miles

Sites Visited Thus Far: 
ADM Grain Company Driveway (Day 2)
Audubon’s Rowe Sanctuary (D3 & D4)
Boyer Chute National Wildlife Refuge (D8)
Calamus Outfitters & Switzer Ranch (D6 & D7)
Calamus Reservoir (D6)
Crane Trust (D3)
Dannebrog (D7)
DeSoto National Wildlife Refuge (D8)
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)
Happy Jack’s Chalk Mine – Unfortunately closed (D7)
Higgins Memorial (D2)
Louisville State Recreation Area (SRA) (D7)
Mormon Island State Recreation Area (SRA) (D3)
Platte River State Park (D7)
Townsley-Murdock Trail Site (D2)
Windmill State Recreation Area (D4)

birds d8

Nebraska Trifecta & More (Day 7)

June 22nd, 2017 No comments

(Previously on Nebraska Trifecta & More – NE Day 1, NE Day 2,  NE Day 3, NE Day 4,  NE Day 5, and Day 6)

And we’re back in the dark, back in a blind made from recycled school buses – three this time.  It’s not as cold as yesterday but still quite chilly and quite dark. And the Meadowlarks are singing again helping us to welcome the warm morning sunshine. But this time, we’re looking to check Prairie Chickens off our list of birds to see in Nebraska.

Was it just as amazing seeing the Prairie Chickens as it was seeing the Sharp-Tailed Grouse the previous day? Absolutely!

The dance is different – the Prairie Chickens do not lower their heads as much but they boom louder and blow out their neck pouches further.

There were more females who walked around ignoring the dancing males….and more males dancing for them.   By the time we left the blinds, we had seen twenty one (21) males and five (5) females. We only had nine (9) males and three (3) females at the Grouse Lek the previous day.

The Prairie Chickens moved around more and moved faster than the Grouse did in their dance so photographs were even more difficult to take. Because the Prairie Chickens did not have those special tail feathers, they did not have the “clicking” sound that the Grouse did when they danced.

As I noted, the Meadowlarks continued to sing throughout our time at the Lek.  We also had a marvelous flyover of maybe two hundred Forster’s Terns. I couldn’t imagine so many Terns out in the middle of Nebraska so far from the ocean but there they were flying overhead and swooping down low over the Lek as if they too wanted to see what the Prairie Chickens were up to way out there in the Sandhills.

I inadvertently did something right when we first got to the Prairie Chicken Festival at Calamus Outfitters and had to sign up for activities.  As I stood in line waiting for my turn at the clipboards, I noticed that everyone wanted to see the Prairie Chickens first so were crowding around that particular clipboard adding their names to the list. Thinking that the tour would be getting too full, I opted instead to sign us up to see the Sharp-Tailed Grouse on the first day (Saturday) which would mean we’d see the Prairie Chickens on the second day (Sunday).

This turned out to be a great decision. As suspected, the Saturday Prairie Chicken group turned out to be the larger group and that meant more people sharing the blind. As we were in the smaller group of 22 people, we had more room to spread out in the blinds….more room and less jostling for position…..and the guides had fewer people to deal with so could provide more individual attention to us in answering our questions.  As noted above, at the Prairie Chicken Lek there were three buses so the guide was able to separate the professional photographers from the rest of us thereby giving them their own bus/blind and making them happier since they could use their tripods and gear that they wouldn’t normally be able to use in a crowded blind.

Again, the time passed too quickly and way too soon, we were back on the bus and headed to breakfast and the end of the festival.  Time to bid farewell to the Prairie Chickens, Sharp-Tailed Grouse, White Pelicans, Forster’s Terms and those beautifully singing Meadowlarks and head back to Omaha and home. We’d made the Trifecta – we’d ticked the three target birds off the list – Sandhill Cranes, Prairie Chickens, and Sharp-Tailed Grouse. But we’d also caught a few other lifebirds so we had already deemed the trip a huge success. Now, we had start the journey back home……it was time to leave Switzer Ranch and Calamus.

Our original plan was to take Route 11 south to Saint Paul and then take Route 92 straight across to Omaha. Route 92 would roughly parallel Route 30 which was the road we had taken on our way west to see the Sandhill Cranes at Gibbon. However, we had decided that Route 30 wasn’t the scenic route that we thought it would be and now we figured that the landscape around Route 92 would be equally non-scenic. So, we decided to head straight to Interstate 80 and take the fastest possible route to Omaha….so the plan was Route 11 to Saint Paul and then Route 281 to Grand Island, then jump on the Interstate 80 to Omaha.  I knew there were a few state parks near the Interstate so, depending on how quickly we traveled, we might just be able to squeeze in a park or two along our way.

So, off we went – heading out on Route 11, driving straight through Burwell and south along the Loup River.

There was one stop I wanted to make on the way to Saint Paul – Happy Jack Peak and Chalk Mine.  We found it easily enough – it was right on the highway but, alas, it was closed – it was Sunday, after all – so we were not able to tour the mine.  Guess you have to leave some treats for the future. We were able to look down the hill and see the mine entrance and see Happy Jack Peak overhead.

Happy Jack is one of two chalk mines in the country and the only one that offers tours to the public….again, maybe next time.

At some point I realized that we could bypass Saint Paul and maybe Grand Island because Route 11 would take us on a straighter path to the Interstate….so we decided to take 11 all the way. And what a great idea that was….because we found Dannebrog.

Dannebrog was a bit unexpected – a quaint town worth visiting just because, well…..it is a neat small town with Scandinavian flair. Dannebrog is unique in that, in 1989, the Nebraska State Legislature proclaimed it to be the Danish Capital of Nebraska. Why, I didn’t even know that Nebraska had a Danish capital and here we were driving right through it.

The town was founded in 1871 when Lars Hannibal led a group of Danish immigrants from Wisconsin to the area and settled near Oak Creek. The town was named Dannebrog after the red and white Danish flag.  Although the original plan was that the town would be solely inhabited by Danish immigrants, immigrants from other nationalities (Germans, Czechs, Poles, and Swedes) also came to Dannebrog and made their homes there.  But do not be dismayed, there are still plenty of people of Danish descent in Dannebrog. Why, they have a festival every year in June just to celebrate their Danish heritage. (Hmmm….future road trip, perhaps?)

We took a quick drive through the town and stopped to get some photographs of the local church.  Some of you may be familiar with my “old country church” blogs so will understand that I took time to stop and see a church but not the local museum.

As I was taking a photo of the church, I noticed a cool little tractor planter in the yard behind me so I swung around to get a photo of that….only to be “busted” when I heard a voice behind me informing me that taking photos of that particular tractor on private property would cost me $100.  I smiled my most charming smile – at least I tried to be somewhat charming…and got ready to explain myself. Right off, I noticed that he was wearing a baseball cap indicating he had served in Vietnam. I introduced myself, thanked him for his service and told him that I might consider paying for the photograph if I could get him to pose with that little wooden tractor.  I got the best end of the deal in the end. I got to meet one of the town’s best named “Muley” who agreed to let me take the photos, reduced the price to $0, and gave us a short summary of Dannebrog’s history. He highly recommended that we go on down to the end of the road and check out the old cemetery inasmuch as I seemed to like old churches I ought to like cemeteries too. He was right about that.

Well, you gotta check out the old town cemetery – right? Especially if it’s recommended…how could you not? So, we drove on down the road until the road gave out and ended right at the cemetery gate. It was beautiful – old oak trees and old lichen-covered tombstones that reminded me more of South Carolina than Nebraska. It was quiet and peaceful on this Sunday morning as we wandered through the tombstones noticing the dates and names (mostly Scandinavian) and I pondered that there were so many souls laid to rest here……so many lives…..so many stories that we will never know…voices gone silent now for so many years.

Then we spotted a Red-Headed Woodpecker – then another – and then another – four in all. “Oh my goodness”, to quote Shirley Temple! Now, we’ve seen Red-Headed Woodpeckers before but not very often. In fact, I think maybe we’ve only seen four (4) in the past twenty (20) years or so since we’ve been chasing birds. To see four (4) all at once when we weren’t even looking for them was just too fantastic.  That turned out to be a great recommendation from our new friend Muley of Dannebrog…and that is why meandering around is what we do most of the time…..you just never know what you are going to find…..Danes and Woodpeckers right there in the middle of no-where Nebraska.

But too soon, we were back on the road and zipping east on the Interstate – at 75 MPH…..boom-shacka-lacka.  We took a detour and explored Platte River State Park (SP) which turned out to be a nice park for youth camping – good looking cabins and lots of recreational things to do…but not so much for peaceful birding at least not this day when there were kids everywhere. I think it would probably be great for walking and birding during non-camping season or, say early in the morning but not on a sunny spring day. Amazingly, Platte River SP does not have access to the river although it sits right on a ridge overlooking the river – talk about false advertising in parks.

The park ranger recommended we also check out Louisville State Recreational Area (SRA) a few miles down the road which does have river access…so we did. It was also set aside for recreation and camping but had the river, several small lakes, and lots of green space for camping and picnicking so there seemed to be more opportunities to see birds. It was a sunny spring day and quite warm which means the park was filled with day trippers and campers enjoying picnics and fishing and plenty of kids just running around being kids who seemed to be rejoicing that they were finally outside after being cooped up all winter. (Okay, they seemed to be making lots of noise.) We did a drive-through and saw a few good birds including Yellow-Rumped Warblers and lots of domestic ducks/hybrids. We looked around but didn’t tarry too long in the park.

It had been a long day and we still had to get to Omaha and get a hotel room for the night.  We found the Holiday Inn near the airport where we stayed our first night in Nebraska with no problems and checked in for two nights. One more adventure day before we headed home and I knew just where I wanted to spend that last day – DeSoto National Wildlife Refuge.

 

Links:

Burwell
Switzer Ranch/Calamus Outfitters
Happy Jack Chalk Mine
Dannebrog
Platte River State Park
Louisville State Recreational Area (SRA)
DeSoto National Wildlife Refuge

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 @ Kearney & Gibbon (Interstate 80 and the Back Roads): ?? Miles
April 7 – Kearney to Calamus (Route 10/Route 2/Route 183/Route 96): 122 Miles
April 8 – Calamus Outfitters, Calamus Lake: Maybe 25 miles around & about.
April 9 – Calamus to Omaha (via Route 11 and Interstate 80): 247 Miles

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)
Dannebrog (D7)
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)
Happy Jack’s Peak & Chalk Mine – Unfortunately closed (D7)
Higgins Memorial (D2)
Louisville State Recreation Area (SRA) (D7)
Mormon Island State Recreation Area (SRA) (D3)
Platte River State Park (D7)
Townsley-Murdock Trail Site (D2)
Windmill State Recreation Area (D4)

birds spotted D7

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