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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

Nebraska Trifecta & More (Day 3)

May 10th, 2017 2 comments

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

In planning our trip to Nebraska, I had scoured the AAA guide and another guide I had bought about out-of-the-way sights everyone should see and I had gone through the National Geographic Road Atlas  Adventure Edition and a Nebraska Atlas….and then there’s Google and Bing Maps online, not to mention checking eBird for birding hotspots in the state. This process can take several weeks as I check for parks, preserves, and wildlife refuges. Of course, the first priority was seeing the Sandhill Cranes and so that’s where I started – Google Nebraska and Sandhill Cranes and you will find Rowe Sanctuary very quickly. So that was ground zero so to speak but there would be lots of ground to cover in getting there and I wanted to take every opportunity possible to see what birds and attractions we could see along the way.

So, with all that checking and searching and listing and figuring, I had come up with twelve places I absolutely wanted to see and eleven more places that I categorized as “maybe, if there’s time”.  So far, I’d seen two sites from the “maybe” list – the Townsley Murdock Trail site and the Higgins Memorial – and one site from the “definitely” list – Freemont State Recreation Area (SRA). But, now it was time to get busy on the “definitely” list and the “where the cranes are” places on the maps. And the fifty mile area from Grand Island to Kearney (kar-nee) was supposed to be it – Crane city all the way and we were ready to see some Cranes.

I suppose I thought that there would be Cranes everywhere. After all, what do you do with half a million birds that are about 5 foot tall and trying to bulk up for a long flight to their Arctic breeding grounds? I’m thinking you’d see those birds everywhere….but, so far, on this trip we hadn’t seen a one. We’d driven more than 160 miles into Nebraska, crossed plains and rivers and hadn’t spotted a single Crane. Being the worrier that I am, I began to wonder if I had dragged my long-suffering husband all the way to mid-America on a wild goose – errrr, Crane – chase.  I fretted that the warm weather had encouraged the Cranes to head on up north and they had all departed maybe a day or so before we got there. If you have followed my bird chasing in the past, you might have noticed a trend – I seem to have a habit of being a day late and a dollar short on these things. Hadn’t I driven all the way to Flamingo Point in the Everglades only to find no flamingos?  And, then hadn’t we driven all the way around Yellowstone Park to discover that there is no fishing allowed at Fishing Bridge?  Now, had I arrived in Nebraska only to find that there were no longer any Sandhill Cranes on the South Platte River????

So, it was with some excitement and some trepidation that we headed out from Grand Island to start seriously looking for Cranes…..and I had a plan, of course….always got a plan whether it works or not. My “definitely” list included three sites to see in and around Grand Island before heading on down towards Kearney. I had eliminated one location – the Coney Island Café – when we arrived. While the internet site shows a photo of a snazzy café from the 1950’s era, the actual café was a very nondescript place in a strip of shops downtown and the reviews weren’t so good for the food so I decided it wasn’t worth backtracking into downtown just for lunch. There was also a very important site nearby at Wood River – Crane Environmental Trust & Visitor Center (also known as Crane Meadows).  So, day 3 would be an exploration of these sites around Grand Island. If time permitted, we might also take a look at the Stuhr Museum of the Prairie Pioneer. Most important to the day’s activities would be getting to Rowe Sanctuary by 6:00 PM where we had reservations for the evening viewing of the Cranes…..if there were any left in Nebraska.

But first, we pause for our second GPS glitch of the trip! We entered the address for Mormon Island in the GPS – 7425 US 281 – and we were on our way.  What I didn’t enter was “south” US 281 so the GPS took us on a path to the north. We started thinking we might be going away from the Interstate and we knew that the park was near the Interstate….but then the GPS informed us that we were nearing our destination and, looking around, we saw farms and cattle ranches but no park and no river.  Using Google Maps on my phone (my trusty backup), we turned around and headed south again. But all was not in vain, on the way to US 281, we found Eagle Scout Park and some pretty good birds – Snow Geese, Canada Geese, Collared Doves, more Red-Winged Blackbirds, and, of course, American Robins.

First planned stop – Mormon Island State Recreation Area.  

The site where the park is located was formerly a stopping point on the Mormon Trail used by Mormons (Church of the Latter Day Saints) on their way from Navoo, Illinois to the Great Salt Lake Valley. In the 1800’s, the Mormons were seemingly constantly on the move trying to find a place to set up their stronghold without persecution.

The Mormon Trail which is about 1300 miles long is now the Mormon Pioneer National Historic Trail and ran roughly along the same route as the Oregon and California Trails. The Mormons chose to travel along the north side of the Platte River to avoid conflict with travelers on the Oregon Trail just to the south.

Today there is little at the park of the Mormons or the trail except for the name. There also isn’t really an island. The park sits right along Interstate 80 and just a hop, skip, and a jump from the Platte River (after you cross the Interstate, of course). It is a lovely park with several small lakes (the island effect?) and offers hiking, camping, fishing, and some boating on the lakes).

For us, it was about the birding.  We saw good birds there but most would be instantly recognizable to birders back home. The Eurasian Collared Dove is one bird that seemed to be settling in nicely in the west but is still quite the rarity back east. There were also some ducks and Scaups that lingered on the lakes and had not yet started their northern migration. There were quite a few Red-Winged Blackbirds and, you guessed it, plenty of Robins.

After an hour or so birding the park and just looking around, we headed down to Wood River and the Crane Trust.

Crane Environmental Trust Visitors Center

I’d like to say we saw thousands of Sandhill Cranes at the Crane Environmental Trust…but we didn’t. We took the Interstate (80…since it is the only Interstate in Nebraska and from this point westward parallels the Lincoln Highway, US 30) and we did see maybe 100 Cranes flying over right at the exit for Wood River. We followed their flight to a field along the road and stopped to try to get a good look and grab some photos but the birds landed in a farmer’s field that we could not easily (and probably legally) get to so, with our hopes high we headed on over to the Crane Trust Visitor’s Center. Imagine our dismay when the volunteer at the center informed us that the Cranes had already left the area. In fact, she was surprised that we had seen the birds along the highway. She advised us to take back roads in a westerly direction towards Kearney and check out farmer’s fields if we wanted to see Cranes.

In the meantime, we checked out the Visitor’s Center, which was very nice and had some very good displays. We saw a Snow Goose and a Ross’s Goose in the display area that helped to confirm my tentative identification of a pair of Geese we had seen at Eagle Scout Park as Ross’s Geese. The center also had a nice hiking path and a bridge across the river that looked pretty inviting so we got binoculars and cameras and headed out on the trail. We had noticed that the western sky looked gray and cloudy but I decided (against Jerry’s good advice) that we had plenty of time to hike a mile or so and see what birds we might find on the preserve that might be interesting. You never know, we might find a stray Crane or a life bird or two. Who knew?

Well, we got about a half mile down the path and just over the bridge when it started raining, of course, and we quickly headed back to the Center….but not quite quickly enough. We had only taken a few steps on our way back when the rain turned to sleet or hail and then both. Oh my! We were stung and pounded for five minutes or so and then it was icy cold rain again. We had picked up our pace considerably and were soon back under the shelter of the back deck at the Visitor’s Center….and then the rain stopped and the sun came out beautifully. Right! We gave the sky another look – more gray clouds to the west – and turned away from the trail and headed on back to the car and decided to drive west along those backroads that the nice volunteer had mentioned.

We meandered along the back roads through farm country for an hour or so without seeing much so we took a turn to the right at the first road we came to (not many choices) that headed back north to the Interstate. Once on the Interstate, we headed west to Kearney. We had decided to find our hotel for the next two nights and rest a bit before heading up to Rowe Sanctuary. And, what do you suppose we found all along the Interstate where stopping to look is not such a good idea when the speed limit is 75? You guessed it, Sandhill Cranes….everywhere in the fields along the north side of the highway.  Although we couldn’t exactly stop and spend time admiring the big birds, it was a relief to me (Jerry always knew they’d be there) to know that the Cranes had not yet departed on the rest of their migration.

And now it is time for GPS glitch number 3. It was another south-north issue with Route 10 that runs straight through Kearney. Our hotel was the Holiday Inn Express on the south side of town and on the other side of the Interstate but the GPS took us to the address on the north side and we found ourselves at Taco John’s with no hotel in sight.  Now, I have to ask myself why cities and postal authorities use the same address number for two sites on different sides of a highway when in actuality the two sites are less than two miles from each other. Seriously?  I’m not sure the GPS is at fault here.

Well, at any rate, there was a very large Holiday Inn with a huge convention center about a mile from the wrong address so we stopped in and asked about the Holiday Inn Express which was just a little over spitting distance down the road. While we were there, we asked how a small town like Kearney could support so many hotels and a Convention Center no less. Well, there’s a rather simple explanation. Remember in Day 2 that I wrote about the Lincoln Highway running from NYC to San Francisco?  It turns out that Kearney, Nebraska is just about halfway to San Francisco so in the early days of the highway, Kearney became a big check point for people traveling on the highway.  But that still doesn’t really explain why there are so many hotels there today. Then again, it does. If you are a large corporation with offices all across the US and you’re looking for a spot about halfway to have those corporate wide meetings and retreats, then Kearney is the place for you. Now, I’m not saying that there’s a lots to do around Kearney but it is just about halfway across America.  (Per Google, the actual median is just a few more miles west at an even smaller town called Cozad. It seems Kearney is about halfway if you’re measuring “train” miles which were what was being measured back at the turn of the century when someone decided Kearney was the halfway point.)

At last, we found the hotel, checked in and, after a couple hours resting and a light supper, we headed out to make our appointment at the Sanctuary.

Audubon’s Rowe Sanctuary.

It was just about an hour before dusk when we checked in at the Sanctuary which sits right on the South Platte River. The only people allowed into the Sanctuary in the evenings are those who have reservations. We gathered with the others in the visitor’s center for a short video about the Sanctuary and the Cranes and an overview of what we should expect and how we should behave – no talking above a whisper on the trail or in the blinds, no repeat-clicks on our cameras, phones muted, photographs only when the guides allowed, no flashlights other than the red filtered ones used by the guides, no noise whatsoever, etc.  The photographers who had paid for the special full night viewing (really?) set out first and headed to their blind. Then a smaller family group left and everyone remaining formed the largest group that included us. With some excitement, we headed out to the blind. We had about a half mile walk and were soon quietly settled at our spots in the blind. After a bit of shuffling for the best views (I went for the sunset view), we were all accommodated and the wait began. At this point, the river was quiet and there really wasn’t much going on so we waited….and we waited…and we watched the sun slowly start sinking down towards the river. After about 20 minutes of waiting, most everyone left their viewing spots unguarded and decided to wait on the benches provide. I sat while Jerry guarded our spot….he’s good like that.

While we waited, we birded – there was a great kingfisher and some Canada Geese and a few birds here and there. Then we were wowed by a Bald Eagle swooping in and then a Northern Harrier. Everybody and every predator was there waiting for the birds to come on down to the river.

And then they came. At first, there was just a few Cranes and then a few more and then a few flocks and then more and then hundreds and then thousands. Where had they all been when we were out riding down dusty dirt roads this afternoon? Oh yeah…over by the Interstate.

The birds just kept coming. The guide told us that probably about half of the Cranes had already departed north on their migration so there were maybe about a quarter of a million left in Nebraska. During the day, they scattered to the countryside to graze on the leftover grains and corn in the fields but at night, they all gathered together for protection on the river. And the Platte River was just perfect for this. It is a wide river – some say “a mile wide and an inch deep” – and it is very shallow with hundreds of tiny sandbars where the Cranes come to roost for the night.  Because of the sandbars, the river is said to be “braided” running here and there around these sandy islands….like many of the rivers in Nebraska.

As the Cranes came in, they started to land on the sandbars, first one and then another and by the time we lost all light, the islands were covered with birds all settling in and preening and chattering among themselves. The sounds of the birds talking and calling out to each other had been overwhelming at points. The whole scene was just breathtakingly beautiful. The sounds of the Cranes chattering followed us as we quietly stowed our cameras, left the blind and headed back to the visitor center. We had been amazed and awed by this show….a show that had been occurring annually every year since the dawn of time…. a marvelous display of one of God’s wonderful creations!

We headed back to the hotel – mission accomplished and then some.

(The cost for viewing the Cranes at the Sanctuary is $20 per person and reservations have to be made well in advance….we had made our reservations way back in early January….best $40 I’ve spent in quite some time!)

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

Sites Visited Thus Far:

ADM Grain Company Driveway (Day 2)

Audubon’s Rowe Sanctuary (D3)

Crane Trust (D3)

Eagle Scout Park (D3)

Freemont State Recreation Area (SRA) (D2)

Higgins Memorial (D2)

Mormon Island State Recreation Area (SRA) (D3)

Townsley-Murdock Trail Site (D2)

Birds Spotted On The Trip Thus Far – Total Species Identified – 36:

American Bald Eagle         American Coot                      American Crow

American Goldfinch         American Kestrel                   American Robin

Belted Kingfisher            Canada Goose                           Common Grackle

Dark-Eyed Junco            Double-Crested Cormorant   Eurasian Collared Dove

European Starling          Feral Pigeon                              House Finch

House Sparrow               Killdeer                                       Lesser Yellowlegs

Mallard                             Mourning Dove                         Northern Cardinal

Northern Harrier            Northern Shoveler                   Red-Tailed Hawk

Red-Winged Blackbird  Ring-Billed Gull                       Ross’s Goose 

Ruddy Duck                     Sandhill Crane                         Scaup, Lesser & Greater

Snow Goose                     Song Sparrow                           Tree Swallow  

Wild Turkey                     Wood Duck

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