Posts Tagged ‘nature’

Nebraska Trifecta & More (Day 4)

May 27th, 2017 5 comments

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

I suppose you could subtitle this blog “wandering around Kearney and Gibbon” because that is pretty much what we did. It was not exactly a rest day but it was a day betwixt and between that was not filled with miles we had to travel to get from one place to the next and there were no reservations or appointments we had to keep.

There were a few places we wanted to visit along the river which seemed to be a hotspot for state recreation areas and wildlife management areas (WMA’s). Since I wasn’t really sure about the dates for hunting season in Nebraska and WMA’s are usually more rustic in terms of access roads, we elected to check out the SRAs and do a little more birding around Rowe Sanctuary.

First stop of the day? We had previously noted the large ponds/impounds out back of the hotel and decided to check them out. The site looked like a sand dredging complex with a look of industrial activities – lots of trucks and gated roads. It didn’t hurt that we had seen large flocks of Snow Geese from the window of our room and it seemed only right that we check out these birds on our way out this morning.

So, we headed out back, through a parking lot, down an access road, past the hockey arena and over towards the ponds and the geese. We were not disappointed. There was a large flock of Snow Geese interspersed with Canada Geese, a scattering of Red-Winged Blackbirds, and a few Killdeer. The highlight was getting close looks at several grey or blue morph Snow Geese. Not bad birding and a good start for the day. You just never know where a birding hotspot is going to be. Birds are sometimes in the most unlikely of places and not always in the preserves and refuges where you would expect them to be….although what goose can resist a good pond in the morning?

Then it was back onto Interstate 80 and heading up to Gibbon. You may recall that Gibbon is where Rowe Sanctuary is located – well, close to Gibbon since it is rare to find a wildlife sanctuary inside a town. As you can imagine, we never really saw Gibbon and I’m not sure it was more than just a small country community. But we did spend some time at a few places outside the town.

Our first stop was…well, second after the ponds beside the hockey arena….. Windmill State Recreation Area (SRA).

According to the guides and the parks website, Windmill SRA was supposed to have something like eighteen (18) old windmills that have been restored to working order and on display in the park.  This sounded like something I wanted to see and Jerry was good with it. After all, what red-blooded male doesn’t want to see oversized mechanical things whirling and clacking and grinding away at something?  Otherwise, the park provides camping facilities and walking paths and recreational facilities along a string of lakes that are located right alongside Interstate 80.

The site was originally known as Windmill Crossing and was the location that the Pawnee Indians used to ford the river on their annual buffalo hunts.  I’m not sure why the Pawnee Indians would name a river crossing after a windmill since I’m not sure they were known for using windmills….so I suspect the name came later from the area’s use as a stopover for pioneers moving along the Mormon or Oregon Trails. Perhaps, a windmill had been erected to pump fresh water from one of the lakes. Who knows? All right – maybe the Pawnee were big on windmills.

At any rate, the oldest windmill was supposed to be an 1880 Standard that was moved down from Fleming, Colorado where it had previously been used to pump water for steam locomotives.  Since we only found two (2) windmills in the park (how can you miss something as big as a windmill?) and I have no idea which is the Standard model, I will post the photos and you can decide for yourself.

Overall, the park was a nice one and the lakes still had a few Scaups that had not yet migrated north. Our most exciting bird encounter involved the Sandhill Cranes. The guides at Rowe had told us that the warm sunny weather predicted for the next few days would be ideal for the Cranes to start the next phase of their migration. We had been advised to watch for the birds kettling using the northwest winds to aid them on their journey. For those who are not familiar with the term “kettling”, it is a term for the activity some birds do whereby they fly in a circular motion in large groups moving ever higher into the sky allowing them to catch the thermal updrafts and save energy as they prepare for migration.

Per the explanation for a kettle at Wikipedia, the term may be derived from a location near Hawk Mountain, Pennsylvania called “the Kettle” or “der Kessel” in Pennsylvania Dutch where hawks, eagles and other raptors are known for such behavior. Others say that the term comes from the idea that the birds flying in a circle gives the appearance of being in a pot of boiling water…or, in this case,  a swirling vortex of warm air.  At any rate, we were thrilled to see hundreds, if not thousands, of Sandhill Cranes kettling overhead just as we drove into the park. It was beautiful….we stopped right there in the road (hey, it’s a park and there was no one about), jumped out of the car and stood there for at least 30 minutes totally amazed at the spectacle. The birds had started low and flew higher and higher until they were totally lost in the vastness of the beautiful blue sky. We wished them well on their journey and then continued on our own journey.

Besides the Cranes and the aforementioned Scaups, there were Red-Winged Blackbirds, Common Grackles, a Collared Dove, a couple Canada Geese, two beautiful Northern Flickers, and the ever plentiful American Robins.  We had not gone anywhere in Nebraska that we did not see lots of Robins….they were literally everywhere. After a couple days, we started to get a little concerned if we didn’t see a mess of robins at every place we stopped.

After exploring the SRA, we headed outside the gates to Fat Jack’s or something like that where we took a much needed bathroom break, got gas for the car, and found, to my delight, freshly popped popcorn for sale. Of course, I got a big bag…who wouldn’t?

Then it was over the Interstate and back to Audubon’s Rowe Sanctuary where we bought the T-Shirt as one must when one travels to new places. How else do you say that you’ve been there and done that if you do not buy the T-shirt…or other such trinkets? We chatted with the volunteers there who gave us all the scoop on the joys of volunteering at the site and how we should volunteer should be ever be looking for something to do in March and April in some future year. While there is no pay for the job, the Sanctuary does provide lodging for the volunteers during the time they volunteer each season. Although it is pretty cold in Nebraska in March, it might not be a bad deal to consider going on a “Crane” holiday one year in the future.

Although portions of the Sanctuary were closed during the Crane migration and hiking was limited, we had noticed a road (dirt, of course) running past the Visitor Center and off into the countryside through parts of the Sanctuary so decided to explore it. After all, we’re the meandering kind and there’s nothing lovelier for birding than a good dirt road on a warm sunny day. We were rewarded right off the bat when we discovered lots of fields filled with lots of Sandhill Cranes. Then there was a great farmer’s pond with Blue-Winged Teals and Ruddy Ducks. And, if you have a pond and field with birds, you’re gonna see a Hawk or two doing a little hunting.

Roaming on down the road, we were totally delighted to find a Ring-Necked Pheasant strutting across the field obviously trying to catch the attention of some female we could not see. As we came to a bend in the road, we spotted a Western Meadowlark perched on the “curve” sign singing his heart out….just a lovely day altogether.

Towards the far backside of the Sanctuary property, there is a small creek that empties into the river that attracts waterfowl and cranes. A vehicle pull-off with a blind has been built there by the road that makes a great spot for watching the birds on and around the water. Why hadn’t the staff at the Visitor Center mentioned this great spot?

It was marvelous and we spent a little time there before moving on down the road…..and more road and more road…all of it dirt.

Bird sightings dwindled so I entered the next SRA into the GPS and we were on our way to Fort Kearney SRA which turned out to be a nice camping area with a few small ponds and a good biking trail but not too many birds (of course, it could be the time of day – afternoon – was not really good for birding)…but there were plenty of robins, if nothing else.

Next stop – Fort Kearney Historical Park which was really small and just about what you’d expect – a good park but devoted more to historical events in the area than birding. There was a small museum there but we opted not to check it out. It was late and we were hungry so we headed back to the hotel…which turned out to be just a few miles away. Turns out we had circled back around from the Gibbon area to Kearney in our meandering along the back roads. We got lunch, took a quick break, and headed to our third – maybe fourth – stop of the day.

The Great Platte River Road Archway is a large museum spanning Interstate 80 which commemorates the movement of the pioneers along the various trails (Mormon, California, Oregon, etc.) and the building of the Lincoln Highway (Route 30/Interstate 80) across the west. For those who like such things – the Archway weighs 1,500 tons, spans 308 feet across the highway, includes about 79K square feet, sits 30 feet above the roadway, includes 24 mannequins based on the faces of real people, covers about 170 years of history, and cost about $60M to build. Besides us, other noteworthy VIP’s who have visited the museum include President Bill Clinton who visited in December 2000.

The museum had been recommended to us as a neat place to visit and very interesting….not that the fact that it spanned the highway wasn’t incentive enough…so we decided to give it a go. The museum was not crowded on this afternoon….well, I think we might actually have been the only visitors at the moment we entered the building although there were some folks looking around outside. Since I’m not crazy about crowds, it was ideal.

We were met at the door by docents dressed in pioneer costumes and pointed to the ticket window to get tickets and listening aids for the programmed guided tour and then we headed up the escalator and started the tour.

It was an interesting tour and museum in that it wasn’t your typical museum with loads of artifacts and antiques to see and learn about. Rather, it was more experiential in that displays were set up like dioramas. You clicked on the display number on your listening device and the speaker would explain the display to you. It was time-consuming and took way more time that I thought was needed but we did learn quite a bit about the early pioneers and travelers along the trails and the Lincoln Highway.

Let me take a moment and give one story that goes along with the photo I’ve included showing a statue of two children speeding off on a horse. It seems that these two young boys, the Martin Brothers, are very well known in the history of the area.  In the Indian uprising in 1864, George Martin and his two sons were working in the fields loading hay when they were attacked by a band of Sioux Indians. As the father tried to fight off the Indians, the two boys jumped on a horse, riding double, and headed home. As the boys fled the scene, one of the Indians fired an arrow at them. The arrow passed through Nat’s body and lodged in Robert’s back….knocking both boys off the horse. The Indian, thinking they were pretty much dead, did not bother to check further and so, fortunately, did not scalp them.  Both boys survived although Robert never recovered from the back injury. Per the reports, Nat lived to tell the story of his escape to his grandchildren.

After the museum, it was nap time at the hotel. What else?

Before supper, we did a little birding in a neighborhood near the hotel. Grandpa’s Steak House, sadly, is no longer in business but it lives forever as a hotspot on eBird and it warranted our checking it out.  There was a small lake behind the former restaurant which explains the eBird connection. It would have (and probably still does) attracted waterfowl during the winter. We did spot Snow and Canada Geese there along with a Collared Dove or two and a couple of House Sparrows that have made a nice nest behind one of the large white letters on the building’s façade. We rode through the neighborhood by the lake, spotted a few Northern Shovelers, and then encountered a Wild Turkey strutting through the neighborhood as we drove out through the community gate.

Afterthought: A few things we have discovered that Nebraska doesn’t have so far –

Vultures – we have not spotted a single vulture, neither black nor turkey since we arrived in the state. So who cleans up roadkill?
Crows – maybe we’ve seen two…..all those corn fields and no crows?
Osprey – the guide at Rowe Sanctuary said he had never heard of Ospreys when we asked about the birds.
And, of course, no Canada Dry Ginger Ale as I mentioned in a previous blog in this series.


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)

Sites Visited Thus Far:

ADM Grain Company Driveway (Day 2)
Audubon’s Rowe Sanctuary (D3 & D4)
Crane Trust (D3)
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 – 42:


Nebraska Trifecta & More (Day 2)

April 28th, 2017 4 comments

If you missed Day 1 of this series, you can catch up here (Nebraska Trifecta & More – Day 1).

The plan for the day was to find our way to Route 30 also known as the Lincoln Highway and travel across Nebraska westward and then south towards Grand Island.  The Lincoln Highway was first transcontinental roads and runs from Times Square in NYC passing through fourteen states on its way to Lincoln Park in San Francisco, CA.

The map shows Route 30 running right along the Platte River and, knowing that the Platte River was where the Sandhill Cranes were supposed to be, it made sense to take a road that tracked with the river across the eastern part of Nebraska. And, according to Google Maps, the distance between Omaha and Grand Island along Route 30 would be 160 miles with “no traffic” which would take approximately three and a half hours.  Now, that “no traffic” was music to my ears. It seemed to be just the kind of road that we loved – a back road along a river. Much has changed since the Lincoln Highway was the only highway across the state headed east & west.

I had determined that, all things considering, the best way to get to Route 30 was to go right through the middle of Omaha via Route 6 also known in town as Dodge Street.  I came up with an address in Omaha on the GPS and plugged it into and we were ready to go. I just wanted to get to Dodge Street which seemed to run straight through Omaha…it was only a few miles, maybe ten, and Omaha was not too large and we were well past rush hour when we headed out so it shouldn’t be too difficult or take too long. We turned right out of the hotel and then about a mile later, we turned left just before the bridge at the Missouri and there we were, right in the middle of a riverfront park. What better place to bird than a park right on a river!

We were less than a mile from the hotel and were at our first stop.  You can see why it takes us so long to get anywhere on our road trips. We do quite a bit of meandering. Our current record for most time taken to get someplace is a 2005 trip to the Outer Banks of North Carolina. Most people can do that trip from Annapolis, Maryland in a good six hours but we took just about four and a half days to get from our house to Kitty Hawk, NC. On this trip exploring eastern Nebraska, we only had three hard stops. We had to be in Gibbon at the Rowe Sanctuary at 6:00 PM on Wednesday, April 5th to see the Sandhill Cranes; we had to be at Calamus Outfitters in Burwell by 3:00 PM on Friday, April 7th for the Prairie Chicken festival; and we had to be back at Eppley Airfield in Omaha by 9:00 AM on April 11th for our flight home. Otherwise, we had time to explore. Like all vacations, it seemed like we’d have plenty of time for meandering but, by the time we headed home, we realized we didn’t have nearly enough time to do everything…… but it was enough altogether.

But, back to the birding at Miller’s Landing at the Park along Riverfront Road in Omaha. The park was very birdy this morning and a lovely spot on the river. We did not see any new birds; most were the common birds we see in the eastern part of the US.

We did see a lovely red squirrel with fuzzy ears that we had never seen before back east. We also saw the first of what would be hundreds of American Robins – Nebraska seems to be crawling with Robins in the spring. On the other hand, we started to notice that there was a bird species that is so ubiquitous back east that we were not seeing – the Vulture – neither Black nor Turkey Vultures were to be seen.

The park also included the first of several interpretive monuments we would see on our trip that identified the stops on the Lewis and Clark Expedition.  You can take a “self-guided” tour of the whole expedition by following the stops on the Lewis & Clark Trail.  This first monument commemorated the expedition landing on the Missouri River here between Council Bluffs, IA and Omaha, NE.  There is also a beautiful suspension bridge – pedestrians only – here crossing the Missouri and seemingly connecting the two cities (we did not cross).

Then it was time to push on through Omaha and find our way to Route 30 (via Route 6/Dodge Street and Route 275 to Fremont).  Getting through Omaha was not bad – we didn’t travel through the city as quickly as I had hoped but, then again, it is the largest city in Nebraska so getting to the other side took a little time. We stopped along the way to get photos of a couple churches (one of my other photo vices which also include wildflowers and animals of any kind) and old buildings. We spotted the Mutual of Omaha building standing proudly above the others and, although we ate at a Perkins Restaurant one morning, we never spotted Marlin Perkins although I suppose it would have been creepy if we had since he died in 1986.

Before you knew it we were at Fremont and heading west on Route 30. We immediately got a feel for the prairie and for long flat lonely roads. We pondered how desolate it would have been to the pioneers traveling across this country with nothing in sight but more prairies – flat grasslands as far as the eye could see. And there were no roads back then – they just ran their wagons along a trail through the grasslands and, if the trail could not be determined by the wheel ruts of wagons that passed before, then the only alternative was to cross new ground.  On our last night at Calamus up near Burwell, a storyteller spoke at the festival. One of the things she spoke about in her “story” related to the endless days with no change in the scenery – day after day of pressing forward into the unknown – and the need to stay north of the river so that you never had to take the wagons across the river where they were most likely to get stuck in the wet sand and wetlands around the river. Alas, for the pioneers there were no roads and no bridges either.

And we’re back to the river – well, the road did follow right along the river but was about 2 miles away so we rarely saw the river at all. I scoured the maps to see if there were roads closer to the river that we could take – even for a few miles – but there really weren’t.  While there were side roads that appeared on the map to go down near the river, almost all were perpendicular to the river (i.e., they go down and then you turn around and come back) and very few ran parallel to the river.

I have to pause a moment and talk about roads in Nebraska.  If you’re in the city or on a highway or on a state road, you’re traveling on pavement but pretty much everything else is dirt. In the east we are used to dirt roads out in the boonies that are “rocked” with granite chips about once a year or so but, in Nebraska the side roads – and pretty much all of them are side roads – seem to be flat hard sand. If there are rocks mixed in with the sand, they must be very small pebbles which make sense in creating a hard surface on packed sand for automobiles and tractors. So, we learned quickly that getting off the main road meant getting onto a dirt road.

We also noticed right off that the railroad track does run parallel to the highway both running almost straight as an arrow towards the horizon. (Okay, that’s an old steam engine we found in Columbus… longer working, of course. On the other hand, we did see quite a few trains as we traveled west not to mention getting stopped at a crossing at least twice on the way.)

About every five miles (Jerry started tracking it), we would come to a set of large grain silos and a small community which seemed to be built on one side or another of the road and railroad track rather than all around the silos and on both sides of the road. And that was all. There might be a gas station or a convenience store but little else of note.

And we discovered that there are no WaWa’s in Nebraska and we only saw 7-11’s in the larger cities but there were plenty of Casey’s General Stores. Since WaWa is an east coast thing, I didn’t expect to see them but was surprised that there were few 7-11’s. For the most part, there were large farms and lots of tractors. I really do not recall seeing lots of McMansions along the way. There were some big old houses in some communities and some rather large ranch houses way out in the fields…..this was farm country, pure and simple.

We noticed a very large granary between Fremont and Columbus that I wanted to photograph. It was more of a grain processing plant I think by the size of it. The drive up to the granary turned out to be a pretty good birding spot since there were wetlands (unexpected) along the drive that added American Coots and Ruddy Ducks to our trip list.

Then we were back on the road again. We made a snack stop in Schuyler at a Casey’s (our first) and discovered they did not have ginger ale. How could that be? No ginger ale? So, we stopped at a Walmart (aren’t they everywhere?) in Columbus and finally found one two liter bottle of Seagram’s (I swear it was the only one). We asked a store clerk about Canada Dry Ginger Ale and got a bit of a blank stare before she directed us back to the soda section “if we have any” which they didn’t. It wasn’t until we got back to Omaha, well, actually Carter Lake, Iowa that we found a store that carried Canada Dry Ginger Ale.

Since we were at the Walmart, we grabbed a sandwich from Subway and headed to a memorial I had on my list of possible places to see on the trip. Route 30 hadn’t offered much by way of parks or preserves to see along the way. We did a quick drive-through at the Fremont State Recreational Area (SRA) but there wasn’t much there to see. It was more of a fishing and camping park that wasn’t very busy or birdy this time of year although the small lakes were nice.  So, although I hadn’t planned on stopping at the Higgins Memorial Park since it was more historical than parks related to birds, etc.,  we decided it might be a great place to take a break, look around, and have lunch. So, I plugged the address into the GPS and we headed to the park.

And, this is the spot that gave us our first GPS glitch. When you travel, there are always locations or addresses that can cause a little problem with the GPS and you end up either lost or just maybe taking a longer route than you had anticipated. So, we followed the GPS and ended up in a very nice park – with some of those little red squirrels with the fuzzy ears – with a dead end street that the GPS insisted we should follow. At GPS moments like this, I resort to Google Maps on my trusty smart phone – my unfailing back-up. I routed us through a neighborhood and over to the main road which we crossed and entered the park that included the memorial. It turns out that the underpass from one side of the park to the other was closed for repair so I really cannot blame the GPS – stuff like this happens. It is always good to have a back-up plan and a couple of paper maps.

The Higgins Memorial turned out to be quite interesting and the surrounding park was lovely on a beautiful spring day. It wasn’t too birdy this day so we contented ourselves eating lunch and checking out the Memorial. Andrew Higgins is credited with designing and building landing crafts that were used in World War II. You know these boats – they look like metal boxes with flat bottoms that are used to transports troops from ships to beaches that push up close to a beach and drop a ramp so that  the troops can come pouring out onto the beach ready for combat. The boats were especially useful in storming the beaches at Normandy on D-Day (June 6, 1944). According to the memorial and the website, Dwight D. Eisenhower (famous US General in WWII and the 34th US President from 1953 – 1961) called Andrew Higgins the man who won the war for us”. Since Higgins was born in Columbus and raised around the Platte and Loup Rivers where flat bottomed boats were typically used on the shallow rivers, the memorial is here at Columbus.

After Columbus, the road turned south and we headed on towards Grand Island our destination for the day. There weren’t a whole lot of parks along Route 30 but we did get a great feel for the land and the towns along the rivers.

There was one last site I wanted to visit before we called it a day and headed to a hotel – Townsley-Murdock Trail site. This is supposed to be the only place in Nebraska where you can actually still see the imprint of pioneer wagon wheel ruts in the grasslands. It is not a big site and not easy to find. But the guidebooks I had read had given me the crossroads and GPS coordinates and enough information to get us there. And still we passed it and had to go back since it is really not much more than a sign on the side of the road. But we found it and….well….I have to say, there isn’t much there except for that sign. It is supposed to be the one spot on the Mormon Trail near the Wood River Crossing that had not been disturbed since the pioneers used that route.

The wagon ruts are said to be visible in the swales of grass growing there but we had to really use our imagination to see what we might call wagon wheel ruts on the trail. There did appear to be something but it appeared that people had walked through the area so it was difficult to tell if the “rut” was from a pioneer wagon a hundred or so years ago or from a day-hiker last week. I thought about rummaging through the grass to see if I could find a rut underneath but that seemed like way too much trouble at the time and the authorities probably wouldn’t appreciate me digging at a monument site.

Finally, we headed on over to a hotel, checked in, and called it a day. Tomorrow we would explore some parks around Grand Island in hopes of finally seeing some Sandhill Cranes and maybe some more of those fuzzy eared squirrels.


April 3 – Baltimore, MD to Omaha, NE (via Minneapolis, MN): 1153 Miles

April 4 – Omaha to Grand Island (via Route 30): 160 Miles

Sites Visited Thus Far:

ADM Grain Company Driveway

Freemont State Recreation Area (SRA)

Higgins Memorial

Townsley-Murdock Trail Site


Birds Spotted On The Trip Thus Far:

American Coot

American Robin

Canada Goose

Common Grackle

Double-Crested Cormorant

European Starling

House Sparrow



Mourning Dove

Northern Cardinal

Red-Tailed Hawk

Ring-Billed Gull

Ruddy Duck

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