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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 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.

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)

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:

 

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