Nebraska Trifecta & More – Day 8

(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.

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… 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.


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… 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.


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.


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.

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.

DeSoto National Wildlife Refuge
Boyer Chute National Wildlife Refuge

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 5)

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).


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.


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.


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?


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.



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.)


dinner table


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


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!


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


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