Nebraska Trifecta & More (Day 4)

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:


Wind and Water – Netherlands (May 15, 2013)

In a previous blog I stated that “all” of the Netherlands is below sea level.  Well, that was a windmill 1bit of an exaggeration that I will correct with this entry.  I looked it up – yep, I googled it – just to get a fact or two straight.  Per Wikipedia 1 (whatever did we ever do without Google and Wikipedia?), about 20% of the total area of the Netherlands is below sea level with about 50% of the land being less than 1 meter (about 3.28 feet) above sea level and 21% of the population living below sea level.  There is a mountain named Mount Vaals (Vaalserberg) that is 322.7 meters (1,059 feet) above sea level.  Mount Vaals is shared by Germany and Belgium so it is not totally within the boundaries of the Netherlands but it does mark the high point for that country.  To give you some perspective on that, Mount McKinley in Alaska (highest point in North America) is 6,194 meters (20,320 feet).  Closer to home here in Maryland, Sugarloaf Mountain is 391 meters (1,282 feet).  So, if you have visited Sugarloaf, you can imagine that it is slightly higher than the highest point in the Netherlands.  And Mount Vaals is not representative of most of the landscape in the Netherlands…there is a reason the Netherlands are call the Low Countries.  Most of the land that we saw on our recent visit was below sea level or just at sea level and all of the towns visited were filled with canals and dikes.  It was definitely a case of “water water everywhere”.  So what do you do if all, or most of the land, available for living and farming, is either underwater or very, very wet? If you’re in the Netherlands, you build dykes and you harness the wind to help you move as much as you can.  Which windmill 2brings us to two of the three reasons anyone might visit the Netherlands, namely to see windmills, check out the dams and dykes, and to see tulips.  I am sure there are other reasons to visit, maybe buy some diamonds, but, for me, these are the big three – windmills, dykes, and tulips.  And if you want to see windmills, you go to the UNESCO historical site Kinderdijk where there are 18 windmills still working and you can learn everything you ever thought you might want to know about them.

Before I go further, this blog is not intended to be a tutorial and I am certainly not the authority on anything related to the Netherlands or my big three interests from my visit there.  I only share some of the things I learned from the trip, most of it gleaned from the information provided by the various tour guides and from my aforementioned sea level data check using Google and Wikipedia on the Internet.

Growing up in the south, I am very familiar with grist mills and have visited a few that are preserved – some still working grinding meal for tourists to see — over the years. I suppose, in my mind, I associated windmills with grist mills and somehow figured that windmills would be pretty much the same.  Of course, that is nowhere near the truth.  Grist mills in the US are water driven mills whose function is to grind grains, mainly corn, into meal to be used for cooking bread.  But windmills in the Netherlands use the wind to power screw technology to move water from one area to another.  About the only similarity is that the mills use natural power sources, wind or water, to provide the power.  I do believe the Dutch also used a type of windmill to grind grain but they mainly used windmills to remove water.  And they were doing it from way back in the 13th century.

windmill 3But, back to windmills… noted, as early as the 13th century, windmills were being used to pump the water from one area (usually a lower lying area) to another area (a river or lake).  The land that was created is a polder which seems to be an island that is below sea level.  As more land was cleared, the polders became bigger.  A row of windmills would be built on the dykes to keep the water cleared from the polders.  As one canal became filled with water and prone to overflow, another row of windmills would be built at a higher level with another canal or man-made lake until the water could be pumped to the main river and eventually out to sea.  As such, the windmills are built on tiers of land so that the water is gradually raised to the sea level and can flow out to sea.  Although the old windmills are not used today (except those at the UNESCO site at Kinderdijk) for this purpose, there are modern pumping stations that still use the old Archimedean Screw  2 technology to keep the land dry.  Essentially, the technology involves the use of a very large screw which is placed inside a hollow pipe.  The whole thing is placed in the water on an angle with the bottom of the screw in the water and the top of the screw at the higher level where the water is to be dispensed.  As the screw turns, the water is pulled into the bottom and moves up the screw until it comes out at the top.

windmill 4While the Archimedean Screw is still used for pumping water, the windmills are not.  The industrial revolution brought in the use of steam engines and, now huge diesel engines provide power to the pumping stations.  But, with all the wind still readily available for use in the Netherlands, no one has given up on the use of windmills. They just changed the design and function.   Huge modern steel windmills dot the landscape generating electricity.  Having used windpower for hundreds of years, it was probably a no-brainer for the Dutch to graduate to generating electricity using the technology….and from the number of windmills in the countryside, I do not believe there was as much controversy about using the new windmills in the Netherlands as there has been in the US.

windmill 6One final thought about windmills.  Like lighthouses where the keeper lived inside the lighthouse, the miller also lived inside the windmill.  The accommodations were pretty tight and pretty rustic considering that the parts of the windmill pretty much filled the windmill.  The windmills at the UNESCO site are also inhabited by the “millers” who operate them.  However, I do not believe the millers actually live solely within the windmills; I suspect that the furnishings we saw in the windmill were for our benefit and the miller and his family live in the outbuildings nearby.  The guide told us that there are 2 professional millers at Kinderdijk and the rest were in training.  She mentioned that there was a waiting list to become a miller and to live in the mills and operate them.  We were lucky enough to see a windmill operating (at tremendous speed) and to see the miller come by to stop the mill before he left for the day.

windmill 5Okay, that’s windmills but what about those dams or dykes?  The Dutch had “water management councils” or waterschappen from as early as the 12th century.  We were told that the “water manager” for a town was much more important than any other Government official for the farmer’s livelihood and even the lives of the people depended on the keeping the water at bay.  The mayor might have thought he was the big cheese but he pretty much did what the water manager told him to when it came to the dykes and the windmills and keeping the town dry.

Basically, water management consisted of the dikes, canals, and pumping stations (windmills).  The earliest water management methods consisted of trying to block the water from coming in from the North Sea and the Zuiderzee or Southern Sea.  At first, I think it was a case of a little here and a little there…..block this stream, build up that bank, add a little dirt here and a little there. Smaller and simpler dams were built in the beginning and made bigger and stronger as time passed.  Dykes were connected to create much bigger dams.  Canals between the dykes were built to allow water to flow out at low windmill 7tide but blocked to prevent water from coming in again at high tide.  Dams were high ground so people settled and built their homes on the dams.  And so you have Amsterdam which was built on the dam on the Amstel River. And, yes, that is the river which has a beer named after it.  Similarly, you have Rotterdam which was built on the dam(s) on the Rotter River.   In Amsterdam, the main part of the original dam is called the Dam Square.  And all the trams run through it and all the tour groups meet there.  After a long day of walking on uneven cobblestones, it is not unusual to hear the tourists walking around lost going up one canal street after another looking for that “damned square”….then again, maybe it was just me that said that.

Clearly over the years the bigger issue was not allowing the water to go out to sea with the low tide but stopping it from coming back in with the high tide. And over the years, the dykes failed and had to be rebuilt which was made more difficult because every time the tide came in while the dyke was being repaired, it breached the dyke again.  This went on for centuries.  And each time the land was flooded with salt water, it took years for the land to become suitable for the plow and growing crops again.  I found myself wondering if this is why the Dutch say that they “reclaim” the land implying that they had to keep clearing the same land of water over and over again.  The windmill 8last big natural flood was in February 1953. Prior to that some areas of the southwestern part of the Netherlands were flooded by the Allies in their efforts to stop the advance of the Nazis in World War II.  I’m sure it made sense to the Generals and tacticians to breach the dykes and flood the land but it must have been devastating to the people trying to survive anyway to have their farms and fields flooded leaving them without homes during this war.  Then, less than 10 years later, they’re flooded out again with hundreds lost and drowned when natural forces broke the dams.

Today, there are two main systems of dykes in the Netherlands.  The Zuiderzee Works on the Zuiderzee (Southern Sea) in North Holland and the Delta Works in South Holland and IMG_5697Zeeland.  The Zuiderzee Works was built in 1932 in the north and created the IJsselmeer (IJssel Lake).  Interestingly enough, we were told that the water in the Ijsselmeer is fresh water and that closing the lake off to the tides of the Zuiderzee effectively destroyed the fish and seafood industry in that area. The water runs into the lake from the rivers and streams and is carried out to sea with the low tide but blocked from returning with the high tide so it remains essentially fresh or only slightly briny.  The Delta Works in the south was begun in 1958 and finished in 1997. It was the Delta Works dykes that we visited and photographed.  You can see on the photograph included that the dykes consist of a series of gates that can be opened in different combinations to control the flow of water into and out of the area.

While we were touring these areas, I just could not help thinking of the islands in the Chesapeake Bay that are slowly being eroded away and wondered if the Dutch would not have taken a different perspective on whether or not to let nature take its course.  I also pondered whether or not New York City and particularly Manhattan Island would be the metropolis it is today had it been originally settled by some group other than the Dutch East India Company.  It is New Amsterdam Mapmy understanding that the southern end of Manhattan Island was originally very swampy and prone to floods of the surrounding rivers.  Where other colonists might have seen too much swamp and not enough landmass, the Dutch were probably not the least bit put off by the marshes and wetlands.  They had access to the Native Americans for fur trading and access to the sea for shipping the furs….what better place to build a town.  I found this photo of an old map on line – check out the canals — of course they would build canals; it was technology they knew well.  And they called it New Amsterdam, what else?

If you’re still interested and looking for way more information on dams and dykes and windmills –