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Jim and Charlie Gallagher
mostly Sylvia, perhaps a little by Jim and probably nothing from Charlie
Installment: APRIL 28 - May 25, 2005
April 28, 2005
RV Park, Osceola, MO
pm, Fri., April 29, 2005
RV Park, Osceola, MO
. . . .Two cold, cloudy days with rain off
and on, mostly off this time. Despite the forecast, we've had very
little, but the dark skies and the threat kept us close to the trailer.
High temp. yesterday was in the low 50's, and we just checked our little
outdoor thermometer and it read 44'. Brrr!
. . . .This gave us some time to get caught
up on the necessities of everyday life. Yesterday I spent the morning
in the none-too-clean local coin laundry. The machines worked well,
though--and the price was a figure I haven't encountered in at least a
decade. I used five washers and five driers and only paid $6.50 to
get everything dry. Most driers say 25¢ to dry, but you have
to put in quarter after quarter to get the clothes dry. These ran
long enough on one quarter to dry everything except Jim's jeans. By the
time I got everything folded and the bed made (always a major hastle in
the trailer), the morning was over.
. . . .This morning I bathed Charlie and defrosted
the refrigerator, then picked out colors for another embroidered bird.
. . . .After lunch I decided to take a walk
around the campground and down to the arm of the reservoir that's not far
away. American Goldfinches are here by the hundreds and twittering
away in the tops of all the trees like House Sparrows going to roost.
I've never before encountered so many in one place. I wonder if they're
staging to move north as soon as the weather warms up. Still no warblers
except Myrtle. Other species also pretty ordinary.
. . . .Jim spent all the time in a fruitless
attempt to get his computer to obtain his e-mail using Wi-Fi. It
was definitely functioning, for he got some communications from it, but
despite hours and hours of work, he just couldn't his computer to use it.
Finally he decided to reinstall his e-mail program, and that was a BIG
MISTAKE, for reasons I don't quite understand, and I don't think he does
either. He'd like to call consumer support, but the cell phone service
is very erratic--goes on and off every few seconds. It took many
tries before we could send our PocketMail messages over it. (We tried
to send PocketMail over the local pay-phones, but they're the kind we encounter
occasionally that won't let you dial an 800 number, and that's how we hook
up to PocketMail.) When we leave here, I think we'll try to find
a commercial RV Park that has a computer room where you can hook up to
a phone line. Then Jim will try to get things working again.
We may try Independence, MO, and also visit the Truman Library.
. . . .I left a few things out of my last
installment on our scouting trip to Taberville Prairie. There were
also more lovely wildflowers, which I photographed and identified yesterday
afternoon. Several were easy for they were in the same genera as
species I'm familiar with in the west. New to my list are:
. . . Common Cinquefoil (Potentilla simplex)
. . . .Shooting Star (Dodecatheon meadia)
- some pink, some white
. . . .Spring Beauty (Claytonia virginica)
. . . Bird's Foot Violet (Viola pedata)
also got a shot of a huge bumblebee nectaring on the Wood Betony, which
was as abundant here as it was in Prairie State Park.
. . . .I paid the penalty for kneeling down
and brushing against foliage--ticks! Enormous ticks! (I guess they're
better than the little deer ticks, but they're certainly repulsive.)
I picked two off myself as we drove back to the trailer. When I took
my jacket off, there were 8 or 10 crawling around on the inside of it,
but none down by my pantslegs. I'll have to be careful when we return
. . . .I also should have mentioned that,
in addition to probably finding the Greater Prairie-Chicken lek, I heard
Henslow's Sparrows. I couldn't pish any up, and Jim couldn't lure
them out with the tape I made for him from the Stokes recordings.
Will try for them tomorrow with a tape of their own music. I should
be able to record them. I didn't try last time because of the wind.
. . . .We plan to get up early tomorrow and
get to the prairie before the chickens get up.
pm, Sat., April 30, 2005
RV Park, Osceola, MO
. . . .Finally, a clear, calm day--although cold: early am
temp. was 38' and it's only 59' right now. "Calm" in the midwest
means winds under 15 mph, but even these have been intermittent.
. . . .Anticipating the clearing based on the weather forecast,
we arose at 4:00 am, hoping to get out to the Taberville Prairie before
it got light. We arrived at 5:30, but unfortunately it was starting
to get light then. (Sunrise was around 6:20.)
. . . .We were thrilled to have our scouting confirmed. We
had indeed figured out where the lek was. The birds were hard at
it. Even from our truck, which was around 200 yd away, we could hear
their strange hollow three-note (do do re) calls. These were punctuated
with chicken-like cackles, sounding like hysterical laughter. We
decided to approach them as closely as we could so I could get some recordings
and so Jim could determine exactly which portion of the large mowed hilltop
they were using. Hilltop is actually a poor word, for the prairie
is only gently rolling in this area. However, they were just over
the top of the summit from the approach road we walked. (Driving
access was blocked by a locked gate, but foot traffic was OK.) As
we stood there, we could see their occasional jump-ups silhouetted against
the bright orange of the dawn sky. I walked around to about a 90'
angle from the sun so the wind would be behind me, not across my microphone,
and recorded them for a long time.
. . . .Jim had not brought his camera at first, but then went back
for it, just in case. He approached them from the other side and
pressed his luck a bit too much. Eight of them flew off, including
one that was noticeably smaller than all the rest. It had to be a
female. That was good news, for we had been told the females usually
quit coming to the lek by the end of April. Not all of them flew,
for we could still hear sounds and see at least two birds jumping up, but
we figured Jim had no chance for pictures today, so we decided to concentrate
on the Henslow's Sparrows.
. . . .They were really thick all over the prairie around the parking
area and along the road to the lek. They were also along another
road that went off at a right angle to the lek, but when it descended into
a little depression, they were not there, as I discovered much later in
the morning. I heard them singing even in the extremely dim dawn
light when we first arrived. What they were saying is termed a song
because it functions as one--to proclaim a territory and attract a mate.
Its structure would make you think it was only a call, though. It's
a rapid, high, scratchy "tsi-lik" or "tsi-tsi-lik." Territories couldn't
have been any larger than half of our city lot at home, for the sounds
were coming from all around no matter where I stood.
. . . .Jim could not hear them, so I tried to help him find one
to photograph. It didn't take long, and it allowed him to stalk it.
He said he got some really nice close-up shots. Playing the tape,
which I took partly from Stokes and partly from Thayer's CD-ROM, was unsuccessful.
I thought it was because the speaker he was using was not reproducing the
high frequencies, but when I recorded one and played it back through my
really good Sony TCM-5000EV speaker, they didn't pop up either. However,
stalking seemed to work quite well shortly after sunrise. An hour
or two later (we lost track of the time, we were so engrossed in what we
were doing) I seldom saw any up. When they were up, they perched
on last year's bent-over grass stems, seldom on the more substantial shrubs
that dotted the prairie. These grass-stems, when upright, are up
to six feet tall.
. . . .There are very few widespread North American sparrows that
Jim has not photographed, and getting Henslow's was a major goal of the
trip, so I was thrilled at his success. It was a life bird for him,
and he doesn't count a bird unless he gets a picture.
. . . .After we had finished working with the Henslow's Sparrows,
we were suddenly aware that there were again a lot of Prairie-Chicken sounds
emanating from the nearby lek. They had obviously returned to resume
displaying while our backs were turned. Jim tried once more to stalk
them--a desperation move, for they flew off again. Much later when
we were far from the lek, we could hear them at it again off in the distance.
Their display drive is definitely still strong. (According to Birds
of North America, they prefer cold, calm mornings, so that may be why they
are so active this late in the season.)
. . . .Near the truck I heard a Field Sparrow singing from one of
the shrubs that was growing along the fence that separates the preserve
from the nearby farmland. I recorded him and played the song back
so Jim could get pictures. To our amazement, instead of doing the
fly-by's or perching at a respectful distance, this bird approached through
the grass until it was only a foot from our toes. We might as well
have been trees, for we certainly didn't frighten him. He would hop
around, looking for the intruder, singing all the time, then gradually
work his way farther and farther away, sometimes hopping up on a nice perch
to look around and sing some more. This happened twice--once at Jim's
feet and once at mine. What a thrill to see that intrepid mite at
such close range. Jim shot a roll or two of him on various perches,
sometimes on shrubs, sometimes on the barbed-wire fence. I recorded
his song from extremely close range, which was good, for by then there
were all sorts of other sounds, especially cattle.
. . . .Jim has photographed Field Sparrows before, but these are
probably better than any others. Usually they don't allow very close
. . . .By then we had been on our feet burdened with gear for at
least four hours--we lost track of the time, so can't say for sure.
Sitting down seemed pretty appealing. So we decided to use the truck
as a moving blind and see what we could find along the roadsides.
As we were driving the one-mile spur-road from the parking lot back to
the highway, we found a cooperative White-crowned Sparrow (eastern leucophrys)
in the roadside shrubs and brushpiles. Jim "bagged" it on the road
in front of the truck. A little farther along, there were some small
puddles from the recent rain. To our amazement, a Solitary Sandpiper was
working them. Jim got distant shots of it.
. . . .Then we drove to the little-travelled dirt road that borders
the east side of the preserve and drove it slowly. There Jim succeeded
in getting excellent close-up shots of an Eastern Phoebe and an Eastern
Kingbird. At one point I heard a song I couldn't identify, but by
the time I had my tape recorder out it had quieted down. It was one
of those complicated jumbles of notes that are so hard to distinguish.
. . . .Tomorrow we're going to try again for the Prairie-Chickens,
but this time we'll get there an hour earlier than we did today--that means
getting up at 3:00 am. Jim plans to envelope himself in a hunter's
camouflage cape (coarse netting with strips of camouflage fabric attached)
and fine camouflage netting, take a chair so he'll have a low profile,
and hope the birds think he is just a new, slightly oversized shrub.
Having watched their action this morning, he knows where to sit.
I don't intend to go anywhere near the lek. I got my sounds today
and don't want to spook them. Instead, I plan to try to get some
bird songs before the cattle start bawling. I noticed this morning
that they were quiet until it got fairly light. I'd like to get really
good Henslow's, Field, and Grasshopper sparrows (heard one or two of those),
and Eastern Meadowlark.
. . . .Right now Jim has his blind set up along the hedgerow of
miscellaneous shrubs and young trees near our campsite. He tells
me he has photographed both morphs of White-throated Sparrow (white-striped
and tan-striped) and Harris's Sparrow.
References for birding
Taberville Prairie—and other MO prairies:
Palmer (ed.), A
Guide to Birding in Missouri, The Audubon Society of Missouri, 2001.
Available from ABA.
Zimmerman and Patti,
Guide to Bird Finding in Kansas and Western Missouri. University
Press of Kansas, 1988.
of the State of Missouri (P.O. Box 180, Jefferson City, MO 65102-0180),
Prairies of Missouri. 1999. I got this free at Prairie State
This attractive and
comprehensive book has excellent maps and descriptions of each prairie,
including the special birds and plants found on each. It has been
a big help to me.
pm, Sun., May 1, 2005
RV Park, Osceola, MO
. . . .After I wrote up yesterday's installment, I heard a song
outside the trailer that sounded sort of like a Bewick's Wren, but I knew
they're pretty rare in the east. I spotted the sound-source high
in an oak tree and it was a Bewick's Wren. I tried to record it,
but got only a snatch of scold and no song. It flew off. A
couple more widely spaced times it returned, but I never was ready fast
enough. The song has the typical in-drawn breath beginning and a
trill ending, but its middle is sweeter and more elaborate than the western
ones I'm familiar with. I never saw it anywhere except high in the
tree. That also is different from western ones. After checking
field guides, I learned that, although they are declining markedly everywhere
east of the Rockies, only east of the Mississippi are they almost extirpated.
The National Geographic guide shows where we are as right on the edge of
their breeding range.
. . . .Jim's attempt to photograph the Greater Prairie-Chickens
this morning was a total failure. We got up at 3:00 am. Jim
carried his camouflage draped camera and tripod from the truck to the lek,
and I carried his chair and some foam padding to keep his backside and
underside warm. We got him all draped in the stuff, then I left him
there in total darkness at around 4:45 am.
. . . .He stayed there until shortly after sunrise. The chickens
came in, but were obviously disturbed by the new object in their territory.
They did little calling and wandered around the edges of the lek eying
him suspiciously instead of displaying. (This was quite different
from our experience with Lessers, which seemed quite unconcerned by Jim's
presence in the truck only a few feet from where they were displaying.)
He got no pictures and so decided to leave the area to the chickens.
Of course, those that were there flew off when he stood up to gather up
his gear. However, a bit later when we looked toward the lek from
afar, we could see that they had resumed their normal behavior. The
jump-ups are visible from the parking lot.
he left, the chickens had a worse harassment than Jim. Two Northern
Harriers were swooping around harrying the chickens. One or two chickens
would fly up, circle around and land again. At the same time, we
might see the display jump-ups elsewhere on the lek. This went on
for several minutes, then the harriers left. Prairie-chickens seem
like rather large prey for Northern Harriers, but maybe not.
. . . .The temperature was marginally warmer, 41', this morning.
While Jim was waiting for chickens, I got out my recording gear and recorded
the dawn chorus of prairie birds. Even in total darkness with only
a half-moon for illumination, I could hear the "ts-lik" songs of Henslow's
Sparrows all along the trail as I helped Jim carry his gear. I wondered
if they sing all night. Later I checked Birds of North America's
account (I brought along Xerox copies of those accounts for about a dozen
birds) of the bird, and it said it is fairly common, with occasional individuals
singing all night long. One bird studied "sang every five seconds for at
least 24 hours." I wonder what grad student had to listen to it.
. . . .It was still quite dark, but with a slight glow in the east,
when yesterday's Field Sparrow tuned up. Eastern Meadowlarks first
sounded off around the same time. It wasn't until it was fairly light
that I heard some owls off in the distance, Great Horned and Barred.
They had not called earlier. About that time I also got distant Wild
Turkey gobbles, as well as an occasional Grasshopper Sparrow (not many
here) and Mourning Dove. The cattle were evident in all of the recordings,
but not too bad when it was really dark. After it got light, they
were bawling all the time. There's a small feed lot about 1.5 miles
away, we noticed later.
. . . .The experience of standing there alone on the prairie, hearing
those tiny sounds all around me both near and far, and watching the arrival
of the first hints of daylight and then sunrise was an experience I'll
savor. Birding to me is more a collection of memories like this than
a compilation of life birds to write down.
. . . .Shortly after sunrise the wind got up and really made being
outdoors unpleasant--and also prevented any more first-class recordings.
The birds didn't like it either and stayed in cover, so Jim was unable
to try for additional Henslow's Sparrow photos--or anything else.
. . . .I didn't want to go back to the trailer that early, so we
drove south along state highway H about a mile or two to where there is
a public parking lot for Taberville Prairie right next to the road.
That was the only place I was aware of the last two times I was there because
I didn't have the books I do now. I wanted to see if it had changed
. . . .It hadn't. Without the wind, it still would be an excellent
place to bird. It was the first place I saw Henslow's Sparrows--many
years ago when I visited the area with Mother. When I brought Jim
there June 13, 1992, I couldn't find any there. I attributed it to
a date that was later in the year than when I was there with Mother.
Today I couldn't find any either. The prairie grasses were not as
tall as those where they do occur. They manage the prairie, burning
portions of it every few years. I suppose that's the reason.
. . . .The lay of the land in that location is first a descent of
about 200 yd through the prairie along a mowed road to a wooded creek,
which I was able to wade across with my high-topped, waterproof overshoes.
Then there is a long, muddy ascent up the slope on the other side.
Near the top of the slope there are some shale outcroppings with shrubs
growing from the cracks. That was where we recorded and photographed
the eastern Bell's Vireo last time. There was no sign of one today.
Maybe it was the wind, or maybe it's too early in the season.
. . . .The most interesting experience was the unusual song I heard
from the creek crossing on the way back. I recorded it and played
it back. It turned out to be a White-eyed Vireo doing two different
songs in rapid succession. It did that for a minute or so, then reverted
to its more typical song--which I had heard on the way out. (Playback did
not elicit the unusual song. It was doing it of its own accord and
only came close and did it some more when I played it back.)
. . . .It was a cold, exhausting hike with little reward in the
way of birds, but I'm glad I did it. Down in the depression, all
signs of man's impact on the land were gone--except for that mowed two-track
"road." I could imagine early visitors and immigrants to the prairie
standing there in all its windy vastness and experiencing emotions ranging
from exhilaration to fear. I knew I could return to a nice warm truck
with only a 15-minute walk. They had to endure it. Some loved
it; others returned to the more familiar woodlands back east.
. . . .After that, I was ready to call a halt to outdoor activity
for the day. In addition, the bursitis in my hip was really bothering
me. We got back to Osceola around 10:30, hoping to find a cafe where
we could buy a late breakfast (our 3:00 am one was a long time ago).
There does not seem to be a single restaurant in town. Still hungry
for a real breakfast, I whipped up some waffle batter and fried some bacon.
[When we left town the next day, we discovered a couple of cafes on the
main highway, SR 13, only a few miles north of town, where we might have
eaten. The main part of town is about a mile off the highway, and
all the restaurants there seem to be defunct.]
. . . .Temperature now is 59' and it is still fairly windy, but
somewhat protected where we are in the trees. Sky is about half cloudy--puffies,
no rain threatened for the forseeable future. We're certainly glad
we're not farther south. They're having record-breaking rain on the
Gulf coast, where we spent a totally dry month three years ago. I
wonder how the migration is there and when the warblers will start showing
up here. I did see an Orange-crowned by the creek today, but that's
not too exciting.
. . . .Jim is in his blind again shooting the assortment of sparrows,
etc. I'm sitting in the trailer watching them from a distance.
Only the Chipping Sparrows venture far away from the line of shrubs where
Jim has his blind. They were the only birds eating the birdseed right
outside the window.
. . . .I had to admire one tiny Chippy's method of eating dandelion
seeds, whose puffy balls were sticking up on robust 8-to-10-inch stalks
all over the grass. The bird jumped up and turned itself sideways
so it could grasp the stalk with both feet. Then with a flutter of its
wings, it downed the stalk. Holding the stem down with its feet,
it cleaned the entire head in short order, then tackled another one.
May 2, 2005
RV Park, Independence, MO
May 3, 2005
RV Park, Independence, MO
. . . .Jim had screwed up his computer's e-mail feature trying to
connect to Wi-Fi in Osceola, so we decided we had better seek an RV Park
with ordinary telephone hook-ups for campers. Independence, MO, seemed
like a good stop, and we could also take a day off from birding to visit
Harry S Truman's home and library.
. . . .Before leaving for the 100-mile drive to Independence, I
wandered around the campground in Osceola. It was cold (36'), but
clear and calm. I added two new migrants, Red-eyed and Warbling Vireo,
but still no eastern warblers.
. . . .We got here around 12:30. Jim was able to get his ATT
email connection restored with a minimal hassle. He downloaded countless
email messages, many junk, but several of interest. I tried to reach
PocketMail on the cellphone, but the signal here was apparently also too
weak, but Jim was able to get it on the payphone in the campground--5 messages
there. We spent the rest of the afternoon catching up on our correspondence.
. . . .One of the messages was the good news from Nancy Kenyon that
the replacement diskette I sent her was fine and that she would have the
first installment of the diary on-line that evening.
. . . .Since we were in a sizeable town, I decided we'd eat out.
I found one of those all-you-can-eat buffet restaurants that Jim loves
not far away. The food was good, but the 50's rock-and-roll music
was annoyingly loud.
. . . .This morning we visited Truman's home and library.
It was interesting to see the fairly ordinary house where he lived.
It had been his wife's family home since it was built in the 1860's.
The living room furniture was temporarily in storage so they could restore
the wallpaper, but the rest of the downstairs was open for guided tours.
The upstairs will not be opened until his daughter, Margaret, who is 82,
dies. Although the home was willed to the US government, she can
stay here up to a week each year, if she wishes. Because of this,
the upstairs remains closed. She hasn't used it in ten years, though.
She lives in New York City.
. . . .The house is large and comfortable, and really quite ordinary,
especially the kitchen, which was less impressive than the one my paternal
grandparents had in Santa Ana. Truman's wife was from one of the
"best" families in Independence (flour-milling money), while he was from
a poor farming family. It took years of persuading for him to get
her to marry him.
. . . .From there we went to the nearby presidential museum and
library. We viewed a 45-minute film on his life, which was an interesting
review of a period of history I hadn't thought much about in many years--end
of WW-II including the A-bombs, Marshall Plan, start of cold war, and the
Korean war with the accompanying firing of General MacArthur. The
displays were in sort of a time-line of his life and expanded on themes
developed in the film, not just his presidency, but his entire life from
his humble beginnings to his return to an unpretentious life after his
. . . .I was especially interested in the even-handed way they interpreted
his decision to drop those A-bombs on Japan. There was a wall with
quotes from various sources pro and con, some written shortly after the
events and others written more recently. There seemed to be more
cons than pros, which I thought surprising in that setting. Jim,
of course, has always been pro, for he fought in Okinawa near the end of
the war and knew he would probably have been involved in the attack on
the main part of Japan had it taken place. Several of the quotes
were from people convinced that Japan couldn't have put up much of a fight,
but a Japanese military leader said they were prepared to fight to the
bitter end. Who knows? Personally, I'm glad my wonderful Jim
is here today!!
. . . .Late this afternoon we went to the National Frontier Trails
Museum, which interprets the trails to the west, many of which started
here in Independence. We didn't finish viewing the exhibits, but
they gave us a pass to go back tomorrow morning, which we plan to do.
It's really a very interesting place--perhaps more interesting than the
. . . .Campus RV Park, where we're staying, seemed a strange name.
I wondered what university it was near. It turned out it is on the
"campus" of the world headquarters of the Community of Christ church, the
new name for the "Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints"
a name they finally abandoned in 2001 because it was too cumbersome.
From the RV Park we can see the extremely tall spire of the temple.
The entire building spirals upward and is covered in stainless steel or
some other shiny surface. It's really impressive and very conspicuous.
. . . .Not far away are all the other main-stream denominations--Methodist,
Congregational, Presbyterian, Baptist, Episcopal, etc. (There's probably
a Catholic one around, but I didn't see it.) Each has a sizeable
edifice, and all are in red brick. Notably absent were any of the
new fundamentalist/evangelical/pentecostal types that are taking over the
country. I suppose they're on the edge of town, where they could
find vacant land. We're right on the edge of downtown. I also
wonder what was on all the land that the Mormons own today. All their
buildings and open space areas seem very new. [The next day I learned
that they've owned the land for a long time--almost from the beginning
of the denomination in the 1800s.]
pm, Wed., May 4, 2005
Lake SP, northwestern MO
. . . .This morning we went back to the National Frontier Trails
Museum to finish looking at the displays. I found it fascinating
to read the many quotes from diaries of travellers on all the trails (Oregon,
California, Mormon, Santa Fe and all their alternate routes and cut-offs)
that emanated from Independence, MO. There was a sequence of displays
for each trail, with the number of miles from Independence at the top of
each. In addition to the quotations, there were displays of items
that would have been part of the journey, some genuinely old, others reproductions
and clearly labelled as such. I'm sure as the years go by they'll
try to replace the reproductions with originals, although I doubt they'll
try to get an original loaf of bread.
. . . .The museum is a joint project of the City of Independence
and the Missouri Dept. of Natural Resources and was established in 1989.
. . . .Jim dragged me away before I was really finished to go see
the interior of the Community of Christ Temple, but he did allow me to
spend a few minutes selecting several books containing material from women's
diaries. I had to look the books over carefully, for I already have
quite a few books on the subject, which has always fascinated me.
. . . .The Temple building is so distinctive that we really were
interested to see what it was like inside. Since it was Mormon, we
had thought that only Mormons could go inside. But we learned, partly
from the manager of the RV Park, who is a member, and partly from the receptionist
at the Frontier Trails Museum, that this is a totally different denomination
of Mormonism. It broke off from the original shortly after it was
founded, mainly because they did not believe in polygamy. Other differences
are that they do not have the secrecy associated with the Salt Lake City
variety of Mormonism. Visitors are welcome in their temple.
They do not wear special undergarments. When we learned a bit about
their beliefs, it sounded almost like a cross between the large LDS church
and the Unitarian Universalist tradition. They're big on peace and
tolerance for all people's beliefs. Unfortunately they're a small
church with only 250,000 members worldwide.
. . . .Despite this their world headquarters is mighty impressive.
It includes an auditorium that seats 6,000 and that temple shaped like
a slender nautilus shell, that cost $35,000,000, including an immense organ.
(The auditorium has one almost as big.) We were disappointed not to be
able to hear it played.
. . . .In order to visit the sanctuary we had to go on a guided
tour (only 6 people in our group) and unfortunately we drew an extremely
long-winded guide. (We saw another group come and go while we were
still a captive audience. He was a very sweet man and it would not
have been polite to leave, however.)
. . . .The interior was every bit as beautiful as the outside.
From the center of the circular sanctuary we could look up 195 ft to the
top of the spiral. The windows that we had seen from the outside
are part of a ramp, but it is used only by a custodian when he has to change
the aircraft warning light at the top of the steeple.
. . . .Photos were permitted in all parts of the building, and Jim
took a number of them.
It was noon
by the time we got back to the trailer, and we had expected to be on the
road by 10:00. We quickly hooked up and left, stopping enroute for
a quick hamburger and some groceries. We had 110 miles to go to get
to our next birding destination. Because we had such a late start,
we broke with our usual practice and took the freeway, I-29.
. . . .We're here to visit Squaw Creek NWR, which is in the bottomlands
of the Missouri River. Lucy Lee recommended it highly and gave us
information on the place. It has an impressive bird list. We'll
go there tomorrow.
. . . .The closest campground is Big Lake State Park, which is something
of a disappointment. Although it is located on the shores of Big
Lake, a Missouri River oxbow, none of the lakeside sites have hookups.
All the sites are in the middle of an open lawn dotted with shade trees.
None backs up into the nearby woods, and none even backs up very close
to the woods. We selected a site that backs up to the road with only
a line of conifers as a barrier. The sites are enormous, but we have
to park our trailer near the front because the electric box is right next
to the park road. Even so we're using our extension cord.
. . . .As a result of the openness of the campground, the birds
are mainly Robins, Common Grackles, and Downy Woodpeckers. There
does seem to be a Brown Thrasher in the hedgerow of small conifers between
our site and the nearby road. Jim saw a White-breasted Nuthatch.
Maybe we'll find more when we really explore. We were tired from
a morning of standing and an afternoon of driving and didn't feel like
doing anything but sit around under the trees.
. . . .Right now I don't feel like doing anything but going to bed.
We missed our afternoon naps. Jim has been in bed for an hour.
pm, Thurs., May 5, 2005
Lake SP, MO
. . . .Squaw Creek NWR is a beautiful place in the bottomlands of
the Missouri River. It also includes the loess bluffs, which are
heavily wooded--more so than they were before human settlement and its
accompanying tree planting and fire suppression. Some of this forest
is being removed and converted back to the sloping prairie that was there
originally. We saw one controlled burn while we were on the refuge
. . . .We drove the 10-mile tour road through the flat portions
of the refuge this morning. It is a very good, wide, gravel road
with nicely mowed grassy shoulders, so we could stop anywhere we wanted
to. We were surprised it was one-way. Lots of trees, some enormous,
line the sides of the water impoundments, but not so thickly that they
obscure view of the water. Ducks were mostly Blue-winged Teal, but
we were happy to see some Wood Ducks and Hooded Mergansers, which are both
cavity nesters. Lots of nest boxes had been placed for the Wood Ducks.
I wondered at the time if the Hooded Mergansers used them too, but when
I checked the bird list, it doesn't show them breeding or wintering here.
So they were just migrants.
. . . .Most of the land birds were Red-winged Blackbirds, Barn Swallows,
Common Yellowthroats and Yellow Warblers, but one interesting eastern warbler,
a Blackpoll was present. One stretch went through the edge of a boggy
forested area, but all I could hear there was House Wrens.
. . . .Along the final portion of the tour loop, there were a couple
of places that were managed for shorebirds, only one of which had any.
Unfortunately they were pretty far away even for my telescope--and hopelessly
far away for Jim's telephoto lens. I was able to identify six species,
none new for the trip: Long-billed (presumably) Dowitcher, Lesser
Yellowlegs, and Semipalmated, Least, Pectoral, and Baird's sandpipers.
We'd seen Spotted Sandpipers earlier on the tour.
. . . .If I had walked more sections of the tour road, I might have
discovered more migrating land birds, but we drove very slowly, stopping
often to look and listen.
. . . .It was around 11:30 when we completed the loop, so we decided
to drive back toward the uplands through the roadcuts in the loess bluff,
for there we had seen a large colony of nesting Bank Swallows yesterday
as we drove down with the trailer. Jim spent half an hour or so photographing
them as they came and went to their burrows. He feels he may have
obtained some good pictures, but those birds come and go so fast, it's
hard to be sure. He may try again another day while I walk the nature
trail near the headquarters. [He didn't.]
. . . .The temperature was in the mid-40's this morning, warming
for the first time in quite a while into the low 70's by late afternoon.
First thing in the morning the wind was calm, but a southwest wind got
up pretty strongly--up to 20 mph, I'd guess--by mid-morning and blew all
the rest of the daylight hours. It's calmed down pretty much now.
Sky was about half cloudy all day.
. . . .Around 5:30 this afternoon, I took a walk down to the far
southern end of the campground, where there is a small stand of huge trees
(cottonwoods and black walnuts mostly). There I found a bird Jim
has been trying for years to get decent photos of, the Red-headed Woodpecker.
We have yet to find a nest, and the birds fly all over the place--high
in the trees, down to the ground, back and forth in the air flycatching,
then way off somewhere else so you lose track of them--frustrating birds.
These were no exception. I called Jim on our FRS radio, and he brought
a chair down to the area and sat there trying to photograph one, but was
unsuccessful in even seeing one. Later in my walk I saw one on the
opposite side of the stand of trees, which also disappeared. I thought
it might have flown into a cavity in a tree, so stood there a maybe 10
minutes to see if it would come out, but it didn't.
. . . .Two new migrants for the trip graced my afternoon, a Catharus
thrush (probably Swainson's, but possibly Gray-cheeked; it was a bit too
far away to tell) and a Rose-Breasted Grosbeak (beautiful adult male).
But no more warblers.
pm, Fri., May 6, 2005
Lake SP, MO
. . . .That south wind blew up a really warm day--high of 86'.
The wind almost died down last night, but was pretty strong all day.
Sky was partly cloudy, and humidity was fairly high. We have a nice
shady site, so we didn't turn on the AC. Right now it is still 78'
. . . .We decided to stay in the state park today. There is
a park road that extends about 1.5 miles from our trailer to its end.
About half of it is next to the lake and near small patches of woodland.
Since the lake itself is north-south oriented, I thought maybe those woodlands
would serve as a migration corridor and that the south wind might have
blown up some birds last night.
. . . .I was happy to discover that my hopes were realized, albeit
in a modest way. The numbers of Baltimore Orioles, Yellow Warblers,
and Warbling Vireos have increased about 10-fold over yesterday.
In addition I saw several new birds for the trip: Gray Catbird, Black-and-white
and Bay-breasted Warbler. All of the migrants I saw, except for one
Orchard Oriole, were males. Females are known to migrate later and
arrive after the males have established territories.
. . . .In addition, I saw two Bald Eagles circling low overhead--an
adult and a 1st year. I also found a tree which probably has the
Red-headed Woodpecker's nest. Unfortunately it's mighty tall and
the lower portion is covered with vines, leaving only the top for drilling.
Several old holes in the treetop were occupied by starlings. The
woodpeckers were foraging at various places, but I didn't see any excavating,
nor did Jim, who spent some time watching the area. At least he finally
saw the bird, even though it looks like a hopeless photo subject.
. . . .As I was walking back to the trailer, I encountered the campground
host, whom Jim asked yesterday if he'd seen a Red-headed Woodpecker.
He wondered if we'd found it. Then the conversation turned to other
birds. He asked if I'd heard the big news that "the Yellow-billed
Woodpecker had been found in Arizona." That drew a blank with me.
So he said, "You know--the bird that hasn't been seen since the 40's."
Then I realized that he meant the Ivory-billed Woodpecker, whose recent
rediscovery in Arkansas was in the news. Then the conversation turned
to the "Yellow-winged Cowbird," which is pretty rare around here, but sometimes
seen. When I suggested Yellow-headed Blackbird, it turned out that's
what he meant. We've decided to cease picking the brain of this man
. . . .In the late morning, Jim wanted to drive to the nearest town,
Rulo, Nebraska, to see if he could buy a newspaper, so I went along, since
there was a sign near the state park advertising a grocery store there.
To get there we crossed the Missouri R. on a very rough, very narrow, old
bridge. I hope it's not one of the ones they fear may collapse, but
there were no load limits, just a 25-mph speed limit.
. . . .Rulo itself has a population of 191, and the "grocery" store
turned out to be a private butcher operation outside town. Every
business in town seemed to be defunct, although there was a post office.
All the houses were run-down with peeling paint, and one had the most gosh-awful
collection of junk all around it that Jim wants to get a picture when we
drive through on Sunday. [He didn't.] We drove the single block
of the main street and the next cross street from the highway was called
Rouleau Blvd. That's obviously where the town's name, Rulo, came
. . . .The afternoon was spent sitting outside and enjoying the
balmy day and the trees full of birds, although I didn't add any to the
list I got this morning.
. . . .It's Friday evening, and the campers have been pouring into
the campground, although most people are over by the lake. We do
have some people in the site next to us, but they're pretty quiet.
We usually try to avoid a campground by water on weekends, but in this
part of the country that's all there is except for city RV parks.
pm, Sat., May 7, 2005
Lake SP, MO
. . . .As I reported before, Big Lake is a large oxbow lake formed
by the Missouri River. Lewis and Clark mentioned what was probably
this lake in their diary. Except for the state park land, which occupies
about two miles of the east shore, all the rest of the shoreline is lined
with vacation homes, which range from tiny, old, and run-down to new and
quite nice. There are no "good" and "bad" neighborhoods, just a mix
of various types of housing. Most are unoccupied and apparently used
mainly in the summer. We've only driven the road on the east side
of the lake. There are a few houses on the east side of the highway,
which lack a waterfront location, but most of that land is cornfields,
still fallow or just plowed right now.
. . . .Big Lake State Park is one of those facility-rich parks so
common in many eastern states. In addition to the campground, it has motel
units, housekeeping cabins, a cafe, swimming pool, boat ramp, and children's
playground. The motel and cabins look very nice. We ate lunch
in the cafe today and it was nicely prepared. No fancy menu items,
just the usual hamburgers, chicken, pizza, salads, etc.
. . . .Saturday night in the campground: Since the campground
is so open, we've been amusing ourselves this afternoon people-watching.
All the campers seem to be decent folks--no rowdiness or loud music.
. . . .We now have families with very young children on both sides
of us. On one side, a van just pulled up and unloaded about ten people.
I guess they're here for a visit; wonder how late they'll stay. So
far their conversation is very subdued. [A half hour later:
guests still here and talk still quiet--amazing!] Their campfire
has been going for a couple of hours, with the smoke blowing right in our
window. But that's my only complaint.
. . . .Yesterday and today the occupants of one rig on the opposite
side of the campground, apparently a man and his teen-age daughter, have
been taking turns riding a motor scooter round and round the campground
loop. Jim and I have been counting the laps. The daughter is
maybe 16-18 years old with short, curly hair. She always sits statue-like
on the quiet little vehicle, staring straight ahead with a serious expression
on her face and never exceeds the 10 mph speed limit. It seems almost
as if it's a chore she has to perform, but she must be having fun or she
wouldn't do it so much. Dad is very roly-poly, but has the same serious
expression as he does his laps, which are also apparently recreational,
since there are too many in a row for them to be trips to the john.
He tires of the sport sooner than she does, though.
. . . .Across the highway behind our campsite is a house whose family
"car" seems to be a the cab of a semi truck. Its owner drives in
and out all day on errands of various lengths. There is also a trailer
to go with it parked in the driveway.
. . . .Every so often a guy (couldn't be a gal!) goes tearing by
on the highway in a pickup truck with three huge white dogs in the back.
They're all standing up with their forepaws on the sides or the cab of
the truck, and one of them barks the entire time. We can hear it
for a half-mile in each direction as it comes and goes.
. . . .That's what I have to report based on my observations while
sitting outside reading my book.
. . . .Today it was very windy all day. It was mostly cloudy, so
the temperature topped out in the upper 70's. The wind made birding
difficult and recording essentially impossible. More of the same
is forecast for tomorrow.
. . . .Despite the wind, we still tried to do some birding. We returned
to Squaw Creek NWR. First I walked their very short nature trail
along the base of the loess bluff. Loess (pronounced "lo-ess" by
the locals, not the German "löss") is compacted dust that was blown
into dunes many centuries ago. It's very soft and sort of like adobe.
Bank Swallows have no trouble excavating holes in the roadcut.
. . . .We also visited the Jamerson C. McCormack Conservation area,
which also preserves a portion of the loess bluff. It's located west
of the NWR entrance and about 3/4 mile east of the junction with SR 111.
The place is poorly labelled, but there is a small parking area.
An old dirt road ascends steeply up the hill. I walked it for a couple
hundred yards and took pictures of the habitats. First the road went
through dense, tall forest, then beside very steep slopes covered with
tall-grass prairie that looked very mature and high, even though it was
last season's grass stems that were visible. I added several new
birds to my trip list: Wood Thrush in the deep forest, Eastern Towhee
in the forest near the edge, Indigo Bunting in brush just outside the forest,
and Great Crested Flycatcher toward the top of the hill where the trees
next to the prairie aren't so tall.
. . . .It was around 10:30 when I got back to the truck exhausted
from the steep climb; the descent was OK. We decided to drive
again the first part of the 10-mile tour route in the NWR, where we'd seen
the most birds. Nothing special in the bird line--too windy--but
we found an enormous Snapping Turtle out on a log. It was much bigger
than the one we found at Quivira NWR some time back. Jim took pictures,
with another species nearby for size comparison. (Have yet to figure
out what it is, although I did get a digital image of what is probably
the same species a couple of days ago.)
. . . .We exited via the north entrance to the refuge, which goes
by an area of shallow water transitioning to mud with emergent vegetation
on the far shore about 75 yards away. Shorebirds were working the
mud, but hard to see. Nothing new, except possibly a Wilson's Snipe,
which I couldn't relocate when I got my scope out to check for sure.
It may have been another Long-billed Dowitcher; I saw several.
Jim wasn't interested in even looking at birds he couldn't photograph.
pm, Sun., May 8, 2005
Lake Wildlife Management Area, NE
pm, Mon., May 9, 2005
Lake Wildlife Management Area, NE
. . . .Yesterday morning I decided to walk the road at Big Lake
SP one more time to see if any different migrants had turned up.
I saw my first American Redstart of the trip. But there was one sound
that drove me crazy all morning. I knew it was a warbler, but just
couldn't get a look at it. It said "tik-it tik-it tik-it ti-ti-ti-ti-ti..."
with the final trill one of those that seems slow enough to count, but
isn't. Once I had a Blackpoll Warbler up in the tree from which the
sound was emanating. But I had just recorded one of these earlier
and its song is much higher and otherwise different. To clinch it,
several times I was watching the Blackpoll while hearing the mystery song
and its bill and throat were not moving. The sound came from all
sorts of places--thick woods, isolated trees next to the lake, high, low,
etc. I was really mystefied. Worst of all, I was pretty sure
I had heard that song before on some previous trip, but couldn't remember
what did it.
. . . .Finally I heard the song from a single wispy tree and after
a long search finally caught a glimpse of a tiny gray bird with a fine
bill. Couldn't see much pattern on it because of the sky background.
That did it, though. It was a Tennessee Warbler. And the song
matched the description in the National Geographic guide pretty well.
Later in the campground, I saw another one equally poorly from where the
song was coming. So I'm sure the song was from that tiny gray bird.
I'll check it against known Tennessees sometime, for I have it on tape.
. . . .Females were starting to be seen, but only a few Rose-breasted
Grosbeaks, Baltimore Orioles, etc. Males were still much more common.
I also heard my first Least Flycatcher for the trip.
. . . .Since it was Mother's Day, we decided not to eat lunch on
the road, so had an early one in the trailer and set out for a 55-mile
drive to our next stop. The day was quite warm--probably mid-80's
and rather humid.
. . . .Our destination was a place for Jim to have another try at
Greater Prairie-Chickens. It was written up in two Nebraska bird-finding
. . . .Knue, Joseph. 1997. Nebraskaland Magazine "Wildlife
. . . .Farrar, Jon. 2005. Nebraskaland Magazine - special
issue on "Birding Nebraska" (Jan.-Feb. issue) This outstanding book
is much more than a magazine. Full of wonderful information about
Nebraska's natural history (geology, botany, etc.), the history of birding
in Nebraska, places to bird, and lists of key species at each place.
It's illustrated with magnificent color photos and maps throughout.
Both are published
by the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission, 2200 N. 33rd St., Lincoln, NE
68503. The first one may be out of print, but the second one is brand
new and can be ordered from www.outdoornebraska.org or by phone at 1-800-6325263.
Price $12.95 + tax and shipping--a tremendous bargain! (I have Carol
Getz to thank for sharing both publications with me, and I had time to
order my own copy of the recent one before I left home. They shipped
. . . .We headed for Burchard Lake Wildlife Management Area, which
"Birding Nebraska" said had primitive camping. It is located near
the tiny town of Burchard. The entrance is reached by turning south
off SR 4 three miles east of where it junctions with SR 99 and turns north.
After a mile or two on a paved road, you reach the entrance to the preserve.
(I think you can also get there from Burchard by driving east, then north,
because one source mentioned it and we saw a fair number of cars on the
road past the area.)
. . . .I was a bit apprehensive as to how primitive the camping
might be, having visions of bad dirt roads and tent sites only. We
were pleasantly surprised to find the access road entirely paved with only
a short dirt loop that was nicely graded. (Another part of the campground
had a bad dirt road, though.) We're parked in the shade with a beautiful
view of a grassy area dotted with trees and with a shrub-lined brook running
through it. A footbridge crosses the brook to the other portion of
the campground. Out the other side of our trailer it is more open,
and various sparrows, including Harris's and the first Clay-colored of
the trip were feeding on weed seeds this morning. Across the county
road is brushy pasture, and Field Sparrows and Bell's Vireos were singing
. . . .Best of all, there was no one else in the campground.
The one security light isn't working, so it's nice and dark at night.
There is a water pump across the footbridge in the other part of the campground,
but the sign says it's not potable.
After a short
rest, we set out to explore the lake. It's a fishing lake and wildlife
refuge, and the campground is in the lowlands below the low dam.
It's really a refuge, too, for the entire lake is closed during hunting
season so waterfowl have a place of peace away from hunters--or anyone
. . . .The lake is U-shaped (bottom of the U to the east), and a
paved, then gravel (good except for occasional potholes), road goes most
of the way around it. The surroundings are quite beautiful, with
scattered trees, and a mixture of prairie and hay. Why they can't
make the whole thing prairie is a puzzle to me. I supposed they sell
the hay to support the refuge, but don't really know. We've seen
no sign of anyone in charge of the place--only a crew with some strange
big machinery fixing something this morning. Incidentally, camping
is free here--14 day limit, but that's no problem for us; we rarely
stay anywhere that long.
. . . .On the patches of prairie beside the road we found some of
the special birds of that habitat: Grasshopper Sparrow, Dickcissel,
Eastern Meadowlark, Bobolink. The Prairie-Chicken lek is atop the
hill in the center of the U, and there are signs along the road telling
you where to walk up, although there are no maintained trails. Two
blinds have been placed on the edges of the lek, one north-facing, the
other south-facing. Jim was really irritated that they didn't have
one west-facing with its back to the morning sun.
. . . .The literature says Henslow's Sparrows are in the park, probably
where the lek is, but I didn't go up there. (Jim can't hear them.)
We have such good photos and recordings from Taberville Prairie that I
didn't try to find them here and was too lazy to hike up the hill on little
or no trail.
. . . .This morning Jim arose at 4:30 and got into the north-facing
blind. About a dozen or so males and one female were displaying,
but at least 100 yards from the blind. The other blind would have
been even farther away. He finally decided to shoot a desperation
shot in order to be able to say he'd photographed the species, but when
he raised his camera to the opening in the blind, they all flew away.
The sun was shining into the blind, which didn't help. He's ready
to give up on the Greater Prairie-Chicken, which seems to be much warier
than the Lesser. People wanting to merely see the birds and who have
scopes because of the great distance, could do nicely here, provided they
had their scope placed in the window of the blind before it got light.
. . . .I decided to forego the chickens and sleep in. I awoke
him when the alarm clock went off because he can't hear it, then went back
to sleep. I awoke briefly to the dawn chorus at 5:30, then decided
to sleep some more. I had just gotten up and was whipping up some
pancake batter when he got back around 6:45. That's the latest I've
slept in on the entire trip.
. . . .I'm always looking for shorebirds. The place we saw
the most was where the refuge road crosses the creek that enters the lake
at the west end of the north fork of the U. Although the numbers
were small, I did see a good variety: Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs;
Baird's, Semipalmated, and Least Sandpipers; Wilson's Phalarope--all yesterday.
Today the Semipalmated Sandpiper and Wilson's Phalarope were gone, but
several Pectorals had come in.
. . . .Killeer were everywhere, and today when we drove to the parking
lot and turnaround at the end of the road at the top of the south side
of the U, one was doing a broken-wing act right outside the truck window.
Jim blazed away and probably shot 2/3 of a roll. With the elevation
of the truck window, he really had a good angle to show that rufous rump
and uppertail. It was sort of shady there, but he doesn't think that
will be a problem. We had just turned the truck around where the
bird was displaying and hope we didn't squash the nest. We got out
after the birds (there were two, but only one displaying) had tried to
lead us away and looked around for it, but couldn't see it. Maybe
instead of a nest there was a chick hiding in the shrubs, but we didn't
. . . .Last evening we a dramatic thunderstorm. After it was
over there was a dramatic sunset--entirely gold, no reds, but it lit up
almost the entire sky. Jim went up to the viewpoint by the dam and
took some pictures of it. This morning dawned totally clear, and
we've had just a few clouds all day. Much cooler--high in the mid-70's.
. . . .This really is a nice place to camp and bird--very pretty,
totally private, and my list has 51 species on it. The rest of the
birds are common ones that I've been seeing most places.
. . . .Across the road from the entrance to the refuge is a pasture
with grazing bison. A sign facing the exit says: Tegtmeier
Buffalo. Steaks, ground, jerky. Delivered to your campsite.
Call [2 numbers listed]. I might have been tempted, but our cell
phone didn't work there.
pm, Tues., May 10, 2005
Lake State Recreation Area, Ayr, NE
. . . .Today we headed westward and drove about 125 miles.
I wanted to spend some time birding the Rainwater Basin, a section of south-central
NE with many pothole lakes. These are not glacial like those farther
north. "Birding Nebraska"
(p. 66) says,
“The Rainwater Basin is geologically young and has not developed a system
of streams to drain surface water. Runoff gathers in shallow basins
as small lakes, marshes and sheet water in fields. Once there were
nearly 4,000 major wetlands notaling nearly 100,000 acres in the 4,200
square-mile, 17-county region. Today fewer than 400 remain."
. . . ."The origin of the Rainwater Basin's wetlands has long been
the subject of speculation. Most researchers believe wind scoured
shallow depressions when vegetation lost its grip during arid periods and
the soil surface was broken by disturbances such as wallowing buffalo.
Radiocarbon dating indicates the basins were created near the end of the
Ice Age, 20,000 to 25,000 years ago, but might have been enlarged and new
ones created as recently as 3,000 years ago. Over thousands of years,
minute clay particles accumulated in the bottoms of the basins, effectively
sealing them and preventing standing water from seeping away. . . Wetlands
of this type are called playa wetlands."
. . . .In the early days, farmers just farmed around the basins,
but now ways of draining them have been developed, and today most of them
are just farmland.
. . . .On our way we stopped at Homestead National Monument, devoted
to interpreting the homestead period in the US. The Homestead Act
was passed in 1862 and took effect Jan. 1, 1863, after the Confederacy
had withdrawn from the union. Southerners opposed it because they
didn't want small farmers, who would be opposed to slavery, settling the
west. It really took off after the Civil War was over. The
monument is on the site of what was probably the very first homestead filed.
The man who filed it had a wife who was 17 years younger than he, and she
lived until 1931 on the same land her husband had filed on Jan. 1, 1863,
just a few minutes after midnight. The man was a scout for the Union
Army in the Civil War and had orders to be back on duty by the end of the
day Jan. 2, so the land office agent issued him his papers on New Years
Day, when the office was officially closed, but the law was in effect.
The monument was established in 1936, only a few years after his widow's
. . . .There is an interesting visitors center with a very well
done 17-min video on the history of homesteading in the US, both good and
bad features. There are also displays of tools that men and women
would have used. Curiously enough, the 160 acres of this original
homestead is being converted back to the tall-grass prairie from which
it came as a way of demonstrating what the homesteaders started with.
There are nature trails through the prairie, but we've been in several
other prairies and didn't do any of these. Besides, there was some
incredibly noisy road equipment working right next to the site.
. . . .After visiting the monument we backtracked to the Chamber
of Commerce Visitors Center in the city of Beatrice (pronounced bee-AT-riss).
I needed an atlas to the wildlife protection sites in Nebraska, published
by the same agency that put out the birding guides. The guides recommmended
getting it. The thing is essentially a road map of the entire state,
but the print is incredibly tiny. Fortunately I have a magnifying
. . . .We selected Crystal Lake State Recreation Area as a campground
not for its birds, but for its proximity to a number of rainwater basins.
Unfortunately it's 25 miles from the closest one, but there isn't much
in this area. It's listed in Trailer Life Guide as having electric
hook-ups only, and we wondered if there would be any water at all.
We found that two sites actually had water hookups and that there are water
faucets elsewhere on the grounds. No dump station, but sign says
there's one behind the fire station in Ayr, which is only 2 miles away.
Don't know where the fire station is yet, but the town only has a population
of 101, so we probably can find it. The campground is just a big
grassy lawn dotted with Eastern Cottonwood trees. We're under an
enormous one, which must have a six-foot trunk diameter. Around the
edges there is riparian woodland. Crystal Lake itself is a small
fishing pond with no shoreline to speak of and no shorebirds.
. . . .It got up to a muggy 89’ today, so we were content to just
sit around when we got here and settled around 3:30. There are supposed
to be thunder storms tonight (I'm seeing lightning occasionally now) until
1:00 am and then cool off for the next week or so, according to weather-radio
from Hastings, which is only 11 miles north of here. (We carry a
WeatheRadio from Radio Shack. It only tunes in the government weather stations
and is rather handy when we're in range of a signal.)
. . . .Better quit this writing and try to decipher the small type
on that map of the basins we want to find tomorrow. I have hopes
of finding a Buff-breasted Sandpiper in this area. There are only
15,000 of these birds in the world, but they all come through this area
around May 10-15, according to what I've read. We're here at the
pm., Wed., May 11, 2005
Lake SRA, Ayr, NE
. . . .We awoke to cloudy weather with a borderline drizzle.
WeatheRadio said it would probably lead up to a few thunder storms after
3:00 pm, but that they should not be severe because the clouds were thin.
. . . .Because of the threat of rain, Jim decided to take the truck
to Hastings 11 miles away for routine service. The "Service Engine
Soon" light has been coming on intermittently for a week or so. He
was gone most of the morning. He tried to call me on the cell phone,
but the service here is borderline and so he never got through, although
I got the phone number he was calling from and tried to call him back when
the signal got better. Of course, by then he had left the phone.
It turned out it was just as well he didn't get through, for at that time
it looked as though the truck was just sitting there and the job might
take all day. Even though I had not received his call, I figured
that was probably what he was trying to tell me and didn't expect him for
. . . .Then around 11:30 Charlie jumped up on the back of the couch
and started sitting up and waving his paws. I told him he was silly
and should settle down. Jim wasn't coming for a while. But
he was right. That little dog's hearing is incredibly acute. He had
heard the sound of our truck engine from way beyond a line of trees 100
. . . .While Jim was gone I took a walk around the grounds of this
park. My list is up to about 25 species, including Northern Bobwhite,
a species about which there is concern due to habitat loss. It likes
the same type of brushy prairie that Field Sparrow, also a species of concern,
. . . .I also learned the history of Crystal Lake from a state historic
marker in the park. The Little Blue River was dammed in 1893 for
a huge icemaking operation. When the "lake" froze over in the winter,
men with huge saws would saw it up into chunks for people's iceboxes.
When well insulated and stored in bulk, it would last all summer.
Ice was shipped by train all over this part of the country. The company
went out of business in the 1920s when refrigeration came in. Then
the area became a private recreation park. Finally the state acquired
it in the 1930s and the CCC built some picnic shelters that are still in
. . . .Around noon the weather was pretty nice and it looked as
though we might be able to take a drive to some of the Rainwater Basin's
wetland preserves later in the afternoon. But were we wrong!
. . . .Around 3:00 it started to rain. Then it rained some
more—really hard thunder showers. Then a bit of hail. Then
more—some as large as 3/4 inch in diameter. I got alarmed and turned
on the WeatheRadio around 4:15. I listened to the weather info, which
was more alarming than what had been on in the morning and was all about
severe thunder storms and hail just like we were having. So I turned
off the sound, but left the radio in its alarm mode, since there were severe
weather watches in effect. Alarm mode means there's a loud tone telling
you when there's a severe weather warning and you can turn on the talk
and hear what it is.
. . . .I had no sooner turned it to that mode when the alarm sounded.
I hit the "weather info." button and heard, "The National Weather Service
in Hastings has issued a tornado warning for Adams County, and it should
reach Ayr around 4:35. By then it was 4:25. We had decided
that the picnic shelter would be the best place to be in a tornado, so
snatched Charlie, a raincoat, and the WeatherRadio and headed out the door
of the trailer.
. . . .Just then a truck screamed to a stop. It was a man
from the Ayr Volunteer Fire Department. He told us we should go to
the fire station two miles away, then headed off so fast we wondered if
we could find the fire station before it was too late. It turned
out to be easy. The station really didn't look much more secure than
the picnic shelter, but it was comforting to have the half-dozen guys around.
The firefighters are also trained tornado spotters and several of them
were standing in the road out front of the station carefully watching the
wall cloud south of town. At that time it was not raining, although
it did from time to time while we were there.
. . . .Jim, of course, was out in front of the firestation with
the spotters ready with his camera to photograph the funnel cloud just
before he had to dive for cover. Fortunately the swirling in the
cloud that the Doppler Radar had detected did not develop into a tornado.
Jim did get pictures of the wall cloud with his film camera, then went
back to the truck to get his digital—and discovered he'd locked his keys
in the truck when he got his other camera out. In the haste of leaving,
I had not picked up mine, so they were in the trailer.
. . . .One of the firemen had to bring Jim back to the trailer to
try to get in and obtain my keys. We thought he could just raise
the window by the dinette, which doesn't lock very well and reach around
and unlock the door from the inside. It turned out the window locks
better than we thought and it wouldn't budge. He went around and
tried the much smaller window on the opposite side of the trailer and fortunately
it was not locked. But the open portion of the window is only about
a foot high, a tight squeeze for big Jim. Fortunately the young fireman
was really slight, so he climbed up and with a push from Jim got throught
the opening and onto the couch, then unlocked the door.
. . . .In his haste to be off Jim had not listened carefully when
I told him the two possible places where my keys might be, so he couldn't
find them. The young man had to take me back to get them. By
the time all this had occurred, it was 5:30 and the tornado warning had
expired. But there were others in the area, including another in
the northeastern portion of our county. Since all this weather seems
to be moving from southwest to northeast, we decided not to wait until
it expired and returned to the trailer.
. . . .While in the fire station, they turned the TV on for me to
watch what was happening around the area, including nice Doppler Radar
images of where the severe weather was. The NET (Nebraska Public
TV) station was really doing a good job. What really frightened me
was to learn that hail the size of baseballs had broken all the windows
in Hastings Community College. I really worry about the flimsy vent
covers in our trailer in any kind of hail. I think the fact that
we're partially under that big cottonwood tree may have broken the fall
of some of the smaller hail we had, for so far we only are getting water
leaking in around some of our window frames. Jim will have to caulk
them when things dry out.
. . . .After all this, we were both nervous wrecks. We're
Californians and tornado watches and huge hailstones are not things we're
used to. I've had the WeatherRadio on ever since we got back, and
the alarm goes off every few minutes. Fortunately the new warnings
are for severe thunder storms and flash-flooding north and east of us.
I hope the worst has
passed us here. They're still forecasting heavy rain and flash-flooding
all night long throughout the area, though.
. . . .I forgot to mention that when the fireman brought me back
to get the keys, he pulled up right in front of the trailer—and got stuck
in the mud. He made a huge rut trying to get out. How are we
going to haul the trailer out of this site? I guess we'll have to
stay in the area a few days and hope it dries out. I don't think
we dare drive any of those gravel roads that go by the wildlife refuges
either. Maybe we'll visit the nice, safe museum in Hastings.
I think I've been to it before, but AAA recommends it highly and I could
use something unstressful. Jim just wants to shoot birds. He
put out a water drip this morning, but I doubt it'll attract much after
the "water drip" we've just endured.
pm, Thurs., May 12, 2005
Lake SRA, Ayr, NE
. . . .We came to the Rainwater Basin, but we didn't expect the
powers above to fill it to the brim in one night! According to reports,
six to twelve inches fell in this area, depending on where the thunder
showers hit. I'm sure we had at least six.
. . . .Jim went to bed, but I stayed up and kept the WeatherRadio
on until around 1:00 am because the county we were in was under a tornado
watch until 5:00 am. I activated the alarm feature so I wouldn't
have to listen to the same things over and over. But every 5 to 30
minutes that extremely loud alternating two-tone alarm sound jolted me
to attention. After our tornado warning, all of the other reports
were for severe thunder storms or flooding. The thunder storms were
forecast to be capable of generating hail the size of baseballs and winds
of 60 or 80 mph, and judging by the damage reported, they were doing just
that. The county we were in had one or two more warnings, but in
the north part, maybe 12-15 miles from us. We did have a lot of strong
wind that shook the trailer and one more cloudburst around 1:00 am.
That got Jim up to find out what I'd been learning. He decided that
he'd better get dressed in case we got a warning here, but we didn't.
We sat around til the rain stopped, and then the wind even died down.
Despite the fact that the tornado watch was still in effect, we figured
there was probably no danger. All of the warnings were now for places
at least 40 miles north or east of here. So around 2:00 we went to
bed, me for the first time.
. . . .Jim got up at his usual time, but I decided to sleep in and
didn't get up until 7:00, late for me.
. . . .When we looked outside, we saw a quagmire in front of the
trailer. How were we going to haul it out? At that time they
were forecasting a possible repeat tonight of last night's scenario—plus
we're pretty near a river that could conceivably overflow its banks.
We wanted to be able to get out of here on short notice, trailer and all.
Jim was afraid that he couldn't haul the trailer out with the Suburban
without getting both it and the truck stuck in the mud. If the truck
was stuck, we'd not be able to phone for help. Our cell phone doesn't
work here, but we discovered that it did about four miles away on a main
highway. There we called AAA, with which we have emergency roadside
service for both the truck and trailer (we pay extra for trailer).
Of course the tow-trucks were working overtime. The tow-truck firm's
dispatcher said she'd worked all night and was still on duty. But
she still had time for a bit of small talk about what these people from
California were doing here in an obscure park in rural Nebraska.
Since we were in no particular hurry to be hauled out, so long as the rains
held off, we agreed they could come in the afternoon.
. . . .Since the rural byways we want to explore seemed very iffy,
I decided to visit the museum in Hastings. It's an old-fashioned
museum with beautiful dioramas of natural history subjects, including some
large mammals and even a California Condor. (It's the principal museum
between Chicago and Denver for that kind of thing.) They also had
many mounted specimens of birds, probably all that had occurred in NE,
for there were places in the cases for future acquisitions. I was
amazed to see Carolina Parakeet, Passenger Pigeon, and Eskimo Curlew among
. . . .There were lots of other kinds of displays—Indians, early
settlers, rocks and mineral, insects, you name it. An extensive feature
was on the man who invented and marketed Kool-Aid. He grew up in
Hastings, but it seemed much ado about nothing to me. It was all
sort of interesting, but also kind of depressing: No bright interactive
exhibits. Dark halls, even some lugubrious funereal background music,
and all those dead animals and birds, which I'd rather have seen out in
the field living their lives. I think I was in a poor mood because
of the depressing night I'd just experienced. Maybe another time
I'd have enjoyed it more. It really is a fine old-school museum.
. . . .After lunch I collapsed for a two-hour nap and awoke feeling
much more cheerful. The man with the tow-truck didn't arrive until
6:00, when we were about to give up on him. In his presence, Jim
tried backing the truck up to the trailer to hook up and see if he could
pull it out. He couldn't even back it up all the way without spinning
his wheels. So the huge tow-truck hooked up the trailer and hauled
it out onto the gravel park road, and Jim handled it from there.
Jim and I had sort of worried we might be calling the towtruck unnecessarily
and look foolish, so we were rather glad it turned out that we really did
. . . .After we were hooked up, we decided to take it down to the
fire station, where the dump station is, then come back and fill it up
with water and select a different site. Since the only other site
with water was taken, we took a dry site, but we do have electricity.
This time we chose one that seemed fairly high and that had a fair amount
of gravel in it. (None of them have very much.) And we only
backed the trailer in far enough to get the tongue off the road, leaving
the truck wheels on the road. When we hook up, we'll simply have
to block the road for that period of time. Since there are only us
and one other RV here, it won't be a serious problem.
. . . .It was 7:30 after all that, so I thawed something quick and
simple in the microwave for dinner. (I had been going to make a tuna
. . . .I'm afraid our plans to see the refuges in the Rainwater
Basin are not going to be fulfilled. Every field has a rainwater
basin in it from last night's torrents, and I'm sure the roads to the more
permanent ones will be impassable. Besides the migrating shorebirds
don't have to go to them. They are probably spread out all over the
. . . .Despite all the other puddles, Jim was getting a few nice
birds at his water drip and birdseed today, including "Yellow-shafted"
Flicker, Hairy Woodpecker (first for trip) and a Rose-breasted Grosbeak
that almost came down—plus a lot of Chipping Sparrows. He hated to
close down that operation, but we're at the opposite corner of the grassy
. . . .I guess we'll stay around here tomorrow morning. There
are still portions of the park I've not birded. Then the following day
maybe we can drive some of the paved back roads in the area and see if
we see any interesting shorebirds at the flooded fields.
. . . .The possible rain for this evening has not materialized,
although the sky at sunset was still mostly cloudy. Forecast for
the next few days sounds pretty good— cool, cloudy, only 20% chance of
pm, Fri., May 13, 2005
Lake SRA, Ayr, NB
. . . .It may have been Friday, the thirteenth, but it was just
a nice uneventful day for us. It was mostly cloudy until late afternoon,
when it changed to a mix of puffy clouds and blue sky, ending with a beautiful
sunset. Temperature topped at 60’.
. . . .Jim spent the day in his blind at the muddy site we vacated
at the opposite corner of the campground. He didn't get anything
unusual, but enough regular species to keep things interesting—including
a female Indigo Bunting. He was puzzled for a while by some Pine
Siskins, which seemed to lack any yellow on them, and thought they were
unusually tiny House Finches. Then he looked at their bills and realized
what he had. Hope he got pictures showing no yellow, so I can use
them in a workshop, for it's a common confusion. He did see a red
male finch, which was probably House, although Purple is also a possibility.
A Purple would be migrating north a little west of its normal route.
House Finches are uncommon in this area, which is in the zone between where
western House Finches are spreading east and those that were introduced
in New York are spreading west. They've practically met now.
House Finches are nonmigratory in the traditional sense.
There was only
a slight breeze, so I spent a couple of hours this morning out recording.
My main complaint was too many birds all singing at once—no solos possible.
The closest I came was a long rendition from a Brown Thrasher. I
was amazed at its repertoire of crisp phrases, almost every one uttered
twice. Coincidentally, this afternoon I was reading "Nature's Music,"
a comprehensive new book on bird sounds that was put together as a tribute
to the late Luis Baptista. In Chapter 1, the information was given
that the Brown Thrasher has the greatest repertoire of song motifs in the
world. Over 2000 have been identified from a single individual.
. . . .The only other really interesting sound was a Northern Waterthrush.
I hadn't heard one for some time, so had to use playback to find out what
it was. Fortunately it did some nice fly-by's so I could identify
it. The recording isn't great, though—too much competition.
. . . .The rest of the day I just relaxed in the nice warm trailer,
reading and embroidering and watching the birds out the window. Our
new campsite is near a line of swampy trees, and a brushy prairie area
is close by. Jim's feeding operation outside our trailer was drawing
only Blue Jays and Chipping Sparrows. Actually we don't often attract
Blue Jays, even though they're a pretty common bird. This time a
pair of them hauled off Magic Meal all day long.
. . . .It was nice to have a day to decompress after the excitement
of a couple of nights ago. Tonight on TV we saw more evidence of
the damage the hail storms did and were again thankful we were spared.
The forecast is for no rain in the forseeable future. Good!
pm, Sat., May 14, 2005
Lake SRA, Ayr, NE
. . . .A clear, cold, blustery day. I don't think the
temperature got out of the 50's, and the wind this morning was a steady
20 mph out of the north. We were glad Jim did his blind work yesterday.
The temperature was just as cold then, but there was little wind.
. . . .I decided I had to see if I could find the Buff-breasted
Sandpiper, which I had my heart set on finding in the Rainwater Basin.
This bird is reputed to feed on recently plowed fields in the daytime and
then go to the shores of a basin in the late afternoon to drink.
Unfortunately, after Wednesday's deluge, no one is plowing because the
fields are too muddy. Also, there are rainwater basins in fields
everywhere on this undulating prairie, so things didn't look very promising.
. . . .I charted a course which went by a number of state
Waterfowl Production Areas (WPA). Isn't that a disgusting name?
Of course, they really are producing ducks, just as the farmers produce
hogs, cattle, and chickens. Only these ducks will be shot by "sportsmen"
instead of sent to slaughterhouses. The route I used was the one
recommended in the NEBRASKAland Magazine Wildlife Viewing Guide by Joseph
Knue (1997), one in the series of Falcon Guides on the various states.
This tour is on p. 40 of the book, but there it is difficult to determine
what roads are intended. Fortunately I had obtained the "CRP - Management
Access Program Atlas," a joint publication of the Nebraska Game and Parks
Commission and Pheasants Forever, a copy of which I had obtained from the
Chamber of Commerce in Beatrice. In it are all the rural roads in
the state, county by county. It gives the condition of each road--gravel,
graded dirt, barely perceptible, etc. The type is incredibly small,
so even a person with normal eyesight has to use a magnifying glass.
Fortunately I have a nice one. With it in hand, I felt confident
venturing forth on the gravel roads, which are easy to follow, for the
whole countryside is laid out in mile-square blocks. It's just that
some of the boundaries lack roads, or have only dirt roads. Based
on our experience in the campground after the rain, I knew I had to stick
. . . .We drove south to Ayr first to check our PocketMail
at the payphone. No sooner had we left the campground when we encountered
our first partly flooded, newly planted cornfield. And it was alive
with sandpipers: Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs; Semipalmated, Least,
Spotted, and (new for the trip) one Stilt sandpiper. I was thrilled
and had high hopes for the rest of the morning. Because of the light,
we drove east about 40 miles on paved SR 74, then turned north at Shickley
in Fillmore Co. to drive mainly back westward on various gravel roads that
passed near 5 to 10 rainwater basins. The gravel roads are very good
and well graded, actually smoother than some of the paved ones. They're
also nice and wide, so we could stop anywhere. I think in the course
of our drive we encountered only 2 or 3 vehicles, probably because the
farmers are waiting for their fields to dry out before doing any work.
. . . .We took it very slowly, perusing every fallow, newly
plowed, and just sprouting cornfield, looking for the elusive Buff-breasted
Sandpiper. It's colored about like a Mountain Plover, for those who
know how hard that bird is to spot on a bare field. Whenever we came
to a flooded area, we perused that for other shorebirds. What did
we find? Upland Sandpipers in two places (a total of five, new for
the trip) and no other sandpipers of any kind. That bonanza just
outside the campground had been a fluke.
. . . .We did have a consolation prize, however. Two
different places we encountered Krider's Red-tailed Hawks resting in fields
near the road, and Jim got a somewhat distant picture of an adult and a
closer and better-lit one of an immature. They're in migration this
far south and may have been too tired to move away from our stopped vehicle.
They had been bucking that cold north wind. Actually, we really don't
know why they didn't fly away.
. . . .Most of the WMAs were totally flooded with no bare
shoreline, just grasses, and the edge of the visible water was far away
across the gently sloping surrounding prairie. Only one place, Moger
WMA, was the marsh close enough to the road for us to see any birds.
There we encountered Black-crowned Night-Herons and Black Terns.
. . . .At one place, Jim had me stop the truck (I was driving)
because he thought he saw a woodpecker on a utility pole far from any trees.
I thought he was crazy and, of course, it played hide-and-seek, as woodpeckers
do, but finally hopped up on top of it long enough for us to identify it,
then flew off. It was a Red-headed. I always thought they were
in open woodland with lots of tall trees. That utility pole was a
poor excuse for a tree. A few minutes earlier, I had thought I saw
a pair in two moderate sized trees all by themselves beside the road (probably
in a place where there used to be a house). Jim thought I must have
been wrong, and I halfway did, too, but I guess now I wasn't. We
both really learned something about the versatility of that bird.
Of course, it does engage in aerial flycatching like an Acorn or a Lewis's.
[Later I looked at the range map of the species and discovered that it's
quite migratory. Although we were in the all-year range of the bird,
many of them move considerably farther north. We very likely saw
. . . .It was 12:30 when we finally came out onto a paved
road two miles south of the tiny county seat, Clay Center. So we
drove up and had hamburgers at the only cafe in town, Daddy's Diner, then
back to the trailer.
. . . .Later this afternoon, the wind had died down somewhat.
Jim pulled the truck up near his feeding and watering station and photographed
Blue Jays out its window for a couple of hours. The truck was considerably
warmer than the blind, and the jays paid no attention to him or his flash.
. . . .I hate to give up, but it just doesn't look like a
promising year to see a Buff-breasted Sandpiper. We're planning to
drive 200+ miles west tomorrow, out of the narrow spring migration corridor
of that rare (only 15,000 in existence) bird. I just don't want a
repeat of this morning's fruitless search, and Jim wants it even less than
May 15, 2005
Ogallala SRA, NE
pm., Mon., May 16, 2005
Ogallala SRA, NE
. . . .Not too much of interest the last two days.
Yesterday we drove westward about 220 miles. We had a choice of a
faster and 10-to-15-mile shorter route via the freeway, but elected to
take back roads that parallel the freeway 15 to 40 miles south of it.
Nebraska roads are mostly pretty good. Only
in towns and in Lincoln County yesterday have we consistently encountered
rough going. We have no real complaint about the roads anywhere except
Oklahoma. They're generally awful—narrow and rough. Freeways
are another story, although the one we took in Missouri wasn't too bad.
They make them out of concrete and most road contractors seem unable to
make a concrete road that is smooth even on the day it opens.
. . . .As we moved westward, we saw more and more irrigation
with huge overhead sprinklers that pivot around a central source of water.
This is very wasteful of water because of evaporation, but how else can
a cornfield be watered? They're necessary for wheat, too, but we
didn't see much of that. I read that only within a hundred miles
or so of the eastern border of Nebraska is there enough rain to make growing
corn without irrigation economically feasible. Wheat is what should
be grown west of there, since it requires less water. However, corn
brings in more money. It's used to feed cattle and hogs, and nowadays
is an increasingly important component in automotive fuel. So we
save our petroleum by replacing some of it with ethanol, but mine the aquifers
for water to grow the corn. Does that make sense? Many aquifers
are being drawn down alarmingly.
. . . .We saw some wheat farming as we approached our destination,
but more cattle grazing. I guess the wheat is mostly grown north
of where we were in southern Nebraska. We've seen lots of it in the
Dakotas and Canada's prairie provinces.
. . . .We're camped beside Lake Ogallala, which is actually
the borrow pit for the Kingsley Dam. This dam was constructed in
1937-1941 and the reservoir behind it is called Lake McConaughy.
(One of my pet peeves is calling reservoirs "lakes.") Lake McConaughy
is the largest and deepest body of water in Nebraska. Both Kingsley
and McConaughy were 1930s politicians in central Nebraska who worked hard
to get the federal government to dam the North Platte River so they could
have water to irrigate the fields in their area.
. . . .his area is supposed to be one of the best birding
areas in Nebraska, because eastern, western, and water birds are all found
here. Some really rare (for mid-continent) deep-water species (gulls,
pelagic species, etc.) have occurred here. We haven't found much
of interest in the campground, which has trees only and no shrubs.
The trees have all been planted, so the place is sort of like a city park.
Birds are just the most common ones. We have yet to explore the areas
recommended in the birding literature. Had to do necessities in town
this morning (laundry, shopping, car-washing, etc.)
. . . .This afternoon I drove to the nearby visitors center
for the dam and the state recreation areas that occupy much of its shoreline.
Displays were mildly interesting, but there I learned about the reasons
for the dam and more than I was interested in about how it was constructed.
I did pick up a lot of brochures on places around here and also on other
SRAs we may visit. Also got a birdlist for the area, but it's flawed:
Although it does list the species month-by-month, it gives no indication
of how abundant they are. You can't tell if there's just one record
or if there's likely to be one in every tree.
. . . .On the way back I stopped at the spillway overlook
at the south end of the dam. This is where Bald Eagles are quite
a spectacle in the wintertime, but today it was Cliff Swallows. I
couldn't see that they were nesting under any of the dam structures, but
when I walked over to the opposite edge of the parking lot, I discovered
that they were nesting under an overhang in the cliff—only the 2nd time
I've ever seen Cliff Swallows on cliffs. (The other place was at
Baldwin Lake in the San Bernardino Mtns. before it dried up.) The
overhang was far above the water level, but based on the high-water line
all around, it must have resulted when high water a number of years ago
undercut the soft cliff. I don't know where they're getting their
. . . .Temperatures are quite mild. Today was mostly
cloudy with a high of 83’. There's a chance of thunder showers tonight,
but I don't think they're supposed to amount to much. Despite the
overcast and thunder threat, it doesn't seem as humid here as it did under
the same conditions farther east. Breeze was fairly light today,
and this campground is rather sheltered by the dam and by all the trees.
A pleasant day to sit outdoors.
pm, Tues., May 17, 2005
Ogallala SRA, NE
. . . .Not too much of interest today either. We set
out first thing in the morning to explore the north side of Lake McConaughy,
which is all a SRA, too. There are a couple of developed campgrounds
there, one with electric and another with full hookups. We wanted
to check out the c.
. . . .The habitat there is broad, sandy beaches and many
inlets. The lake is much below its "bathtub ring." Roads lead
down to the beaches, but I'm always hesitant to drive on sand, even if
there are tire tracks leading onto it. A few endangered Snowy Plovers
and Least Terns nest there, but I didn't want to see them badly enough
to walk or drive down there. The SRA road parallels the main road,
SR 92, and winds around past various parking lots, campgrounds (mostly
primitive), and beach access roads. I guess this place is a zoo in
the summertime, but today it was nearly deserted. In between developed
features there are groves of cottonwoods and junipers, which seem to have
been planted. The cottonwoods are quite large, but many of them seem
dead or dying, probably due to the drought that has plagued this area for
. . . .We stopped in one parking lot to read the bulletin
board and discovered one of Jim's target birds, a Red-headed Woodpecker,
atop a post next to the public telephone. Jim could have photographed
it out the window, except his camera was in the back seat. So I drove
around a short loop, during which he got the camera out. But the
bird flew into the nearby cottonwoods just as we approached. We saw
where it went, and Jim walked over there and discovered a hole near the
top of a broken-off cottonwood. This hole wasn't as high as most
of the Red-headed Woodpecker nest cavities we've seen, but according to
Kaufman's Lives of North American Birds, they sometimes nest quite near
the ground. The bird seemed to have flown into the hole. Jim
wanted to spend some time there and see if it was an actual nest, so he
got out his tripod and assumed guard a discreet distance away. Incubating
woodpeckers sometimes spend an hour or longer in their nests before emerging,
but he was prepared to wait as long as it took..
. . . .
. . . .I left him standing there and drove off to check the
other campgrounds. I found them to be in open grassy fields with
just a single young cottonwood in each site—not nearly as nice as where
we are. I think we'll not move. We have to stay here a day
or two longer to await a package.
. . . .When I returned, I took a short walk from where he
was and recorded some songs of Baltimore Orioles and Western Meadowlarks.
They'll be unremarkable because there was a pretty good breeze rustling
noisy cottonwood leaves by then. Jim told me I really didn't have
to hang around and could go do what I wanted; he was determined to
stick it out until noon. I hated to leave him, but couldn't see spending
three more hours waiting in the truck while he waited at that cavity.
So I came back to the trailer and washed Charlie and baked a Mrs. Smith's
pie. I went back and picked him up at noon.
. . . .It turned out that he had never seen the Red-headed
Woodpecker again. Worse luck. We see all those wonderful close-ups
of the bird in publications, but have yet to have one allow that kind of
close approach by us.
. . . .While he was waiting, he caught sight of a flicker
at a hole near the top of another steep, broken-off limb. The bird
had a black moustache, so was probably a Yellow-shafted, but might have
been an intergrade. Jim couldn't see it well enough to determine
any other field marks, and besides, he's not up on all the distinctions
between the two forms. He really couldn't photograph it because he
would have to have aimed his camera up at a 70’ angle. So he didn't
watch it much, devoting his attention to the possible Red-headed Woodpecker.
. . . .The thing that he enjoyed the most about his vigil
was watching a pair of courting(?) Orchard Orioles. On three different
occasions, he saw the male flying along slowly about eight feet above the
ground, fluttering its wings in an exaggerated fashion. The female
flutteed along about ten feet behind him. They flew at least sixty
feet in this fashion before disappearing from view in the trees.
He was surprised to see the female following the male, instead of the male
chasing the female, as is the case with most Icterids.
. . . .Around noon the wind got up strongly, and blew intermittently
hard and harder all afternoon. According to WeatherRadio, it got
as strong as 30 mph in Ogallala. Although the temperatures were delightful
(mid-70's), the wind kept me indoors all afternoon. There was a threat
of severe thunderstorms for a while, but they cancelled it for this county.
However, we've had a little thunder and lightning and a minute amount of
. . . .The wind has now nearly died down; the front
has passed, I guess. It's supposed to be somewhat cooler tomorrow,
but not the bitter cold we've had so much of.
. . . .We've been getting lousy TV reception throughout the
trip, and finally decided after a bit of experimentation that something's
wrong either with our power antenna or with the connections. Jim
tried to check the connections by climbing up on the roof of the trailer
via the truck roof (I can't watch him do that!), but it didn't do any good.
So this afternoon he drove to a nearby RV repair facility and made an appointment
to take it in tomorrow morning at 8:30. (We couldn't call, for our cellphone
doesn't work down here behind the dam.) There goes another morning
of birding, but it can't be helped. We'd really like to be able to
get some TV. We're quite out of touch with what's happening.
An occasional newspaper is all we get.
. . . .We still haven't visited any of the places around
here that seem to have the best potential for May birding.
May 18, 2005
Ogallala SRA, NE
pm, Thurs., May 19, 2005
Ogallala SRA, NE
. . . .Yesterday was a beautiful, clear day, which started
out chilly, but ended up in the mid-70's. Fairly windy in the morning,
but much calmer in the afternoon. It would have been a great morning
to go birding, but we had that appointment to get a new TV antenna installed.
. . . .On the way down to the RV repair facility, we had
a little time to spare and stopped at the dam overlook where the Cliff
Swallows were nesting. I looked down another place from where I looked
yesterday, and it seemed as though they were nesting right under the ledge
at my feet. I walked around the bend onto the highway shoulder where
I could see under the ledge, and there were no nests there. However,
the birds kept hovering at the top three or four feet of bank. Finally
I realized that the ledge was just dirt, and that recent rains had soaked
down three or four feet. The birds were using that moist dirt for
nest material. It didn't seem nearly as wet as what Cliff Swallows usually
use, but I guess that's all they had.
. . . .It took an hour and a half to get the antenna installed.
(The man who did it refused to accept payment for the extra half-hour,
because that's not what he had quoted. It seems to be a one-man operation.)
Then we had to go down into town for groceries, buy propane, get the holding
tank dumped, and before we knew it, it was time for lunch. We'd shot
the entire morning.
. . . .Late in the afternoon I did take a walk on a hike/bike
trail that goes south from the end of the campground. When it reaches
the edge of a marsh, it turns and follows it for quite a distance.
I didn't go much past the start of the marsh, but found lots of Marsh Wrens
singing. I wonder if they're eastern or western ones. Westerns
have bigger repertoires than easterns, but all have pretty large ones.
. . . .This morning we finally did the drive to the west
end of the lake that was so recommended for birds. We stopped a couple
of places on the north shore. One place there were 100-200 White
Pelicans loafing on the mudflat where a creek enters the lake. I
could see no sign that they were nesting there. The only shorebirds
with them were a handful of American Avocets.
. . . .We continued on to the end of the lake. I wanted
to see what the undammed North Platte looks like, so we continued on past
the end to Oshkosh, where a road south crossed the river. Unfortunately
they were working on the bridge and had one-way traffic across it with
a traffic signal. There was no way to take a picture of the river
facing westward, but I did snap a couple facing eastward, but they were
toward the sun. I've always heard that the early pioneers described
the river as "a mile wide and an inch deep." In some places it is
indeed a mile wide, but in many places it's more than an inch deep.
. . . .After we got across the bridge, there was a gravel
road that seemed to follow the course of the river, so we drove it a short
distance, but we couldn't really see the river for the trees. We
did find a snake in the road, and Jim, of course, had to stop and snap
pictures. It turned out to be dead—probably from a collision with
a passing vehicle. He thinks it may be a gopher snake—will have to
figure it out later, but I can't get too excited about adding a headless
snake to our slide collection.
. . . .We returned to US 26, the road that goes around the
south side of Lake McConaughy. Where this road crosses the North
Platte, it passes through about a half-mile stretch where there are marshes
on both sides--called the Lewellen Marshes because of a nearby town with
that name. There is some river flow, but I think the marshes are
due to the water backed up by the dam. I walked all along that stretch
crossing back and forth across the highway to see both sides. Nothing
unusual in the way of birds—lots of Red-winged Blackbirds and Marsh Wrens,
and a single Green Heron. It was easy to walk, and Jim followed me
in the truck, stopping wherever he wanted. The road has nice wide
On the south side of the river we soon came to
the Ash Hollow Cemetery on the right. The birding literature directed
us to turn left there and drive east on a gravel road. It claims
it is the single best birding spot in the area. I was sorry it was
10:00 and getting pretty warm when we got there. I could easily have
spent an entire morning there. The road runs for two or three miles
along the north-facing bluff. On the south side is a steep slope
heavily vegetated with an amazing variety of trees (junipers and broad-leafed)
and shrubs. One shrub had beautiful pink flowers. It was up
the slope a bit, but we took telephoto shots. I'll have to figure
it out later. The north side was grassland, then more marsh.
We drove to the far end of the road, where a two-tracker extends farther
into Clear Creek Waterfowl Production Area, but we turned around there
and drove back slowly. This turned out to be a good decision, for
now we had our backs to the sun, and the wind was such that the dust didn't
catch up with us when we stopped.
. . . .I walked portions of the road—should have walked it
all, but by then it was really getting hot. Even in the short time
I spent there, I heard a Bell's Vireo singing in one place and in a piece
of grassland, both Eastern and Western Meadowlarks were holding forth.
I recorded all of these. [Later I read in Nature's Music that Eastern
and Western Meadowlarks sometimes mimic each other. I wonder what
I got. Even if I got sounds of just one species, both must have been
in the area.]
. . . .Ash Hollow State Historic Park is just south of there.
Unfortunately the visitors center is only open from Memorial Day to Labor
Day. It sounds like a really interesting place. Prehistoric
animals have been excavated nearby, early Indians used the area extensively,
and here the Oregon Trail had one of its steepest sections where it descended
from the top of the bluff down to the river floodplain. We did visit
the Oregon Trail spot, which is called Windlass Hill, because a legend
(not true) developed later that they had to use a windlass to get the wagons
down the grade. They actually used the usual method of locking the
wheels and hoping for the best. Actually the grade wasn't nearly
as bad as others they had to descend farther west.
. . . .The road continued on to Ogallala. We called
the PO when we got a cellphone signal and found our package had arrived,
so we drove into town and picked it up. If it hadn't come, I think
I'd have gone back to that road across from the cemetery tomorrow, but
other even more interesting spots farther north beckon.
. . . .It got up to 87’ this afternoon, and (something I
thought never occurred in the prairies) there was absolutely no breeze.
That made it pretty uncomfortable. Still we spent most of the afternoon
outside—except Charlie, for whom we turned on the AC in the trailer;
he's getting pretty fuzzy.
. . . .I had bought some oranges, hoping to coax the Baltimore
and Orchard Orioles to come in. Jim very skeptically nailed a couple
of halves to a tree yesterday, and nothing came then. But today when
we got back from our drive, we discovered they had been nibbled at.
We no sooner got into the trailer than the male and female Orchard were
there. The Baltimores soon came around, too. Jim sat in his
blind most of the afternoon photographing them. I think he got photos
of all but the female Orchard.
pm, Fri., May 20, 2005
Lk. SRA, NE
. . . .We decided to stay here over the weekend for several
reasons: First, it's not prudent to arrive at a new campground on
a Friday or Saturday. You never know what the availability of sites
will be, although where we're going next, I doubt there will be a problem.
. . . .Second, we're having a heat wave. Temperature
topped out at 94’ today, and stayed at that level for hours. There
was some breeze, so we sat outside in it, but it was nice to have the air-conditioned
trailer for refuge from time to time and, especially, for Charlie.
Our site is shady except for two or three mid-morning hours, so the A/C
is working very well. It doesn't work well at these temperatures
in the sun.
. . . .Third, those orioles (Orchard and Baltimore) really
love orange halves! Jim was happy to spend most of the day in the
blind photographing them, and also a Warbling Vireo, which came in to the
water drip from time to time. I know he improved his shots of females,
which are much warier than the males.
. . . .Finally, the package that we picked up at the PO yesterday
was an initial copy of one of our videos that we're making for Sea and
Sage. I thought I could go through it in an hour or so and make just
a few suggestions. It turned out not to be nearly as well done as
the first one they did. I had to go over and over it and write up
all the changes that needed to be made. Then I organized them in
WordPerfect and finally copied that with two fingers on the little PocketMail
keyboard. The project took all morning.
. . . .I don't think I've mentioned that we have a robin's
nest in our site. It's about 10 feet up in a crotch of an oak tree
right outside our dinette window. The adults are feeding three very
energetic chicks and are definitely campground birds. We almost have
to watch our feet to keep from stepping on them. Jim has photographed
the nest by standing on the picnic table. The adults pay no attention
to him, no matter how close he gets. I sit outside practically under
the nest in the shade most of the day and watch them. It's amazing
how they've grown since we've been here. Jim finds it repulsive the
way the adults sometimes eat the fecal sacs instead of carrying them off.
I suppose they provide protein.
Although the robins don't care a bit about our
presence, for a while this morning they attacked the orioles whenever then
came in. One robin tried out the orange to see what the orioles were
eating, but couldn't cling to the bark of the tree or the orange without
lots of fluttering, so soon gave up. After that it left the orioles
alone. The robins have also chased the ubiquitous Common Grackles
and once one attacked a starling viciously when it was foraging on the
ground 30 feet from the nest tree. The starling accepted the blows
stoically, but continued feeding, then flew away and never came back.
Jim says they're nesting pretty far from here.
. . . .This morning, as every day, I awoke around 4:45 to
the dawn chorus. This time there was no wind, so I decided to go
out and record it for a while. This I did for about an hour—until
the traffic on the top of the dam got too continuous for good recordings.
It's fun whenever we travel to listen to the dawn
chorus and try to enumerate the birds that are singing in the order in
which they start to sing. Here the Western Kingbirds take the prize
hands down, for they were singing when I awoke for a while at 2:30, but
were really going strong during dawn chorus time. Robins are probably
the first to start up at dawn, then Mourning Doves. After that, it's
sort of a tie among all the rest, the most common here being Common Grackle,
Yellow Warbler, the two orioles, and Warbling Vireo.
. . . .Because of the heat, we didn't do much after lunch
except sit around, Jim in his blind, of course. There was a 10-20
mph "breeze" in Ogallala per WeatherRadio, but I think it was more like
10 mph here in the shelter of the trees. It helped. This afternoon
a lot of beautiful cumulonimbus clouds developed, but no thunder storms
ensued. They dissipated at sunset. Forecast is for a high in
the mid-80s tomorrow. That will be a relief. We're going to
stay here til Sunday morning before moving on.
. . . .Ugh. A bunch of giggly tent-camping kids just
arrived in the site right behind us and proceeded to hang a big light up
in the tree to shine right in our bedroom window. So much for the
peace and quiet and darkness we've enjoyed up until now in this campground!
We hope they'll go to bed early and turn that light off. It's only
pm, Sat., May 21, 2005
Lk. SRA, NE
. . . .This will definitely be our final night here, but
I'm really glad we stayed the extra day. The orioles became more
and more numerous at our orange halves and polished off an entire orange
in half a day. Around noon Jim came in and asked, "Are there any
other orioles here besides Orchard and Baltimore?" When I queried
him about what he had seen, he reported a bird that looked like an adult
male Baltimore, but had much more white on its upperparts and seemed not
to be totally black on its head. I immediately suspected what he
had seen and got excited. The Platte River valleys east of the Rockies
are where hybrid Baltimore x Bullock's Orioles are found. In fact,
the two species were lumped on this basis for a while (remember the "Northern
Oriole"?), but then resplit. Now they aren't even next to one another
in AOU order, but I forget the details.
. . . .Anyhow we watched carefully for an hour or two, hoping
it would return. I was about to take a nap, but Jim remained in his
blind just in case the bird returned. I told him to radio me if the
bird came in. I had just lain down when he called. I looked
out the window and, sure enough, there was a bird with big white wing patches,
not just the wide white wing bar of the Baltimore. Its head was almost
totally black, but had a narrow, somewhat dotted, orange supercilium.
Otherwise, it looked like a Baltimore. It certainly fit my conception
of what a hybrid might look like. Jim photographed it both then and
when it returned once more later on. If he got a digital image, we'll
send it to Nancy for the website version of this diary.
. . . .Otherwise it was an uneventful day for me. I
thought about driving east and exploring other areas, but decided instead
to defrost the refrigerator and plan the next leg of our trip. By
then it was noon.
. . . .Last night was the warmest night of the trip—only
got down to 70’. We had to keep the back window curtains drawn because
of the lights behind us, so we were pretty warm. The people did shield
the lights somewhat when I asked them to. They yakked until after
11:00. I stayed up until then, then put in my earplugs and went to
. . . .This morning the wind shifted to the northwest as
a dry front passed and the day was much cooler than yesterday—a high of
86’, instead 94’. A nice breeze made it quite pleasant outdoors.
We still used the AC for Charlie. The trailer gets hotter than the
outdoors even when we're in the shade.
pm, Sun., May 22, 2005
Lake SRA, Merriman, NE
. . . .I didn't go to bed until 11:30 last night, trying
unsuccessfully to wait until the noisy bunch behind us quieted down.
It turned out to have adults and kids of all ages, not just teen-agers.
The adults were the noisy ones this time. They also had a dog that
they allowed to bark ceaselessly during the day and a screaming child.
That one really puzzled us. The child, who was maybe 4-6 years old,
was standing on a picnic table screaming at one of the adults or older
teen-agers. The adult just sat there, and the child just screamed
on and on. It was a highly ambiguous scream—almost as though the
child had been told to do so for therapy of some sort. The screaming
didn't cease until Jim and I gave them some rather obvious dirty looks.
. . . .Anyway, at 11:30 pm I gave up, put in my earplugs,
and went to bed. The dawn chorus awakened me before 5:00, but that
was OK because we wanted to drive through the sandhills in the early morning
hours before the bird activity stopped. I also wanted pictures of
the hills with some nice shadows to give them definition. Most of
the rest of the campground was up at that hour too, for they wanted to
be out on the lake in their boats fishing, so we didn't have to worry about
the noise we made hooking up. We didn't care if we awoke the people
behind us, who seemed to be the only people not stirring.
. . . .We drove straight north—as straight as the sandhills
permitted—on SR 61 to Merriman, a distance of about 125 miles. We
stopped frequently for pictures typical of the area—the hills, the ranches,
the attempts to irrigate the land, and the ponds and lakes in the depressions
. . . .The road was pretty awful, except for a couple of
stretches of 20-30 miles each that were fine. Some of the bumps were
due to wear and tear and others were major depressions at transverse seams
every 30-60 feet. They apparently laid the pavement in blocks.
On some of the steep portions of the newer stretches of road, however,
it was interesting to see that they laid a coating of asphalt in the ditch
on both sides to keep rainwater from undercutting the road as it runs across
the sandy soil.
. . . .A little information about the sandhills might be
interesting. It is mostly taken from the NebraskaLand Magazine's
"Birding Nebraska" issue referenced earlier. This 19,000-square-mile
area is "the largest sand dune area in the Western Hemmisphere, and one
of the largest grass-stabilized dune regions in the world." The dunes
are very recent geologically, having been formed since the last ice age
during a period of "prolonged drought from 3,500 to 1,500 years ago."
When the drought eased, vegetation began growing on the dunes, stabilizing
them. Their contours today are essentially what they were 1,500 years
ago. The entire landscape is underlain by the huge Ogallala Aquifer,
and water seeps to the surface between the dunes, forming wetlands and
even feeding rivers that flow out of the area. There are "about 1,600
lakes of 10 acres or more" and countless smaller ones, as well as marshes
and wet meadows.
. . . .This country was opened for homesteading in the early
1900s, with each homesteader allowed to file on a square mile of land.
Despite the larger plots of land (1/4 square mile was typical in other
areas), every farm failed! The sand is too porous and the rainfall
to sparse for dry-land farming.
. . . .Now the country is still almost entirely in private
hands, but cattle ranching is the main activity. I'd like to know
how large the average ranch is, but we certainly saw lots of ranch headquarters
buildings. [Later in Merriman we saw a display of sandhills cattle
brands and counted 98, but don't know how wide an area they represent.]
Maybe they're concentrated along the highway with long narrow holdings
extending back from there—just speculation. The cattle must still
be handled on horseback, because no wheeled vehicles can maneuver on the
soft terrain. Consequently we saw several pastures full of mares
and their colts. In the southern portions of the region, where the
hills aren't so high, we saw some attempts at center-pivot irrigation,
and I took a photo of the only cornfield I saw all day with a center-pivot
unit in it. (The cornfield was still fallow, but the old stalks were
. . . .It took us 4-5 hours to drive the road, partly because
we had to drive 30-40 mph on some of the bad stretches, and partly because
we stopped here and there to bird. There was no shoulder, and we
didn't dare get off the road for fear we might get stuck in the sand, but
there was so little traffic, we just picked places where there was good
visibility, turned on our emergency flasher lights, and stopped right in
the driving lane.
. . . .Despite our cursory method of birding and never getting
the scope out, we identified 26 species, including some new for the trip.
On the grassy upland grassland they were mainly Mourning Doves, Horned
Larks, Western Meadowlarks, Western Kingbirds, Lark Sparrows, and a few
little brown jobs that were probably Savannah Sparrows. A couple
of times we saw small flocks of Lark Buntings. In the wet depressions
the diversity was greater. A few of the more interesting species
were Western Grebe, Black Tern, Trumpeter Swans (a pair each in two different
places), White-faced Ibis, Canvasback, Redhead, Wilson's Phalarope, and
Long-billed Curlew. I suspect most of them are breeders. I
didn't see any shorebirds that were clearly migrants.
. . . .Enroute we passed exactly two towns, Arthur and Hyannis
(someone nostalgic for their old Cape Cod home?), both very tiny (100-200
people), but both the county seats of their respective counties.
They both looked desperately poor, as does Merriman, the town near where
. . . .We got to Merriman around 11:30, so decided to see
if there was a cafe in town. Appropriately enough, it's called the
Sand Cafe. Jim, of course, selected the Sunday buffet, but I didn't
think it looked very good (Jim said it was only so-so). I looked
over the sandwich menu, and along with the usual hamburgers, BLTs, and
ham-and-cheeses, there was something called a Budda, as well as a mini-Budda.
I had ask the waiter, who was the high-school-age son of the women who
owns the place, what it was. It was a hamburger smothered in sauted
onions, green peppers, and mushrooms, with a slice each of cheddar and
Swiss cheese. It sounded good, and it was. Everything was freshly
cooked to order.
. . . .On the way out I asked the owner, who was very jolly
and friendly, why it was called that and if it was a common sandwich in
this part of the country. She told me that the former owner of the
place had a strapping teen-age son named Budda (pronounced boo-da) who
told his mother, "Fix me a sandwich that'll fill me up." That's how it
all started. The mini-Budda, which I had, came along later.
It was plenty!
We had two choices of places to stay in this town.
There was a place a bit north of the junction that was listed in the Nebraska
tourist guide and had six full-hook-up sites. There was also Cottonwood
Lake State Recreation Area just east of town off US 20. It doesn't
have any hook-ups. Although the idea of full hook-ups was mighty
appealing, we decided to take a look at the SRA, and fell in love with
the place. Finally we're backed in to the habitat, not out in the
middle of a grassy lawn with the lake far away. We lucked out and
got a beautiful site that backs up to one of the sandhill lakes.
All around the edge is a narrow band of cattails. Eastern Cottonwoods grow
here and there, but they seem to be old and scraggly, so there's little
shade. Several recent years of drought have taken their toll.
This spring has been quite wet, so the lakes are brimming with water and
our trailer is only a foot or so above the water level. Fortunately
the weather has cooled off, so we could accept a sunny site. There
are also some nearby depressions that have wet meadows in them. Even
though I've done little walking around because the Sunday fishermen were
still around and it was noisy, I've already found some nice birds, mostly
by ear: Long-billed Curlew, Willet, Common Nighthawk, American Bittern.
Jim saw blackbirds harassing a hawk of some sort, but it disappeared before
he could ID it.
. . . .Just as the sun went down, we watched a full moon
rise over the lake behind the trailer, and Jim attempted photos of the
scene, but the lighting was tricky and they may not come out.
. . . .Better quit before my battery goes dead. Don't
have electricity here. I can recharge it tomorrow using the inverter,
but it's under the bed and Jim has gone to sleep and I don't want to disturb
pm, Mon., May 23, 2005
Lake SRA, Merriman, NE
. . . .I decided to write this up early so I can power my
computer with solar panels and the inverter, then recharge my battery.
. . . .This morning we toured Lacreek NWR just north of here
in South Dakota. We followed directions in the June, 1990, issue
of Winging It. To get there we drove east from Merriman about 10
miles to an unnamed road near milepost 146 that was signed as going to
Eli. Eli, if we saw it at all, looked more like a ranch headquarters
than a town, but maybe the town was actually off the road a bit.
. . . .The northbound road was paved to the South Dakota
border, then nominally gravel. The instructions told us to follow
it to the town of Tuthill and turn left, following the signs. The
majority of the road was through the sandhills, then it abruptly descended
to more or less flat prairie. We were astounded by the quick change.
Of course, as soon as we got on the flatlands, the land was farmed.
. . . .When we got to a small cluster of buildings including
a nondescript post office, which we presumed was Tuthill, we saw no sign
for the refuge, but we did see an intersection. I caught sight of
the back of a sign past the intersection and got out and checked it.
Sure enough, it said to turn west to Lacreek NWR. After that we did
fine. In just one mile, at the top of a hill we found the entrance
to the refuge and were able to pick up a brochure with a map and a bird
. . . .From the brochure I learned that "Lacreek," sometimes
incorrectly rendered "La Creek," is a corruption of "Lake Creek," the name
of a creek in the area which ended in a lake.
. . . .The refuge itself is quite varied in habitat, with
lots of lakes, marshes, mudflats, and prairie. I think what impressed
me most was the huge Black-tailed Prairie Dog town, the biggest one I've
ever seen. It sprawled over hilltop after hilltop. A ranger
we met up with told us it's about 600 acres in area. I asked him
if there were any endangered Black-footed Ferrets there, and he said no.
Furthermore they wouldn't try to introduce them because they require a
prairie dog town of at least 1000 acres. They might have been there
before the prairie dogs were nearly exterminated in the 1920s, but no one
kept records then. The refuge is one of many established in the mid-1930s,
a priceless legacy of the depression.
. . . .There is a sizeable White Pelican rookery there, but
overambitious (we learned later) electric-fence installers had fenced across
the access road. Later we were told we could have just opened the
gate and driven up to the labelled viewpoint. We did see a bit of
the rookery through an opening a bit later, though.
. . . .We drove all the refuge roads, some county roads that
transverse the refuge, and also a one-way loop tour road that starts and
ends at the headquarters area. There is a tall look-out tower near
the headquarters, which I made Jim climb to take some overall scenes.
(I'm too scared of heights to attempt it.) In addition to the prairie
dogs and pelicans, there are lots of breeding waterfowl, Blue-winged Teal
and Canada Geese being most conspicuous. The ranger told me there
were shorebirds in one place along the tour road, but I really didn't see
many—just a few Willets and American Avocets. There's a greater variety
where we're staying at Cottonwood Lake, even though it's much smaller.
. . . .A north wind was blowing 20-30 mph the entire time
we were there. The southern east-west portion of the loop tour road
was bordered on the north by an almost continuous line of dense shrubs.
There were a number of land birds in the shrubs and, to keep out of the
wind, they were mostly on our side of the hedge. Yellow Warblers,
Bell's Vireos, and one Empidonax flycatcher, possibly a Willow or Alder
were present. The road was extremely close to the bushes and Jim
lucked out with a couple of shots of a Bell's Vireo. This is the
yellowish belli subspecies and quite different from our western ones.
. . . .After we finished touring the refuge, we again followed
the instructions in the Winging It article and drove 7 miles due west to
a T, then south to where the road intersected with a paved road and continued
south backto Merriman. Where it reentered Nebraska, it became SR
61 and came in at the center of town. The 7 miles west from the refuge
to the T showed signs of being pretty awful after a rain. It was
mainly dirt with little gravel and had deep ruts in it. Fortunately
it was dry when we were there. If I were visiting the refuge after
a rain, I'd find another route out. The road south of Tuthill to
the Nebraska border might get muddy, too, but it didn't have any ruts in
it, perhaps because it sees little traffic. There is another way
there, but it involves driving more miles and approaching Tuthill from
. . . .As we reentered Merriman from the north, we looked
at the six-site RV park we had not patronized. It looked pretty nondescript—just
a few weedy sites next to a dirt town street. We're glad we're at
Cottonwood Lake, but it would have been acceptable if that was all there
. . . .I tried to find a grocery store and finally asked
a woman on the street, who told that the town doesn't have one. (I
wonder how far they have to drive for groceries.) We tried to find
a payphone at the gas station, and the town doesn't have one of those either,
but they were happy to let Jim use their regular phone to call an 800 number.
We won't impose on them by checking our PocketMail there, though.
We have reservations in an RV Park in Valentine, 60 miles east, over the
upcoming Memorial Day weekend and had been asked to call them and tell
them exactly which day we planned to arrive, thus the phone call.
. . . .I just looked out the trailer window and saw about
eight White Pelicans fishing on the sparkling blue water. It's really
a pretty scene, with cattails just behind them, then the sandhills in the
distance, and all topped by some tall thunderheads.
. . . .Those thunderheads are east of here, so no threat
to us, but there is a 50% chance of our getting hit this evening.
Our site is grassy and down a slight slope from the road. Hope it
doesn't rain much and get us stuck again. We're parked as close to
the road as it is level, and Jim plans to spread his tarp on the grass
to keep it dry. I'm skeptical if that will work in the wind that
always accompanies such storms.
pm., Tues., May 24, 2005
Lake SRA, Merriman, NE
. . . .The thunder storms did not develop in our area.
All we got were a few spits of rain after dark. It never looked particularly
. . . .After I went to bed last night at 10:30, I could hear
Wilson's Snipe winnowing over the lake. There seemed to be two of
them--maybe more. Canada Geese were also calling. It was totally
dark and had been for some time.
. . . .Temperature got down to 52_ last night and up to the
low 70's today. It started out mostly sunny this morning with a brisk
breeze. (I've figured out from WeatheRadio that anything less than
20 mph is merely a breeze. Between 20 and 30 it might be a breeze
or a wind. Above that it's a wind.) As I write this now, the
sky is 3/4 cloudy and the wind has died down so much that I just spent
an hour or so outside doing some recording. Got lots of Flicker,
Yellow-headed and Red-winged Blackbird, and Common Grackle--with bits of
a lot of other things. Nothing memorable and nothing solo.
. . . .This morning we wandered around the campground for
a while, then drove slowly out the quarter-mile road to the highway.
There we turned around so Jim could shoot the Willet that hangs out in
one particular place. It's in full breeding plumage and all speckled
with blackish. It allowed rather close approach because it was wading
in the sparse, wet marsh grasses right behind the self-registration station
for the park. It was obviously used to having people stop there and
get out of their vehicles.
. . . .We had just finished that and were looking for the
Upland Sandpiper that we saw yesterday when we caught sight of a dark bird
on a fence post ahead. It was a Black Tern! I crept the truck
slowly toward it. (Jim got mad at me because I didn't maintain an
even speed, but the bumpy road didn't permit it.) The bird allowed
us to get a close as we wanted to. The lighting was perfect, and
I was amazed to discover that there is a beautiful mauve irridescence to
the gray wing coverts. I had always thought the light areas were
just gray—with head and body black, of course.
. . . .Another Black Tern was a couple of posts farther along,
and Jim photographed that one, too. Although sexes are nearly alike,
we thought there might be some slight differences, but both had the same
irridescence. Then the second bird flew off and started foraging
over the marsh. Pretty soon it came back to the other bird with something
in its bill and, hovering over her (probably), he (probably) passed the
food to her. We decided it was courtship feeding. I backed
up the truck so Jim could focus his lens on her. Pretty soon the
male came back with more food, and Jim was ready. He blazed away
at 8 frames per second and a shutter speed of 1/800 sec. We have
no idea how many pictures he shot, but some of them have to be great.
We were thrilled! Just for good measure, the male came in once more
and Jim got another series before the female decided to fly off.
Again we lucked out because we had birds that were used to people.
Jim has photographed Black Terns before, but never this well.
. . . .The rest of the morning we spent by driving to Bowring
Ranch State Historic Park, the access road to which is a couple of miles
north of Merriman on Hwy 61. When we turned off the highway, we followed
a good gravel road that wound through the sandhills, then went down into
a slight depression, where the old ranch houses are located. There
is also a large interpretive center. Unfortunately the park buildings
don't open until Memorial Day, but we wandered the grounds. The ranch
house was huge, and I'd have loved to tour it. There was also a sod
house. Whether it is new or was constructed for the visitors to see
I don't know. There are no interpretive signs on the grounds.
I guess they take you on a guided tour. Unfortunately we'll be gone
by then. There were a few cars in the lot, apparently of people getting
ready for the opening this weekend. Some chickens and a noisy gobbler
were in the barnyard, so apparently it's a living history ranch.
[Later I learned that Mrs. Bowring served in the US Senate. What
I read was somewhat ambiguous, and she may have finished a term after her
. . . .We still had lots of time to spare before lunchtime,
so I decided to walk the road from the ranch house back to the highway
in order to experience the sandhills at close range. I climbed a
couple of them to take pictures of the overall scene. The sand is
very fine and compacts well, so it was easy walking. I also took
pictures of several wildflowers that were sticking up or hunkering down
here and there among the bunch grasses and low shrubs. This all seems
to fit the definition of short-grass prairie. Most of my pictures
were digital so I can try to figure them out soon, if they're in any of
the books I have.
pm., Wed., May 25, 2005
Motel & RV Park, Valentine, NE
. . . .Yesterday afternoon the sky gradually got cloudier
and cloudier, with thunderheads here and there. The forecast was
for a 60% chance of thunderstorms during the night. We were parked
on a grassy site that was down a slight slope from the gravel road.
Since we feared we might not be able to haul the trailer out in the morning
if it rained heavily in the night, we hooked up and moved to a different
site, this time a level dirt one.
. . . .After that we drove down to the front entrance area
where the habitat looked sort of right for Yellow Rails. Since they
say those birds nest at Lacreek, I thought there was a possibility there
might be some there. I clicked my two quarters together in the correct
cadence, tik-tik tik-tik- tik, alternately, for quite a while, but no response
came. We did hear lots of winnowing Wilson's Snipe and honking Canada
. . . .We were glad we'd moved, because we were awakened
by a noisy thunder storm around midnight. I got up and listened to
WeatheRadio and discovered the only severe thunderstorm warning in effect
was for the Hyannis area 60 miles south of us. I think we must have
been on the northern edge of it. Anyway, I set the radio for alarm
mode and went back to bed. Fortunately the alarm never went off.
. . . .We awakened to glowering skies and a cold wind.
Soon afterwards it started to rain—just rain, not thunder and lightning
this time. This lasted for a couple of hours. Since we only
had a 60-mile drive to make today, I fixed us a leisurely "real breakfast"
as Jim terms it: scrambled eggs with ham, biscuits and strawberry
jam. I had to thaw the ham over the pilot for a while, since we didn't
have electricity for the microwave.
. . . .After it stopped, I went out and photographed a couple
of flowers on the dunes at the edge of the campground. We downloaded
my flowers from yesterday and today into Jim's computer and I made a cursory
attempt to identify some of them. None came right away. I may
need another book. Anyway, I didn't want to run out of battery power
and have to hook up to the inverter, so I gave up.
. . . .We hooked up and left around 9:30, lost an hour to
a time change back to central time, and arrived here in Valentine around
noon. There was no one in the motel/RV park office when we got here,
so we just picked a site, dropped off the trailer and the dog, and went
out to lunch and did some shopping.
. . . .It turns out we're right across the street from a
nice IGA grocery store with the best meat I've seen in ages—lots better
than most chain grocery stores. (IGA = Independent Grocers of America.
They buy staples through the association, but otherwise run their own affairs.)
. . . .The RV park is quite nice. We're backed up to
a thick row of shrubs, and there is also a large lawn nearby with nice
big trees. We've seen a Least Flycatcher and an American Redstart
out the trailer window and heard lots of other birds in the trees and bushes
without really trying. The campground is right in town (population
2820), but behind the motel from the highway, and promises to be a good
place to wait out the Memorial Day holiday. We plan to make day trips
to a number of interesting-sounding places not far from here.