18 May 2017

May Bird Surveys at Eastern Sandhill Places

Survey effort sponsored by Preserve the Sandhills.

Starting on the morning of May 10 another survey effort was initiated to determine bird occurrence at specific locales in the eastern Sand Hills. It was a rainy morning and the ongoing precipitation continued upon reaching ranchland spaces on the southern edge of Holt county where 846 Road was vividly wet. Travel could be done but only slowly and carefully to avoid mishaps due to the prevalent mud and water on the road.

Results of the required time to make a safe traverse meant documentation of the presence of avifauna along the road, with observations occurring at both Holt and Wheeler county locales, depending on whether looking north or south. Details of bird occurrence were kept for many essential sites.

This is a summary of observations, starting at an eastern extent of county road 846, and then continuing westward. Thankfully the newly available county-wide directories were available to provide essential details for localities.

At the intersection of 846 Road and 510 Avenue, there is a shelterbelt, the county road and cropland with a pivot in the northwest corner; this spot has a shelterbelt, a county road and the pivot land. The white plastic markers indicating the proposed location of r-project powerline towers were obvious on the south side of the county road. This site has no special significance of bird occurrence.

East of 509 Avenue, the plastic markers indicating an r-project construct are on the south side of 846 road. This situation continues to 510 Avenue.

The line markers are on the south side of 846 road for an extent, while the r-project plan indicates that the area substation would be on the north side of 846 road. Published details do not match reality as seen. Documentation by NPPD says they will build the substation on pivot cropland. How will NPPD deal with county road 510 and the shelterbelt at this confluence?

To the west, there are irrigation pivots present on both sides of 846 road. Eastward of 506 Avenue, there is an obvious change in the landscape. There is predominantly agricultural land with farmsteads, small feedlots and numerous areas of mature trees. It is not a typical sandhill landscape.

There are many obvious habitat features along county road 846, especially on the flat lowlands.

An obvious feature noted along the county road were the plastic markers placed to indicate the place where r-project feature would be placed. They were in lowland wet meadows and the wires would extend over areas of standing water present in this spring season.

A regional powerline occurs along 506 Avenue and then extends eastward on 846 road.

By 504 Avenue, the indicated route moves northward a half-mile for a distance until it returns to an alignment along 846 road.

Eastward of 502 Avenue, there are wetland ponds on both sides of the county road, which are used by a variety of wild birds. These are the species noted in habitat in Wheeler county: Blue-winged Teal, Northern Shoveler, White-faced Ibis among tall meadow vegetation, Lesser Yellowlegs, Willet, Wilson's Phalarope, Barn Swallow, American Cliff Swallow, Yellow-headed Blackbird, Bobolink and Red-winged Blackbird.

There are also significant places of wetland habitat between 497 Avenue and 500 Avenue, with bird observations most prominent to the south of the county road, so that would be in Wheeler county. These were the species seen in this vicinity: Mallard, Blue-winged Teal, Northern Pintail, Wild Turkey, Greater Prairie-Chicken, American Avocet, Killdeer, Wilson's Snipe, Upland Sandpiper, a few Wilson's Phalarope, Mourning Dove, Red-headed Woodpecker, Eastern Kingbird, Barn Swallow, Brown Thrasher, American Robin, Bobolink, Eastern Meadowlark, Red-winged Blackbird, pervasive Brown-headed Cowbird and Lark Sparrow.

Lowland meadow along Road 846 along the southern edge of Holt county. The white marker is an indicator for a proposed powerline tower.
A relict tree planting along Road 846 along the southern edge of Holt county. The white marker is an indicator for a proposed powerline tower construct.

There were fewer birds on the portion of 846 Road west of Highway 281. Area features include a lowland dry prairie with many invasive cedar trees. On the north side are meadows and woodland and then further west, lowland wet meadows. Powerline markers were seen on the north side of the roadway.

After miving along for hours in sloppy roads where mud was more than abundant and pound clinged to the Dodge Ram pickup being driven, travel for the once rainy day ended at Goose Lake WMA. During the overnight stay — while continually trying to be comfortable in the constricted cab and pickup seats — it was the ending tally that was the essential essence. There were 50 species observed whose occurrence would not have been known without my presence. Nature may get slighted but that is only because someone has not made the effort to learn how nature is expressive every day.

This area is quite significant and has more features suitable for migratory wild birds than previously realized, especially the meadow habitats.

These are some of the more prominent and existential observations.

  • Blue-winged Teal: prevalent at the ephemeral wetlands in lowlands of the eastern sandhills, as well as permanent lakes.
  • Greater Prairie-Chicken: seen along Holt county Road 846 and a number heard at Goose Lake WMA, but since the lek activity was not seen the basic, minimal number of 1 had to be indicated, though there was certainly a larger number present.
  • White-faced Ibis: the number that roosted overnight at Goose Lake WMA is the largest count ever for this species in the sandhills region, as based upon an evaluation of 284 available records. The number of birds present could be counted when the flock would take flight and then fly about over their roost place. The number seen in a tall grass wet meadow along county road 846 indicates that the species roosts at the wildlife area and then venture to adjacent wetlands to forage during the day. A flock of this species was seen flying from the lake at a level only tens of feet above the treetops.
  • Great Egret: the 34 that roosted at Goose Lake WMA is by far the greatest number of this species ever seen in the sandhills region, as based upon an evaluation of 63 available records.
  • Double-crested Cormorant: the 115 birds that roosted - once again at Goose Lake WMA - indicates the value of the lake to this species. During the visit, the birds present earlier in the evening were enhanced by additional small numbers that arrived as dusk settled.

    Goose Lake WMA is one short mile north of the proposed industrial-scale power line with all of its wires and towers and disturbances that will occur to natural lands. For anything to be built that might threaten the bird integrity of this public area would be a complete and utter travesty! It is obvious that some species roost at the lake and then venture forth to nearby wetlands to forage during the day. Other species know that features of the lake environs provide a haven and that is why they occur, again and again. This is an important bird area where 152 species are known to occur, based upon an evaluation of more than a thousand records.

  • Bald Eagle: nesting in a tree planting west of 496 Avenue and north of County Road 846. There are three items which indicate the occurrence of these breeding birds: 1) adult soaring over the trees where the nest occurs; 2) adult landing at the nest and then perching for a while on an adjacent branch, and during this time the head of an eaglet was observed; and 3) a pair of adult eagle roosting on the south side of nearby Goose Lake during the evening. This nest is within .5 mile of the alignment of the proposed r-project transmission line. This nest was not surveyed this year by the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission, according to the nongame biologist Joel Jorgensen, since it had not been used in 2016. Eagles did also nest here in 2015, according to agency records. Details indicate how there can be no reliance upon NGPC records as their survey efforts are not done in a manner to document eagle nesting though there may be a gap in occurrence. It is not acceptable to ignore a prime nesting locale just because there is not nesting activity for a single year, following a year when adult birds had been actively nesting.
  • Wilson's Snipe: the few seen or heard in habitats along county road 846 indicate the obvious value of the many wet prairies for this species.
  • Long-billed Dowitcher: a small flock was foraging in ephemeral water in a livestock pen at the Ballagh Ranch home place.
  • Long-billed Curlew: in a meadow just to the south of the German Valley Cemetery on the Shipporeit Ranch. This is a distinctive sighting because the species’ more typical range is further west.
  • Spotted Sandpiper: along the shore at Goose Lake WMA and along the North Loup River at Horn Land and Cattle.
  • Wilson's Phalarope: lesser numbers at ephemeral wetlands but many on the waters of Swan Lake.
  • Franklin’s Gull: several smaller sized, transitory flocks; occurrence similar to that of those present in April.
  • Black Tern: many of these were foraging at a marsh area just west of Goose Lake WMA which was the result of high water which flooded land which was typically dry; during the evening many of these birds moved over to the lake. The west wetland was a prominent foraging area as it was mostly surrounded by trees so the birds could more readily find something edible on waters with a lesser extent of water-surface turbulence. There were also numerous swallows taking advantage of the situation.
  • Burrowing Owl: the number of adults present on the Brush Creek Ranch south of Thedford - early in the breeding season - is distinctive. There appeared to be at least four occupied burrows. If each pair raises a typical brood, this would result in a significant count for this species which has a very limited occurrence in the sandhills due to the few prairie dog towns which remain among the ranch lands.
  • Common Nighthawk: more prevalent than indicated as this species is typically only seen in the evening or heard in the dark hours as it forages for insect fare just above the hills.
  • Chimney Swift: two in the country appreciating the fine chimney at the Schneidereit ranch home. In German Valley, they apparently utilize the chimneys at St. John's Church and its associated residence. This species typically occurs only in area villages where there are various buildings with suitable chimney shelter.
  • American Cliff Swallow: this species appreciates a tolerant building owner at the Schneidereit Ranch (nesting okay on the barn but not the house) and at the Nygren Ranch (adults building nests on two buildings). This species also regularly occurs on bridges over waterways, such as the many adults building nests on a bridge over the North Loup River amidst the Hawley Flats.
  • Bobolink: regularly noted at suitable lowland prairie habitats, and especially at lowland prairie prevalent along County Road 846. Lowland meadows are so important to this species, and the actual importance needs to be determined by scientific research. During this survey, the lovely song of the territorial males was heard in all of its magnificence.

The next prominent wetland visited in the area was Swan Lake, were 36 species were observed, including a nice number of Wilson’s Phalarope. American Coot were common. Numbers of Sand Martin and American Cliff Swallow were foraging above the lake waters but more obviously perched on wires among the trees at the northeast portion of the lake.

A visit to the Ballagh Ranch was notable because the rains meant there was ephemeral wetland habitat used by shorebirds. In a north pasture, there were Lesser Yellowlegs and Least Sandpiper. Among the ranch buildings was a small flock of Long-billed Dowitcher. This is a nice ranch that would be split by steel lattice towers if the r-project is built.

While driving onward, a stop was made a place with wetlands along the county road in the northwest corner of Garfield county. There was a white marker in the immediate vicinity. There were Blue-winged Teal and Northern Shoveler appreciating the local habitats.

Further west, along Gracie Creek Avenue just east of 450th Avenue, a couple of Black Tern were foraging at the pond. A female Mallard was also present. There were 16 species seen, a tally that includes a couple of species just to the southwest, but within a quarter-of-a-mile.

On Friday, the 12th, the morning started with a visit to the Schneidereit Ranch westward on the German Valley Road. A unique feature of the place is the number of American Cliff Swallow nesting on the north heights of the barn. There is also a resident flock of Rock Dove. After a nice visit with rancher Ivan, some time was spent scanning the waters of the nearby lake and then looking and listening in the immediate vicinity along the road. The overall tally was 41 species, including more than 75 Canada Goose adults on the lake and upon adjacent meadows.

A few hours were then spent in German Valley, starting with an initial stop at St. John’s Lutheran church. There were some Chimney Swift here, apparently taking advantage of the chimney on the two buildings. The next stop was the Shipporeit Ranch and the German Valley Cemetery. A most notable sighting was a Long-billed Curlew in the meadow south of the cemetery, and where there were several singing Bobolink. Their song has such a fine melody that hours, if not early days of every summer could be spent by someone that cares to learn more about the life of the Bobolink.

Saint John's Luthern Church in German valley which has a history dating back to the 1880s. Chimney Swift appreciate the chimneys. The R-Project would establish an industrial power line to the east, across the highway. This means that a perspective reprsenting more than a century of heritage would be destroyed in a year.

This abandoned building of a former ranch is a haven for a Turkey Vulture. They probably have a nest but there was no investigation made as that would have be an imposition upon the space which the bird appreciate, and probably more than once.

While at the Nygren Ranch, details were given on further habitat spaces in the valley, so they were also visited. A Turkey Vulture flew from an abandoned granary building, indicating again how this species takes advantage of these places to nest. Barn Swallows were taking advantage rafters in an abandoned barn.

Continuing the day’s birding, a visit to Horn Land and Cattle ranch west of Brewster was limited because there were guests. Despite this, a nice variety of species were observed about the ranch buildings, along the North Loup River as well as along the adjacent county road.

The final place visited during this day were the Hawley Flats and North Loup River environs. Because of its unique occurrence, a new placename was derived for the meadow and other lowland features along Hawley Flats Avenue and a relatively short distance north of West North Loup Road. The itty-bitty wetland at the corner of a section was being appreciated by Mallard and Blue-winged Teal. There were Bobolink singing here, where the industrial r-project powerline would be imposed upon the open landscape. Much of the remainder of this overall geographic locality is typically more dryland. At least the American Cliff Swallow continue to appreciate a county bridge over the waterway.

Cattle on the Brush Creek Ranch Cherry county on a Saturday morning. These steers were grazing cattle country grassland which is not powerline country.

The last place visited - along with Twyla Witt - during this survey period was the prairie-dog town on the Brush Creek Ranch south of Thedford on Saturday morning. The dogtown is nestled among the sandy hills and is a fine place for several Burrowing Owl to reside, with the number present a distinctive occurrence. Other typical prairie birds occur, including Horned Lark, the diminutive Grasshopper Sparrow that can perch on a blade of grass, Lark Sparrow and the pervasive Western Meadowlark. Access was made available because the lock and chain had been moved so the gate could be opened. The owner of this property has found that this impediment is necessary to prevent trespass by people that are not welcome.

The overall tally for these places was 97 species. There were at least a couple of nice days during an outing that started while it was raining and ended when the winds were too excessive to conduct bird surveys.

Deplorable Lights in the Night Sky

One disturbing facet of my overnight at Goose Lake WMA were a few incessant red-blinking lights obvious on the horizon to the southeast. These are apparently wind turbines miles away in Antelope county. Being in the country should mean fewer lights in the night sky, yet industrial developments continue to degrade this once unique feature of the Great American Sandhills. If someone wanted to enjoy a sky-scape without lights at this time in history, they would have to dig a hole and limit their perspective to a constricted zone straight upwards. It is now impossible to be atop one of the hilltops in the region and not see some despicable light flashing, flashing, flashing, flashing, ad nauseam in their deplorable manner! Stars should be the primary feature of night skies not man-made constructs built for money-making reasons.