.......and Reflections

Monday, June 20, 2011

Eastward: More Grasslands, Prairie Refuges, and Nebraska Sand Hills

Today's route east from Wind Cave National Park cuts through Buffalo Gap National Grasslands. I wanted to see Grasshopper Sparrows again so I took a side road off the main road. It wasn't long until a Grasshopper Sparrow perched up on some grass and sang. Mission accomplished. As I headed back to the main highway I saw a bird flying up the road toward me.  I saw that it was an owl but followed it until it perched behind me on a fence post. It was a Burrowing Owl. This was a bird I couldn't locate in Prairie Dog towns where they often encumber a Prairie Dog hole in which to nest. It was a great way to start the day.

Back on the main road not 200 yards from where I saw the Burrowing Owl, I saw a shape on a cottonwood snag beside a pond. I stopped to take a look and it was a Great Horned Owl. I'm on some sort of roll! Moving on, I traveled through the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation not far from the famous Wounded Knee site. I stopped at a stand of cottonwoods and among other things I found a Bell's Vireo, the first of the trip. From here on, throughout the prairies in proper habitat this little vireo will be common.

I couldn't get to LaCreek National Wildlife Refuge because it has only two dirt roads to access the refuge and it was raining. I imagine the roads once were gravel, but that road surface has long disappeared leaving a slick mud road that is worse than a sheet of ice. So I dropped down into Nebraska Route 20 that runs along the State' northern border and through the Sand Hills.

The key to finding birds in the Sand Hills is to understand the birds that utilize the grasslands and those that use the wetlands that provide water in an otherwise desert-like environment. These wet areas are often islands full of birds. I stopped at such a Sand Hill pond and wetland and I wasn't disappointed.

I drove into an almost abandoned road that cut through the wetland and stopped by a stand of willows. The first thing I heard when I got out of the truck was my first Dickcissel of the trip. Other birds there were Western Tanager, Bullock's Oriole, Black Tern, Upland Sandpipers, and Eastern Kingbirds. The real surprise was not one, but two different Blue Grosbeaks perching on different fences in the same area. Are you getting the picture as to why I love this trip?

Another green ribbon or wildlife corridor in this vast dry Sand Hill region is the Niobrara River. I cut south from Route 20 to the Nebraska National Forest (yes, there really are trees and forest in Nebraska but they are not the kind we are used to back east) where this lovely river runs. I stopped along the bridge over the river and began to pish. Guess who responded. I attracted a Black-capped Chickadee, White-breasted Nuthatch, Red-eyed Vireo, Northern Cardinal, and an Indigo Bunting. Here where the Nebraska map folds in half is where west meets east. To me it is a magical place, neither a line or a particular place but perhaps a watershed that doesn't exactly behave like water and the force of gravity and geography. But it is a place of distinction, none the less.

It's getting late and the area I am staying in eastern Nebraska is under a Tornado Watch until 4:00 am and it is gloriously storming as I type. I think I'll leave the window open and let the storm serenade me to sleep. It's much more fun than when camping and the outcome of the storm on the camping experience is always a concern. I had a great 96 species Father's Day and I hope the Father in your life was as lucky as me.

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