1895. Nidiologist 3: 8-9, 21-22.
Among the Sandhills in N.W. Nebraska
JUNE 21, 2:45 A.M., found me alighting from a train at a little station among the sand hills in the northern part of Cherry County, Neb.
Cody (the place being named after Hon. W. F. Cody, "Buffalo Bill") can boast of a population of about sixty persons, but it is quite a commercial and trading station, being located three and three quarter miles south of the South Dakota line, and three hundred and forty-five miles (by rail) northwest of Omaha. Directly north of Cody, in South Dakota, lay the "Pine Ridge" and " Rosebud" Indian Reservations, which abound in small alkali lakes, ranging in size from one hundred to one thousand acres each, and fill the valleys between the sand hills.
This country is used almost exclusively for cattle grazing, and is, therefore, pretty wild in spite of its being so near to the settled parts, and it is on account of this wildness that I made my 1895 pilgrimage there.
After a short sleep and breakfast I hired a young man to drive me and my luggage to a cattle ranch north of the town and bordering directly upon the Nebraska and South Dakota State line. The drive, which occupied nearly an hour (on account of the sands roads), was around, over, and through the sand hills, which are sparsely covered with buffalo grass, and in a few places, particularly the hilltops, with numerous species of cactus. Many of the cacti were in full bloom, and beautiful blossoms they were.
Mourning Doves, Western Meadowlarks, Bobolinks, Grasshopper Sparrows, Dickcissels, Bartram's Sandpipers, Western Nighthawks, Killdeers, and other birds were numerous.
After arriving at Newberry's Ranch, which was to be my headquarters, I began my preparations for work afield, and, with a view of "sizing up" the country, started out for a stroll, taking my egg box along.
About two hundred yards northwest of the house lay one of the alkali lakes before mentioned. I started out toward the end of a narrow neck of land which runs out into the lake (which is locally known as West Lake), thinking that I would take a bath, but had walked but a few yards through the tall marsh grass when I flushed a female Blue-winged Teal from her nest and eleven badly incubated eggs. I was somewhat surprised to note the advanced stage of incubation, as I supposed that they were later breeders and that I would not secure sets of this species until about July 1.
While I dislike taking incubated eggs I nevertheless pocketed my scruples and packed the eggs in my box and again started toward the point of land.
I had proceeded but a short distance when I flushed another bird of the same species and took another set of eleven badly incubated eggs. Both of these nests were built in hollows scooped out of the sand, lined with fine grass, which was mixed with feathers and down, in the high marsh grass such as is found in all swampy places.
I saw numerous broods of young Mallard and Shoveler Ducks, and came to the conclusion that I had arrived too late to secure many sets ot Duck's eggs, and in that I was correct.
As a record of every find would be too tiresome I will quote from my notebook such items as would be of interest.
After lunch in the evening of June 22, I started out for a stroll toward a string of high sand hills which lie about a mile east of the house, and, after walking through a colony of striped ground squirrels near the top of the hills, I found myself the object of a great deal of interest to a pair of Long-billed Curlews. These large birds seemed to think that I was intruding upon their domain and tried to drive me away by flying about my head, all the while screaming, "Kerloo-kerlo-o-o! Kerloo-o-o-o!"
I looked for their nest until dark without success, and resolved to return in the morning and not leave until I found it.
Early the next morning I was again on the top of the hill and was again pursued by the Curlews.
They would fly around my head, sometimes within a few feet, and once so close that I felt the wind of their wings on my face; then they would change their tactics and fly away to a distance and return, flying low along the ground and directly toward my head, until, arriving about ten feet from me, they would swerve to one side about six feet and utter a guttural squak, at the same time soaring up at an angle of about forty-five degrees, and repeating this maneuver again and again.
After watching them for a short time I lay down, and in about a half hour the birds alighted and stopped screaming and one of them started to cautiously sneak through the sparse buffalo grass while the other kept watch over my actions.
I had no difficulty in following with my eyes the movements of the bird that was skulking along, and saw her suddenly disappear from sight, at which I concluded that she had settled down on her nest.
I lay still for about ten minutes more, and then quickly started up and ran to where I had seen her last. I took both the birds by surprise, and had got within thirty feet of the female before she arose and began screaming. Upon arriving at the spot where she arose from I saw—four young birds! and the fragments of the shells. These young Curlews were not out of the eggs longer than from two to six hours, as they could not yet stand on their feet, and it is a well-known fact that all birds of this genus leave the nest soon after hatching.
THE Curlew's nest was a slight structure of dry buffalo grass, built in a hollow in the sand at the roots of a clump of grass, and so placed that the bird on the nest had an unobstructed view in every direction for over a hundred yards.
After leaving the Curlew's nest I secured a fine set of four slightly incubated eggs of Western Meadowlark, probably a second set for this season, as this bird breeds in latter April in the eastern part of Nebraska. I also found a nest of Western Nighthawk containing two nearly half-grown young. There was no pretense of a nest, but merely a hollow in the sand on the side of a hill.
June 24, while wading in a lake in Pine Ridge Reservation, South Dakota I flushed a Sandhill Crane from a small clump of tules where the water was about ten inches deep. Upon going to the spot I found her nest and the young Cranes, about four to six days old. The young birds were about the size of a full- grown Meadowlark, and were partly covered with soft, yellow down, and when I picked up one to examine it, it uttered a squak (or rather swak) that started the old birds, of which there were three, to calling in a low guttural tone, and the female flew around me in a very threatening manner.
The nest was a large, flat platform built up from the bottom of the lake, which was at that point (near the edge) ten inches deep. It was composed of dry rule stalks. The top was twelve inches above the level of the water and ten by sixteen inches in size, very slightly hollowed. This nest was very similar in construction to a nest of American Bittern, from which I had secured a set of four slightly incubated eggs the day before, but was of course much larger. A peculiar thing about these Cranes is that for the past four years there has always been but three birds seen near and around this lake.
June 28 I secured two fine sets of Canvasback Duck, one of eight eggs, and one of seven, and one egg of Mallard. The nests were built very similar to nests of American Coot, but a little more compact and larger, and were placed where water was ten to twenty inches deep in clump of tules or sedges. Yellow-headed Blackbirds were numerous and breeding.
Indians (Brule Sioux) were numerous, riding to and from Cody and the Pine Ridge and Rosebud Agencies. I found that I was a great curiosity to them. They would point at me and say: "That white man came all the way from the big village [Omaha] on the big, muddy water [Missouri River] to hunt for birds' eggs." Of course this was unintelligible to me, but the ranchman's wife could talk Sioux like a native, and she translated it for me.
Many of the Indians could talk good English, and I was much pleased to find that nearly all of them have a very good knowledge of the breeding habits of birds. One old buck described to me where I would find a nest of "the little Duck with blue on the wings," as he called it, and he was much pleased when I told him that the blue wings were one of the distinguishing features of this bird.
I took a horse and cart, and went after the Teal's nest, located for me by the old Indian, and soon returned with a beautiful set of nine slightly incubated eggs. This nest was built the same as the others of this species, but was over two hundred yards from the lake, and in the middle of the wagon road leading to the Rosebud Agency.
As the season was too far advanced to secure good specimens I packed up, and after making arrangements for a longer stay next year, started for home after a stay of two weeks. While the results of my trip were not very rich as regards specimens, still I saw so many young of the different species, such as Killdeer, Wilson's Phalarope, and many others, that I had a great deal of pleasure in watching and studying the birds when caring for their young, and I know my next trip to that country will have much better results.