Birds of Nebraska: Newspaper Accounts, 1854-1923

Sandy Griswold. April 12, 1903. [Annual spring wild fowl shoot at Stilwell's ranch.] Sunday World-Herald 39(184): 23. Forest Field and Stream column. Repeated April 18, 1903 as "Ducks among the Sand Hills" in Forest and Stream 55(16): 306.

Forest, Field and Stream.

I returned from my annual wild fowl shoot among the western sandhills - probably the greatest ducking grounds in the world, a few days ago. I, together with my boy Gerard, was at Stilwell's ranch in the central southern region of Cherry county. Stilwell runs a hunter's hostelrie-a commodious sod structure-and entertains large numbers of sportsmen during the wild fowl season, spring and fall, as well as in the black bass season from May till october. George A. Hoagland, Omaha's millionaire lumberman, and one of the oldest and best known sportsmen in the west, Rev. Edwin Jenks, a shooting minister and a cracking good one, Chester Jenks, Wilbur Fawcett, Fred Goodrich of this city, as well as Major Doolittle of Lexington, the Hon. H.J. Green, Judge Holmes, George Holmes, Douglas Frye, DeForest Moore, and Billy McClay of Lincoln were also guest's of Stilwell's at the same time I was. At the same time Tom Foley and Walt Meisner were guest's at Franke's place, two miles up Hackberry lake.

But the spring ducking has not been what was anticipated, and yet good enough for any rational gunner. While the northern flight, and, which is still on, by the way, was one of the biggest and most picturesque seen in Nebraska for many years, there was too much water, too much latitude for the birds. Since the first rain and thaw early in March the whole state-and, think of it, once designated on our geographical maps as the Great American Desert-has been almost entirely under water. The Platte, the Elkhorn, Loup, Rawhide, Snake and Blue rivers have been rushing and roaring, brim-full, for more than a month, while the overflow and backwater cover large expanses of the prairie, and the lakes have been changed into sprawling marshes almost unmeasurable in extent. Thus a haven was furnished for the birds and the most ingenious hunters were set at defiance. It requires plenty of water to make good wild fowl shooting, but this spring, out this way, we have had too much of it, and yet many good kills have been and are still being made, and the sport promises to extend on through the entire month of April.

The Omaha party at Stilwell's this spring, however, was ten days too previous. We arrived there on March 18, and it was not until the 27th the lakes began to open. Everything, even to the deepest and coldest creeks, was frozen tight, and what birds were in-and there were thousands of pintails and geese, with a smattering of canvasbacks and redheads-put in their time sitting idly on the ice or on the highest slopes of the distant plain. For the ten days freeze-in we barely managed to kill enough for the table, but what we did kill were in fine condition and enjoyed beyond measure. In the crops of the geese we killed, and the two or three mallards that fell to our guns, Mrs. Stilwell and "the girl" took out several pints of undigested corn, showing conclusively that these birds had traveled something like ninety miles from their feeding time to the moment they were killed-the nearest grain fields being fully that distant. In the crops of the pintails and canvasbacks, redheads and bluebills, was found a mixture of green grasses, wild parsnip tops, gravel, dried rosebuds and the dessicated polyps of the slough umbellaria and smart weed, the grasses predominating. I examined the crops of most all the birds that were prepared for the table, and found all of them tolerably well filled with the exception of the pintails, many of which were empty.

On March 27, when the ice in the lakes began to crack and boom, and to recede from the northern shores, the real flight from the overflowed valleys of the Platte and the Loup, 100 miles to the south, began to manifest itself, and I must say I never saw such flocks of canvasbacks and redheads since my days at Koshkonong, twenty-five years ago. There were plenty of bluebills, too, and pintails and geese all the time, but precious few mallards and widgeon. Shelldrakes, the lesser and greater, were more profuse than I have ever known them, and the sight of flocks of swan were of daily occurrence. We saw also, off on the low lands north of Hay lake a bunch of ten or a dozen big whooping cranes, rare, indeed, even out here nowadays. The sandhills just began to show themselves the day we left.

Years ago, and many do yet for that matter, eastern sportsmen and authorities on game birds, held that the Chesapeake canvasback was really the only canvasback, save from the standpoint of the naturalist, to be found in this or any other country-that the Illinois, Texas and California canvasback could no more be compared in gastronomic merit to the bird that frequents that legendary Maryland waterway and its myriad of tributaries, than a mud hen can be likened to an a cornfed mallard. But this ridiculous opinion has gone for naught these many, many years with we sportsmen who have enjoyed the facilities for teaching them better.

I have shot canvasback on the Chesapeake and at Currituck, as well, and I know the bird taken there in season is a beauty, a good thing and a joy forever, but I have also shot canvasback at Koshkonong, Wis., English Lake, Ind., and above Liverpool on the Illinois river, as well as right here, over the waters of the Missouri and the Platte, and out on the sandhill marshes, and I assert with the most uncompromising emphasis that the latter bird has no superior in the world, and if anything he is bigger, fatter more luscious and succulent than the bird that makes his vernal and autumnal habitat amidst the estuaries and friths of the Atlantic seaboard. More than this, I believe that the evidence could not be produced, even by culinary art or science, that would make the Nebraska ducker confess that there is a bird in the world that can hold a candle to the tawny-headed ashen-winged beauty he brings to the bag every March and October along the Loup, Platte and Elkhorn and on the marshes at Stillwater, Waubuncey or out in the dear old lonely sandhills.

The Chesapeake and its companion waters are assuredly the oldest canvasback grounds in the country. It was here that the birds were evidently first found in their greatest numbers, and for a long time it was honestly believed that they could be found nowhere else. Why, at one time the eastern savants, (and I was one of them) went so far as to claim that the bird shipped from the west was only an ally of the true canvasback Aythya Valisneria.

The aristocratic shots and gourmets were extremely jealous and refused to be convinced that this feathered morceau, so long distinctly their own, could be knocked over by hundreds by even an ordinary shot along the rivers and streams of the plebian and vulgar west.

But such was, and is yet, incontrovertibly the case, for if anything these royal birds are appearing here, especially in the springtime, more numerously than ever, and of the countless millions of wild fowl that makes a transitory halt here at this season, none seem to be more plentiful than this king of them all, and their favorite resorts seems to be the lake country within the yucca covered sandhills of the western sections of this state.

If this region, then, is the chosen home of these royal birds, it is but natural that sportsman will want to know something specific abut it, and, impelled by the obligation which rests upon every follower of the gun to give his fellows in the craft the fruits of his own experience and knowledge, I will tell them something of this wonderful country.

The sandhills territory extends somewhere from the middle of the state, both north and south, a couple of hundred miles west until the high plateau bordering Wyoming is reached, when the character of the country materially changes. What I denominate as the sandhills wilderness, however, begins with central Cherry county and stretches west into Cheyenne and Dawes counties, Deuel county being its thoracic center. There is range after range of sandhills in this country, undoubtedly left thus by the receding of prehistoric oceanic waters, and presenting in the main such a homogeneousness of scene, that actually, at times, it becomes bewildering to the senses. Still there is exceeding beauty in all this monotony, and a wagon ride through the seemingly limitless waste is full of interest to all those who love nature in any of her many and varied forms. The sandhills present the rounded dome-like summits of all sandhills, though at times, notwithstanding there is nothing of the hypersthene in their formation, they are cloven into jagged whitish, chalk-like peaks, which in height sometimes touch many hundred feet. In the summer time they are clothed with matchless verdure, with myriads of flowers, including the yucca, with its fragrant golden blossoms, and the cactus in many forms. Lying within the basin of the hills from the Dakota line clear south through Deuel county to the South Platte river, is a remarkable chain of lakes and insignificant streams, filled with pure, cold water, save through the alkalescent belts, which frequently cut through the country, but in almost every instance devoid of piscatorial life, excepting the pure waters that have been stocked by the state. In this sea of sterile hills there is no stone, no timber or ore of any kind, but, instead, it is one vast pasture of hay land, as extensive, probably, and as luxuriant, as any in the known world. When I use the word "wilderness" in connection with this region it must not be taken in its literal sense, for all the valleys east of the plateau are capable of supplying most all of the agricultural products indigenous to the state, even corn, rye and buckwheat, and peas, beans, turnips, horseradish, cabbage and potatoes. The soil, however, is especially adapted to grazing and haying, and a cereal patch is an oasis indeed. Among the hills there is absolutely, almost, no arable land.

I will not attempt to enlarge upon the weird grandeur and picturesqueness of this strange region, as that is something that must be seen to be appreciated. Settlements, throughout the hills, of any considerable size, there are none. Here and there, under protection of a choppy chain, are occasional clusters of rough adobe habitations, and along the lakes and streams are the sod palaces of the ranchmen, cattle dealers and hunters and trappers. Muskrat trapping in the hills is quite an extensive industry. The tent of the sportsmen alone, in addition, dots the boundless sweep of grass and sand. All of the wild animals of the western country were here in swarming plentitude up to within a very few years, the elk, black and white tailed deer, antelope, wolf, both the big gray and prairie, badger, otter, swift, mink, weasel, skunk and muskrat. The elk has entirely disappeared and the deer and antelope are following fast. Still not a season passes but what a number of these are slain within these melancholy wastes which were once their favored haunts. Of the feathered family, there is an abundance of life, from the huge golden eagle, hawks of all species, owls, loons, swans, cranes, geese and ducks, chicken and grouse down to the swamp sparrow, meadow lark, black birds, and finches. A robin is but seldom encountered, and while the magpie abounds, blue jays and members of the woodpecker genus are rare occurrence.

And this is the region where the canvasback and redhead duck today is to be most plentifully found.

A few days before we left the sandhills this spring, the birds came in by thousands, and the sport was fine. On Monday morning last Gerard and I, from a hole on the shelving shore of Dewey lake, bagged thirty-two canvasbacks and twelve redheads, the biggest kill made by any of the hunters there, although Mr. Hoagland and Rev. Jenks, on the whole, killed more than all the shooters there combined.

The sight of the flock of whooping crane we saw out at Stilwell's this fall awakened most pleasant memories of my early days in Nebraska, when this now almost extinct bird flourished plentifully here. There were fully a dozen in the flock we saw this spring, and it was on Sunday, March 29, we saw them. Our attention was first called to them by the trumpet call of the leader when they were high up in the air and the expectation of seeing a whooping crane being a remote one, we concluded that they were swan, whose hoarse yet musical hoo-roo-ooo-oo is much like that of the big white crane, until we saw them settle on a sandy point of "the island" in Dewey lake, when that repeated far-reaching clarion call soon revealed their identity. The last time before this, when I had seen one of these glorious birds was back in March, 1894, the spring the Barrister and I made our famous kill of canvasbacks out in Deuel county, and when after a long a laborious crawl over the sandburred plain I succeeded in knocking a snowy bit of down out of three which jumped from a small alkali pool, where we had discovered them standing while driving along the distant road in Hamilton's wagon.

The sandhill crane with all his wariness, is a veritable shitepoke along side the whooping crane, and the big blue crane a gosling. The whooping is frequently found in company with the sandhill, but he is generally satisfied with his own companionship and keeps free from all compromising alliances. He avoids, generally, all the lesser breeds of his kind as if he thought them beneath his royal notice. Larger than the biggest of the sandhills, by fully ten inches in extent of wing and from ten to twelve inches in length of a whiteness that vies with the purest snow, except the velvet black tip of the wings and the crimson crest, the whooping crane is the grandest of all the feathered game birds that ever chose Nebraska's wilds for a feeding and resting place, and when cleaving the bright sunlight of early spring over the marshes and choppy hills of Cherry county is as grand a bird as the whole world knows.

When finally the whoopers find a suitable place for lighting, they will spend a long time in circling so far above in the zenith that they resemble bits of cottonwood down, but that wild, weird and ringing note of theirs, vibrating through miles of trenchant space, and coming like the blast from a heavenly cornet, removes all doubts as to their importance in the realm of ornithology. They are the wariest, most cunning and resourceful of all our big game birds and exceedingly hard to get a shot at. And yet they are often outwitted by the superior intelligence of man. Like the crafty Canada goose, they, too, have the infirmity that has frequently led to their destruction, for when they make up their minds to leave the aerial highways they come winding down out of the sky in leagues of spiral, until close to the earth, when they drift hazily along to the spot selected for recuperation and refreshment. Then it is, when the well-hidden gunner gets in his work.

Few shooters of today, however, have gone through this thrilling experience, and they little imagine how hard it is to lie there, in a blind of low brush or tall grass, and listen to that screeching hoo-roo-ooo-rrooo-oo, long drawn and rolling from every quarter, as a flock of whoopers descend toward them. To bat an eye means disaster to your hopes. Rigid and silent as death, you must lie there, until you hear the light strokes of their fan-like wings and see the long raucous windpipes stretched to their utmost tension, and from which streams those wild sounds almost like the cracking of the thunder's peal-a sound different from any other on earth, and one that few hunters or naturalists have heard often and close enough to describe.

And then what a moment in your life of a rover of the forest and field, when the great birds are once within range of your trusty Parker and those good old Peters shells, say some thirty yards above you and you leap to your feet and let them have it.

What sound, what confusion, what a sight! What would you give to experience such a climax of excitement? With the air a tangle of great white birds, bigger than swans, with long necks and broad wings finished with jet, climbing distractedly toward the sky sheering and tumbling and arching for all points of the wind at the same time, while the sun glances from their crimson domes, and a startling discord of sound pours from their dark green beaks can you doubt that your mood will leap, your brain will whirl and your nerves tremble?