Birds of Nebraska: Newspaper Accounts, 1854-1923

Sandy Griswold. August 6, 1899. [August Days Bird Notes - Plover Hunting West of Omaha]. Omaha Sunday World-Herald 34(310): 20.

Forest, Field and Stream.

August days!

With such unmistakable signs made manifest to sight and hearing the summer signals its fullness and decline, that one awakening now from a sleep that fell upon him months ago might be assured of the season with the first touch of awakening. To the first aroused sense comes the long-drawn note of the locust fading into silence with the dry, husky clap of his wings; the changed voice of the song birds, no more caroling the jocund of love-making and nesting time, but plaintive with the sadness of farewell.

The bobolink has lost, with pied coat, the merry lilt that tinkled so continually over the clover and the daisies of the June meadows; rarely the song sparrow utters the trill that cheered us in the doubtful days of early spring. The blue bird's abbreviated carol floats down from the sky as sweet as then, but, mournful as the patter of autumn leaves. The gay little goldfinch has but their notes left of his May song as he tilts on the latest blossoms and fluffy seeds of the thistles. The meadowlark charms us no more with his long-drawn melody, but with one sharp insistent note, he struts in the meadow stubble or skulks among the tussocks of the pasture and challenges the youthful gunner.

What an easy shot that even, steady flight offers, and yet it goes onward with unfaltering rapid wing-beats, while the gun thunders and the harmless shot flies behind him. The yellowhammer cackles now not as when he was a jubilant newcomer, with the budding spring for a comrade, but is silent or only yelps one harsh note as he flashes his golden wings in loping flight from fence stake to ant hill.

The upland plover whistles warningly as he lingers over the bounteous feast of grasshoppers, but seldom sounds that sweet, tinkling triplet with which he announced his coming a month ago. After nightfall, however, is still heard his signaling to voyaging companions, fluttering down from the aerial path, where he wends his dizzy way, high and distinct above the shrill monotony of cricket and August pipers. The listening sportsman may well imagine that the departing bird is laughing at him as much as imparting his course to fellow wayfarers. The woodland thrush and catbird's flute and bells have ceased to breathe and chime, down in the Elkhorn's matted valley, and only the wood pewee keeps up his pensive song of other days, yet best befitting those of declining summer.

The trees are dark with ripened leafage; out of the twilight of the woodside, glow the declining disks of wild sunflowers and shine the rising constellations of asters. The meadowsides are jaunty with unshorn fringe of goldenrod and willow herb, and there in the corners of the straggling fence droop the heavy clusters of alderberries, with whose purple juice the flocking robins and young grouse, stealing from the shadowed copses along this belt of shade, dye their bills.

The Rawhide trails its attenuated thread out of the woodland gloom to gild its shallow ripples with sunshine and redden them with the inverted flames of the cardinals that blaze on the sedgy brink. Here the brown muskrat prowls with her little cubs, all unworthy yet of the farmer boy trapper's skill, but tending toward it with growth accelerated by full feasts of pool-impounded minnows. There, too, the raccoon sets the print of his footsteps on the muddy shores as he stays his stomach with frogs and sharpens his appetite with the hot sauce of Indian turnip while he awaits the settling of his feasts in the waving cornfields.

The old settler is growing impatient for his first foray into the creek's matted bedway and the golden stubble, and he tugs at his chain and whimpers and bays when he hears the quail's querulous call trembling through the twilight.

The killdeer skulks along the wet ways among the bordering jinseng and dock and when forced to flight does so with a stronger wing than when a month ago he had shed the last of his old winter coat. And the chicken, young and old together, leave the tall grass and furzy cover for the cut meadow land in the morning, where the dew drops from every ribbon and the atmosphere is impregnated with the first faint vigor of autumn. ANother six weeks will make them worthier game; and the breeding mallard, now but an odd bunch of pin feathers, should be allowed to go untried and unscathed for at a later day, when from his bower under the rice and rushes, he breaks into the upper air with startling flutter of wing and startled pank-pank-pank! What a royal target he will make.

Summer wanes, flowers fade, bird songs falter to mournful notes of farewell; but while regretfully we mark the decline of these golden days, we remember with a thrill of expectation that they slope to the golden days of autumn, wherein the farmer garners in his latest harvest, the sportsman his first legitimate crop, and that to him that waits comes all things, and even though he waits long, may come the best.

While out after upland plover with Charlie Thomas one day last week, some thirteen miles west of the city, I knocked out of a flock of seven birds flying over, a rare specimen of the golden plover, a bird exceedingly plentiful hereabouts ten years ago, but which have now almost wholly disappeared. Occasionally in the early autumn some one reports having seen a small bunch of the birds here, there, or somewhere else, but seldom, if ever, do you encounter a gunner who has made a kill, even of a single bird.

Where the birds came from, from which I killed mine last week, and what they are doing here at this time of the year, I will not pretend to say, but ten years ago there was little sport more interesting or more certain to be rewarded with a good bag than the shooting of this bird down at Percival or Bigelow or up at Bancroft and Pender, or even within an easy walk of Omaha itself when he visited the broad pastures and plowed fields in the early fall. In those days, too, he filled what would have been without him, a monotonous gap in the sport with the gun. The tinkling whistle of the upland plover had died away in the far south; the quack of the mallard and the call of the widgeon had not yet startled the echos in the marshes and the open season on quail had not yet arrived, while the jacks were yet loafing in the well-tempered airs of the Dakotas at the time when this little beauty arrived.

The golden plover used to be familiar here for only about three weeks in the first fall month, when the fringed gentian had not yet folded its azure petals and the rusty hue of the sorrel still tinged the slanting hillsides, the pink and white of the wild morning-glory yet dotted the yellowing prairie grasses and splotches of gold and scarlet were encroaching in upon the maples green. That was when the golden plover made us his first call and dropped down and gorged himself on our freshly plowed fields.

The quiet country folk used to call the golden plover "frost birds," "rain-birds," "spotted backs," "prairie pigeons," and many other names, and they frequently mistook the dowitcher, or rather the Eskimo curlew, for this bird, which, when the September rains had soaked the fields which had been plowed for the winter wheat, often came together in great numbers, but the golden plover, C. dominicus, always predominating.

I will never forget a shoot I had on golden plover with H.A. Penrose, Billy Townsend and Dick Mertz, all of the old shooting goods house of Penrose & Hardin, down at McPaul in September, 1887. We got stationed at the edge of a big plowed field, from which we had flushed a raft of birds, early in the morning, and had but a short time to wait for their return. High up in the air they came, some times in long strings or wedge-shaped masses, now in bow-shape, now in soldierly array. Over the distant timber where the cottonwood and the elm were yellowing they came, and out over the pasture where the brown was laying to to the closely cropped grass, where the gold of the flicker in his chase for napless crickets gleamed as he jumped from spot to spot, or darted spasmodically back into the woods again. On, on they came, with that soft thrilling whistle, which seemed to ripple from their tiny throats like strings of pearls. It mattered not whether they fanned the air with their mottled wings high over the timber where the saddening tints were stealing over all vegetation or whether skimming low along the top of the still standing corn, between whose sentinel like rows the pumpkins were yellowing, they always maintained that plaintive twittering. Mertz and I had our blind up near the corner of the field behind a clump of reddening sumach, with a few cornstalks and tumble weeds thrown carelessly together. There was no need of much blind, for they came readily into us in answer to that tender trilling call the Michigan boy could so naturally imitate.

There! there comes our first flock, two or three dozen of them in crescent shape with the points toward us. ALl we had to do was lie still, keep tolerably well hidden, while Dick kept up that twittering call. With wings hazy with speed, answering our imitation with their own soft touching notes, which came like a tremolo from the sweetest organ's pipe, so plaintive, so sadly soft, that honestly, I felt some compunctions of conscience in killing them. Here they are, and when they massed a trifle up in the air and set their wings to glide down upon the upturned furrows, we gave it to them, four loads of No. 8s, and a half dozen came whirling and gyrating to the ground, while the balance of the flock sheered frantically and rising rapidly were quickly gone over the rim of the woods.

How gamey they looked in their robes of black and brown and gray, dotted with gold and white, black feet and bills, with that lightish slash over the eye, and brown tails barred with gray!

There comes another line, just as gamey looking as those before them, as they wheel in the sun and let the light flash on the glossy backs as they turn and speed twittering down upon us, stringing out in that crescent again as they near our masked battery.

There is another whirl, another flutter and a medley of black, gray and brown, with white and golden spots in confused commingling in the air, follows our first barrels, than as they rise and bunch again, we cut loose with out seconds, and there is, of course, another shower of dead and wounded birds!

And Penrose and Townsend had just as good shooting as we did, although they were way down at the other end of the field, on the other side, and rarely got a crack at the same birds that went spinning by our blind. In two hours' shooting we killed more birds than can be killed in any region in the world in two days!

But those times are gone. Like the recollection of the sweet heart of your boyhood school days come back the memories of the buried glories of the field in the sweet September days of long ago!

It will soon be September again and down there at McPaul - the sunlight will stream as mellow from the hazy sky as it did a dozen years ago; bright will be the purple and the orange of the meadow beauty that will linger beyond its time, the pale lapis lazuli of the lobelia and the yellow disk and purplish rays of the aster will shine just as far across the pastures, where the golden rod still tinges the clumps of rag weed with plumes of dingy gold, as it did a dozen years ago, but there will be no soft, twittering, tremolo filling the keening air, no long lines of black and gray and white and gold, no sweet and artless little coursers of he hazy ethereal over woodland top, over sunburned pasture and newly-upturned wheat fields.

The sunshine and the flowers will be there, but not the golden plover!