Birds of Nebraska: Newspaper Accounts, 1854-1923

July 10, 1904. Omaha Sunday World-Herald 39(284): 22. Includes a drawing of two plover.

In the Broad and Alluring Fields of Nebraska With the Upland Plover

By S.G.V. Griswold.

Alluring as Nebraska's broad fields are to the lovers of the fowling piece yet today they cannot be compared to what they were a scant quarter of a century ago. To be sure we still enjoy the grandest sport on ducks and geese and jacksnipe, too, in the fall and spring, and in many sections of the state the prairie chickens continue to thrive in almost all their pristine glory, while the quail, which seem to multiply with thickening settlements, are more plentiful than ever before. Of course the deer and antelope are literal fables, the big whit whooping crane has gone, the sandhills flop-in dolorous flight athwart the landscape only in flocks, and the melodious unk, auh-unk! of the Canada goose, and the querulous cackling of the white congener, are far less infrequently heard resounding upon the morning and evening air. And there are other birds that have bidden farewell forever to these once beloved haunts and among them are the Esquimo and sickle-billed curlew, the golden plover, the willet, avocet and phalaropes.

In melancholy contrast are the valleys of the Platte and the Elkhorn, and the lowlands, down about Springfield and Waterloo, and the big wild hay fields, and low hills, that surround them for leagues upon leagues, to what they were twenty-five years ago.

Sport on these, the Elysian fields of the gunner, in those good old days, was by no means limited to the seasons when the winged hosts were pouring from the polar realms. Oppressive and buffalo fly, gnat and mosquito ridden though the summer was, many wild fowl lingered here to tryst and breed, in lieu of following the myriads to the north. When the tender blue of the iris began to fade on the stalks of green than fringed the sloughs of the bottoms, the old mother mallard, teal or spoonbill let out some scraps of yellow down, that floated on the waters as lightly as the shadows of the midsummer clouds. While the duck sought on sturdy pinions when danger threatened, the fuzzy golden babies went down into the slough's depths like yellow stones. If you were near enough you could have plainly seen the topaz line they made in the water, and the stream of fine bubbles rising in their course.

"Many a time," said Mr. Hoagland to me one day, "have I flushed an old hen on one of these sloughs in the early summer, being near enough to see her little ones kick lustily out behind with their tiny pale pinkish paddles; and the marvelous time they would make, rising for a moment to catch their breaths, and then quickly submerging themselves again, until where the purple petals of the water target were heightening above the leaves they vanished among the bordering reeds."

In those days big pickerel furroughed their way through the water of your advancing boat and threw themselves into the air in a shining curve after low-skimming miller or butterfly. Schools of black bass were to be seen on a clear day lying in the shady depths of the deep tules or swimming slowly about as if absolutely safe from molestation by man or beast. And there were swarms of huge buffalo, cat and sunfish, all brought in by the vernal overflows of the river.

From along the borders of the sloughs, which radiated away in all directions through the low willows and hazel brush, woodcock flushes with that low whistle and darted into the waving corn or tangly thickets, and from the pasture lands where the yellow spike of the golden rod and the bright red of the polygonum illumined the weedy ways disported the upland plover, the lark and chipping sparrow.

Life was so abundant in all the Elkhorn bottoms that everything was motion, sound and color all through the live-long day. The wings of the turtle dove whistled on every breeze and black birds, crimson-winged and yellow-hooded, rose in myriads, chirping and clucking from the green beds of the swamp-berry and slough grass. Whole flocks were mirrored in the unobstructed waters as they crossed and recrossed over it from copse to field and field to copse. Back among the cottonwoods and walnuts was heard the scolding cry and rattle of the redheaded woodpecker, while the beautiful yellowhammer cackled from almost every dead snag and the inimitable song of the brown thrush, the grosbeak and chewink was always in the hearing. The speckled, downy insect hunter and queer little striped and lavender nuthatches—sapsuckers to the farmer urchin—flitted amidst the twiggy tangle or hitched themselves up and down the big cottonwood trunks, with that never ceasing but not unpleasant "kak-kak-kak-kak-kak!" of theirs. Kingfishers were there, too, flying low over the water up and down the stream, in their endless search for minnows, and the blue coat of the statuesque heron flashed from every isolated bar and low lying point. Among the inflorescent elms and white skinned poplars the fluffy yellow of the big fox squirrel streaked the universal green or hung in a ball from some dangling limb.

And then, as the summer crawled on space, and when the azure bloom of the mimosa glowed along with the blue of the lobelia, and the yellowish petals of the marguerite unfolded its brown button-like heart, and the lacy wild cucumber made bowers on the steep banks and festooned bending branches and accumulating drift, young mallards, teal, widgeon, spoonbill and sometimes canvasback and redhead were to be encountered in all the mirey places, while the yellowleg and killdeer mingled with their joyous cries. And then when the rose-hued flowers of the river plantain began to fade and droop, when the big heart-shaped leaves of the cottonwood fell in golden showers, when the serrated hazel-pod browned and cracked, when the sumach lit its fiery torches where a few short weeks before the white petals of the arrowhead and the purple funnel-formed corollas of the petunia nodded along the green-scummed pools, when the morning and evening winds came in chilly blasts, the scoipe of the russet-coated jacksnipe succeeded the tinkle of the yellowleg, and the vanguard of the quacking hordes from the north began to dot the sky, until in October expiring oriflamme, they fairly over whelmed the whole country, river, lake, field and stream and slough alike, stretching from the mucky valley of the Papio along the sprawling Platte and tortuous Elkhorn to the distant sandhills.

But these old days have long since been dead, and while, as I previously observed, the lucky Nebraskan is still favored with his full share of the sport, it is dwindling with every passing season, and in a few more years will be known no more forever, save in veriest caricature of what was possible in the times of which I write. Like a knell to Nebraska's wild life now comes the avaricious cry of the swarming homesteader, wild prairie will give place to tilled fields, the sod house to the modern palace, the yip of the coyote to the howl of the house dog, the cackling of geese and the quacking of wild fowl to the lowing of kine, the bleat of sheep and the grunt of swine.

A few more fall and vernal forays to the sandhills and marshes and the story is told. But just now it is not of ducks and geese and scalping jacks the sportsman is turning, for if you pause and harken tonight, and the winds are still, you may catch a sound, as from an angel's lute, falling in a liquid ripple—the midsummer greeting of the upland plover. The thistle pods are bursting and the goldenrod has begun to wave her yellow plumes, and these tell us of the days of the plover.

Years and years ago our eastern brethren forgot that there ever was such a royal bird as this glorious little long-winged, white-breasted whistling piper, but once they know him as familiarly as we do, and hunted him and loved him just as well. But they have long passed the stage now approaching here, and recall midsummer's tinkling wisps of gray on meadowland and hayfield, as we recall the Esquimo curlew and whooping crane.

Are we as thoughtless as they once were? Yes. The plover still come back to us and that is all we seem to care for. No emotion of pity softens the pristine savagery of our hearts. It beats only with the joy that the beautiful little bird still comes to us, so that we may hunt and kill it. Thus the world is and ever has been. It is the history of all our game—the record of all our hunters. But the day will come here, as it has to other places, and the lesson will be learned—the day when you will shoulder your gun and go out to the old fields, guided to be sure by the feather plumes of goldenrod, the pepperidge and the gray ragweed, but you will find that your pathway has been worn by the frequent tread of other feet than yours, but you will fail to catch the silvery triplet of the bird you seek or catch the wisp of phantom gray streaking the blue of the distant sky.

As one searches for something long past all hope of finding, so will you then, but never to discover money that little gray mottled visitor that was once the life and charm of all our old hayfields.

However, sentiment in sentiment's place, and as long as the plover are here once again, and likely in fairly good numbers, and as long as hunters will hunt and shooters shoot, let us talk of this bird a bit, talk of him just as if he was to come again and again, each summer, as he has during the thousands of summer's that have been swallowed up in Time's pitiless vortex.

Next to the jacksnipe and Bob White, the upland plover takes his place in the Nebraska sportsman's heart. He comes now, in a season which all his congeners, save the turtle dove, are reveling in distant climes, and offers a magnet but few gunners find themselves able to withstand. His sweet alarum is on the night winds, and if you listen tonight you will probably hear it liltering sweetly down from the starry vault above.

Plover on borad hay fields.
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On Nebraska's Broad Hay Fields.

Many a time I have undertaken the task of describing the greeting cry of these little coursers of the sky, but it is mystic and unsolvable. When it is far it sounds quite near, and when close by, so far away that you are left in doubt whether you have caught it at all or not. It is a melting trickle of sweetness, a sound so subtle as to be beyond imitation, and never fails to halt a true sportsman in his tracks when he first hears it these midsummer nights, or in the daytime, when he first braves the blazing sun in search of it. As he strides out on the broad pasture and that magic "tur-wheet-tle! tur-wheet-tle!" first comes faintly to his listening ears, he will stop short, and remain motionless, and gaze intently up and about him, until he catches sight of that little gray flirt of life spreading athwart the upper dome like a messenger from Jove.

"Tur-wheet-tle! tur-wheet-tle!" is the dulcet triplet that continually vibrates sultry July air when the flight is on, from the last tinge of carmine in the western sky until it deepens in the thickening veil of midnight. They do all their migrating and exercising after the radiant but scorching Phoebus has buried himself behind the western horizon, and but seldom sound their plaintive call save when upon the wing, in traveling or when flushed from their feeding grounds in the day time. Wingtip a bird, however, and when speeding away in quest of some hidden haven on his long lightish legs, he will invariably sound his penetrating whistle at every few yards and thus largely destroys his chances of eluding the alert and pursuing gunners. While journeying hither from its feeding grounds up in the Dakotas of when leaving for the broad plateaus of the south along in later August, the upland plover flies so high as to be out of reach of the gun; but, if the weather is lowering, or the wind blows violently, it flies lower, and falls an easy victim to the sportsman. Its flight is swift and well sustained, and it generally proceeds in straggling bounds, moving along with continuous easy beats of its long, sharp pointed wings, but sails like a hawk when about to light, as well as during the love making and mating season. Once upon the ground it lifts its long wings high up over its back, so that the points almost touch, then lowers them slowly, runs forward a few yards, then settles quietly to feed or rest.

Years ago I went up on the Winnebago agency, this state, to report some Indian doings, and when crossing the long prairie east of Pender, I found the nest of an upland plover, The eggs lay on the bare ground, in a sort of a cup-like hollow scooped out to about the depth of a couple of inches, near the roots of a tuft of bunch grass. The old bird when I approached ran swiftly for forty yards or more, and then jumped into the air, and flew easily away, as if it had been sorely wounded. The eggs were broadly rounded at one end and rather pointed at the other, with a smooth surface, of a dull, grayish yellow, numerously spotted with light purple and reddish brown. They were over an inch in length. They lay in the nest, with the pointed ends together, the same as the killdeer places her eggs.

The upland plover.

What a beauty he is in his near summer dress of black, white, gray and brown ebony feet and bill, and a virgin stripe over the sloe-like eye. What an exhilarating sight when it wheels in the air and the sunlight flashes on its glassy back dotted with pale gold, and its chestnut tail barred with soft gray. What wonder the gunner hastens out before the storm has cleared to catch him as he spins over the plowed ground and hay fields.

But wait. I'll go out myself within a few days and see how I find my old friend of the days of yore. I may have, when I get back, something new to tell you of this little wanderer of the summer skies.