By Lawrence Bruner, Lincoln, Nebr.1902. Proceedings of the Nebraska Ornithologists' Union 3:58-63.
A Comparison of the Bird-life Found in the Sand Hill Region of Holt County in 1883-84 and in 1901
I do not know how many of you have ever gone over the sand-hill region of Nebraska, especially along the north and east edge where the water seems to have accumulated much more plentifully than in other portions of it. Be this as it may, it was my privilege along a with several others to spend some time in 1883-84 in southern Holt County where we entered land under the tree-claim act. Leaving West Point we journeyed by team up the beautiful and fertile valley of the Elkhorn as far as Neligh, in Antelope County, where the United States land office for the district was located. Having arrived there, an inspection of the maps and records indicated that in the southwestern corner of Holt County, in the midst of the sand-hills, lay a low piece of land. The maps showed this tract of land to be located about ten miles west of the east edge of the sandhills and somewhere near the head-waters of the Cedar River. In this valley there seemed to be still remaining a few desirable quarter sections that might be available for entry as tree-claims. We accordingly proceeded on our way by wagon, driving across country some sixty or seventy miles and arrived after three days' very hard travel through water, slush, and sand. In passing through this intervening country we observed many birds, especially shore birds, although the ducks and other water fowl were not at all scarce. In fact we found them present in every little lakelet among the sand-hills and along their eastern border. Even the "blowouts" were at this time lakelets. The valleys were also full of water.
Upon reaching the sand-hills proper we first attempted to drive around all of these bodies of water, thinking that we would surely be mired should have attempted to drive into or through them. After awhile, however, we found that the bottoms of all lakes and other bodies at water were much more solid than some of the lower ground that remained uncovered by the water. We accordingly drove right through many of these small bodies of water. Occasionally they proved to be pretty deep—much deeper than we had supposed them to be—and sometimes the water even entered the wagon-box. On frequent occasions a spectator might have had the pleasure of seeing several men standing ankle deep in water with a box of provisions or a bundle of clothing in arms while the driver in front was carefully guiding the now steady team in his endeavor to find the high places. The bag of flour was an object of special concern and would frequently be taken up on the shoulder by some member of the party as the water gradually deepened. After a day's travel through this alternation of sand, muck, and water we finally reached the head of the Cedar valley and at the same time the end of our journey. Here, too, the bird life was more abundant than at any of the places we bad passed through in reaching this region. Such species as the Sand-hill Crane, American Bittern, Coot, Sora Rail, Sickle-billed Curlew, Bartram's Sandpiper, Wilson's Phalarope, Killdeer. Yellow-legs, Willet, Baird's and Least Sandpipers, and a number of other shore birds were met with in abundance. This was during the last few days of June and the early part of July.
We finally located upon land in this valley, built a sod stable, dug a well, and located camp as much as possible out of the way of the mosquitoes which at the time were present by the billions. This accomplished we began searching for the corners of our newly acquired land so as to locate the future groves and break fire lines. In the performance of this work it is needless to state that we found numbers of the nests of these birds. We also continued to run across young birds of various kinds. I remember that in a single day we found three broods of young sand-hill cranes. The birds, while they were only a couple of days old and covered with a reddish fluffy dawn, were already almost as large as a common domestic fowl. We took them to our camp and in a few days had them very tame—so tame in fact that they would come to us to receive the grasshoppers which we captured and offered them.
One night while located in this camp we heard an unusual noise just back of the tent. It seemed to come from the interior of a small sand knoll lying between ours and a small lake a few hundreds of yards away. I myself thought some one had located in the neighboring sand-hills where he had built for himself a home and had came down into the valley after nightfall in the neighborhood of our tent for some ulterior purpose. At any rate it seemed improbable that his mission to this part of the valley could be for water, knowing as I did that this was to be had almost anywhere. Just what the other members of the party thought remains untold to this day. But as to the aforesaid noise I must confess that it was akin to that most unearthly sound produced by an old wooden pump sucking wind. To say that my inquisitiveness didn't get the better of me would be untrue. I got up in spite of the mosquito's and went out to see who this new neighbor of ours might be, believing as we did that the nearest settlement was a dozen or more miles away. But search as I would nothing could be seen in the dark. Early next morning in order to satisfy myself I went down towards the lake to obtain a clue as to who this man with the pump might he and where he came front. Strange as it may seem not even a shadow of a clue was to be found of our midnight visitor, and, in the language of the novelist, the mystery deepened. Next day, however, the noise was repeated while the sun shone brightly. The mystery had so deepened by this time that solved it must be. A visit to the locality was decided upon, but lo! I could see nothing that looked unusual. Only a lone bittern was visible upon the near shore of the lake, and he was apparently unconcerned as well as undisturbed by the noise of a few moments before. But while I stood there endeavoring to solve the greatest puzzle of my life this lone bird changed his listless attitude and commenced to perform. He felt like singing and he began to sing, and the song that he sang was that of the old wooden pump sucking wind. The mystery was solved and I slunk back to camp only to keep quiet about our new neighbor. Moral: Perseverance will solve the deepest of mysteries. We found no bitterns nests this year although there must have been hundreds of them in the region judging from the nightly revelry at the lakeside just behind the little hill.
A few belated ducks' nests and some of other birds were taken. The next year we returned to the locality somewhat earlier to do our plowing and tree-planting, and left during the latter part of May or early June. During this period, however, birds' eggs of various kinds were so abundant that we had all we could eat in camp. In fact, bye and bye, they became so plentiful that we tired of eggs as a diet; and this, too, only from the nests that were run across simply in tree-planting and plowing furrows for fire-breaks. Among the eggs taken were those of the Prairie Chicken, Sharp-tailed Grouse, Coot, Blue-winged Teal, Gadwall, Shoveller, Mallard, American Bittern, Black Tern, Forster's Tern, and a number of others.
We also noticed that there were present in the region a number of hawks, as the Marsh Hawk, American Rough-leg, Swainson's, and one or two others, some or all of which surely nested in the near vicinity. The Burrowing and Short-eared Owls were likewise of common occurrence in the immediate neighborhood, while both the Nighthawk and Mourning Dove were observed daily before we left. The latter did not use trees or bushes for the purpose but nested on the bare ground instead. Sometimes, however, we found that they selected weed-like herbs in which to place these structures, as for example, the weed called "Shoestring." In addition to the species already named we found such others as the Western Meadow-lark, Yellow-headed Blackbird, Red-winged Blackbird, Cowbird, Bobolink, Shore Lark, Grasshopper Sparrow, Lark Sparrow, Lark Bunting, Dickcissel, and several other sparrows, present in large numbers and nesting. It is needless to say that we were ever and anon running across their nests. When we started out across country for a walk it was no uncommon occurrence during a two or three miles' tramp to find a dozen or even as many as two dozen nests. At this time it was noticed that the prairie chickens were exceedingly numerous. In the morning we would hear them "booming" in every direction. Especially was this the case in the little valley where we were located. In fact this valley seemed to be their headquarters. They would come down from the surrounding sand-hills in every direction, and sometimes there would be forty or fifty within sight at once, with the feathers on their necks up, and at the same time uttering their booming song which could be beard for miles. The Sharp-tailed Grouse was fairly common also. The black terns and grebes were also quite numerous. In the little lake already referred to in connection with "the mystery" there were perhaps a dozen nests of each of these last-named birds; and I do not know how many rail's nests might have been found by walking through a little patch of rushes in the immediate vicinity. The Long-billed Marsh Wren was also very common as attested by their globular nests attached to the fringe of bulrushes growing about the various lakes. Most of the birds were abundant for several years later before their withdrawal or disappearance was especially noted.
I might write of the various songs and cries uttered by this host of birds which was present both day and night. Some of these sounds were uttered in fear, while others were the overflow of happiness, and still others those of warning or it may be were for the purpose of drawing together the members of separated families. The Meadow-lark was, of course, exceedingly melodious at that time of the year, and, being so numerous, the songs could be heard in every direction, Then there was flight of the Bobolink, of which there were hundreds in the valley and these were continually in the air singing, as were also the lark buntings; but time is short and precious.
The above was the condition of bird life in that region seventeen, or even sixteen, years ago. Last summer, as luck would have it, I had the opportunity to spend a few weeks at just about the some time of year in the region that I had visited in the early eighties, and had the opportunity to mark and note the difference in the bird life during the two periods. Starting from a little town not far from Neligh and driving over practically the same ground as on the former occasion, I saw three pairs of the Bartram's Sandpiper, no prairie chickens and no sharp-tailed grouse. Two or three little blue-winged teal and a few sparrows were also noted, but these were all that remained of the former veritable list of these busy-winged, happy creatures in a drive of a day and a half, while covering a stretch of sixty miles of territory. On arriving at the ranch or tree claim referred to above we found a slight improvement in affairs. A few Bartram's sandpipers still remained, as did also several pairs of the black terns. The meadow-lark was fairly abundant, but not nearly so numerous as it had been an the former occasion. During this latter trip there were seen three or four pairs of Wilson's phalaropes, some yellow-legs, and one other sandpiper besides the Bartram's. Only the Cowbird, Dickcissel, Lark Sparrow, and Lark Bunting seemed about as numerous as formerly. Then, too, there were noticed a few kinds of other birds that have been brought into the country on account of the attractions offered by the trees which now grow there. Formerly we had no trees, perhaps within twenty miles, to invite even so common a bird as the Brown thrasher. In noting these new birds for the region we had to record the Bronzed Grackle, Flicker, Red-headed Woodpecker, Yellow-billed Cuckoo, Catbird, Brown Thrasher, Phoebe, Yellow Warbler, a vireo, Blue-bird, Blue Jay, Barn Swallow, Goldfinch and Lazuli Bunting. All these had come into the region and established themselves in the artificial groves. The quail, or Bob-white, I was pleased to know had penetrated the region and found a home in the groves where they are protected. I also visited the region a little later this last summer than I had on any former occasion. During this last visit I found birds of migration such as Say's Phoebe, Arkansas Kingbird, Purple Martin, Pinon Jay. etc. These also in passing south to the Platte River make this point a resting place for a few days. The trees which they find here on these tree claims seem to them as an oasis in the desert does to the dusty and sand-begrimed traveler in the Sahara. They are isolated tracts of timber and the closest neighbors a number of miles away. These groves of trees, as yet small, seem to invite the passing birds and make the locality a magnificent place in which to study bird life.
It is hoped that this brief and hurriedly prepared paper shows to a limited extent at least what an influence man has on bird life, and perhaps also animal life in a general way, over the country, It shows on the one side what a man with a gun can do in a very short time in the way of destroying and removing God's creatures from the face of the earth,—creatures which have been created for the special purpose of equalizing things and making life worth living. It also shows, on the other hand, what a little labor in the way of tree-planting will do towards attracting and providing homes for others.