Birds of Nebraska: Newspaper Accounts, 1854-1923

Sandy Griswold. June 28, 1896. Omaha Sunday Bee p. 19.

Days With the Uplands.

Another Ramble with the Lovers of the Woods and Fields.

There will not be many more nights now before the plaintive "tur wheetle" of the upland plover is heard tinkling over hill and vale as he cleaves the soft ether above on his way to the table lands of New Mexico. The upland plover does all his traveling by night, and while enroute from his breeding grounds in the northern part of the state and the Dakotas to his summer loafing place in this latitude and on to the gulf states, as an accompaniment to his measured wing beats he keeps up a constant "tur-wheetle," "tur-wheetle," that sweet yet melancholy note so familiar to all sportsmen of this western country. This cry is peculiarly mellow and musical, and has the wonderful quality of sounding near by when it is really off a half mile from you, or sounding distant when the crafty bird is immediately overhead or scudding over the plain within gunshot. It is this ever-thrilling whistle which frequently first admonishes the alert sportsman that he has not made his trip to the new mown hay fields or broad, lawn-like pastures in vain. It also warns him that he has been discovered by the bird, and must look sharp and careful if he wants a shot, for they either take wing on first sounding this sweet alarum, or get upon their long legs and make tall strides for the protective shadows of some convenient cluster of golden-rod or clump of rag-weed. Once behind this friendly shelter he squats, then lifts himself with long pointed wing and sails away, low at first but once beyond the reach of your hammerless, with a quiet succession of "tur-wheetles," he rises in the air, sweeps round in broad aerial curves and then suddenly alights again, several hundred yards away.

While the upland plover flushes warily and at long range during the early days of his brief lay-over here, he even furnishes good sport then, for while timid and wary in a way, he is a bird of little judgment or foresight, and when once on the wing and indulging in his tantalizing curvettings in the air, he is as apt to come right back over you, affording an easy shot, as he is to go anywhere else. So it is always a sensible plan to crouch low and remain perfectly motionless when you first flush them, and take this chance of getting a shot instead of a helter-skelter chase over the hot fields. I have killed as high as four and five birds on the big hay fields out on the old military road without moving from my tracks, after having first put a dozen or so of the birds into the air.

No dog is necessary in hunting upland plover, in fact would be a decisive drawback unless for the single purpose of ranging away from your wagon through the fields along the roadside, while searching for favorable grounds, and by thus jumping any stray birds in the neighborhood might save you a vast deal of laborious leg work. But once the birds have been located, the best thing you can do with the dog is to chain him to the wagon. To be sure, if he is thoroughly broken and is a good retriever, which is astonishingly rare thing with Omaha bird dogs, you might use him to recover the dead, for a defunct plover is sometimes just about as hard to find as the proverbial needle in a haystack. If but slightly shot-stricken or wing-tipped they will lead the fleetest human sprinter in the world a merry chase, for they can run like a wild turkey. Hurt this way, the moment they strike the ground they lose no time in getting away. They are up on their yellowish-gray spindles like a flash, and streaking it away in a manner that seems to defy pursuit. If you lose sight of the quarry for a single second you may know that he has hidden, and although the pasture in which you are hunting looks as smooth as a Brussels carpet, you will probably indulge in a good many superfluous expressions before you succeed in unearthing him. The slightest depression in the soil, an old hoof track of horse or cow, a gopher pile, clod of dirt, the tiniest bunch of vervain or gentian will answer, so closely does his lovely mottled feathery coat assimilate with the confusing and blending colors of nature. I have spent hours looking for a wounded bird I knew could not be outside of a radius of twenty-five yards, to find him at last outspread in plain view, almost in the very spot I had marked him down in the chase. In cases like these a dog might come into effective play. But he must be an obedient animal who will remain "at heel" until ordered to "fetch," otherwise he would prove an exasperation and a plague. Big bags of plover are made by riding onto them in a wagon. They seem to have little fear of an approaching vehicle, and thus fall an easy prey to the insatiate gunner. This species of hunting, however, degenerates from sportsmanship to wanton slaughter and is seldom practiced only by those who find their pleasure alone in the killing. To the honest sportsman love of outdoor life, with its concomitant beauties is the principal element in the fondness for hunting. The pleasure of exercising skill and knowledge in finding and killing game is secondary to the joy of being a part of nature, and still less considered is the quantity or the flavor of the game they bag. But it is not philosophizing but information about the plover my reader likes best, so I will return to the birds.

While this species of the feathered tribe is called upland and grass plover, it is not a plover at all, although possessing the closest propinquity to the genera. His proper title is the Bartramian sandpiper but is seldom called such. Anyway, he is a great bird, and as a bonne bouche for the gastronome is hard to beat. Some sportsmen even prefer him to the Wilson snipe or woodcock, while many rank him high above the quail. They arrive here in the spring early in May, and breed in the northern tier of counties in this state and on as far north as the Saskatchewan, returning during the coming month on their way to their winter quarters on the measureless plains of Texas and Mexico. They reach here in their greatest numbers about July 10, when the golden-rod is at its fullest bloom, remain for a period of three weeks or more, when they are up and off again before you know it. They abound here in great numbers, however, during this short interval, our great hay fields and reaches of plowed ground and sloping highlands being a favorite abode. They are the least maritime of all the plover kind, and are never to be found in marshy or boggy country or rocky, wooded districts. The bird disports in his greatest glory on our limitless plains, undulating pastures, fallow fields, hay lands and newly plowed ground, where it gorges itself on the various kinds of insect food it is fondest of small grasshoppers, crickets, beetles and all the kinds of small coleopterous flies which infest our grass lands. In the fallows and upturned fields he desserts on angle worms, snails, grubs and the like. He is always shy and goes it alone, that is, they do not gather together in flocks, but are found scatteringly together on the same feeding ground, and when flushed do not fly off in a bunch, but each one takes his own individual course, which is a habit peculiar, I think, to all scolopacidae, such as kill-deer, jacksnipe, plover, yellow-legs and phalaropes.

With the close of the upland plover shooting, the gunning for the summer months reaches its end, and when the delicate purple of the meadow-beauty and the softer azure of the lobelia show their sweet faces beneath a clear, sun-lit sky, you need no longer listen for that plaintive whistle rippling across the field or no longer watch for the circling blot of gray against the horizon and over the distant woods, now gradually turning to the yellowish hue of waning dog days. The golden rod had faded and the sumac is reddening in gulch and fence corner, and if you will only be patient, inaction will soon cease gnawing at your soul, for autumn is on the way—the heartiest and most jocund season of all the year, when the woodlands and the stubble, the crested lake and flowing stream are in reality naught but the hunters' elysium. With the cold nights and cooler mornings, with the sear prairies, gray sand hills and browning river valleys, comes the vanguard of the great quacking hordes that will once more set your heart to beating and your nerves to tingling as the sun goes down.