Birds of Nebraska: Newspaper Accounts, 1854-1923

July 3, 1909. Forest and Stream 73(1): 13. Game Bag and Gun.

Game Bag and Gun

A Legend of Prairie Creek.

Along the lands of Prairie Creek, some ten or twelve miles north of Clarks, Nebraska, the cattails had faded to a rusty brown, save where the unbridled winds had torn them asunder and sent their cottony filaments flying in all directions, and shades of gray were creeping everywhere over the thin stretches of rice, of smartweed and belated flags. The last seedless disk of the hardiest sunflower had lowered its rattling husks nearer to the ground, while the keen northwest wind was whistling dolefully through the ragweed and over the frowsy prairies when, in an old ramshackle farm wagon, Sam Richmond, myself and several kindred spirits were jogging along the old buffalo trail on the south shores of that famous old stream. In the crossing of every swale, from one to a score of jack snipe would flush from under the horse's feet and dart away out over the prairie and around back of us where they would again settle down to their boring for food in the mucky loam. Long, straggling myriads of yellowlegs would sound their tinkling trumpets and stream away from every stretch of back water on either side of the creek, while golden plover, in big, crescent-shaped flocks, swept over the lowlands. Sandpipers of four or five varieties were whisking here and there and the air was never void of their fretful pipings.

It was plain enough to any old wildfowler or tramper of the sloughs that these birds had seldom been shot at or molested, for they were there in countless numbers and as tame as the domestic fowl. Big blue cranes, too, flapped lazily from sandy points and small herons and brown bitterns hardly took the trouble to leave their stations along the low shores as we passed almost within reach of the driver's gad.

The frosts had been early that fall in the polar breeding grounds of the wildfowl, the waders and the geese, and Sam said the flight had been on for more than a week, and on noticing a long dotted line coming in over the hills, he said that within an hour the evening flight from the fields and the river would begin and that he would show me the sight of my whole ducking career. And he did.

We were several miles from the spot Sam had chosen for our camping ground and the shadows from the sandhills were reaching out. When the birds began to come in to these extensive nocturnal feeding and roosting grounds along the creek it was not in scattered flocks, such as you yet occasionally see in this same region, but in companies, regiment, brigades, thousands of them, until the eye grew tired tracing the ceaseless march. There were more ducks in sight in the after glow on that golden October afternoon to one sweep of the eye around the firmament than the young hunter of to-day will see in all the rest of his life.

"The most of these ducks," said Sam, "are Northern birds that have been in here for a week past and have learned that these Prairie Creek bottoms are a sanctuary that they cannot find anywhere along the Platte or among the sandhill lakes. Few hunters ever come up here to hunt because they can kill all the birds they want without the expense and trouble of this long drive. The birds seem to know it and they come here to rest at night by millions. The sight to-morrow morning, when the birds begin to leave for the big cornfields and sloughs again, will be just as interesting and just as thrilling as it is in the evening. Just look there! Did you ever seen any ducks before, Sandy?" and Sam pointed off to the north, where a vast army of wildfowl, many of them undoubtedly just in from the north, came gliding into that fabled valley.

There were other birds there besides the ducks, for the vault above was streaked with white and speckled-front geese and dotted with Canadas and with the clamorous cacklings of the former and the sonorous "Auh-unk! unk! unk! auh-unking" of the latter. You may guess, indeed, what an orchestra they made for us.

After the sun had set and the scene was flooded with amber light we saw scores of jack snipe pitching here and there, mingled with killdeer, plover and yellowlegs, and we were all so excited that it was hard to retain our seats in the wagon. Long after night had closed in and while we were busy pitching our tents by the light of the lanterns, we could still hear the geese and ducks passing over, a low satisfied cackling or the rustle of hosts of wings.

In the morning this wondrous and thrilling scene was repeated, only it did not continue as long, nor did there seem to be so many birds in motion at one time. Thousands, it is presumed, left their roost long before the first pink and pearl of approaching day tinged the east and were miles and miles away in the big cornfields or sloughs while we still slept. By 8 o'clock there were but few ducks to be seen in the air, while the black dots specking the backwater were few and far between.

Such were the morning and evening flights of the wildfowl, not only in this little valley of Prairie Creek, but all over the untenanted regions of the State twenty years or so ago, and while it continued for a decade or so after it has at last about petered out.

Not only was there no morning or evening flight along the Platte last fall, but there were few ducks at any time, and the old Platters are unanimous in declaring that it was the poorest autumn along the river since the days when the rumbling of the prairie schooners along the old Oregon trail started the birds in numbers beyond conception from every water hole along the route.

At Clarks there were not fifty birds killed by all the shooters who assembled there, and at Chapman, so a returning gunner told me, but fifteen birds fell to the guns of the sportsmen. What birds did come in there last autumn to the rivers, lakes and marshes left at the first intimation of a cold snap.

But to return to our morning and evening flight. Back in a cleared spot among the willows stood our tents which, in the darkness of night, gleamed out like snow banks, excepting when lit up by the huge pile of driftwood scattered about which blazed high. I can close my eyes even now and see the glare from our camp-fire reaching out over the river until the stripped cottonwoods on the opposite bank stretched forth their skeleton arms as if to embrace our glowing bivouac. Often by the camp-fire light, too, have I seen the white collars on the necks of the old Canadas drifting through the night above and plainly distinguished the glossy green heads of the mallards as they barely swept the willow tops.

Before darkness had enveloped the water-streaked valley the evening flight was on. On the blue of the heavens the light from the sunken sun is splintered into millions of fragments, with everything above the distant hills in clear outline, while over all the vale below rested that pallid glow that intensified the brilliant colors in the air and threw a creepy gloom over the shaded nooks and crannies. Over this stage would pour that incalculable army of the winged hosts that twenty years ago made the heart of the most stoical sportsman leap.

Sandy Griswold.