Birds of Nebraska: Newspaper Accounts, 1854-1923

April 6, 1913. Omaha Sunday World-Herald 48(27): 2-S.

Looking Back on a Picture of a Quarter of a Century Ago

By Sandy Griswold.

Notwithstanding the tremendous influx of wild fowl with which this region has been, and is still being favored with this spring, so far as that goes, I cannot refrain from once more pointing out the big changes that have taken place in these vernal and autumnal migrations during the past twenty years. With the improvement in capacity of destroying shotguns, the incalculable increase of men who shoot, and the topographic change of the country through the swell of population and the introduction of wondrous labor-saving machinery, so the habits and ways of the wild fowl have also changed. The migration periods are no more what they were a score or two of years ago than the methods of harassing them, and the habits of the birds have undergone commensurate metamorphose, as any of the studious and intelligent old-timers will tell you.

While I possess, I think, a full understanding of the abundance of evidence of the marvelous decrease in most all kinds of wild bird and animal life, I do not say that the end is near, or anywhere in sight, for the testimony of the present spring's experience would make the assertion appear largely far-fetched. But the fact that the old-time morning and evening flights of the wild ducks and geese over the regions with which we are closely familiar cannot fail to impress the observer with the import of the future. These flights, so picturesque, wonderful and spectacular, let me repeat, are absolutely a thing of the past, and I do not care how abundant the birds may appear in either the spring or the fall. I can half close my eyes now and look back through the accumulated mists of a quarter of a century, and see again the prodigious scenes of wild life unfolded before my startled vision as I saw it them, on the momentous occasion of my maiden trip with good old Sam Richmond on the sprawling Platte.

Along the bottom lands of Prairie creek, some ten or twelve miles north of Clarks, the cat-tails 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 scattered 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 small or estuary to the creek, from one to a score of jack snipe would flush from under the horses's feet, and with that well known "scaipe" of theirs, 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 of five varieties were whisking here, there and everywhere, and the air was never void of their fretful pipings. It was plain enough to any old wild fowler, or tramper of the slough, that these birds had seldom been shot at ot molested, for they were there in countless numbers and as tame as the domestic fowl in your barnyard. Big blue cranes, too, flapped lazily from this sandy point and that, 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 long gad.

The frosts had been early that long ago fall, way up in the polar breeding grounds of the wild fowl, the wades and the geese, and Sam said the northern 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 low sandhills to the west were reaching out to enormous lengths over the plains to the east as the golden red sun dipped toward the horizon. When the birds began to come in to these extensive nocturnal feeding and roosting grounds along the tortuous creek, it was not in scattered and attenuated flocks, such as you yet occasionally see in this same region, but in companies, regiments, brigades, battalions and divisions, thousands and thousands and thousands of them, until the eye actually grew tired in tracing the ceaseless and incredible march.

There were more ducks in sight in the afterglow of that golden October afternoon, to one sweep of the eye around the firmament, than the young hunter of today will see in all the rest of his life, if he goes duck hunting every day and tramps from the first tinge of pearl in the east till the shadows settle over the hills at night.

Along the sky to the southwest, the west and the north, aye, and from the south and the east, too for that matter, streamed line after line, wave after wave of the various kinds of ducks that came to those grounds-canvasback, redhead, mallard, widgeon, baldpate, golden eye, teal, spoonbill, bluebill and merganser, while from out the very crests of the hills and over the prairie low down, until their wings must have fanned the dun grass, they poured down the valley of prairie creek, single stragglers, pairs, small bunches and tremendous flocks, this way and that, in all directions, over, by and around us, until the atmosphere was a-roar with their whizzing and whirring pinions.

And the wondrous spectacle was maintained all through the gleaming descent of Phoebus in his radiant chariot o the burning green seas that lay along the western hill crests, and until long after the mysterious shades of night had closed in around us.

"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 big 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 and the birds seem to know it, and they come in here to rest at night by countless millions. The sight tomorrow 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 this evening. Just look there, to the north. Did you ever see any ducks before, Sandy?" and Sam pointed off to the north, where a vast army of wild fowl, many of them undoubtedly just in from the far north, came marching down the darkening sky. Almost endless lines, but mere dots against the deep cerulean of the northern firmament at first, then well defined birds came widening out and gliding down into that fabled valley. Rising, seemingly, out of the black horizon, in overwhelming masses, hanging for a moment in the crimson sky as they cleared the hills, then bearing down into that fairy vale until it fairly vibrated with those quacking hordes.

Over the whitened bluffs to the west, where the former grazing grounds of the bison rolled into a vast expanse of prairie, they came in unabated numbers, no longer in broken lines, but in one continuous on-sweeping avalanche of feathers, and swifter than the night wind itself, countless groups of others came riding in on the last sheets of gleaming gold from the fast sinking sun.

But there were other birds there besides the ducks, for the vault above was streak with long converging strings of white and speckled front geese, and dotted in black silhouette with wedge-shaped masses of 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 we listening hunters.

And after the sun had gone down and the scene was flooded with an amber light, we saw scores of jack snipe pitching here and there, mingled with killdeers, plover and yellowlegs, and we were so excited that it was hard to retain our seats in the wagon.

And then, long after night had really closed in, and while we were busy pitching our tents by the light of a couple of lanterns, we could still hear the geese and ducks passing over, a low satisfied cackling or the rustle of hosts of wings.

And again in the morning was this wondrous and thrilling scene 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 a few ducks to be seen in the air, while the black dots specking the back water were few and far between.

But such was the morning and evening flight of the wild fowl, not only in this famed little valley of the Prairie creek, but all over the untenanted regions of the state, twenty years or so ago, and while it continued in moderated multiplicity for a decade or so after, it has at last about absolutely petered out and will be witnessed again no more forever.

But to return to our theme of the "Morning and Evening Flight"-how incredible this must all sound to the youthful wild fowler of today. Little idea, indeed, can he conjure up of one of our autumn camps out on the old Platte a quarter of a century ago.

Back in cleared spot among the willows stands our tents, which in the darkness of night gleamed like snow banks, excepting when lit up by the huge pile of driftwood, plentifully scattered about us on all sides, which blazed high before their open flaps. I can close my eyes, even now, and see the glare from our campfire 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 this campfire light, too, have I seen the white collars on the old Canadas drifting through the night above, and plainly distinguished the glossy green head of the mallards as they barely swept the willow tops.

But before darkness has enveloped the water-streaked valley the evening flight is on-that surely is a picture to make his eyes bulge.

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 rests that pallid glow that intensifies the brilliant colors in the air, but throws a creepy gloom over the shaded nooks and crannies. From the vanished orb of day rose leaves radiate into the zenith, while the upper sky on the east would change into tawny gold and darksome green. North and south the blue vault would be shaded with delicate tints, shifting into topaz toward the center of the limitless dome. Far in the east would be reared turrets and towers of richest umber fringed with fire; while to the west rolled waves of gleaming copper banks of fleecy yellow and streams of lemon and violet. Over this stage would pour that incalculable army, that I have attempted to pencil, of the winged hosts that twenty years ago made the heart of the most stoical sportsman leap with a life it never knew before.