Birds of Nebraska: Newspaper Accounts, 1854-1923

Sandy Griswold. April 27, 1902. [Lore of bird-life at Hackberry Lake.] Omaha Sunday World-Herald 37(209): 18. Scribed during the March wild fowl hunt at Stilwell's ranch on the lake.

[Lore of Bird-life at Hackberry Lake]

The marsh wren is a flippant and saucy little bird and it is interesting to watch him as he describes his short arc above the rushes as you sit silently awaiting the appearance of another flight of ducks. While unmolested he almost continuously pours forth his little fine-toned tinkling song. He fairly babbles with joyous animation. If a little later you explore the rushes for his home, you will find, perhaps, five or six nests, within a comparatively small radius. But they all belong to one pair, only one of which, however, they use. The others are blinds to fool the intruder. They will scold and chatter shrilly when you approach any of these dummy abodes, simply to make you think that they are afraid you have discovered their sacred sanctum. But they are not. They know their business. If you do happen to approach the real nest, you can depend that you are on the right scent, by the bird's strange silence. I have examined many of these nests and I suppose so has many another studious sportsman. They are shaped like a coconut, and contain, when the hen is ready to begin setting, five or six eggs of so brown a color as to appear almost black. The nest is surely an ingenious and snug retreat for the little wrens and when the summer rain drops patter and wind whistles through the sedges.

A month later the whole marsh is full of bird and insect life, while furred animals are also numerously in evidence. There are many of these here, or at least were a few years back, mink, muskrat and swamp mice and a single May day amidst Hackberry's rice and reeds, is a volume of nature's sweetest story. Sometimes the nesting blue wing flies languidly, simply for exercise, up and down the long sheet of glistening water. Or perhaps, the ring necked plover will greet you with his plaintive and fretful "kill-deer-kill-deer-kill-deer!" as you jump him from the barren shore. The scream of the gray osprey is the common sound, and he is always entertaining, whether cleaving the ambient air far above in wide graceful circles, or poising gracefully lower down, over the lake, moving not a hair's breadth, but, with rapidly fluttering wings, seems like a toy suspended on a string. But his golden eye is on the young bass just beneath the surface, and after he makes that downward plunge that always succeeds these spectacular poisings in the sky, remember, there is at least one fish less to interest you and your tempting lure. The great blue heron is not an infrequent visitor, and woe unto the green-dotted frog who comes within reach of his long dagger-like beak. Between the heron and the voracious Micropterus the frog leads a much disturbed and precarious life; indeed, although there are many frogs here in the early summer, they soon largely disappear and it is needless to ask either heron, or bass what becomes of them.

It is interesting, too, as any one knows who has ever frequented the watery ways where this mysterious bird hovers, to watch the ever tireless gulls. Of these there are three species that visit the sandhills lake country, the big slate and white, the smaller cream colored and the dark-winged petrel. They come early and stay late, and when there is nothing else in sight, their regular, measured wing beats in the air over the still lake, their graceful curves and aerial calisthenics will furnish plenty of occupation for thought and vision. These gulls devour and digest an enormous quantity of fish daily. They prefer live fish, but will, when hungry, eat the dead and decomposed.

It is a common sight to see the merganzers, "sawbills," they call then out here, hunting for minnows in all the rushy bayous about Hackberry. They are expert swimmers on or under the water, using both wings and web-feet in either case. When they find a school of minnows they dart here and there under the water, moving with almost inconceivable rapidity. Though under the water the course of the duck can be distinctly traced by the fish jumping out of the water, in their frantic efforts to escape the dreaded sawbill. The merganzer is a trifle too fishy for the average white man, but I have "heard tell," that cooked with onions, they lose this piscatorial flavor, and make really quite a savory dish. However, I am willing that the mud hen gourmets should also have a monopoly on the merganzer and all such other toothsome fowl.

Cormorants are by no means unknown among these sandhills waters, and Fred Goodrich killed a fine specimen the day before we left. They look much like a northern black loon such, so said the judge, as those found way up roundabout the waters of Lake Ida, where he goes in June for his black bass and pickerel. They are lightning on the wing and keep up the flapping motion to the end of their flight. They rest on isolated sand keys, and in the tropical south, where they breed, leave their eggs to the fostering care of the sun. They will eat fish and are not particular whether they are putrified or not, and like all feathered scavengers, are always apparently famished.

Another refuse devourer that visits these regions is the pelican and he is always funny and interesting. There are two species of these birds, the white and the brown, but the white, same as those frequently met with at Cut-off lake and Manawa, are the only ones that come here. They have short legs, long neck and beak; the head seeming to have been formed by bending the upper part of the neck into a hoop. The bill is longer than the neck, and when the bird is at rest on the water, the head and neck standing back over the body, the end of the bill is slightly under the water. The upper jaw is longer than the lower and has a downward crook at the joint. Under the lower jaw, reaching from the tip back to the neck, a flexible bag is attached, which is perforated near the throat to drain the sack, which serves as a net and game bag to this incomparable angling bird. They have powerful wings, which measure as much as eight feet from tip to tip. They flop and sail alternately in flying, as do the prairie chicken of this state. While the pelican breeds about the lakes of the Rocky mountains and British Columbia, he spends all his winters in the tropical south, coming up here early in the spring. Great flocks, about March 20, annually pass over this city.

While casting for bass over at Manawa with the lamented Andy Root, several summers ago, we saw a pelican flying swiftly sixty or seventy-five feet above the water. He suddenly discovered his prey, and, turning half round with spread wings, dove as swiftly and as straight as an arrow, coming up with a gar fully a foot and a quarter long. The great bird had much difficulty in swallowing the long, sharp-billed fish, but he accomplished the trick at last. We could see the tail of the gar sticking out of the pelican's mouth, and although he threw his head back and forth rapidly and persistently the gar would not go down. Then he opened his enormous mouth and disgorged the fish, and again taking it by the tail he succeeded in getting the live and wriggling fish into his capacious stomach, where of course, the powerful gastric juices soon reduced it to a pulp. The pelican, it may be interesting for some people to know, is wholly unlike most other birds, as it has no gizzard. It does, however, have an enormous stomach, that is capable of digesting enormous quantities of fish every twenty-four hours. It is said, when a pelican dives in water swarming with tender minnows, that the concussion stuns the tiny fishes for many feet around the diver, who proceeds to fill his sack and comes to the surface. After draining the water from the sack he raises his bill skyward, and, with short, quick jerks of the heads, manages to get the catch into his stomach.

As incredible as it may seem, there are a great many eagles about the sandhill lakes, both bald and golden. The general supposition is that these birds only haunt the wooded mountainous regions, but this is a mistake, as in all my explorations I have never encountered them with such frequency as in this abnormal region. They feed upon fish, rabbits, prairie dogs, field mice and birds, among which the prairie chicken suffers extensively. Where they nest I have not yet discovered, and am inclined to believe that is is nowhere within many miles of the sterile wastes they seem to be so fond of visiting. The redtail, gray and Cooper's hawk, however, in this section make their nest right in the sand, on the crest of some chop hill or in a blowout, and seem as much at home as they do among the splendid forests of the Adirondacks or up in the piney state of Maine. These nests are nothing more that a slight concavity in the sands, lined with a few bird's feathers and the dessicated leaves of the yucca plant. In the woods the eagle builds his nest in the tallest tree he can find, using coarse sticks, which they weave and interlace around the forked limbs. The nest, when done, looks like a large bowl, say, three or four feet in diameter. The nest is well constructed, and it is built for all time. For forty-eight years one nest, up on the Saranca, in the Adirondacks, was known to have been consecutively occupied and it was presumed by the same pair of birds. In the fall of 1901, while up on the Pine Ridge agency duck shooting, I saw Tom Foley kill a golden eagle with a Winchester rifle just 411 steps from where he stood. The bird was sitting upright on the apex of a small sand dune and had just finished its breakfast of a nice fat prairie dog. Tom had the bird mounted and it now occupies a conspicuous niche in his hunting den at his Harney street residence.

As interesting as any other feathered animation about Hackberry lake in the spring time, are the blackbirds. My, what countless thousands there are of them, and how many confusing varieties, from the big shining, greenish-black crow to the redwing, golden-hooded, gray and cow. They swarm in the air, fill the swaying rice and green tules like polka dots, now darting in erratic flight across and back, keeping the soft air tinkling like a thousand silver bells, confusing both hearing and sight, yet entertaining you beyond expression. Then from the flotsam and jetsam of old hay, rice tops, icy froth and reeds and grass resounds the crackling orchestra of amorous frogs, toads and hylos, while now and then a sudden eruption of crystal showers out in the open water tell where a black bass disports his graceful shape. The sweet and graceful fragrance of the budding world crowds the nostrils and from every side rings the pean of returning summer, the swish of the wind pushed waters to the sweet but mournful lilt of melody from the meadow lark and bobolink. Nature is under the magical wand of the intangible gods and fast recovering from the tousling she received amidst the rough play of recent wintry blasts.

And then there are the prairie chicken-the pinnated grouse-and the sharp-tail, the difference between them which is so small that none but the expert can tell them apart, they are here as plentiful as anywhere else in the broad plains and hill lands, and they always enliven the senses of the waiting duck hunter as they come down to drink in the evening or fly across in the blaze of the morning sun. No bird ever lent a greater charm to its surroundings than the chicken to the dreary prairie. He has been more to it than the chestnut hooded canvasback to the blue lake or Bob White to the frosty stubble, jacksnipe to the boggy meadow or upland plover to the limitless hay fields or sunny hillsides. He is to be found here in fair abundance even yet and while there are some quail, say down in the sparse cottonwoods and thin brush at the southeast end of Dewey lake, but they are rare and scarce indeed. But you never want for a subject to study and ponder over when waiting for ducks in you blind. When it is not the wren, the sparrow, gull, hawk, eagle, pelican, chicken or blackbird, it is the muskrat, the mink or the coyote. And what a comical little fellow the rat is, and how many and how ludicrous his antics.

There goes one now, don't you see him gliding behind that tangled net of broken cane and tules? There he is, right at the water's brink. See how gracefully he launches himself, so silent that you doubt but what it is a flitting shadow till you see his wake so still that you wonder how it breaks the reflections, lengthening out behind him. Of all swimmers, next to the mink, that cleave the cool waters of these sandhill lakes, none can compare with the homely "muskrat" in swiftness and grace, as smooth and even as the poetry of motion itself. But of the rat, the mink and coyote, I will yet have much to say, but just now, let's go to bed, what do you say, and be ready for an early start on the morrow!