September 9, 1887. Forest and Stream 29(7): 123.
A Nebraska Collecting Trip.
In the Great American Desert you may think that we do not have much to excite our longings for the haunts of bird and beast. But though our State is not filled to overflowing with fowl of air and water, this is a paradise for rich experience. Bright and early one Saturday morning in the early part of June in company with Mr. C.J. Pierson, of Auburn, who is an enthusiastic naturalist, I started from Peru, Nemaha county, bound for Lehigh's Lake, five miles N.W. of Peru, and about three miles west of the Missouri River, having for our object the collection of specimens of Anatidœ, Ardeidœ, Rallidœ and Scolopacidœ. We find the cheewink busily engaged in his ceaseless hunt among the fallen sticks and leaves for stray worm or insect, or with noisy flutter of wings and tail as he darts hither and thither, occasionally giving vent to his feelings in a melancholy whistle or his harsh cry of chee-wink. We get a glimpse of crimson, white and black among the green, and we welcome back to his summer home the rose-breasted grosbeak, the gayest of our guests, except perhaps another friend we see presently flitting by, the Baltimore oriole. And so we might continue the list with numerous warblers, vireos, chats, robins, jays and woodpeckers, but remembering our object we hasten onward regretting that we cannot linger.
The inhabitants of this section are mostly backwoodsmen, gaining their living by chopping wood, and trapping and hunting on the lake. One man had trapped over 600 muskrats in one season. The houses are either dugouts in the bluffs or board shanties in the woods, the usual style being a low, narrow, long building, the walls made by driving two parallel rows of stakes and filling in between with small willows and earth, making a wall about 6 ft. high and 1 ft. thick, with a roof of undressed wide stock lumber. Approaching one house we saw sitting on an immense stump near the house, a young boy, bare-headed, bare-footed, ragged and dirty, and evidently much entertained by the antics of a bony-looking cur. As we came up he stopped suddenly and with wide eyes looked at us in bewilderment, thinking no doubt that "he was going to be took." We approached the door of the house and looking in saw no less than three very untidy women, each one with a small child in her arms. Making inquiry for the man of the house, we were informed in a somewhat curt manner that "he was not at home." Concluding that our chance to get a boat here was rather slim, we "mosied on." At some distance from the house we came to a couple of wildcats, which had been killed, their skins removed and their carcasses left hanging in a tree by the wayside. Here was a capital chance for a couple of skeletons and we regretted very much the lack of time for their proper preservation.
In a short time we came to the lake, which covers an area of some five or six square miles, and is thickly set with trees and patches of rushes and slough grass. We searched for some time in the hopes of discovering a boat, but in this we were unsuccessful, and so decided to try it without. As we made our way along the bank, which was covered from the water's edge to some rods back by a dense growth of rushes and grass, beyond which is a skirting of willows, we saw in a small open space on the bank a large flock of pectoral sandpipers (Tringa maculata) and yellowlegs (Totanus flavipes). Of these we captured three, and proceeded on our journey. As we looked up the lake we could see that the water was literally covered with American coots (Fulica americana) with here and there a blue-winged teal or mallard, so we walked along, keeping our eye out for a stray duck near the bank. Directly I wounded one; off came my clothes and into the water I went. After some skirmishing I succeeded in bringing it to land, to find that I possessed a fine female shoveller (Clypeata spatula), something rare here, so I felt amply repaid for my trouble.
Hastily resuming my clothes we went further up, where we found scattered thickly through the water muskrat houses. These are hemispherical, placed in the shallow water, rising out of it from 2 to 5 ft., and being from 3 to 6 ft. in diameter. They are composed of bitten-off rushes and grass closely and firmly laid together, forming a hollow hemisphere, with an opening on opposite sides at the bottom. On top of a number of these houses coots were sitting. And we were much engrossed in studying their actions, as they would sit for a few minutes perfectly still and then suddenly slide off into the water, diving as they did so, remaining under for a minute or more, with nothing visible except the tips of their tails. Then they would as suddenly rise, and with a splutter and splash be off again. Very graceful are they as they glide smoothly along, turning their heads from side to side, their white bills flashing in the sunlight in strong contrast to their glossy blue coat. They arrive here the last of March and nest in April. Though I have often found their nests, I have as yet been unable to secure the eggs. Mr. Goss, in his "Birds of Kansas," describes them as being of an oval form, in color cream white or pale olive drab, thickly and evenly spotted with dark brown; size 1.92x1.32. The nests are built in the tall weeds and rushes which grow in shallow, muddy places in ponds and sloughs on top of the broken-down old growth that forms a sort of platform just above the water. It is a deep, hollow nest, composed of bitten-off stems of weeds and rushes. As we were already supplied with specimens, we did not take any of these.
Walking on for a mile or so without sighting anything else, we concluded to cross over and come down on the opposite side; and as the water appeared quite shallow we thought we could wade it without removing our clothes. Once in the water we found we had mistaken a soft and yielding bottom for a firm one. But as we were "in for it," we made the best of it and continued to wade. With an occasional rise on the top of a muskrat house we finally reached the shore in safety. Just as we did so I saw close at hand a flock of mallards and let drive at them as they took wing, bringing down a female, but falling in the thickest rushes she was not to be found when sought for. As we came down the lake we saw skimming over it, with bills pointing straight downward, their white coats and black bills flashing, several specimens of the least tern (Sterna antillarum). As we wished very much to secure one of these we waded out into the water, and concealing ourselves in the rushes, waited for them to come within range, but though we waited long and patiently they did not come, and we had to content ourselves with watching their movements at a respectable distance.
Wading on through the rushes we started several American bitterns (Botaurus lentiginosus), and although we emptied numerous cartridges in the attempt, it was to no avail, and they went scot free.
As it was now after noon, with the sun boiling hot, we decided to seek a cool retreat and eat our "snack," the while discussing our morning's work and the ups and downs of a naturalist's life. After some time spent this way we proceeded on our way homeward. Having again to cross the lake, this time we waded about a mile in water knee deep. Buoyed up by the hope of another duck we cheerfully but slowly worked away, Mr. Pierson succeeding by numerous stratagems in capturing a blue-winged teal. We reached home about 9 P.M., tired, hungry and sleepy, having for our trouble two ducks, several snipe, sandpipers and yellowlegs. Thus ended one pleasant and long-to-be-remembered little trip.
G. A. C.