Birds of Nebraska: Newspaper Accounts, 1854-1923

April 16, 1905. Omaha Sunday World-Herald 40(198): 15. Includes the stories on flora and wood duck with a sketch.

Sweet As a Baby's Breath Are the Spring Flowers

In the Woods on the River Road—The Gamest Bird That Ever Spread Wing Is Our Common Jacksnipe.

By Sandy Griswold.

The old snipe grounds up this side of Calhoun, between Horseshoe lake and the old Ponca road, are no more. For years and years over, this marshy low land has been the favorite resort of Omaha jacksnipe shooters, but it would be useless to make the trip up there now, for the whole vast area is as dry as a bone. Huge drains and ditches criss-cross the old grounds in all directions, and while there are a few straggling pools yet remaining, they too will soon disappear, as the system of draining up there is perfect and another year will see the entire expanse under cultivation.

I made the trip up there last Sunday in company with the barrister and was not only surprised, but exceedingly vexed to find my favorite grounds absolutely ruined. The progress and thrift of the agriculturalist is something that the jacksnipe even cannot interfere with it. As Bill and I strode across the dried up marsh, our conversation turned to other days, the days agone, and while it filled our hearts with sadness, it, in a way, counter-balanced all regret and disappointment.

Few birds, as I so aptly said in last Sunday's World-Herald, in the known world start so fierce a fire in the sportsman's heart as this little russet-colored rover of marsh and sky, whether springing with his strident cry from the oozy meadow in the dawn of spring, or heard high in the evening sky in the painted autumn time, when he comes down from the chilling north. It makes no difference by which of his many names you call him, jacksnipe, Englishsnipe, Wilson snipe or common longbill, there is always an attraction and a charm about him that no true sportsman can resist. Much of this is in the defiant manner and seeming consciousness of superiority which lend so much charm to those lordly game birds, the Canada goose and sandhill crane. No gamer bird ever spread wing than our common little jacksnipe, and no greater marceau ever graced the table of gastronome or epicure. He not only equals the vaunted woodcock and universally admired quail, but in the delicacy of his flavor, in his inimitable succulency and delightful substantial qualities, he surpasses one and both of them, in fact, has no equal up or down the whole gamut of wild game, either domestic of foreign.

And he is a foxy rascal, plenty keen enough to keep the smartest hunter at his wit's ends to accomplish his downfall, and then again he is not so wild and wary as to make his pursuit disheartening. But snipe hunting generally is attended by the most laborious exertion on the sportsman's part, yet in his enthusiasm this never becomes noticeable or worrisome until it is all over and then the recollection of the frantic chase is so sweet and soothing, its intenseness is much assuaged. When the chicken and the quail once leave you a-wing and then alight and hide themselves it is with the hope that you cannot find them, and without a good dog. I must confess, their hope is oftenest fulfilled. But not so with the saucy little jack. He often jumps up, squeaks once or twice at you, zigzags away a few dozen yards, seemingly to distract your aim, then when once out of harm's way, pops down onto some soft spot and defiantly awaits your coming. When he once goes down he says to himself:

"Now this big, two-legged lobster who is after me is coming close enough to make me fly again and I'll give him one more chance to shoot me, and then, if he misses me again, I'll just fly over on the other side of the marsh and give him a run for his money."

Then up he goes, just flying close enough to draw your fire, always trusting to get away by superior speed and twisting flight.

Once the spring days have begun, when all the ducks but the bluewings and spoonbills are gone, the jack fills a void in the sportsman's heart. Don't you recall the first day you were out this spring, a little over a month ago, when there was a break in the lowering skies, a breath of sultriness in the air and you were sure that Jack Frost had let go his grip on the boggy pasture land? And then, when once you got afield. Everything changed. Loud howled the winds of March, and bleakly scowled the leaden sky, and while you had your misgivings, you plunged on through the snow and mud, and leaped the roilly sluiceway as nimbly as you would have done on a May morning. Not yet had a frog broken the silence left in winter's wake; no liquid note from fretful blackbird among the red-tendriled willows along the creek's shore; no sound from adventurous robins, only the occasional clamor from a passing flock of black geese, and you realized at last that you were a week or so premature. But the spirit was upon you and on you labored, now trudging through the lingering drift of belated snow, now twisting your rubbered foot from out the all-devouring mire, now dragging you form through the clinging reeds, trying to look happy and feel jubilant. Many an acre of dreary dead flags and half frozen muck you leave behind you, and through many an acre of chilly ooze you splash your way, without seeing a sight of life, save the long line of dots off in the northern sky where a flock of mallards are coursing to the frozen fields, or hear a sound, excepting the dismal caw of a lone crow flying low over the distant field of bedraggled cornstalks.

But on you go, despite your pinched face and benumbed hands, despite your sinking spirits and jading limbs, until suddenly, so suddenly that you cannot realize its import, "Skeape!" is the sharp cry that breaks upon your hearing, and not two dozen yards before you, from a little spring water splotch in the marsh, where the grass is peeping green, there mounts a bit of brown and white, in a shape you know so well, so unexpectedly that the shot from your first barrel hustles by the spot where he just zigzagged east, and from your second, amongst the ghastly rice staffs over which he tilts. But your Dutch is up now. You have seen a bird and must get him. Hurriedly you tear through the rice clump, too hurriedly, in fact, for you emerge on the other side just in time to hear that thrilling note of defiance and see the wisp of brown flush fully 100 yards away. Off he goes, up into the air, then way down to the lower end of the marsh, then circling, comes back again. You crouch low amidst the decaying vegetation in the hopes of getting a shot when he passes over you, but when you think this is a cinch, he veers with a sharp skeape, bends round, swoops lower and then drops among the niggerheads a third of a mile away. It takes you a quarter of an hour to get near enough to flush him again, but this time you do not shoot, you do not want to scare him out of the country, and you simply halt and watch him as he spins down wind, then changing his mind as quickly again, up he goes, as if bound to penetrate the depths of the very clouds above. But he does not, he simply gets out of gun shot, then makes a wide circling sweep, comes back, and all at once, with a sudden whirl, falls into a spiral line, and with his long bill pointed toward the earth, down he comes, pitching around backward, alights again upon the exact spot amidst the peeping grass from which you first flushed him.

You had regained consciousness by this time, and you squatted low and waited until you thought the jack had had time to forget your intention, when you made the sneak you had been contemplating. For the first 100 yards you kept a gray clump of wild rose bushes between you and the bird, then you almost floated across the bisecting ditch, under the cover of the reeds on the other shore, down which you worked until you were within sixty yards of the spot where your quarry rested. Then you boldly arose erect and advanced on a half run, but were none too quick at that, for it was only in response to a stray pellet from your second barrel that the jack cupped his wings, floated on a few yards hopelessly, then gyrated down into the mucky soil, Napoleon never swelled to any larger proportions after any of his tremendous victories than you did when you saw that bit of rosewood color plunk into the mud, and that evening when you strolled into Billy Townsend's and showed the first jack of the season, you were the hero of the hour and felt as proud as if you had just been notified that your grandmother was dead and had left you, well, say $100,000.

This spring has been an exceptionally early one, and yet the jacks were late in coming in, and have only done so, in force, during the past week. Usually with the first symptoms of mild or breaking weather early in March, the birds begin to arrive, but only stragglingly—in singles, pairs or small wisps, and they keep it up through all the varying meteorological conditions until bona fide spring finally comes down with a swoop, like it did at the tail end of last week, and just when the season ought to begin it ends. In a single night, after a simpering shower, and when the south winds are roving warm and mellow over the land, the main issue of the birds appear as if by some turn of the great prestidigitator's wand, and lucky, indeed, is the sportsman who happens to go afield the next morning. On some little oozy plat of territory bordering any of the marshland country he is apt to find the birds by the hundreds, and the jumping of the first bird, with his thrilling "skeape," is the signal for the rising of scores of others, and away they radiate, up into the sunlit air, and off over the mucky mire in every direction, some tilting back dudishly into the ferzy flags and reeds, while others mount higher into space, until they become mere specks in the sky, then disappear altogether.

Under no circumstances will these birds remain here long. They are already in fine condition. They have made frequent halts for refreshment and rest during their journey up from the limitless plateaus of Texas and Mexico, and are plump of body and strong of pinion. The gravid females are restless and wary to be off to their remote crypts of nidification in the farther north, and the cocks, resplendent in their coat of rich rose-wood, are arrogant, but gallant, and only too eager to pilot the way. The sun by noon is as fiery as in July, the slimp marsh, broad expanse of noxious pulp, while fairly alive with crawling worms and ambitious insects, has lost its real charms for the royal gallinago, and has become a source of execration to the floundering hunter. As a consequence the shooting season is an extremely brief one.

The Barrister and I went over the whole of the Calhoun grounds Sunday just to assure ourselves that it was no dream, that our happy days of jacksnipe shooting there were over. Long late in the afternoon, on the lower road, near Kelley's lake, we came across a likely little piece of wet, tussocky pasture land, and got out, hitched the horse and tramped it over. And well were we repaid, too for we jumped four jacks and got every one of them. I took one side of the pasture and Bill the other. About midway down the birds jumped before me, and I killed one with my first barrel, and hurt another with my second. The wounded bird only flew a couple of hundred yards behind us, settling down in a little patch of dead cane, while the other two continued on down the fence and alighted in a dry field. We turned round and went after the wounded bird, agreeing that a bird in the hand was worth a whole flock in the bush. But he got away from us again, although we both emptied our Parkers at him. Again he returned to the pasture, and we followed, and again he eluded us, flushing this time at long range, and flying down a little gurgling rill that bisected a big hay field. But we did not succumb. We followed Mr. Jack and finally bagged him, not until, however, we had both shot at him again. But nine shots for one jack, that wasn't so bad, was it? The other birds that had gone down the fence were waiting for us, but jumped at the wrong time for me. I was caught in the wire fence when I heard their thrilling "skeapes," then Bill's gun cracked twice, and a beautiful cross double was the result.

Those were the only birds we saw, and there being no grounds available, we returned to the rig and drove home.

The river road, north of Florence, these April days, is redolent with charms. From the ancient Mormon town to the wilds roundabout Horseshoe lake the old Indian trail is but a tortuous chain of entrancing pictures, with the flashing sinuosities of the river on the one side and the wooded bluffs on the other. And what joy there is in these woods on days like these, when the earliest of all our spring flowers are just opening their eyes to the outer world—the Dutchman's breeches, the squirrel cup, the windflower, marsh marigold, bluets, violets and adder's tongue. Just now these gray aisles are full of the perfume of the three first named botanically, Dicentra cucullaria, Hepatica triloba and Ranunculus, the sweet anemone of the woods. Almost everywhere along these bluffs the pure black loam, with its vanishing carpet of oak leaves and grasses, furzy tendrils and peeping fronds of fern, is starred with the pale pinkish blossoms of the Dutchman's breeches, while in cozy little nooks between logs and in the shade of rock or stump, coyly peeps the azure or the gold of the ever modest violet. The Dutchman's breeches is one of our perennial herbs, with peculiar double-spurred flowers, which look all the world like a tiny pair of breeches. The stems, with their numerous arms of dangling flowers, stick straight up from the midst of a triangle of lacey, fan-shape leaves, which spring from out the wooded mat nearer the earth, and bear a close relationship to the lesser ferns. The fragrance of the Dicentra cucullaria is faint, but delightful. The Hepatica triloba, the squirrel cup, is another of our most familiar perennials, and among the first to blow. It has cup-shaped flowers, and to whom they are known as familiar as their cousins, the spring beauties. The sweet anemone—Ranunculus—is the poetic wind flower, and belong to the crow-foot family. It is very common in Nebraska woodlands and is one of the dearest of all our earlier blossoms. it is tender and fragile, and in its little crypts in the woodsy dells and along the squirrel paths, catches the motion of every breath of wind and from which trait it gets its name, anemone, or wind flower. The fronds of the anemone are early to burst and while each little stem bears but a single flower, it is prolific in roots, and all about peep fragile sentinels with their lily-like cups, all radiating from one parent stalk. There is also a lesser anemone indigenous here, but not so general as the genus first described. It has several flowers to the stem, and is called the anemoneila. Among the other blossoms the winds of March and tears and sunshine of April bring to the river road woods are the blood root, which, while short lived, is sweet and beautiful. Its tender blossoms emerging from a fold of leaves, closing in the moist hours of eventide and morning, and opening fully only in the fullest glare of day. One the borders of the woods are to be found the bluets and white trilliums, where the sun has full sway for hours along the middle of the day, but where the barrier of the trees keeps off rude winds or boisterous storms. Farther down, along the greening pasture streams and sluices blows the yellow adder's tongue in all its wild gracefulness and beauty; also the marsh marigold in broad plats, yet less delicate and finished, save in dazzling hue, than its woodland relations, and still further out, where the grazing land begins, the foxgloves—digitalis purpurea—rear their lovely heads.

  • "Pan through the pastures oftimes run
  • To pluck the speckled flowers from their stem."

And these are the foxgloves, which while highly charming and ornamental to our landscape are invaluable from a medicinal standpoint, the leaves making a most powerful potion, both sedative and diuretic. And there are other beauties, too, besides these so unpretentiously mentioned, illuminating the darks of the river roads woods, the little deer flower, with its tiny mauve face, peeping from amidst a mass of disentangling vegetation, specked as the red-backed sandpiper, the sharp-lobed fox's ear, the moose flower, and scores of others, like tiny nuggets along an auriferous trail.

Sketch of wood ducks on the Elkhorn shore.
[Full Size]

Two months later this picture will be a common one up along the Elkhorn, where the woods run close down to the shore. Not so common as it was years ago, but common enough to at least recall those pleasant days of old. It is a pair of wood ducks, with their little family. While the old gentleman, with his proud top-knot and iridescent coat, squats watchfully on the old fallen cottonwood, the mother with her little ones dabble in the shallows below. She is teaching the children how to find their feed in the low waters, and giving them lessons in the artfulness of woodduck life.

The woodduck is reputed to be the most beautiful of all North American water fowl, and yet I rank it way below the male mallard, canvasback or redhead, despite its high coloring. It is not a migrant to the far north, but has been found up there as far as latitude 54, but it confines itself pretty well to the United States.

It is a bird of the streams, and lakes and tangly sloughs, and always nests in the trees. Often it takes possession of a woodpecker or flicker's hole, or may prefer a cozy hollow in a big limb, or a lightning riven fissure in the trunk, where it can lodge a few stick, grasses, feathers, and the like. It is entirely at home in the woods, and flies with great speed through the most intricate depths. When the young are hatched, if the nest overhangs the water, the little ones crawl to the opening and literally fling themselves into the air and the water below. If the nest is any distance back in the woods, the mother bird carries the little ones in her bill or on her back down to the waters' shore. When first hatched the claws of the young are very sharp and they can climb like a sapsucker, and experience little difficulty in reaching the mouth of the hole, when they happen to be born in a woodpecker or highholders' burrow. The bird has become very scarce and the killing of one nowadays is considered a mere accident, and only happens when a stray bird darts aimlessly over your decoys. They are shot the year round and are certain of extermination. They are still quite plentiful up about Lake Washington, in Minnesota, and I never fail to encounter them there on my spring fishing trips. They are not plentiful enough, however, anywhere, to justify their exclusive pursuit.