Birds of Nebraska: Newspaper Accounts, 1854-1923

Sandy Griswold. July 23, 1899. [Summer Upland Plover Hunt Southwest of Omaha Along the Papio Bottoms.] Omaha Sunday World-Herald 34(296): 18. A portion of the Forest, Field and Stream column.

Forest, Field and Stream.

While lolling back in one of the big rockers up in front of the Batchelor's headquarters late Saturday night a week ago, I caught, for the first time this season, the first tinkling cry of the upland plover, floating down from high in the midnight sky like a ripple of liquid music.

Next to the jacksnipe in the sportsman's affections the upland plover ranks above all the smaller feathered game. He comes at a time in the year when all his congeners, save the almost ever present mourning dove, are reveling in the more salubrious climes of the farther north, and furnishes a sport that few lovers of the hammerless cares to lose. And now that the alarum has been sounded in the nocturnal sky, the picturesque habiliments of the field will be hauled forth, and ardent forays made to the big pasture, hay and plowed lands that stretch away to the west of the city. The arrival of this little mottled beauty is always the signal for a renewal of activity among the gunners. From the dawning of July they are on the lookout. They know he will be here on time, and regularly in the evenings the strained hearing is turned heavenward for that plaintive cry that apprises them that the time has come to go afield. And when he does catch its first note what a thrill it sends coursing through him, for there is nothing so sweet to the hunter's ears as the whistle of the upland plover in the evenings of mid-July.

Not in the autumn quail's melancholy call, the emerald headed mallard's startled quack, the far-reaching ah-honk of the wild goose, or the squeak of the flushed jacksnipe, is there such a mesmeric power as in the tinkling, rippling notes of the upland plover. Truly it is a mystic and indescribable cry, and it is marvelous how a sound so light can travel so far, ineffable sweetness, traversing space with the distinctness of a sound of a hundredfold more volume. From actual knowledge I know it can be for the distance of a mile or more. It is a melting, trickling lilt of melody, a subtle music difficult to imitate but always of sufficient force to halt a sportsman when he hears it for the first time falling through the air. And then, when he crawls through the barb wire fence and plants his foot in the broad pasture land all surroundings lose their charm for him as he detects that tiny film of gray trailing over the summer sky and catches those pearls of sound that none but its little throat can drop. "Tur-wheetle; tur-wheetle! tur-wheetle!" That is the dulcet note, as near as I am enabled to produce it orthographically, that vibrates the sultry summer air when the flight is on till the tinge of carmine in the western sky deepens into the thickening veil of midnight. They are strictly nocturnal in their migrating habits, and do all their traveling and exercising after the riant but blistering Phoebus has immersed himself behind the western horizon, and but seldom sound their sweet carillon save when upon the wing. They will, however, on the discovery of approaching danger emit a single sharp warning cry and ply their light, slender, greenish legs with remarkable swiftness as they run through the straggling ragweeds and away. When wing-broken and running from the ruthless sportsman, they will also betray their whereabouts by whistling at intervals and at such times there is a touching plaintiveness in its depth.

Thirteen years ago, when I first came to Nebraska, upland plover were so plentiful all over the measureless hay lands of the state and so easily approached and shot down that there was but little incentive to hunt them. But there has been many sad changes in our game life during this comparatively short period, and the once abundant plover are now scarce, indeed, in the very best of seasons, and so wild and wary that it requires the refinement of field craft on the part of the sportsman, unless he hunts in a wagon or on horseback, to get only within long range shot of them. In the days of their plentifulness they were but indifferently rated for their table qualifications, but now, like the terrapin of the east, in their extreme scarcity they are much sought after by our epicures and high-livers. I remember in my reportorial days in Washington when a dollar greenback would buy a cart load or terrapin, but today in any of the gay capital's swell cafes a single plate would cost three or four times this sum. A dozen years ago upland plover did not bring 50 cents a dozen in the Omaha market, but now they readily command anywhere from $1.50 to $2 for that number, and they are scarce at that.

Many rare days have I enjoyed with this precious little courser of the skies, and Monday last was not the least of them all. I had heard the birds flying over the two nights before and that settled it. I had hard work, strange as that may seem, in drumming up a comrade for the chase, but finally rounded up Billy Magner, and finally one of Baumley's best livery teams we were soon bowling along the quiet road through God's country beyond Ruser's. The day was a lovely one, despite the sun's fierce rays, for a refreshing breeze came singing up from the southwest, and great masses of billowy clouds kept the earth about half the time immersed in soothing shadow, and Billy and I would have had a glorious time had we not bagged a feather.

As we rolled along I could not help living over the enchantment of all the past years on the same errand. Year after year, when the bluegloss had spread its delicate azure across the pastures, and the pink of the wild rose blended with the yellow of the moccasin flower and the fluffy topaz of the golden rod, when the air was redolent with the multifarious odors of the summer time, the newly mown oats, the tassling corn, the sweet clover and blossoming thistle; when the mutterings of the thunder came faintly from the storm that had passed, and silvery clouds scudded along the horizon - when a softer quiet lingered over the great hay fields, and a milder radiance played along the distant bluffs - those were the days when you and I were out - don't you remember, Stocky, and you, too, Con, Scrib and Tom, to say nothing of the doctor and the lawyer. Can you forget how something like the whisper of an angel in a silver flute struck a chord within, and while we stood wondering whether it fell from the sky or came up from over the horizon's verge, we caught sight of that little scrap of gray whisking from out the bunch grass, way out of range, and starting an ascent for the floating vapors above. And then, louder, clearer, yet even softer than before, fell again and again that strange rippling sound we loved so well, until at lest we had the sky full of circling birds, and how we chased about from waving corn, to hay field, from hay field to plowed ground, and back again to the corn, until at last our canvas pockets bulged with the little creatures our murderous instincts refused to spare. Will you ever forget those days, comrades of the past? I think hardly, that is if you are made out of the same material that I am. Blessed camaraderie of halcyon days! The life and soul of sportsmanship.

Well, I lived it all over again on Monday last, and while Billy and I did not compass such a plethoric bag as marked some of our past experience, we killed nine uplands, and that was enough to make us content and happy. The aim of the sportsman today is not to outstrip the kills of ancient times. With the scarcity of game he has grown to rest content with the benefits of such an outing, to glory in the beauties of nature as they are revealed to him. He is ennobled and benefited by the inspiration he finds in the woods and fields and by the jakes and streams, and profits by the messages brought to him by the winds through the cottonwoods, the songs sung by the gurgling Platte or roaring Niobrara, intoned by the mighty voice of all outdoors.

It was 4 o'clock when we reached the big rolling pasture land on Farmer Platt's beautiful farm. We had not seen or heard a sound of plover along all the way out, but I knew if they were anywhere, they would be here, for not once in the past eight years have I been disappointed on encountering them here on my first visit. We had hardly hitched our horses and passed through the big gate when we were startled by that thrilling "tur-wheetle! tur-wheetle!" as a single bird flushed from the dusty cattle path and sailed away against the background sky, like a thread of cobwebs.

"Look out, now, Billy!" I admonished, "there is apt to be another near here, they seldom remain long alone."

We were both now keenly alive to the situation. We knew the birds were there, and we were both anxious to make the first kill of the season.

Carefully we strolled along where the folded white and blue globes of the wild morning glory twined over the deep yellow of the cinquefoil, and where the iron weeds' tall lavender stems, laden with dust, stood like slim sentinels in the dancing air.

Suddenly, just as we were about giving up hope of flushing another bird, we were electrified by a very chorus of shrill tur-wheetles off to our left, on Billy's side, from out the shade of a veritable copse of tall ragweeds. Magner was the first to shoot, in fact, I had no opportunity, and I was a little bit nettled to see him neatly cut down the first bird. I hadn't long to purse any envy, however, for a bird had circled in the air, and turning was coming back quartering on my side. He was on the down wind, and I shot behind him with my first barrel, but caught him hard enough with the second to push him up several yards higher in the air, where he soon began to sag, and the next minute I was overjoyed to see him start slantingly for the dusty sward with greater momentum than ever, bobbing badly from side to side, until, with a faint thud, his blood-stained and mottled body struck with a bound the closely cropped grass along the cattle path. It proved to be a fine young cock in a brilliant new coat, and I was extremely proud of my first kill.

It was too hot for the birds to remain long in the air, and by the time I had rejoined Billy there wasn't a feather to be seen or a sound, save the never ceasing drone of the cicadae, to be heard.

"What became of the rest of them?" I inquired.

"Oh, I watched them," replied Billy, "until they disappeared way off there over that plowed field yonder. Let's work down to the end of this, and then go over there."

This we did without jumping another bird, and then went off and explored the newly upturned field over which Magner had last seen the disappearing bits of gray, but without success. We were now thirsty and panting with the heat like a couple of hard-worked dogs, but our ardor had not yet cooled, and we slowly returned to the Platt pasture. We had almost reached the big lower gate when abruptly that well-known triplet of liquid music, so soft and sweet that it seemed it must have fallen from incalculable heights in the air, struck our hearing, and at the same instant we saw a wisp of gray and white flitting over some low sunflowers down the fence not a hundred yards away. In his eagerness Billy up and blazed away, but of course produced no effect at such a distance other than to frighten three other birds out of the rag-weeds close by.

With a chorus of frantic cries they took wing and we both got down a bird, mine a hard, swift overhead shot, and Bill's a straight-away. The third bird went up into space at a lively rate, crying out in fright as he climbed, but making no move to leave the vicinity. We watched him eagerly as he circled round and round above us, and was about to give him up and move on when suddenly he gave a funny sidewise pitch in space and came tumbling toward the earth at a rapid rate, righting himself as he got nearer, and finally alighting dudishly not one hundred steps from where we stood. Billy got it between him and the line of scanty sunflowers and made a sneak that would have done credit to an Apache Indian, killing the plover as he stood, high and alert on his gray pillared feet, in the very tracks where he had alighted.

We were still animadverting in a humorous way on this extraordinary bit of luck when an old cock, silent as a thistle-down, came floating over the waving corn and undertook to pass us, skimming low down over the pasture. We both saw the bird at the same time, and each determining not to be outdone, we jerked up our pieces and pulled the trigger. I had the exquisite pleasure of seeing Magner's load as it tore through the ragweeds behind the bird, and exceeding exasperation at my own, which went off through space three feet above the horrified bird. We had both been too previous, and, consequently, for we knew we had come within an ace of scaring the plover to death from the way he was beating tanbark up the aerial way. He had heard the report of our good King's Smokeless and felt the wind of the whizzing shot, but that was all. His gray coat had not had a thread ruffled, and we stood there watching him, as, on the wings of his silvery song, he disappeared off toward the floating masses of vapor in the coloring west.

Then we continued our hunt, and by industrious application run our string up to nine head, when our sport came to as sudden an end as it had begun. It was too great to last. We either killed or drove out every bird in the neighborhood, and we concluded at last to go home. As we stood there by the roadside, running over the events of the afternoon, we saw once or twice a stretch of gray scudding across the azure of the sky, leagues away, it seemed, and wind out of sight, while now and then, coming from where no one could tell, was that sweet tinkling melody, that mystic, far-searching, indescribable whistle, and then all was still.

And then came, by the light of the moon, the drive home along the lonely country road.