Birds of Nebraska: Newspaper Accounts, 1854-1923

July 10, 1898. [Upland Plover Are In and the Sportsman Afield.] Omaha Sunday World-Herald 33(283): 24. Forest, Field and Stream.

Upland Plover Are In and the Sportsman Afield (1898)

The Platte, Loup, Elkhorn and Rawhide now murmur drowsily between their yellowish-green shores, brooks are warm and sluggish and the lakes lay like shimmering mirrors beneath the dog day sun, still this is again the time, second only to the first warming days of May, when the blood leaps tinglingly through the angler's veins. The spawning season is now well over, and once more the rapacious bass is on the alert for miller, frog crab or grasshopper, and once again the devotees of the rod are preparing to sally forth with reel and creel. The yellowhammer never cackles so merrily, the meadow lark never sounds his tinkling call so sweetly, the trees and the grass never look so green, nor the water so bright, as they do these days, when the angler manages to put the cares of life to his back and goes fishin'. To him is welcome everything that comes from liquid depths, let it be black bass, spotted pickerel or wall-eyed pike—one and all are alike. Just so they rise often enough and keep his reel a-clicking.

The hay has been cut, and the sturdy yeoman is now busy in the golden fields of wheat and rye, and the airy goldenrod nods its sunny plume to the gentle winds that forever play over our broad prairies. But more than all these beauties combined, to the ardent sportsman, is the fact that the upland plover are in, and almost everywhere are engaged in gorging their little mottled bodies with insect, kernel and seed. Year after year it has been my pleasure to apprise the devotees of the hammerless of the arrival of the birds, whether it be the pintails midst early March's icy blasts, the plover is July, rail in September, or mallard, widgeon, redhead and canvasback in the later fall, and I am free to confess the first "tur-wheetle! tur-wheetle!" floating down from high in the evening sky like a liquid ripple from Elysium is a sound whose charm is encountered but one in the whole year.

The upland plover is a royal little fellow, indeed, in his summer coat, mixed blacks and whites and grays. He is especially dear to the sportsman's heart because he is the one legitimate game bird that affords a break in the weary monotony of the close season between the departure of the ducks and jacksnipe in April to the time when the chicken and grouse become lawful prey in hazy September. Next to the Wilson snipe no small bird has such enticement for the gunner as the upland plover. It seems but yesterdays its strange call first fell upon my mystified hearing, one early July evening twelve years ago, while casting for bass with the lawyer along the tangly banks of the Rawhide, and made me stop and scan the horizon long before discovering far on high this little wisp of life speeding across the dome of blue as if a messenger of love.

In those days the upland plover were so plentiful in Nebraska that there was no pleasure in hunting them, but in the Atlantic states, as long back as forty or fifty years ago, it was the wildest of all wild things. Few birds were more ardently sought and for a few were so many miles traveled by indefatigable sportsman. In time it will be the same here. Year by year they are on the decrease and becoming more and more wary, and in another decade he will be as rare as he now is in older haunts farther east. His stay even now is short-lived. He generally arrives during the first week of July and tarries here, waxing fat and oily, until probably the second week in August, when he once more spreads his long, pointed pinions on the cooling night breeze and continues his way on to the clime that knows no frost. So the gunner who hopes to profit by his abbreviated visit must be on the go early and late. In the immediate vicinity of Omaha the bird furnishes excellent sport and hundreds of them are killed every summer on the broad meadow lands just west of the city. The gun club men are always overjoyed at the thought of once more turning from pigeons of asphaltum and clay to try their luck and skill on real flesh and feathers, the true sport after all, and for the coming fortnight the most of them will be kept delightfully busy.

Who can conjure up anything to compare with a day with dog and gun? What is half so exhilarating, so grand, so healthful and beneficial? An aimless ramble through the golden stubble and over the yellowing hillside, with its burning dots of fire, its golds and crimsons and blues for upland plover even in these sweltering dog days; a tramp across the breezy meadow, or a morning or an evening in the grassy valleys with the multifarious odors of blooming land and lazy, lapping stream; the music of the sandpiper's throat and wing; the flutter and drone of the cicadae, or the thrilling song of thrush or catbird filling the air with wondrous music. These are the concomitants of a day with the plover.

Where are the pleasures of the trap, with their petty jealousies and bickering over competitive scores, when these intenser joys are spread before you with such beneficent hand? The sportsman echoes, Where? A lover of nature in all her varied forms is the true sportsman. His refined traits are inbred, and successful or unsuccessful in filling bag or creel, he would not exchange one day's sweet commune with all outdoors, such as he enjoys on days like these, for weeks, aye months, at the scratch behind the traps. There is no change in the sportsman. Once a lover of the woods and waters, of the forest, field and stream, always a lover, and the whole long year, with its whirl of life, contains no joy so great to him as the hour when he dons the picturesque habiliments of the field, whistles up the old dog, and grags gun or rod and forges forth to try his skill on fin, fur or feather.

But to revert to the plover. Correctly speaking the bird is not a plover. He is a sandpiper—the Bartramian—but that matters not. We call him a plover, and whether plover or not, that is good enough for us. As I remarked before they arrive in this region long the first or second week in July and remain but a month or six weeks. They breed from this latitude to the Saskatchewan and spend the autumn and winter months well across the borders of old Mexico. When they drop in here at this season of the year they mostly frequent the wide upland downs and pastures, where the turf has been cropped short by stock and where they experience but little trouble in pursuit of seed and insect. Fallow fields, newly plowed grounds and cut hay lands are also favorite feeding grounds, but it is useless to look for them near marsh of wet lowlands. There is nothing maritime in the Bartramian's habits, and that is exactly where they differ from a true plover, and the killdeer a congener. The sandpiper loves the open fields and pastures where there is an abundance of the insect food on which it fattens; small coleopterous flies, beetles, moths, grasshoppers and in the freshly upturned fields, where grubs, angle worms and snails are to be found.

The upland plover is naturally auspicious and shy, although it haunts scenes of domestication, and follows the grazing cattle just like a trained setter follows at the heels of his master. They are exceedingly difficult to stalk, and generally flush at long range, which, however, only renders the sport of pursuing them all the more deceptive and alluring. They flock scatteringly. If I may use the expression, and when flushed go off sluggishly, one or two at a time, and in all manner of directions, wheeling unexpectedly, vaulting and flying erratically over and about the feeding grounds from which they were frightened, or arching on over a few hundred yards and lighting again softly as a feather on the ocean. It is during these aerial convolutions of theirs that they are easiest brought to bag—unless you are shooting from a wagon, which is simply slaughter—as they are as likely to come right back over you, always emitting that plaintive whistle, as they are to dart by like a streak of light far out of gun shot. This is a habit I have noticed in all upland scolopacidae, never flying in large bodies like the red breasted snipe, prairie pigeons, golden plover, dandelion sandpiper or other maritime birds of like appearance and structure.

There is no note so sweet and mellow as that of the upland plover and they sound it forth when running or flying. It is very deceptive and apt to fool the sportsman, as it has a remarkable quality of appearing close at hand when in reality it is a long way off. It sounds the same anywhere within the radius of 1,000 yards ot so, and only when you see the moving mottle of gray and white can you come anywhere near gauging his distance. His note is what informs the eager gunner that he is on the right trail as he crawls into some big pasture or approaches some sunny hillside, also that he must keep his eyes open, for on sounding this whistle at the approach of the behemoth in canvas and corduroy, the wary bird invariably takes wing. In hunting upland plover, wounded or wing-tipped birds should be retrieved before looking for further shooting. They run like wild turkeys and can hide in the open prairie or in a plowed field where it would seem impossible for a grasshopper to secret himself. Their peculiar plumage assimilates closely with the different tinged grasses and plants, or the dull soil of the parched plowed field, and they can perform feats of legerdemain in this line that are calculated to evoke a burst of impetuous oratory from the discomfited hunter.

But if you want to know what the upland plover's summer call sounds like, draw your couch close up to the open window when you retire tonight and lie there and listen. When you hear something that sounds like the whisper of an angel in a silver flute, a pearly triplet of tone, and then another, make up your mind that there is an upland plover gyrating somewhere high above your abode in the night sky.

Sandy Griswold.