Birds of Nebraska: Newspaper Accounts, 1854-1923

August 6, 1905. Omaha Sunday World-Herald 40(310): 10. Portion of column.

A Day With the Uplands Makes the Blood Tingle

Out on Old Filmore's Fair Pastures, Where the Solidago Waves It's Golden Plumes.

By Sandy Griswold.

Very beautiful and very delightful, indeed, are these summer days in the country, and for the sportsman, just now, the upland plover are adding an additional charm to the rural regions. Saturday and Sunday last, together with those two congenial souls, Ray C. Welch and W.A. Pixley, was spent in the vicinity of Geneva. Mr. Welch and the writer, the guests of Charlie Thorpe and his estimable wife, and Mr. Pixley with the Carsons, the cream of the whole countryside.

Of course, everybody knows Charlie Thorpe, but if they do not, they ought to, for if there ever was a bon ami, Charlie is the man. He is a retired race rider and in his day was the premier of every big track in the country, while the successful coups he scored on the classic courses of both England and France earned him great renown with the royalty of those countries. Charlie, after a most prosperous season around Paris, retired from the saddle just a year ago, and to its credit, be it said, with a competency. While he was yet capable of many a thrilling finish and while the vocation was yet abundantly lucrative, his salary for the year being $30,000, he had grown surfeited with the wild hurrah, excitement and dangers of the track, nauseated with the whirl of the great metropolis, and resolved to relinquish it all, hie himself to beloved America, back to the flowing fields of Nebraska, and to his own palatial home on the outskirts of the flourishing little city of Geneva.

The Thorpe mansion, a modern structure of some fourteen or fifteen rooms, with everything as finished and up-to-date as is to be met with in any of Omaha's most fashionable residences, is situated in the center of a lost luxuriant grove of soft maples, occupying an entire city square, and with its walks and driveways, its parterres and ornamental statuary, its play ground and other charming accessories equals, if not surpasses, any suburban home to be found in Nebraska. In keeping with all this external beauty, the house furnishings, from vestibule to billiard room and gymnasium, everything has been selected with the choicest and most refined taste, and it is no wonder that Charlie has grown tired of the bizarre life of a French race rider and concluded to enjoy from this on out to the end of the vital tether the glorious fruits of long years of studious labor.

Charlie is a sportsman by birth, as well as a bon vivant, and there is nothing he loves more than his horses and dogs, gun and rod, and the merry days with those he enjoys afield and astream, and with two or three big farms to draw from, these are oft and many.

Our little party, of course, were after plover, and with two such thorough-going gentlemen for companions, and guides as Monsieur Thorpe and Mr. George Carson, another of the salt, to see that we got them, you can rest assured that our visit was a grand one.

But a brief paragraph or two anent the habits and ways of this incomparable summer game bird, and then for our rollicking ramble over the green pastures of old Fillmore.

The Bartramian sandpiper, erroneously called upland plover, is one of the most susceptible birds to the influences of frosty weather of all our high class migratoria, and consequently one of the most punctual in his movements. After the cares of parental duties are over in the north the young birds do not vary from year to year more than two or three days in their departure from the regions of their hatching to the warmer climes of the south, and in this locality they have invariably put in an appearance along between July 10 and 13. It is at this season that the golden rod first begins to toss its yellow plumes to the sultry mid-summer breeze, and like a signal, this oriflamme unfailingly announces the coming of the upland plover. This summer, like the birds, the golden rod has been unwontedly backward, and just now, for the first time, its fluffy spikelets are to be seen pointing skyward all over our broad pasture and prairie lands, and every night, too, the tinkling cry of the plover floats down from high in the starry skies like ripples of liquid music.

He comes here to our broad hay and newly plowed fields, from his breeding grounds just a few miles—say a hundred or so—to the north, at a time in the year when all his congeners, save the almost ever-present turtle dove, are reveling in the more salubrious climes of the farther north, and furnishes a sport that few lovers of the hammerless care to deny themselves. And now that the sweet signal has been sounded in the nocturnal skies, the picturesque habiliments of the field will be hauled forth, and ardent forays made upon the big pasture, hay and plowed fields, which stretch away in oceanic undulations for countless miles in every direction throughout the confines of this most glorious state of ours.

The arrival of the 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 his punctuality of character, and that he will be here almost certainly on time, and regularly in the evening the strained hearing is turned heavenward for that plaintive sound that apprises them that the plover are moving and that it is time to go afield. And when the old sportsman does catch its first note what a thrill it sends through his lagging soul, for as I asserted before, there is nothing so sweet to the hunter's ears as the whistle of the upland plover in the dark hours of mid-July and early August.

The plover's call 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 hobnailed foot on the short grass of the wide pasture he is the gladdest man on earth.

"Tur-wheetle! tur-wheetle! tur-wheetle!" Those are the dulcet notes, as nearly as I can reproduce them orthographically, that vibrate the dancing air when the flight is on, from the first tinge of pearl in the east till the flood of carmine in the western skies deeps into the thickening veil of night.

The upland plover are strictly nocturnal in their migration 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 approach of danger, emit a single, sharp, warning cry and ply their light, slender, greenish legs with remarkable velocity as they run through the straggling rag weeds and seared sunflowers and away. When wing-broken and running from the ruthless gunner, they are apt to betray their whereabouts at every fresh start by whistling once or twice, and at such times there is a touching melancholy in the birds' notes.

When I first came to Nebraska upland plover were so plentiful all over the big grazing lands of the state, and so easily approached and shot down that there was but little incentive to hunt them. But there have been many sad changes in game life during the past decade, and while the uplands are never more encountered in such numbers as they were in the early days, they are by no means scarce. They are much wilder and more wary, however, and it requires the refinement of skill on part of the sportsman, unless he hunts in a wagon or on horseback, to get within only long range shot of them. This, however, but enhances the keen enjoyment of their pursuit. In the days of their plentifulness they were but indifferently noted for their table qualifications, but now, like the terrapin of the east, when they are not to be had for the asking 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 cartload of terrapin, but today in any of the gay capital's swell cafes a single plate would cost five or six times the sum. A dozen years ago upland plover would not bring 50 cents a dozen in the Omaha market, but now, if they could be purchased at all, they would readily bring from $3 to $4.

Many, many rare days have I enjoyed out here with this beautiful little courser of the skies, and Saturday last was not the least of them all, aye an oasis in the monotony of the waning days of a sportsman on the down grade. I had heard the tinkling of passing birds night after night, and on Thursday night these plaintive messages from the realms above, dropped with the most thrilling frequency, and you can imagine what that meant—a hunt.

After a pleasant run over the Burlington, we reached geneva Friday evening at 8:15, and the next morning in Henry Carson's big hunting schooner, behind a pair of big, stalwart but spirited grays, found us rolling along the quiet country road, through a region that as nearly approaches paradise as can be found out of doors. The day was a lovely one despite the sun's fierce rays, for a refreshing breeze came singing down from the northwest, and great masses of billowy clouds kept the earth about half the time immersed in soothing shadow, and we would have had a glorious time had we not heard a single turwheetle or bagged a feather.

As we rolled along I could not help living over the enchantment of all the past years on that very 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 marigold, the moccasin and the sunflower, and to the fluffy topaz of the golden rod and sensitive plant, when the air was redolent with the multivarious odors of the summer time, the newly cut wheat and oats, the tasseling corn, the heavy fragrance of the sweet clover, the blossoming thistle and speckled disc of the wild poppy; when the mutterings of thunder came from the storm that had circled us on the north, and silvery-tipped clouds thrust their glistening peaks like fagged crags, above the horizon—when a softer quiet lingered over our great pasture lands, and a milder radiance played along the distant sandhills—those were the days that I put in with the uplands, year after year, until it would seem that I should have had a surfeit, out aye! I fear I never can.

Anyway, I lived them all over again on Saturday last, and now sweeter than ever to my ears will be the names of Pix, Ray, Charlie and George. We made a fine bag, not overly large, but large enough to fill all our hearts and make us both contented and happy.

There are restrictions in the fish and game laws of many states, limiting the amount of fish and game one may take in a given time. Such laws are wise and necessary, and are growing to be more and more effective. They are intended to curb the gluttonous proclivities of the fish and game hogs. They are not required for the restraint of sportsmen. In such matters your sportsman at heart is a law unto himself. No statute limits his practice afield; he is guided and governed by the great unwritten rule of taking only what can be used; of sparing and wasting not; of regard for others than himself. The aim of the sportsman today is not to outstrip the kills of ancient times. With the increasing scarcity of game he has grown to rest satisfied with the benefits of such an outing, to glory in the beauties of nature as they are revealed to him. He is ennobled and bettered by the inspiration he finds in the woods and fields and by the lakes and streams, and profits by the tidings brought to him by the winds through the cottonwoods, the songs sung by the gurgling Platte, the roaring Niobrara, intoned by the mighty voice of all outdoors.

We were slowly crossing the Goodrich pasture, when with an abruptness that fairly made us jump out of the wagon, came that nerve-tingling plaint:

"Turwheetle! turwheetle!" and a single bird, an old cock and probably the sentinel of his flock, flushed from out the dusty cattle path leading down to the drinking trough, and arose up and up, and then sailed away against the background azure like a cobweb thread.

That was the mellifluous slogan that made my blood course cleaner and faster through my veins, the first I had heard on the hunting grounds for a year. Can you, old camaraderie of many such a moment, blame me. Can you, yourself, forget how something like the siren music of a phantom thrush struck a strange cord within, and while you stood wondering whether it fell from the sky or came from below the horizon's verge, you saw a little scrap of gray, whisking from the rosin weeds, far out of range, and aimed for the zenith. Then, louder and clearer, yet even softer than before, fell again that strange rippling tinkle, that lilt of liquid melody that filled the dancing air as the first upland took wing as you strode forward through some broad pasture. You cannot forget that, any of you, who have braved summer's blazing skies in pursuit of this bird king of the dog days, and neither can I, and I hope the long forgetfulness folds me within its arms before I am able to.

"Look out, there are more of them here," cried Carson, "and" —

"I see them—a dozen of them," interrupted Welch, as he rose in his seat and pointed off toward the sloping hillside.

And sure enough, there they were, eight or ten, scattered over a space of fifty square yards, one or two standing high and proudly on their pale yellowish slender legs, watching the approaching wagon, while one still squatted low in the shadow of a clump of rag weed, but the rest were scurrying away on quickened feet, as if bent to reach the rim of the waving corn a quarter of a mile away.

In a brief time we were within long shot of the nearest standing birds, two of which wilted in the close cropped grass to the crack of my own and Charlie's guns, then two others folded their long pointed wings and came tumbling down from their startled flight at the crack of Ray's and Pix's, while the rest went swiftly off toward the sea of green leaves to the north, sounding their silvery triplets as on they sped.

Not in the startled quack of the mallard, the autumn quail's sad call, the strident skeap of the jacksnipe, or even the resounding honk of the wild goose, is there such resistless power as in the tinkling cry of the upland plover. It is marvelous how a sound so light can be so far-reaching, or a tone so ineffably sweet traverse space like a thunderbolt with so little loss of its mysterious power. I honestly believe that the rippling alarum of this mystic fellow, as he leaves the ground and bounds into space can be heard, on a favorable day, for the distance of a mile or more. All surroundings lose their charm for me when I first see that tiny film of gray trailing over the mid-summer's sky and catch those pearls of sounds that only one little throat can drop.

"We will not follow them," observed George, as he came back to the wagon with the four dead birds, "they're gone to the corn, and it would only be a waste of time to follow them there."

So into the wagon he climbed, and resuming the ribbons, on we went, on down toward the lower end of the big pasture where the rag-weed grew more rankly in the moist soil and where the opening white and blue trumpets of the wild morning-glory were twining in and out and over the purplish blossoms of the potentilla or cinquefoil, when again we were startled by a chorus of turwheetles far in front of us, and as another bunch of birds arose, a shot from Charlie's Francotte proved that they had reckoned without their host, for the nearest bird, a handsome young hen in a brilliant new gown, was cut down with a tipped wing, as she quartered away, and when she struck the ground, she righted herself and made for the rag weed. George, however, whip in hand, overtook her before the refuge was gained, and with a sweep with the lash, broke her slender neck.

"Oh no, I can't shoot a little bit," ejaculated the hero of the downs, and then, "there, there, get that one, he's right above you" —

"Crack," Pixes' Parker had responded, but he failed to check the overhead passenger, but with his second barrel he caught him hard enough to push him up a little higher, and as he hurried off to the south he soon began to sag, and with a mournful cry, started slantingly for the earth, which he soon struck with a thud and a bound, then lay limp and gasping near a clump of purpled iron weed.

George, back with Thorpe's bird, we went after Pixley's, he himself leaping out to retrieve as we neared the spot where he had fallen. A moment's search, he picked him up, and wiping the cruel crimson smear from off his sunny breast on the sleeve of his canvas jacket, he brought him back and tossed him in the wagon with the others, and once more we were off, this time out of the pasture and bound for other fields. Out on the road, and about to turn for the south, we were once more aroused by that well known melodious triplet, so soft and sweet, that we all looked upward, for it seemed to come from incalculable heights in the air.

As we looked up toward the flecked vault of heaven, expecting to see a little moving speck among the clouds, a bit of gray and white flitting over some ragweeds scarce thirty-five yards away caught our eyes simultaneously. Quickly my gun was whirled from my shoulder toward it, but again Mr. Welch beat me, and I was both chagrined and pleased to see the bird crash down through the foul-smelling and dust-laden weeds along the roadside.

Then there was a chorus of those sweet cries, and no less than a half dozen birds, widely scattered, took to the air from the weeds just inside the pasture. I brought down one as he foolishly circled back over us, with a long hard shot, and Pix jumping out and running forward to the brow of a small hill over which he had seen a couple drop down, made a double, a dead bird with his first, and a badly crippled one with his second. The wounded plover gave us a merry chase through the straggling weeds and bunch grass, but we kept him moving and he couldn't hide, and he soon found lodgement in the telephone's man's capacious pocket. We all got out, save George, and after beating up the field for another half hour, we concluded that the birds had sought other pastures, and we went on out into the road and down to a big cornfield, where George said he had marked several birds down. We had barely gotten in and among the waving stalks when a wisp of gray took wing and as he was on Thorpe's side, I did not shoot. He did, and scored his first miss. He was too anxious and fired too quickly, and above the edge of thin smoke the bird went sailing skyward. But disappointment soon vanished, however, for we quickly had four or five birds circling in the air, and by careful and cautious work we succeeded in bringing three more to bag. Then we went on to Murphy's, White's and Perdue's big grazing lands, and kept it up all the live long day, till the pink and orange and purple of twilight began to settle into that melancholy gray that precedes the shadows of night.

And then came the drive home along the pleasant country road, back to Carson's, and the Thorpe palace among the maples.