Birds of Nebraska: Newspaper Accounts, 1854-1923

Sandy Griswold. May 17, 1908. Omaha Sunday World-Herald 43(33): 2-M.

The Year's Bird Periods; When They Come and Go

Many Hardly Arrive Before They Make Ready to Leave Again.

An Autumn Ramble Through the Bird Arcadia of the Elkhorn Woods.

About the most interesting periods of all the year to the bird lover is along during the last weeks of the present month and through June, after all our summer birds have arrived and are busy with either their mating and family cares, and in the autumn, when they are getting ready to say farewell again.

Of the two periods the coming of the birds, with the advent of the sweet vernal season, is undoubtedly the most popular, for the return of the little feathered sprites fill our hearts with rejoicing, while their departure in the fall leaves a tinge of sadness there.

If their leaving in the fall, however, is not as joyous an event as their coming in the spring is, it is equally as full of interest. In this latitude the first of the birds to leave us are those that come the latest, such as the catbird and the oriole, and thus we are granted all too brief a time to enjoy and profit by their presence. Generally these birds are preparing for their long pilgrimage to the southward as early as the closing weeks of August, and before the end of September they have either all gone or are well upon their way. The hardier species make their preparations through the months of September and October, and by the last of November they, too, save perhaps a laggard individual now and then, are also missing from our dun fields and drooping woodlands. While they are straggling away from the last of August to the last of November, it is the last hazy days of October, with their chill nights and mornings, that sees the departure of a large majority of our birds.

Of all our summer visitants, and fortunately both are quite common throughout Nebraska, and especially so roundabout Omaha, none are more interesting than the oriole and catbird. Both are divine songsters, with the latter, which belongs to the mockingbird clan, holding the palm, and both are beautiful birds, the oriole in his gaudy orange and black, and the catbird in his widow's weeds of darkish slate. The wood thrush, too, is another member of this class, and they all leave us before the gay tints of September begin to burn in their leafy quietudes. The hermit thrush, while also one of our mid-summer callers, but rare anywhere, does not leave so early, and his incomparable notes are heard ringing like silvery bells from out the deep woods thickets late in October.

The martins, the swallows, the phoebes, peewees, bobolinks, tanagers and various warblers all go before the close of October, but the robins, the chewinks, grosbeak, the redstarts, bluebirds and song sparrow remain often until late in November. Along during the early part of this month we have, too, several transient callers, pausing here in their southward journey from the more northern climes of the Dakotas, Minnesota and the Canadas—the kinglets, five or six different kinds of warblers, and the fox and white-throated sparrow; the cedar birds, pine finches and winter wrens, a specimen of the latter now being on exhibition in Charles [?]ulabaugh's rare collection at his Douglas street furrier apartments.

The habits and ways of our birds are so many and complex, and the little feathery beauties are so brimming over with intelligence, wariness and sagacity, that their study is always an enthralling one. The love of birds comes naturally and early in life, and once a student, always a student. It is a penchant not to be acquired by practice or effort, but comes as naturally as does admiration for the mighty ocean or majestic mountains. It rarely comes late in life, but is a heritage like that of conformation, the walk, carriage or color of the eyes. Once enchained in youth by the birds and there is no release from the sweet captivity. It is as lasting as life itself.

Bird ways!

Their poetic trysts and love-making, their mystic ability in house building, their economic frugality, the startling success of their long flights from pole to pole; the mystic depths of their flight, the wonders of their plumage and the marvel of their song, all combine in enlisting our investigation and curiosity, and appealing to our affection and curiosity, and appealing to our affection and sympathy as few other things in nature do.

There is also such a vast profundity of knowledge, symbolic of our own ideals, and an irresistible charm of offense and defense, that there is no such thing as a surfeit in their study. Every one with a sense for the poetic, in tune with the great chord of harmony, cannot help but love the birds. It is not necessary that you have great scientific familiarity with the little creatures, their sesquipedalian Latin titles, and peculiarities of vesture and construction, but rather, in fact, that they themselves, as you see them, and by the names you know them, are interesting to you. When on some stroll, through Hanscom park, out at the Field or Country club, or deeper in rural wilds, along the Rawhide, the Papio or Elkhorn, you run across a bird new to you, and want to so know more about him that you take notes, and when you get home consult the authorities to aid you in your identification, then you are a bird student, and that is all there is to it. It is no idle fancy, no fleeting interest, it is an innate aptitude—a measure of the poetry of life. Once infected there is no cure. The beauty and melody to eye and ear and heart, that the birds of the field, the country roads and by-ways, the forest glades and deep solitudes hold, is a source of interest and wonderment as long as the journey lasts. Away from the turmoil of the city, in the quiet of the fields and the streams and the woods, and there is nothing to weary you. Every hush and every tree holds a friend, the very air is full of the poetry and the wisdom of nature's exhaustless volume.

And now that the birds are all with us again, what about their going. Of course it is a trifle premature to speculate upon this, but it is the next item of interest in order and let us chat a bit about it. As you know, you bird students, the majority of our feathered friends gather in flocks preparatory to leaving us in the fall time—some species in vast clouds, others in modest little wisps and bunches. There are some who assemble in common company immediately after the breeding season, long before they think of their southern homes, while others do not gather until a few days before the start is to be made.

You know, when you are crouching in your ducking blind in the early fall, how the redwing, yellow-hooded and cow blackbirds mass in clouds and how their jubilate rings out as they swing across and over and around the rice and tule beds of the marsh, always in joyous and clamorous motion; and again, while down in the thin woods, along our creeks, where you are hunting diligently for a nut-fatted squirrel, you see the little gatherings of the shy little warblers and note with regret that their unwonted activity only denotes their readiness for the start away from these sacred precincts.

With us here in Nebraska, it is the present month and the one next to come, that rings loudest with the harmony of the bird orchestra. After the lapse of these brief circles there is a noticeable decline in both quality and quantity of this delicious rhythm, a most noticeable slacking up in July, increasing through August, and a general and almost complete hush in September. The song sparrow alone remains opulent in his melody, as he does from the first boisterous days of March until the flocculent crystals begin to swirl and whirl in the chill, gray atmosphere of bleak December.

The red-eyed vireo also breaks forth in spasmodic song sometimes in the early days of November, but generally at this time, the bird notes to greet you are the strident squawk of the crested jay, the lonely cawing of the crow, and the far-sounding, yet low and weird yak-yak-yakking of the little mottled sapsucker.

My notebook takes me back to a most enjoyable trip I made through the woods out on the Elkhorn last September in company with the Barrister. It was one of those rare September days, when a quiet splendor lay over all the landscape. We followed the stream's course, flanked as it was by low bushes of alder, and sumach and willow, as close along the banks as possible. While driving out we saw thousands of swallows perched along on the telegraph wires, and almost every post was surmounted with its song sparrow, fairly bursting his little lemon-colored breast in his efforts to fill the air with music. Plowing through a waste of lazuli asters, along an old broken down fence, we flushed a number of over-fed, but belated upland plover, so heavy with fat that their flight across the pasture was slow and cumbersome.

The grass in the open spaces in the lean woods was as green as in May, owing to a late rain in the fall, and the foliage of the low oaks, the boxalders and scraggly elms were just showing the effects of the first touches of frost. There was scarcely a breath of air; the distant groves were half veiled in the smokiness of the season, the sky was of venetian blue and the day really as grand a one as lucky June ever boasted of.

We saw hundreds of massing robins and they were as wild and wary as jack-snipe on a windy day in March, and we could not get within a stone's throw of them. While this was early for the robins to mass, the wisdom of their movement was exemplified by the week of bleak and extremely wintery weather that followed. Up in the big woods along the river road a famous territory for the marshaling of these birds, the robins do not really "pack" until the dreary days of November are well advanced.

In forcing our way through a thicket of plum and grape we actually heard the "meow" of a catbird, and flushed a half dozen purple finches. On the edge of this patch we also were delighted with the sight of a ruby-crowned kinglet and a whole bevy of yellow-breasted flycatchers, pausing here on an early journey for the south. Out in the open, along a low swailly stretch, there were oodles of purple grackles and, in fact, all kinds of blackbirds. A yellow-billed cuckoo called from the bank of phlox at the edge of the woods and king birds seemed as numerous as in July.

At noon the aroma of the spring time was in all the hollows and in the rich soil we found numerous clumps of late violets. In all, that day, we counted thirty-seven different species of birds, but all were silent, save the song sparrow and the melancholy nuthatch, and all were busy getting ready to leave us.

A month later I was again back in the same old woods, that bird Arcadia that has been a resort for ornithological study for me ever since my first days in Nebraska. On this late fall day all was still. The woods were carpeted with leaves of many tints, and the gray branches began to show themselves in their nakedness. Stalks and bushes were bedraggled and brown. I halted in the little open copse where, in the summer time, I had often found such a limitless fund for study in the way of feathered life. All was still now. The most of my friends had gone.