May 24 and 25, 2021 – Our northward trip continued into far western Nebraska, near Morrill and Scottsbluff, where my brother-in-law and his family took us on two days of fascinating drives along country roads, past the wild and secluded ponds and ditches that make the state a sportsman’s paradise. My family’s eyes were clearly tuned to the far distances and deep habitats, and they were able to point out a wonderful variety of birds.
Just as we had followed the South Platte River through northeastern Colorado, and the Rio Grande through south-central Colorado, here we would follow the North Platte River.
We spent our time on the ponds, fields, rivers and bluffs around Scottsbluff, Terrytown, and Lake Minatare, with a side trip down to the Wildcat Nature Center.
Lake Minatare within the North Platte National Wildlife Refuge is primarily used to store irrigation water, so the water levels rise and fall as the lake is fed by snow and rain, and drained by agriculture. It is surrounded by large cottonwood trees with their sandy roots happy under the seasonal inundations. We first saw this male Northern Flicker as he flew back and forth between the low branches.
He was very interested in the loose sandy soil under the roots of a fallen tree. he repeatedly returned to this sawed-off log and its partially exposed root ball. Flickers eat insects and grubs they scratch from the ground, and they love ants, going after the juicier ant larvae.
He shot downward to the ground, where he scratched at the dirt, and drilled with his bill.
I couldn’t see any evidence that he was finding something to eat… except for these mosquitoes, flushed from the low damp grass.
He snuggled down as if on a nest, and warned off a robin that was scratching in the leaves a couple feet away. When he finally flew away, I looked at the spot where he had been, but there was no evidence of bugs or ants, just moist scratched sand – perhaps he ate the evidence!
Lake Minatare is famous for its 55-foot tall make-believe lighthouse, a tourist attraction and shady rest area built by the Veterans Conservation Corps, in 1939. The upper observation deck overhangs the body of the tower, creating a great home for Cliff Swallows.
The swallows’ nests were a hive of activity, with a small army of birds swooping in and out, and both the sitting and flying birds chittering away all the time. There were a few tangles; I don’t know whether they were defending partially completed homes from each other, or warding off attentions from undesired suitors. This bird flew in and landed.
And when he flew away moments later, the resting bird had hold of his wing feather. Is that a “Don’t leave me!” or a missed “I’ll bite you!”? There’s no telling.
On top of the Scottsbluff Monument, we found many of these little Lark Sparrows, a new bird for me, singing from nearly every high point – the tops of pinion pines, yucca stalks, boulders, burnished dead tree limbs.
The top of the Monument is a special microclimate, a mesa with cooler temperatures where a tiny bit more moisture is retained from morning dew than in the surrounding prairie – there is no open water. This Rock Wren is another new bird for me. It is well suited to the high elevation arid landscape; it doesn’t drink water, even in captivity, obtaining all the moisture it requires from the insects it eats. According to All About Birds, western Nebraska is at the very eastern edge of this bird’s range, so we were doubly lucky to see it.
The Wildcat Hills State Recreational Area just south of Scottsbluff, Nebraska, is located on a very high bluff above the North Platte River Valley. The road winds through boulder fields, up sandstone cliffs into stands of tall Ponderosa pines. The wind on top blows sweet and clear, and the visitor center has bird feeders and a drip just outside where this American Goldfinch paused for a split second in a blooming Mountain Mahogany bush.
I prefer photos of birds in the wild, but this bird was too close and too cooperative to pass up, and I appreciated having the two birds to compare. I’ve checked all kinds of bird sites and done Google image searches… and I’m just not sure whether this is an adult non-breeding male molting to become bright yellow, or a very vivid and richly colored breeding female, or an immature male/female with very white wing stripes… it’s a puzzle.
My family drove us to a platform built on an extra-tall power pole out between flat irrigated fields where they thought an eagle might be nesting. The platform was occupied, not by an eagle, but by an Osprey. At first all we could see was an osprey watching from an adjacent pole. That raised foot, and a preparatory poop, were both signs that it would fly soon.
The Woodland Trust website says that “typically” the female osprey has a more pronounced brown-speckled bib than the male, which would make this one a female. (I also found a reference saying the male’s tail is longer relative to his lower leg length than the female’s, but in all the photos I took, I don’t have a clear “flat” underside shot of the tails of both birds.) She flew away in a wide circle, and I thought perhaps she was only considering the platform as a possible nest location. But then she returned.
As I walked closer, a second bird rose from the nest with a warning glare, bearing down on me in increasingly close turns. Comparing the bib, this would be the male. It was now clear that this was a nesting pair.
The female swept around me and the nest, coming so close she filled my viewfinder. I was clearly interrupting a family hard at work to raise a brood, so I bundled back into the truck and we left. Breathless with the excitement of having been so close to these powerful birds, we turned back for the late afternoon trip home.
But my brother-in-law insisted there was one more bird he was on the lookout for, and he finally found it. “It’s a rooster!”
We saw a distant male Ring-necked Pheasant at the edge of a mowed field, where he quickly ran for the cover of last season’s dried grains at the uncultivated edge of the field. He was dwarfed by the wheel of the center-pivot irrigation system.
Then as we edged forward, another bird appeared in the lush grass around a narrow irrigation canal, much closer to the road. This is a male in full breeding plumage, his feathers and red wattle glowing in the late afternoon sun. One eye on us, and ear tufts perky behind his head, he deliberately stalked towards cover as I shot photos from the window of the truck.
We wearily and happily headed back to Morrill with a camera full of new birds and heads full of memories of wild and remote Nebraska, for an evening of warm family conversation.