Skylarking

Like Kansas, Nebraska turned out to be far more interesting than I might have expected from its portrayal in popular culture. Sure, there are plenty of places where fields of grain stretch into the distance, which is surprisingly distant in many spots, but there are also funky, gnarled hillsides and gullies that remind me of the pictures I've seen of the Dakota Badlands, only much greener. The Platte River is a lovely thing as well, and our route, happily, took us along its bed from about Lexington along the north fork to North Platte, then up past Ogallala to Oshkosh; then, when we came south, we followed the south fork all the way to Fort Morgan, CO.

The highlight of the morning came when we left Oshkosh and its pavement for a twenty-mile stretch of unpaved road leading through the Nebraska Sandhills to Crescent Lake National Wildlife Refuge. I've been to isolated places before--Big Bend National Park, the Gulf of Mexico off the end of Key West, the top of Dog Loser Knob in Pisgah National Forest--but let me tell you, the road through the hills to Crescent Lake stands alongside if not above any of them. And at one particularly isolated spot, the driveway into the Blue Creek Livestock Company, we slowed down to cross a cattle guard and I saw a small bird flutter past the car and settled on the top of the barbed-wire fence, showing white corners to its dark tail.

"Stop the car, Dad," I said, and brought up my binoculars to see the harlequin face pattern of the Lark Sparrow--my first.

From there, the trip was gravy. I saw a bizarre horizontal shape atop a fence post; it turned out to be a Common Nighthawk catching a few Zs. Horned Larks played in the dust of the road like suburban children who'd never learned what a car was, while the white-patched wings of the Lark Bunting whirred from the roadside seemingly around every curve--only the second time I'd seen them, and the first time I'd done so when the males were in their full black breeding plumage. When we dipped down into the valley of Crescent Lake, I noticed a massive blackbird in the marsh, one which turned out to be the second lifer of the day, the Yellow-headed Blackbird.

After 26 miles (of which a few were paved--thank you, US Fish & Wildlife Service), we arrived at the NWR headquarters, where an off-duty ranger offered us a few suggestions. With two lifers in hand and a long drive ahead, I didn't see the need for a lengthy stay, but we did go down to the shore of Gimlet Lake to look at the Black Terns calling loudly over the wetlands, and I spotted some infuriatingly weird waterfowl which I'm now sure were immature Pied-billed Grebes; the combination of a rosy bill and boldly pied head plumage was peculiar, but the chicken-like shape of the beak nailed the matter down.

A few notes on today's discoveries:

1) I logged my second and third life mammals of the trip today, following yesterday's thirteen-lined ground squirrel (which popped up in downtown Lexington, of all places.) On the way to the NWR, a gigantic animal loped out into the road and showed its black legs and white tail to me, not to mention a gigantic set of head ornaments that I would have sworn were antlers. I though it was a pronghorn antelope. Turns out it was a jackrabbit. I had no idea they were that damned big. Then, when returning from Crescent Lake, a large deerlike quadruped appeared in the rangeland to our left and started walking uphill--very stiffly and strangely. And then it turned its backside to us, revealing the big white patches and the lack of an upright tail alarm: it was a pronghorn. Now I know the difference.

2) I always--ALWAYS--misspell "Eurasian Collared-Dove" the first time I type it. Admittedly, the "Eurasian Collard Dove sounds like it would be tasty, nutritious, and full of fiber.

3) I think I may have done a rare and wonderful thing today. I logged an Eastern Meadowlark, a Western Meadowlark, a Lark Sparrow, a Lark Bunting, and a Horned Lark. Only one of these, the last, is an actual lark, but the other five comprise, as best I can tell, every native American bird with "lark" in its name. (I didn't see the other entry on that list, the European Skylark, but since it has been introduced in only a small piece of northwestern North America, I'm not counting it; I have seen the Skylark in its natural habitat, though--atop White Horse Hill just outside Swindon, home of XTC.)

So: thirty-five species in Nebraska today, including the following from earlier in the trip: American Robin, Common Grackle, Cliff Swallow, House Sparrow, Eastern Meadowlark, Red-winged Blackbird, Upland Sandpiper, Dickcissel, Mourning Dove, Eurasian Collared-Dove, Rock Dove, Red-headed Woodpecker, Western Kingbird, White Pelican, Barn Swallow, Tree Swallow, Killdeer, Common Nighthawk, American Goldfinch, Double-crested Cormorant, Eastern Kingbird

New for the trip:
Mallard
Horned Lark
Brown Thrasher
Black Tern
American Coot
Pied-billed Grebe
Blue-winged Teal

New for 2011:
Western Meadowlark
Lark Bunting
Brewer's Blackbird
Orchard Oriole
Ring-necked Pheasant

And new, period:
Lark Sparrow
Yellow-headed Blackbird

Tomorrow it's onto the plain and back into the arms of my loving family, but I've got to say it's been a great trip, if a little on the driving-intensive side. I've seen parts of the world I've never seen, heard accents I've never heard, and learned more about my country and its natural resources than I would have believed possible. And I've been humming XTC under my breath most of the day.

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This page contains a single entry by Peter Cashwell published on July 2, 2011 10:36 PM.

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