2017 Field Observations
Contributed by LSNY Members
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Pine Ridge, Nebraska and Black Hills, south Dakota with Rick Wright — September 13-20, 2017
Leader: Rick Wright
Registrar: Louise Fraza
Participants: Gina Goldstein, Louise Fraza, Lynne Herzog, Kathleen Howley, Miriam Rakowski, Judy Rabi and Sally Weiner
Submitted by: Louise Fraza
For some of the locations, little vignettes are provided whereas other accounts are sketchy. Please visit Rick’s blog (birdaz.com/blog/2017) for a more comprehensive daily accounting of the trip.
See more photographs by Lynne Herzog on Flickr
We arrived in Denver on September 12 at the tail end of a long heat wave that had been roasting the entire Great Plains area for weeks. The heat wave finally broke on the 15th when we experienced some delicious rains and spent a few hours at the Chadron Museum of the Fur Trade. Here we examined some fascinating concrete history of the contact between the Indian tribes and the white colonists, farmers, traders and adventurers.
As usual on Rick’s trips, we started birding right away on the afternoon of our arrival day and went to Barr Lake, a large reservoir not far from our Denver hotel. We found the reservoir rather devoid of the expected birds, but it was 92 degrees, and we soon wilted and retreated to the air-conditioned van. Still, we saw a lot of White Pelicans and some Ring-necked Pheasants among others. We also enjoyed our first looks at the cute Black-tailed Prairie Dogs along the road and listened to Rick’s story of man’s attempts to exterminate these rodents.
On the 13th, the first official day of the trip, we drove to Scottsbluff, Nebraska, stopping on the way at the Hereford Ranch near Cheyenne, Wyoming. At Hereford we had our first looks at some typical western species such as Swainson’s Hawk, Golden Eagle, Western Wood Pewee, Cassin’s Kingbird and Say’s Phoebe. Rick assured us that we would getter more and better looks at most of these species in the coming days. Going north we drove along Stateline Road between Wyoming and Nebraska, where we saw a great many Vesper Sparrows as well as some Clay-colored Sparrows. There were some McCown’s Longspurs as well. A Chestnut-Collared Longspur perched on the fence and Rick pointed out its big flat bill and beautiful white tail. Still, because these birds were in basic plumage and the visibility in the van was poor in the back, the experience left most of us hungry for a good look. We got this the next day. Today, we all did get a good look at a perched Prairie Falcon, a lifer for many of us. Our frustration was totally forgotten at the Wildcat Nature Center, our last stop before the hotel in Scottsbluff, Nebraska. The center is located on a ridge of pine-covered hills that contrasted with the flat agricultural lands we had been driving through. The nature center grounds were surprisingly lively on this hot afternoon with lots of Red Crossbills and Pine Siskins in the trees. On the ground were Spotted Towhees and a White-crowned Sparrow while Chipping Sparrows and Clay-colored Sparrows flew back and forth. We were most excited by a report of an Evening Grosbeak, which eventually everyone saw. Our reluctance to leave this birdy place was tempered by the knowledge that we would be returning on our way back from the Black Hills in South Dakota. A visit to the Scotts Bluff national monument was also planned for the return trip.
For me, one of the highlights of the trip was Henry Road near the Wyoming state line on day two. This is an unpaved, sunflower-lined road going through miles and miles of uninhabited short-grass prairie-covered hills and bluffs flowing towards an ever empty horizon. Feeding on the sunflowers were all kinds of birds that would fly up on the fences or settle on the road. Over the 60-mile-long road we saw hundreds of Vesper Sparrows, dozens of Clay-colored Sparrows, thousands of Horned Larks, hundreds of Western Meadowlarks, several Chestnut-collared and McCown’s Longspurs, and some Savannah Sparrows, Song Sparrows and Grasshopper Sparrows. When we stopped and got out of the van, the heat and the silence were overwhelming. The peace was disturbed occasionally by a huge cattle truck thundering by and leaving us in a cloud of dust. Eventually, with Rick’s help, we all got identifying looks at these species as they perched on the fence or the road and allowed a close approach. Along the way to our next stop, Sowbelly Canyon, we observed a Ferruginous Hawk close by in the sky. At the Canyon we found a Lewis’s Woodpecker, but overall it was quiet, probably due to the heat. The ice-house ponds at Fort Robinson were similarly quiet.
On day three we made an early morning trip to Chadron State Park, but a thick fog interfered with us seeing much. Most of us returned there at night after an early dinner and were rewarded with great looks at a Common Poorwill catching bugs in the highlights of the vehicle. The next day we drove as far north as we would go to Spearfish, South Dakota. Here we birded Custer State Park in the Black Hills visiting Sylvan Lake where we found a Gray Jay and watched two Sharp-shinned Hawks engaged in a lengthy combat.
The morning of day five finds us soon after dawn at Spearfish Canyon in the Black Hills, walking along the wild waters of the Roughlock Falls. The temperature is hovering around freezing and a light hoarfrost makes the road slippery. Hardly a bird or anything is stirring along the rock walls or in the canyon below. When we are below the roaring falls looking at the water rushing by, I realize that Rick is staring intently at a little moss-covered island in the creek. I follow his gaze and see a huddled greyish bird, the American Dipper. It sits there quietly blinking and after a while it begins to stir and preen while we breathlessly look on. Eventually it starts to feed in the moss and then dips into the water and swims/flies off.
The Black Hills mountain resort area is rather touristy and seems more like Colorado than South Dakota. We looked at the carvings at Mount Rushmore as well as that of Crazy Horse from the road. Some bison along the road impressed us with their thick woolly hides and their contained strength. We even drove through a whole herd of them. Going back towards Chadron we visited Four-mile Draw on the southern edge of Custer State Park. Our last stop for the day was Toadstool Geographic Park. This is an area of extremely unpassable badlands where erosion shaped rocks in the form of toadstools. A few Rock Wrens kept us company there.
We had our hoped for Sharp-tailed Grouse along Table Road outside of Chadron on the sixth day. Rick had noticed the white flash of a bird being flushed and saw it coming down again in the wheat stubble besides the road. We all managed to get decent scope looks at what turned out to be a group of the grouse before the next truck forced us to move. East Ash Canyon provided a real surprise when a flock of 12 Clark’s Nutcrackers landed in a bare tree by the road. We later saw some of them coming down to the creek. Rick had never seen this bird in Nebraska before and immediately posted his sighting. East Ash Canyon was wonderfully birdy this morning. The most numerous birds were flickers, red-shafted and yellow-shafted and every color hue in between. By contrast West Ash Canyon was almost birdless. In the afternoon we drove along the western edge of the Nebraska Sandhills looking for shorebirds by the lakes. The shorebirds were few and far between but we were delighted by a large group of Avocets close to the road. The presence of so much water in this arid dune-like landscape was surprising but Rick explained that the ground water level was high in spite of the sandy soil.
Our last full day was spent birding around Scottsbluff. In the morning we visited Carter Canyon. Walking down the tree-lined road near the top of the ridge in the early morning we were accompanied by the constant chattering of small flocks of Red Crossbills in the air. There must have been hundreds of them. Occasionally a Townsend Solitaire would alight on the top of one of the spruces and there were Cedar Waxwings, Pygmy and White-breasted Nuthatches and Pine Siskins in the pines. A return visit to the Wildcat Hills Nature Center brought a repeat of close looks at the pine specialists with the addition of a brown Cassin’s Finch, which apparently was a rarity and exciting to Rick. Our destination for the afternoon, Carter Canyon, gave us our last good looks at Vesper, Clay-colored and White-crowned Sparrows with the addition of a Lincoln’s Sparrow, which was new for the trip.
In the afternoon we finally visited the Scotts Bluff National Monument and experienced the great winds that have been described in the historical accounts of the plains. Bird activity was kept down by the winds and we did not see the White-throated Swifts that are often seen here. The next morning we drove back to Denver after a morning visit to Wildcat Hills. This trip was a full and unique experience for most of us. Not only did we all add new birds to our life lists but we obtained a lasting impression of the scenic beauty of the Great Plains and even a glimpse of its turbulent history.
|Canada Goose||Sharp-shinned Hawk||Golden-crowned Kinglet|
|Wood Duck||Cooper’s Hawk||Ruby-crowned Kinglet|
|Blue-winged Teal||Swainson’s Hawk||Eastern Bluebird|
|Cinnamon Teal||Red-tailed Hawk||Mountain Bluebird|
|Northern Shoveler||Krider’s Hawk||Townsend’s Solitaire|
|Gadwall||Ferruginous Hawk||American Robin|
|Mallard||Broad-winged Hawk||Brown Thrasher|
|Northern Pintail||Golden Eagle||European Starling|
|Green-winged Teal||Great Horned Owl||Cedar Waxwing|
|Canvasback||Belted Kingfisher||House Sparrow|
|Redhead||Lewis’s Woodpecker||House Finch|
|Ring-necked Duck||Red-headed Woodpecker||Cassin’s Finch|
|Ruddy Duck||Downy Woodpecker||Red Crossbill|
|Ring-necked Pheasant||Hairy Woodpecker||Pine Siskin|
|Sharp-tailed Grouse||Northern Flicker||Lesser Goldfinch|
|Wild Turkey||American Kestrel||American Goldfinch|
|Pied-billed Grebe||Merlin||Evening Grosbeak|
|Eared Grebe||Peregrine Falcon||Chestnut-collared Longspur|
|Western Grebe||Prairie Falcon||McCown’s Longspur|
|Rock Pigeon||Western Wood-Pewee||Spotted Towhee|
|Eurasian Collared-Dove||Dusky Flycatcher||Chipping Sparrow|
|Mourning Dove||Eastern Phoebe||Clay-collared Sparrow|
|Common Nighthawk||Say’s Phoebe||Vesper Sparrow|
|Common Poorwill||Cassin’s Kingbird||Lark Sparrow|
|Chimney Swift||Western Kingbird||Savannah Sparrow|
|American Coot||Loggerhead Shrike||Grasshopper Sparrow|
|American Avocet||Warbling Vireo||Song Sparrow|
|Killdeer||Gray Jay||Lincoln’s Sparrow|
|Stilt Sandpiper||Blue Jay||White-crowned Sparrow|
|Baird’s Sandpiper||Black-billed Magpie||Pink-sided Junco|
|Lesser Yellowlegs||American Crow||White-winged Junco|
|Franklin’s Gull||Raven sp.||Western Meadowlark|
|Ring-billed Gull||Clark’s Nutcracker||Baltimore Oriole|
|California Gull||Horned Lark||Red-winged Blackbird|
|Double-crested Cormorant||Bank Swallow||Yellow-headed Blackbird|
|American White Pelican||Barn Swallow||Brewer’s Blackbird|
|Great Blue Heron||Black-capped Chickadee||Common Grackle|
|Black-crowned Night-Heron||Red-breasted Nuthatch||Orange-crowned Warbler|
|Snowy Egret||Pygmy Nuthatch||Yellow Warbler|
|White-faced Ibis||White-breasted Nuthatch||Audubon’s Warbler|
|Turkey Vulture||Rock Wren||Wilson’s Warbler|
|Osprey||House Wren||Western Tanager|
|Bald Eagle||Blue-gray Gnatcatcher||Blue Grosbeak|
|Northern Harrier||American Dipper|
|Black-tailed Prairie Dog||Coyote||Shrew sp.|
|Eastern Fox Squirrel||White-tailed Deer||Muskrat|
|Eastern Cottontail||Mule Deer||Bobcat Kitten|
|Pronghorn||American Bison||Box Turtle|
|Eastern Tiger Swallowtail||Clouded Sulphur||Summer Azure|
|Cabbage White||Acmon Blue||Variegated Fritillary|