Archive for the ‘Nebraska’ Tag

2015 – That was the year that was   Leave a comment

With 2015 over this post looks back over the year at some of the places we have been, birds we have seen, music we have heard and people we have met.

Of course, much more detailed accounts can be found clicking on the relevant month from the list on the left of the screen (or sometimes the month after if the post was uploaded a while after the event).

IMG_4325 Purps

The year started with the traditional New Year’s Day bird boat, kindly arranged by Mark and Mo Constantine for Dorset birders. These Purple Sandpipers were photographed on the Sandbanks side of the chain ferry on 1/1/15 . Also in early January I took part in the annual winter bird race, recording an amazing 126 species in Dorset in 12 hours.

IMG_0533 Lear's Macaws

The first foreign trip was to NE Brazil which lasted more than three weeks but resulted in me seeing over 70 life birds – by far the most of any trip of the year. There were many highlights, one being cracking views of the wonderful Lear’s Macaw in a very dramatic setting.

IMG_1818 rainbow

Here I photographed the nearby town through a rainbow whilst staying at the lovely and very birdy Serra Bonita reserve.

IMG_2550 Rick Wakeman

As well as travelling we both have a keen interest in music – be it old favourites from my past like Rick Wakeman, whose keyboard skills in the band Yes were much appreciated in my youth ….

IMG_0315 Paloma Faith

…. to more modern acts like Paloma Faith. We saw Rick Wakeman in February and Paloma about a month later in Poole and Bournemouth respectively.

IMG_2841 North Cape

In early March we took advantage of a charter flight to Tromso in arctic Norway where we boarded the Hutigruten coastal steamer and journeyed around North Cape at the top of Norway in the hope of seeing the Aurora Borealis ….

IMG_2713 aurora (best)

…. which indeed we did on four nights out of five. We were lucky as some do this trip yet come away disappointed, but if we had gone about 10 days later we might have had a truly spectacular display as the aurora was seen as far south as Norfolk.

IMG_3665 Sandhills

We booked on the Birdquest tour to Colorado that started on April 1st but we spent the last week of March on our own touring Nebraska, South Dakota and Wyoming. The main reason for this visit was to see the incredible gathering of hundreds of thousands of Sandhill Cranes on Nebraska’s Platte River. We also visited the Badlands of South Dakota ….

IMG_3987 Mt Rushmore

…. saw the Presidents heads at Mount Rushmore, the Devil’s Tower in Wyoming and even drove into Montana to look for the ‘dental floss bushes’.

IMG_4439 WT Ptarmigan

For one reason or another I never got round to editing all my photos of Colorado nor did I post any on the blog but it was a superb trip and one of the highlights was finding these almost invisible White-tailed Ptarmigan at 12500 ft in the Rockies. Perhaps I can find time this year to sort out the Colorado pics.

IMG_7191 The Matterhorn

Early May saw us taking a fortnight in the Alps and southern France, seeing such wonders as the Matterhorn (above), Mont Blanc and the Eiger. I also saw what was probably the last regularly occurring European bird that I needed, the elusive Rock Partridge.

IMG_8055 Elizabeth and Marc

The whole trip was a prelude to attending Margaret’s nephew’s Mark’s wedding to Elizabeth in Donbirn in western Austria. The only downside to the trip was that I found out whilst there that my next tour, a cruise in far North-east Russia had been cancelled as the necessary permit hadn’t been issued by the Russians.

IMG_8656 WW Black Tern

Late spring brought some great birds to the Poole Harbour area, such as the Red-footed Falcon that hung around the Wareham water meadows or this White-winged Tern at Swineham gravel pits.

IMG_8606 Margaret

In June Margaret had the privilege of being invited to a garden party at Buckingham Palace. It was the centenary of the WI and each one of the 8000 or so WI groups across the UK was invited to send one representative.

IMG_8696 Moody Blues

Back to music again: we went to a very entertaining concert by the Moody Blues in June. Some great old songs with a great visual effects, the three founder members and four new ones all performed very well.


During the summer our group was asked to undertake an intensive radio tracking study on Eurasian Nightjars on one of the local heaths. The data is still being analysed but the initial results seem very interesting.

IMG_8786 Amber and Kara

At the end of the spring term our granddaughter Kara (R) left school to attend a sixth form college. During the summer she and a friend visited relatives in the Caribbean. Her sister Amber (L) left Dorset to study and work in Cornwall.

IMG_8829 Margaret & Jennie

Staying on the subject of family; during late June and early July Margaret and I visited her daughter in Essex and my brother in Derby. We also visited several sets of friends including Jennie, a friend from university days, seen here with Margaret at Wicken Fen reserve in Suffolk.

IMG_9006 Leds Town Hall

We continued on to Leeds where we spent time with Nigel, another friend from school and university days.

IMG_6416 Lytchett Heath dawn

Much of July and August (and indeed the rest of the autumn) was spent in our ongoing ornithological research at Lytchett Bay and Durlston. We were able to start ringing at a new and highly productive site at the north end of Lytchett Bay where this photo was taken soon after dawn.

IMG_9121 Hen Harrier Day Poster_edited-1

One issue that featured heavily during the summer was the campaign to save England’s remaining Hen Harriers. Although this has highlighted before on the blog it deserves repeating. All the evidence points to a systematic, ruthless and totally illegal program of raptor extermination in Britain’s uplands by a small number of people in an attempt to raise grouse stocks to hugely inflated numbers. The loss of these beautiful raptors is a national disgrace and the campaign for their protection will continue unabated in 2016.

IMG_6399 Killian and DIMW

We met many old friends at the Bird Fair in Augustand attended a number of talks. Without doubt the most inspiring was vetran birder Ian Wallace’s account of his best ever day’s birding. His contribution to ornithology and birding is immense. Here he is seen talking to another birding legend, Killian Mullarney fro Ireland.

IMG_6430 Wryneck DCP

Ringing continued on a regular basis throughout the autumn producing many interesting recoveries and useful data. The most unusual aspect was the enormous influx of Goldcrests in late October and November, but I suppose the individual bird that gave me the most pleasure was this Wryneck that I trapped at Durlston in September.

IMG_6437 Guy & Lila

It’s always good to stay in contact with old friends and it was good to see Guy Dutson in early September, back for a short visit from Australia with his daughter Lila.

IMG_0585 dawn Laguna Blanca

In late September/early October I went on a tour to Paraguay. The birding was excellent and the company good but it was very hot, particularly in the first week and the mammal sightings were disappointing. Compared the mountainous parts of South America, the scenery wasn’t that awe-inspiring, but the mists over Laguna Blanca at dawn were most photogenic.

IMG_0328 WW Nightjar

We saw some wonderful birds, non more so than these two species: White-winged Nightjar ….

SW Nightjar J Newman

…. and Sickle-winged Nightjar. The latter was of particular importance to me as it was the 8000th species I have seen. The bird was trapped by the tour leader as he is taking part in a research program on this threatened species and he wanted to see if it was one of the individuals he had already ringed. In my photo the bird has closed its eyes which looks less appealing so I have used one taken by my friend Jonathon Newman.

IMG_1444 Hagia Spohia

The last trip of the year was in late November to Turkey. It was a cultural, rather than a birding trip and we visited some great sites in Istanbul such as the magnificent Hagi Sophia ….

IMG_1769 calcite formations

…. and some natural one too like the beautiful calcite formations at Pamukkale.

IMG_2244 Jools Holland

Also in the latter part of the year we went to a couple more musical performances, veteran folk singer Judy Collins in Wimborne and Jools Holland and his Rhythm and Blues Orchestra at the BIC.

IMG_6777 Boxing Day dinner

And the year ended, as all years should with get togethers with family and friends at Christmas time.

As I said at the start each picture above is taken from a blog post during the year. If you wish to see more photos from that event then cloick on the relevant month on the side bar.

Well, may I take this opportunity to wish everyone a happy 2016, if you are a birder like me, may the year bring you lots of excellent sightings, if you are not perhaps you ought to give it ago, buying a pair of binoculars and a field guide back in 1977 was one of the best decisions I ever made.

25th – 29th March 2015 – Nebraska, USA   Leave a comment

After several trips to the east, south and west of the ABA area most of my life birds are restricted to the centre of the continent, so a visit to Colorado seemed a good idea. As a trip to Colorado involves booking slots in various hides for grouse leks and benefits from contacts with locals for up to date news, we decided to join an organised tour, but prior to the tour Margaret and I opted to spend a week exploring on our own.

Whilst life birds remain the main focus for foreign birding, sometimes the draw of an avian spectacle can be just as alluring and there is no greater avian spectacle in the world than the spring gathering of over half a million Sandhill Cranes on the Platte River in Nebraska. So we booked three nights in a motel at Kearney, leaving the other three nights free so we could decide ‘on the hoof’ what to do whilst we were there.

Here are some photos from our four days in Nebraska, perhaps not the most scenic of the States but one full of bird life, especially along the Platte River.

IMG_1692 Arctic Ice

One of the nice things about flying to the western USA is that the flight takes you north over Iceland, Greenland and Arctic Canada and at this time of year the entire flight is in daylight. Although cloudy over most of Greenland we did get a good view of pack ice between Baffin Island and northern Hudson’s Bay.

IMG_3369 Bufflehead

After a night in Denver, Colorado we set off on the 350 mile journey to Kearney, Nebraska. We broke the journey at Lake McConaughy just over the border in Nebraska. There was a strong westerly wind blowing and all that we could see on the lake itself were some distant ducks, but there were many waterfowl on a series of small lakes below the dam wall where it was much more sheltered. This is a male Bufflehead.

IMG_3338 Glaucous Gull

I had expected some ducks and perhaps some gulls but I did not expect to see a first winter Glaucous Gull, a visitor from the high Arctic. The robust structure and bicoloured bill distinguish it from an Iceland Gull of similar age.

IMG_3302 Glaucous Gull

I have seen over a thousand Glaucous Gulls, mainly in Arctic Siberia and in Japan in winter. Surprisingly this might not be the southernmost Glaucous I have ever seen, Nebraska is on a similar latitude to Hokaido in northern Japan and I recorded one off a pelagic boat out of Monterey, California in 2003, however some on board thought the Californian bird might have been a hybrid (what with they didn’t say).

IMG_3711 Sandhills

We carried on to Kearney, the self-styled ‘Sandhill Crane capital of the world’ arriving in the late afternoon. After checking in we immediately went out to Fort Kearney State Park, a good site to see the Sandhills coming into roost.

IMG_3385 Sandhills

We didn’t have to go far before we found the fields and the sky above the fields to be full of Sandhill Cranes.

IMG_3474 Sandhills

Once the Platte River was a mile wide but a mere foot deep. The conditions provided an ideal refueling stop for the cranes between their wintering grounds in southern USA and northern Mexico and their breeding grounds in Canada, Alaska and even eastern Siberia. Dams on the river such as the one we saw at Lake McConaughy have tamed the river which now runs in just two channels, but waste corn from the surrounding fields has provided the food that river can no longer supply, so the skies above the central Platte River still resounds to the sound of over half a million cranes every spring.

IMG_3483 Sandhills

Many of the birds were performing their courtship dances. Over the next couple of days we visited two sites at both dusk and dawn as well as watching thousands of birds in the fields. In the Platte River valley there was never a time when we couldn’t either see or hear Sandhill Cranes.

IMG_3524 Downy Woodpecker

As well as watching the cranes I was searching for American Tree Sparrow, one of two North American sparrows that I have yet to see. In spite of a few tip offs I failed in my quest, but here are a few other birds that I saw in the Platte River valley: North America’s smallest woodpecker – Downy Woodpecker.

IMG_3459 Northern Harrier

Northern Harrier, still considered con-specific with our Hen Harrier by some, but recent research has shown it to be more closely related to Cinereous Harrier of South America than the Palearctic Hen Harrier.

IMG_3393 Cedar Waxwings

Several hundred Cedar Waxwings were seen in the Fort Kearney area.

IMG_3470 Harris' Sparrow

Like American Tree Sparrow, Harris’ Sparrow is an Arctic breeder and occurs in the Lower 48 as a winter visitor, however it departs for the north a little later than the Tree Sparrow allowing us to catch up with this flock of seven birds near Kearney and again later in Colorado.

IMG_3510 Trumpeter Swans

At a small reserve to the west of Kearney I finally caught up with Trumpeter Swans. This species was one of just five waterfowl that I had yet to see. Two of the other four as effectively impossible, I must make plans to see the other two Freckled Duck (Australia) and Andaman Teal some time in the future. These Trumpeter Swans were much more rewarding than the presumed escapes we saw in Suffolk earlier in the year.

IMG_3406 Bald Eagle

At least six Bald Eagles were seen along the river, four immatures (as seen above) and two adults. Some crane watchers thought these all brown birds were Golden Eagles but the proportions and jizz are totally different.

IMG_3621 Sandhills

On our first evening along the river the presence of the eagles wouldn’t allow the cranes to settle and the huge flocks kept taking off and landing elsewhere.

IMG_3580 sunset at Platte River

On our second evening we positioned ourselves at a lookout platform further east. Here the cranes came in over a one hour period and quickly settled on the river. You can, if you book far enough in advance, go to a series of hides right on the river’s edge and watch the birds at close quarters but we didn’t find out about that in time.

IMG_3578 sunset

It was a glorious sunset ….

IMG_3641 Sandhills

…. and the cranes kept arriving long after the sun had gone down.

IMG_3590 dawn on the Platte

We were keen to return to the same spot for dawn, indeed Margaret was so keen that we arrived there when it was still pitch black on the observation deck. Even so the birds were active, calling loudly and as our eyes adjusted to the dark we could see that thousands were already taking off into the gloom.

IMG_3665 Sandhills

As the sun rose we realised that many more birds must have arrived after it got dark, as the river was even fuller with cranes than the night before. Also many must have come down to roost to the east of us, as vast flocks numbering tens of thousands were lifting off ….

IMG_3448 Sandhills

…. beautifully lit by the breaking dawn. As with the night before it was a thrilling and deeply moving (yet bitterly cold) experience ….

IMG_3447 sunrise

…. and the camera shutter worked overtime in an attempt to save the experience for posterity (ie this blog).

IMG_3695 Sandhills

Looking back to the west, a vast grey carpet of birds extended as far as the houses in the distance, even though many had already departed. Indeed many stayed on the river until mid-morning. These birds had probably fed enough to be able to continue their migration north and were waiting for thermals to develop.

IMG_1700 Sandhill migration map

At the Crane Foundation near Grand Island some interesting displays and a very helpful member of staff explained that 80% of the world’s Sandhills stop on the 50 mile stretch of the Platte River between Kearney and Grand Island each spring. The spectacle which starts on Valentine’s Day, peaks on St Patrick’s Day and is over by Tax Day (April 15th) involves some 650,000 birds. The peak number at any one time is 350,000. It is impossible to estimate just how many we saw in our two and a half days there but somewhere between 100,000 and 150,000 i.e. between a third and a half of the birds present seems reasonable. The map shows the migration route of the 80% of the population that converges on the Platte River each spring. The red dots show the breeding and wintering range of the very rare Whooping Crane and the orange dots the breeding and wintering range of the artificially managed Whooping Crane population (the truly wild Whooping Crane population now number some 310 birds, up from 16 in 1941).

IMG_3316 RT Hawk

Later that day we drove south as far as the Kansas border. We saw many hawks, including this pale ‘Krider’s’ type Red-tailed Hawk and two hovering Rough-legged Hawks.

IMG_3740 White Pelican

At Hanlon County Reservoir we encountered flocks of American White Pelicans, numbering some 200 in total.

IMG_3745 White Pelican

Note the knob on the bill which develops during the breeding season.

IMG_1705 Archway Monument

Back near Kearney we paid a short visit to the Archway Monument, an exhibition which features the history of the area housed in an arch that spans the Interstate Highway (Margaret took the photo, my hands were firmly on the wheel!).

IMG_1716 Platte River Road map

What I hadn’t realised and the exhibition explained, was that the three routes that pioneers took from 1841 until the arrival of the railroad in the 1860’s; the Oregon Trail, the Mormon Trail to Salt Lake City and the 1849 gold-rush trail to California, all followed the Platte River valley and diverged just west of Kearney. The route of the Mormon Trail is shown above.

IMG_1708 covered wagon diaorama

When the railroad opened as many settlers went west in a year as had gone by covered wagon in the previous twenty, given the hardships endured by those early pioneers, it is hardly surprising that relatively few chose to go.

IMG_1726 Sandhill country

Our time at Kearney was over, so on the 29th we left early and headed north from North Platte to South Dakota. On route we travelled for hours through the sandhill country, mile after mile of rolling dunes, the habitat that gives the cranes its name.

IMG_3896 Western Meadowlark

Along the road Western Meadowlarks were abundant.

IMG_3766 Canvasback

Roadside lakess held many wildfowl including Trumpeter Swans, Cackling Geese, Hooded Mergansers and these Canvasbacks.

IMG_3850 Turkeys

We broke our journey at Fort Niobara National Wildlife Refuge where these Wild Turkeys provided some entertainment ….

IMG_3869 bison

…. but it was here that I caught up with a mammal I have been wanting to see since I was a nipper. Of course like all my generation I was brought up on tales of Cowboys and Indians, but I was more fascinated by the wildlife, none more so than the mighty Bison.

IMG_3892 bison

The sight of herds numbering tens of thousands covering the prairies must have been absolutely magnificent as the small herd of 50 or so we saw at Niobrara looked pretty amazing. Even so I doubt if they (or most others for that matter) are truly wild as the refuge was fenced and the Bison didn’t appear to be free to roam at will, but seeing them was still one of the highlights of the entire trip.


From here we continued into South Dakota into the Badlands where ‘Dances With Wolves’ was filmed, the presidents heads at Mount Rushmore and the Devil’s Tower in Wyoming, the site of another epic movie, ‘Close Encounters Of The Third Kind’. That will be the subject of the next post.