30 April 2007

Shoemaker Marsh Restoration Now Open to Wildbird Watchers

Story and photographs by James Ed. Ducey.

Following a nearly thorough makeover, Frank Shoemaker Marsh is newly open for public access.

The makeover was to recapture the saline setting in wetland spots on the tract, said Terry Genrich, natural resources manager with Lincoln Parks and Recreation. "We worked with the Saline Wetland Conservation Partnership, reviewing historic aerial photos and other site details, to devise a plan that was implemented after a public meeting in May 2005.

{Genrich and Johson of Lincoln Parks Department]

Terry Genrich and Lynn Johnson discuss plans for north Lincoln saline wetlands.

Providing habitat for the Salt Creek Tiger Beetle was of primary importance. Known saline seeps were exposed, sediment was taken from saline ground, and a habitat spot was placed along the creek. During the project, salty soil sites were not disturbed, as the endangered bug is known to occur on the tract.

Managing for wildlife was also at the top of the list. Removing sediment from the wetland basins, and providing sediment berms were two of the project activities, done to enhance the wetlands. Cattails were removed with the sediment, to open up the marsh habitat, and reduce the overall extent of this vegetation. There is a greater intent to have bare, saline flats where beetles can thrive.

Two weirs were placed in Little Salt Creek, to control channel down-cutting and to provide access to both sides of the creek for equipment.

Public education will be an important, special focus at Shoemaker Marsh, Genrich said. "We would like to focus on the environmental legacy of Frank Shoemaker, and to illustrate his saline wetland history at the marsh. The overlook deck and south overlook pier will provide general access to wetland features for environmental learning and study."

A handicap accessible trail is being provided from the parking lot to the north overlook. Mown trails will extend to the south overlook pier, and westward to the pedestrian bridge over the little creek.

"The south overlook was placed at a natural point of attraction for visitors," Genrich said. "With time, we want plantings and developing vegetation to enhance the wildlife lands experience."

"Visitors can get close and personal with the wetland," added Lynn Johnson, director of Lincoln Parks and Recreation.

The remainder of the area will maintained in a primitive condition, "naturally suited for bird habitat," Genrich said.

Two known native prairies tracts - Shoemaker Point and the east point along north 27th street - were part of a restoration process, having invasive cedar trees removed. Upland areas are being replanted to prairie grasses, mostly the warm-season species big bluestem, Indian grass, little bluestem, and a lesser amount of switchgrass.

The agency is still evaluating dog access to the property.

The saline wetlands north of Lincoln, from the mouth of Little Salt Creek on Salt Creek, and northward along the waterway have been an attraction for bird watchers for more than 100 years, according to known observations. Shoemaker Marsh is part of the locale once generally referred to as North 27th Street.

A grand opening is being planned that will provide an opportunity to share results of the project and show its intended success as a saline wetland conservation project, Genrich said. The City of Lincoln managed the project, in cooperation with the Saline Partnership.

The cost was $1.2 million, with funds provided by the partnership, Nebraska Environmental Trust and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Renovation efforts ended in April, specifically to be done by the bird breeding season. It started in the summer of 2006.

The partnership looks forward to seeing the area changes now that the project is complete, Genrich said. He has already noted how seep flows have become apparent on the northwest hill and along the creek channel. “Historical photos showed where some of these seeps were and now to see them still there is encouraging for our efforts to restore these important saline wetlands,” he added.

Research interests include 1) an understanding of the hydrology of these seeps, slight flows of saline groundwater of Dakota sandstone substrata, 2) how saline vegetation changes in response to increased salinity, and 3) development of habitats and its subsequent use by wild birds.

Genrich is interested in getting information on bird use of the area, and information on species occurrence that would indicate the changing habitat.

Further funding is expected to become available for subsequent saline wetland protection projects, especially since the Salt Creek Tiger Beetle has been classified as an endangered species. Funding sources used to this point include the Nebraska Department of Environmental Quality, Nebraska Environmental Trust, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency 319 funds, Natural Resources Conservation Service, University of Nebraska-Lincoln, private landowners, Wachiska Audubon Society, Home Builders Association of Lincoln, Cooper Foundation, Ducks Unlimited, Hugo and Thelma Aspegren Trust, Lana and Lon Flagtwet, the Nebraska Chapter of the Sierra Club. Also, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the Saline Wetland Conservation Partnership made up of the City of Lincoln, County of Lancaster, The Nature Conservancy, Lower Platte South Natural Resources District, and the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission.

The Saline partnership currently has 560 acres under management, including Whitehead Saline Wetland (managed by the Lower Platte South NRD), Arbor Lake WMA (owned by the City of Lincoln and managed by the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission), Frank Shoemaker Marsh (City of Lincoln), Little Salt Creek WMA (NGPC), and Little Salt Fork Marsh (The Nature Conservancy).

The group is planning to protect the remaining saline habitats north of Lincoln in the Little Salt Creek basin, eventually conserving another 800-1000 acres.

"We would like to save those saline wetlands remaining," Genrich said. "As we have renovated Shoemaker Marsh, neighbors owning nearby saline wetlands have approached us to discuss the future of their lands with wetlands."

Both men agree, protecting habitat of the tiger beetle will "naturally improve wetlands" as habitat for a variety of wild birds.

Web-page for the Saline Wetlands Conservation Partnership

[Franklin's gulls at Shoemaker Marsh] Portion of a large flock of Franklin's Gulls at southwest wetland cell, April 28, 2007.

27 April 2007

Dundee School Children's Garden An Ongoing Tradition

Originally prepared by James Ed. Ducey. September 2002 and February 2003. Updated April 2007.

In the early 1990s, the Dundee School PTA formed a committee called Operation Greenthumb to address the problem of improving the school¹s lawn. After the project was finished, the committee became defunct. In 1998, however, the committee was revived in order to improve the landscaping on the schoolgrounds. At the time, the only plants on the grounds, other than trees, were four kinds of shrubs - St. John¹s wort, pink spirea, yew, and burning bush - as well as a lot of weedy grass.

The initial members of the committee were Debbie Galusha, Robyn Hubbard, and Sarah Newman. Debbie Galusha wrote up a funding request tying the proposed landscaping to the student curriculum. In the fall of 1998, the Omaha Schools Foundation granted Dundee School PTA $2300 for the project. That same year, the Dundee PTA granted $5000 for the landscaping, and two anonymous donations of $500 each were received.

The first step taken was to offer the design problem to the students in a horticulture class run by Steve Rodie at UNO. A half dozen finished designs were presented to Dundee showing a variety of solutions to the school¹s landscaping needs.

In the summer of 1999, Sarah Newman, who has a degree in botany and an M.L.A. in landscape architecture, drew up a final design for the grounds. The multi-story Dundee school building added a unique aspect to the landscape design. "Its elevation above the gardens creates a beautiful effect," said Newman. The color of the exterior stone has an influence on plant selection.

That fall the first planting project was undertaken. Parents dug up the two triangle beds along the entrance walk. The first graders planted yellow daffodils and blue scilla along the edges of the triangle beds. "When those flowers came up the next spring, everyone took notice," said Newman. "People got really excited over the idea of a school garden."

During the winter months, Sarah Newman did extensive Internet research on school gardening, compiling a booklet of information, poems, and websites for the teachers¹ use. One of the things learned was the importance of having the landscaping plans remain fluid, so that teachers and students could alter the gardens as needed to meet their needs. "As we worked on the program, we realized that the most important thing was just to create prepared plant beds. Their use could be changed yearly as needed," said Newman. Another goal from the start, "we wanted to introduce as much variety of plant material as possible for kids to have contact with," said Newman.

The following spring, in April, 2000, an Arbor Day celebration was held. Historic trees from the American Forests organization were obtained and each grade planted a tree in a ceremony their teachers devised. The trees were as follows:

  • Kindergarten - Johnny Appleseed¹s last living apple tree
  • First Grade - Overcup oak from Abraham Lincoln¹s boyhood home
  • Second Grade - Tulip tree from George Washington¹s Mount Vernon
  • Third Grade - Sycamore tree whose parent had flown on Apollo
  • Fourth Grade - Pecan tree trail marker used by the Native Americans
  • Fifth Grade - Japanese tree-lilac from Independence Hall
  • Sixth Grade - Green ash from George Washington Carver¹s boyhood home

Newman surveyed the area around the school and developed a neighborhood map of trees for the teachers¹ use (see attached). After school on Arbor Day, a fair was held for students and their families celebrating trees with crafts, games, videos, tree tours, and drawings.

In April, 2000, Sarah Newman and Robyn Hubbard started an after-school Garden Club. Nearly fifty students out of the school population of 500 signed up, along with fourteen parent volunteers. Many projects were carried out, including planting a Pizza Garden, a vine teepee, and flowers in the triangle beds. The second grade began the Butterfly Garden in the southeast corner of the schoolgrounds. During the summer, teachers and parents dug up an additional blacktop bed and planted it with gourds and a Miniature Vegetables Garden.

Vandals hit hard the first summer. All of the historic trees except the green ash and tree-lilac were destroyed. Additional damage was done to the gourds and fences. As the years have gone by, though, the incidence of vandalism has declined.

In the fall of 2000, an Eagle Scout candidate, Brett Kennedy, whose mother, Julie, teaches at the school, organized a group of boy scouts to dig the gravel out of the tiewall, making it suitable for planting. The Garden Club filled the beds with compost and earthworms to prepare it for spring planting.

Garden Club continued, meeting for 4-5 week sessions in the fall, the winter, and the spring of 2000-2001. The students planted bulbs in the Shade Garden in the fall and flowers in the triangle beds in the spring. The third grade conducted a unit on herbs, growing a number of herbs in window boxes on their windowsills over the winter which they transplanted to the tiewall in the spring. The third grade also planted a Flower Garden and a Food Origins Garden in the spring. Mrs. Carlton¹s fifth grade class planted dye plants in the tiewall for class projects in the fall. The first grade planted a Rainbow Garden on the blacktop. The second grade added to their Butterfly Garden and planted gourds along the tiewall. The gardens that season contained 115 different varieties of plants.

For Arbor Day, 2001, grades did individual classroom projects. An after-school fair was held again. The National Arbor Day Foundation that year was conducting a nationwide election of a national tree. Official election booths were obtained from the Douglas County Election Commissioner and set up in the gym. A Theodore Roosevelt impersonator (David Harding) gave a speech and then asked for nominations for the national tree. Students offered up the list, and then they and their parents voted their choices. The Dundee tally chose the redwood, with the oak a close second (the oak won nationally). The results were sent to the National Arbor Day Foundation.

In the summer of 2001, Sarah Newman visited the Michigan State University 4-H Children¹s Garden in East Lansing, Michigan. The creativity seen there inspired her to redesign the Dundee School gardens to include more whimsy for the children. The new design added a Maze leading to a Secret Garden, an Orchard and a Berry Patch. "The effort to date had been primarily to create curriculum tie-ins with the gardens - something that ultimately was up to the teachers," said Newman. "It was felt that, as parents, the goals should also include adding beauty and opportunities for imaginative play for the students during recess, hopefully creating an emotional bond with nature that might last a child¹s lifetime."

One thing Newman learned at the National Youth Gardening Conference in Michigan was that there is a greater level of participation among the teachers at Dundee than at most other schools with youth gardening. "At this time, nearly all the teachers at the school are involved with the plants through curriculum tie-ins," she said. "Most programs only involve a couple of classrooms at a school."

The Dundee School gardens received a 2002 Youth Garden Award from the National Gardening Association, which included $500 worth of gardening equipment, seeds, tools and books.

In February 2002, Operation Greenthumb received a $7500 grant from the Nebraska Statewide Arboretum for further development of the gardens. The monies were used to put in a retaining wall and steps in the Butterfly Garden, the beginnings of a Secret Garden in the northeast corner of the grounds, the plumbing for a sprinkler system, and the development of a new garden called The Know-Your-Neighborhood Garden. The principal, Virginia Bowers, obtained an additional $7500 for laying a sprinkler system on the south side of the school. Robyn Hubbard oversaw the process of installing the sprinkler system.

[Dundee School Garden Plan - 2000]

The Know-Your-Neighborhood Garden was the focus of garden development in 2002. The second grade does an annual tour of local businesses every year as part of their curriculum. The idea was put forward to develop a garden with mini-gardens whose themes tied in with businesses (see attached). Local businesses were approached to serve as sponsors of their theme gardens. The results were as follows:

  • Carl S. Baum's Druggists - Nature¹s Medicine Cabinet Garden
  • Great Harvest Bread Co. - Cereal Bowl Garden
  • Edward Jones Investments - Money Garden
  • Dundee Florist - Flower Bed Garden
  • Goldberg's II - Edible Flowers Garden
  • Pizza Rustica - Pizza Garden
  • Dundee Theater - Performing Plants Garden
  • Lady Caroline's British Tea Shop - English Tea Garden
  • Homer¹s Tapes and Records - Rock Garden
  • Dundee Hardware, Alan & Marcia Baer Foundation and Indian Creek Nursery - general support

For the 2002 growing season, the students planted the following gardens:

  • Kindergarten - Peter Rabbit Garden
  • First Grade - Wizard of Oz Garden and Fairy Garden
  • Second Grade - Know-Your-Neighborhood Garden
  • Third Grade - "The Lost Flower Children" Flower Garden
  • Fourth Grade - Vine Teepee and Secret Garden
  • Fifth Grade - Native American Garden and Plant-a-Row-for-the-Hungry Tiewall Garden
  • ESL - Mexican Foods Garden and Asian Foods Garden
  • Special Education - Child's Fantasy Garden

By the end of the 2002 planting season, the Dundee School Children¹s Garden had 27 individual plant beds, organized into 12 theme gardens, containing over 230 different varieties of plants.

One of the purposes of the gardening program is for children to witness the miracle of sowing a seed and following the result. When the children return to school in the fall, "they are often very surprised at the change from the view in spring," said Newman. "The big, ugly canna bulbs are now tall colorful plants. The kids can harvest vegetables when they return to school in August. The children¹s excitement gets their parents excited and that furthers interest in the effort." A twice-a-year newsletter, News From the Garden, is sent home with the students, telling of the latest garden news and tidbits.

"The community's interest and awareness of the flora at Dundee School is ever-increasing," said Newman who is also the chairperson of the beautification committee of the Dundee Memorial Park Association. She has kept the community informed on the gardens through the association newsletter. The gardens are featured on a mapped walking tour of the neighborhood developed by the association in 2002.

In December 2002, the Dundee School Children¹s Garden received another grant of $7000 from the Nebraska Statewide Arboretum to continue development of the gardens. Plans are to use the monies for development of the north side--a bird habitat, a pond, a maze, and completion of the Secret Garden.

Wildlife seen in the gardens to date has included cottontail rabbits, gray squirrels, American goldfinches, house finches, black-capped chickadees, northern cardinals, English sparrows, crows, mice, and a deer. Once the Bird Habitat and Pond are developed, plans include adding screech owl and woodpecker nesting boxes as well as feeding stations.

A nature playground, the latest idea, would combine natural play elements--hollow logs, rocks, sand--with nature education--a fossil dig, a weather station, geologic elements, cast animal tracks. "The idea is to bring together as much of the benefits of Fontenelle Forest, the Lauritzen Gardens, the Children's Museum, and Vala's Pumpkin Patch as we can to an elementary school¹s grounds where children have the chance to interact daily with the natural world rather than take a once-a-year field trip," says Newman.

The Centennial Celebration of Dundee Elementary School will take place in May, 2004. A garden plan was to develop the Centennial Labyrinth on the north side of the gym. A brick path was laid with inscribed bricks, paid by donations, with the names and dates of attendance of students, teachers, principals, and staff, would lead from present-day students back through the years to the center of the labyrinth with the names of the original students and teachers of Dundee Elementary School.

Most of the school grounds plans were completed by the time of the Centennial Celebration -- the orchard, the berry patch, the prairie, a nature playground on the north side, and the front gardens. "The alumni were amazed and excited at the changes in the schoolgrounds," says Newman. She calls the setting "the Velista Leist Bird Garden, after her second grade teacher at Dundee who was an avid birder and member of some Omaha Bird Club back in the 1960s -- and who fed my love of birds."

The centennial display was a pinnacle for all the hard work of the people involved with getting the garden started and created. And the efforts continue with more plantings and efforts to attract urban birds.

“A variety of shrubs that bear fruit that birds like for 10 months of the year were underplanted on the north side of the school building,” Newman said. “Then we put in a lot of bird feeders, bird houses and winter roosting house. There is a woodpecker nesting box, a screech owl nesting box (a screech owl has lived across the street every summer and I'd hoped to entice it over to the schoolgrounds), a house wren nesting box (no success in 2006). The winter roost box is like a birdhouse but the opening is low in the box. Inside there are numerous perches. The idea is that birds can use it as a protected place of shelter during harsh winter weather."

Other features of the garden at a bird bath, an oriole feeder, and several types of other birdfeeders, Newman said. Kids of one of the fifth grade classrooms love the task of filling the feeders. They have been visited by chickadees, juncos, house sparrows, robins, cardinals, goldfinches, house finches, downy woodpeckers, starlings and blackbirds.

The birdhouses and feeders were bought through a grant from the Missouri Valley/Papio Creek Natural Resource District.

26 April 2007

Sandhill Cranes Subject of Ongoing Research Investigations

[Sandhill cranes, courtesy photo] By James Ed. Ducey.

Flocks of the gray Sandhill Cranes and a myriad of waterfowl visiting the central Platte River this season continued to be the focus of bird research.

The Platte River Whooping Crane Trust conducted annual surveys of the wild birds. Ground counts about assigned routes documented the cranes and waterfowl weekly from early March to mid-April. Flights in a fixed-wing airplane were also done from Chapman to Overton, several times during this period.

Although cranes were present at the end of January, the first wave of cranes arrived around the second week of February” said Dr. Daniel Kim, avian ecologist at the Trust. “The real influx did not occur until early March when the cranes arrived en masse.”

Kim has experienced crane migration for four years, describing the shear number of cranes as overwhelming, noting that “when in a blind with 40,000 cranes just outside, their calls are at least half the experience!”

Peak numbers on the river for Spring 2007 were estimated at 300,000, not including cranes already off roost, which, depending on the morning, may be as many as 40% of all birds.

“From a wildlife perspective, this is one of the greatest migratory events on earth,” Kim said. “The resources, corn and the river, draw 500,000+ cranes that winter from New Mexico to Louisiana. Some birds add an addition 1000 miles to their migratory route just to use the Platte.”

“In general cranes settle the eastern part of the valley first, with roosts filling in to the west. Cranes leave roosts in the same order, that is they leave the eastern part of the big bend first. The cranes display a combination of hard wiring and migratory flexibility that influences when they migrate.”

The amount of water in the river influences the roosts used by the cranes. “Years with an abundance of water appear to distribute cranes throughout the river while low water levels seem to restrict cranes to a few favored roosts,” Kim said.

River management appears to have profound effects on crane use of riverine roosts. Due to low flows, the river must now be maintained, or it would be choked with vegetation such as cottonwood saplings and willow thickets, and the channel would be obstructed with perennial vegetation bank to bank, reducing the river's ability to absorb flood waters. Both channel clearing and tree removal appear to encourage roosting cranes.

Large roosts are associated with channel maintenance, while unmanaged reaches of the river receive very little crane use.

In general, cranes off the river use corn fields to a greater degree than all other land types (foraging), but the largest groups use wet meadows for loafing and social interactions.

“Poor weather during the end of March and beginning of April held many cranes through April 12. Two very fine days led to a mass exodus by the 16th.”

During their visit, local weather has a huge influence on when migratory peak occurs, typically between the second and fourth week of March, Kim said. Some years cranes trickle in and trickle out.

Aerial and road surveys conducted by the Trust are considered an index of crane abundance. Surveys have been conducted since 1998. The aerial surveys have not occurred during high flows, so the impacts of a full river have not been documented, Kim added.

Survey results indicate that the Central Flyway population is steadily growing at about 3-6% annually, according to surveys documenting crane population increases by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Kim said. Crane trust surveys are not used to calculate population numbers, but provide important information needed to help manage cranes.

During their seasonal staging, Sandhill Cranes interact very little with the large numbers of geese present, according to the research.

“There is very little direct interaction,” Kim said. Both species may co-occur on the same field, but very few antagonistic behaviors are observed. Geese prefer to roost on ponds and lakes, while cranes appear to prefer running water. Also, when there is water in the western rain water basins, geese congregate in the basins, when the basins are dry, geese spill over into the Platte valley.”

Investigations into other aspects of Sandhill Crane biology are underway along the central Platte. Current research topics are:

1) Questions of competition for food (corn) between cranes and geese. While not direct, geese generally arrive 2 weeks prior to cranes, Kim said. “Some scientists believe geese may deplete waste corn, forcing cranes to either forage further from the river, or leave the valley in poorer condition.”
2) Landscape level questions are being addressed by a Ph.D. student at UNL, but meaningful conclusions are still at least two years off.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service undertakes seasonal counts of the Whooping Crane along the central Platte valley. Dr. Kim said the number of documented whooping cranes seen in the Platte valley was a highlight of the past season.

There are concerns for migratory birds in the central Platte valley.

Kim mentioned the interaction between crane watchers and the birds: “(1). People try to get too close to cranes, whether on the road, or by visiting the river. If people want an up close experience with the cranes, they should use one the guided tours available through either Crane Meadows or Rowe Sanctuary. (2) People here to visit cranes are visitors, and simple etiquette needs to be observed … Respect private lands, and if you pull off the road to see cranes, make sure that both farm equipment as well as cars can pass.”

As regional climates may change, Kim said “the impact for cranes may be due to increased variations in both temperature and precipitation. The lack of predictable conditions, especially precipitation, may constrict a large number of cranes into ever decreasing spaces in the river. The greatest potential impact to cranes will Sandhill Cranes likely track favorable conditions (water availability) during the winter. Prolonged drought in the southwest and northern Mexico could have severe impacts to winter crane populations.”

River management is conducted by a partnership including U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Nebraska Game and Parks Commission, The Nature Conservancy, National Audubon Society, The Platte River Whooping Crane Trust, Prairie Plains Resource Institute, and dozens of private land owners, Kim said. Most of the funding is secured through grants, some private, others federal. The Nebraska Environmental Trust has been a major source of funds for river management.

24 April 2007

Survey of Summer Season Swifts at Chimneys of Urban Lincoln

By James Ed. Ducey, Lincoln; prepared in 2005

Chimney Swifts are the sleek masters of the urban sky at Lincoln. They flit about and reside in chimneys suitable for a clingy nest, and roost in suitable places. During the city's history, the built environment has always been changed as the urbane setting is redeveloped. Buildings are removed, destroying suitable spots used by these birds.

The survey to check how swifts were affected by urban redevelopment in Lincoln started in late-May 2005. Through the end of August, most of my evenings were spent biking about to find swifts that were entering or leaving a particular chimney in the primary study area. Survey time was nearly always the last hour or two of light at sun set. Getting around easily on a bicycle was essential to find the scattered places used by the cigar birds - with their changing habits through the season - rather than watching a barren chimney. Occasional visits elsewhere in town were done in the latter portion of August, when surveys where mostly during the last portion of decent daylight, after birds gathered at dusk, sometimes around a roost site. Some morning visits were made to roost chimneys.

[Chimney Swift survey area, Lincoln Nebraska]
Primary swift survey area at Lincoln, Nebraska. Larger chimneys represent an August roost site.

Swift Chimneys

There were 92 locations with chimneys known to be used by chimney swifts during 75 survey days. Building details include address based upon the number given on the building, or if not shown, from parcel information at the website of the Lancaster County Assessor's Office, which in some cases also provides the year when a building was constructed. Locations are presented in a general west to east direction, following the street numbering practices of the city. Notes are features or characteristics of interest, and notably, chimney size in bricks square or rectangular. A roost chimney was used by ten or more swifts on a particular occasion.

Locations of building with chimneys used by swifts at Lincoln.

  • 510 D Street - residence - 2x3 bricks
  • 610 L Street - J.L. Case Co., Nebraska Pump & Supply Co. signage - 4x4 bricks on east side of building
  • 650 J Street - was Curtis Towle & Paine Co., now Mill Towne - 6.5x6.5 bricks, industrial-sized; used as a roost in mid-July
  • 725-27 R Street - formerly Larson Furniture - 3.5x3.5 bricks, and tall; to be ripped down for urban redevelopment as a condominium with underground parking
  • 733-737 P Street - formerly Salvation Army Thrift Store - cf. 5x7 bricks; building being renovated; used as a roost in August
  • 747 O Street - Schwarz Paper Company - cf. 3x4 bricks, but covered; company established 1899
  • 335 North 8th Street - Hardy Building - 4x4 bricks; business and apartment building; 1919-20 and 1927 dates for building
  • 800 Q Street - Henkle and Joyce Building - east building: east wall 2x2 bricks, west wall 2.5x2 bricks, also one with a 1 brick diameter vent entry; west building built in 1887: west wall chimney: two 4x?3 bricks, north chimney capped by sheet metal; may be oldest multi-chimney building
  • 803 Q Street - Huber Manufacturing - 3x4 bricks on northwest corner; 1901 date on building
  • 227 North 9th Street - Prime Time Night Club - compares favorably to 4x4.5 bricks, covered; in southwest corner
  • 301 South 9th Street - Cornhusker Printing - 3x3 bricks, with a peeling-side shed atop the place
  • 1001 L Street - business building - 2x4 bricks; on the east side
  • 122 North 11th Street - Continental Commons - 5x6 bricks, use noted later in the season
  • 200 North 11th Street - Misty's Restaurant/Gallup - three chimneys: 2.5x2.5 bricks, 2.5x5 bricks dual entry, 4.5x6 bricks dual chamber
  • 303 South 11th Street - Night Before Lounge - 2x2.5 bricks
  • 315 South 11th Street - Electric Shaver & Appliance Service - 2x2 bricks; nice view from the parking garage to the east, on the upper levels
  • 317 South 11th Street - Libations/The Grand Room - two 2.5x2.5 bricks chimneys
  • 404-08-10 South 11th Street - Nebraska Right to Life, The Pub - 3x4 bricks; back side alley view
  • 432 South 11th Street - former appliance shop - one 2x2.5 bricks to the west, and one 4.5x4.5 bricks chimney covered with encroaching vine growth that could eventually cover the opening
  • 1220 Washington Street - residence - smaller chimney, house over 100 years old according to residents
  • 1222 P Street - Swanson Russell Associates - 3x3.5 bricks - a tall white chimney - and 3x9 bricks towards the building front; 1915 date on building
  • 1226 P Street - WCs pub - 4.5x6 at the back alley; 1915 date on building
  • 1230 P Street - former boot & shoe repair - 4.5x6.5 bricks; 1912 date on building
  • 301 South 12th Street - Merrill Lynch - 6x6 bricks squat in back alley
  • 1314 O Street - Commercial Federal Plaza - 5x5 bricks in northwest corner, hardly visible from adjacent parking garage
  • 1332-36 P Street - H.E. Wood building - 4x3.5 bricks; 1918 date on building
  • 1335 L Street - League of Nebraska Municipalities - 3x3 bricks
  • 411 South 13th Street - 411 Building - 4.5x4.5 bricks; used as a roost in early August
  • 126 North 14th Street - Homer's Music and Gifts - two 2x2.5 bricks
  • 136 North 14th Street - The Zoo Bar - 2x2 bricks with circular opening
  • 1400 O Street - alley business and residences - 4x4.5 bricks; on the alley side of northeast corner at 14th and O street; used as a roost in August
  • 144 North 14th Street - The Post and Nickel - formerly three buildings; 2x2 bricks, 3x2.5 bricks, 3.5x3.5 bricks towards the rear of north building
  • 1443 G Street - residence - 2.5x3.5 bricks
  • 210 South 14th Street - former Runza restaurant - cf. 3x3 bricks, but covered; mural wall and chimney with King Kong on one side, a wolf on another
  • 821 South 15th Street - apartment house - two 3x2.5 brick chimneys
  • 827 South 15th Street - apartment house - 3x3 bricks
  • 835-847 South 15th Street - Nory Anna apartment house - 3x3 and 4x4 bricks
  • 126 North 16th Street - W.C. Shinn building - 2x3 bricks on north wall, 3x3.5 bricks on south wall; 1908 building date
  • 1608 O Street - Economy and Performance Auto Services - 4.5 x 7.5 bricks size near the utility line pole
  • 1622 O Street - empty business - 3x3.5 bricks
  • 1622-40 O Street - Lord building - 4x5.5 bricks
  • 1625 P Street - JRW Sales - tallish 3x3 bricks square
  • 226 South 16th Street - empty business building - tallish 2.5x2.5 bricks
  • 300 South 16th Street - Blackstone apartment house - 4x4 bricks with broken and missing portions at the top
  • 134 South 17th Street - apartment house - 2.5x2.5 bricks
  • 1700 N Street - Pauline apartment house - smaller sized, covered; 1890 date on building
  • 1701 Q Street - League of Human Dignity/Mobility Options - 3.5x4 bricks
  • 1703 O Street - B B & R Pawn - 4.5x4.5 bricks, large size 1717 O Street chimney abuts on the east-side
  • 1717 O Street - Poor Boy Pottery - 4.5x4.5 bricks with overlay; readily seen from the south
  • 1729 M Street - Algonquin apartment - not readily visible from street level, center of roof area
  • 1742 O Street - Bigler Motors - 2.5x3 bricks, with a short height
  • 145 North 18th Street - empty house - 2x4 bricks; a dilapidated and city-condemned former residence
  • 1820 P Street - Cathouse Adoption Center - 3.5x3.5 bricks, two-story
  • 509 South 18th Street - Bel-Air Apartment - 2.5x2.5 bricks; twin to Angelo apartment building with a similar chimney
  • 805 South 18th Street - Minuet Apartment - 3x3 bricks, constricted; twin to the Sonata to the south, where the chimney is covered with a vent
  • 1911 R Street - Matt Talbot Kitchen and Outreach - 2.5x3 bricks, with a constricted entry
  • 1944 L Street - residence - heavily enclosed by free-growth trees
  • 1944 O Street - C. R. I. & P. railroad terminal, now Union Bank and Trust - 3x3 bricks, a former train station with a fine, and one of the best-designs on a chimney in the neighborhood
  • 2008 R Street - empty house - 2x2 bricks; at JAVA project corridor, willing seller house to be removed according to project officials
  • 2020 O Street - originally a hotel, Ben's Auto Parts store for several decades - ten: 2 2x2 bricks, 3 2x2.5 bricks, 2 2x4 bricks, 1 2x4.5 bricks, 4x4 bricks covered and 4x5.5 bricks; larger chimneys were roosts in latter August; built 1890 as a hotel for workers; one of oldest multi-chimney buildings
  • 2044 R Street - empty house - 2x2 bricks; to be removed for JAVA project
  • 2045 O Street - Road & Track automotive repair shop - 2.5x2.5 bricks with constricted opening; adjacent to JAVA project
  • 2101 N Street - Williamson Honda - used cars - 3.5x3.5 bricks, with constricted, 1 brick entry; to be removed for JAVA project
  • 2109 O Street - business and upstairs apartments - 2x2.5 bricks; to be removed for JAVA project; brick building with business on ground floor, apartments on second floor
  • 2127 O Street - business building - 2x2.5 bricks; to be removed for JAVA project
  • 2145 Q Street - empty house - 2x2 bricks; to be removed for JAVA project
  • 125 North 22nd Street - empty house - 2x2 bricks; to be removed for JAVA project
  • 210 North 22nd Street - residence - 2x2 bricks; a trio of chimneys occur with the two adjacent houses
  • 2201 O Street - St. Louise Gift & Thrift Store, Catholic Social Services - 3.5x3.5 bricks with a constricted 1.5 brick entry opening
  • 2208 O Street - Mums Liquor, Oasis Barber Shop - cf. 2-3 bricks, but with a bulging overcoat of masonry
  • 2216 O Street - Waldron Machine and Welding - 3.5x3.5 bricks, a bit more than one story height
  • 2229 J Street - Lincoln High School - 8.5x8.5 bricks two-story base, with multi-cornered upper portion, a completely distinct design topped with 4 lightning rods, at south end of buildings; high school established 1871
  • 422 North 22nd Street - residence - 2x2 bricks; dilapidated house adjacent to Trago park and JAVA redevelopment corridor
  • 2300 O Street - multi-cultural community building - a large 4.5 x 4.5 brick chimney for the tile-roofed place
  • 2350 O Street - Rixstine award shop - 3.5x3.5 bricks, more than two-story height, white-painted
  • 2414 N Street - Aamco Transmission - 3x3 bricks size with constricted opening
  • 2419 Q Street - residence - cf. 2 to 2.5 bricks square; smallish and recovered
  • 2425 O Street - Midwest Sound and Lighting - cf 2.5x2.5 bricks covered at west wall; 4.5x4.5 brick size in southeast corner
  • 2429 O Street - Ace Rent-to-Own - 2.5x2.5 bricks size with constricted entry and slightly broken about the top
  • 255 North 25th Street - apartment building - 3x3 bricks on west side of three-story brick apartment
  • 435 North 25th Street - multi-dweller house - 5x5 bricks in a classic, oldtime house now subdivided
  • 545 North 25th Street - multi-dweller house - two 2x2.5 bricks on another neighborhood classic
  • 2980 Holdrege Street - Family of Life Pentecostal Church - squat 5x5 bricks used, with a taller 2x2.5 bricks chimney near on another roofline
  • 3100 Plymouth Avenue - Sheridan Elementary School - four-story height, with 8 sides, each ca. 3-3.5 bricks, topped with 4 lightning rods; the school opened in 1926; the largest number of swifts for an August roost site in the city
  • 616 South 36th Street - Saint Theresa School - two 5x5 bricks chimneys near the northeast corner; more than 50 swifts used the north chimney as a roost in mid-August
  • 2601 North 48th Street - former city hall, University Place Galleries - cf. 4x4 bricks; 1914 date on building
  • 4015 South 49th Street office - College View Seventh-day Adventist Church - a squat 7x7 bricks with an easy view from Prescott Street, east of 48th Street
  • 4341 North 61st Street - Schmidt Brothers 1916/Salvage Warehouses - 3x4 bricks; a second chimney is covered
  • 6120 Morrill Avenue - Saint Patrick's church hall - 4x4 bricks, 1908 date on building; used as a roost in latter August
  • 6136 Havelock Avenue - Havelock Gift, now Cosmic Cow - Gift Gallery, Creative Fabrics - cf. 3x3 bricks, covered
  • 1645 North Cotner Boulevard - Bethany Christian Church - cf. 5x5 bricks, 3-plus stories height, topped with a lightning rod, and at the alley with nearby power lines; an important primary roost in August
  • 6635 Fairfax Avenue - former public school, now Cotner Center Condominiums - two abutting 4.5x4.5 bricks with ornate tops, with two lightning rods, four story height; a lesser roost in latter August

This list does not include every swift chimney in the area. Additional survey effort could identify other swift chimney habitat, and provide other occurrence and distribution details to conserve the local breeding population.

Chimney Loss

About ten percent of the noted chimneys will be destroyed. An essential interest in the survey was to determine the loss of chimneys due to urban redevelopment, especially some activities of the Joint Antelope Valley Authority, sponsored by the City of Lincoln, University of Nebraska-Lincoln and Lower Platte South NRD. The stated purposes of the $240 million project are flood control, transportation improvements and community enhancements. It includes a new, exposed channel ditch for Antelope Creek.

{North JAVA Project area, Lincoln]

North JAVA Project area.

[South JAVA Project area, Lincoln]

South JAVA project area.

East Downtown area of Lincoln, showing surface features and chimneys used by Chimney Swifts. Filled boxes mark chimneys with noted swift use, and an open box indicates other chimneys. Buildings denoted in the JAVA corridor are to be torn down to make way for urban redevelopment. Figures by J.E. Ducey.

The JAVA project will cause a dramatic decline in swift housing when at least seven known swift chimneys will be removed within the corridor from R Street to south of O street:

  • 2008 R Street, residence - next to the mapped project corridor but a willing seller means removal, according to the project manager for the city of Lincoln;
  • 2040 R Street, residence
  • 2145 Q Street, residence
  • 2109 O Street, business
  • 2127 O Street, business
  • 2101 N Street, business
  • 125 North 22nd Street, residence

Other houses in the project corridor were torn down in the first months of 2005. There are an estimated 25 houses that would have been torn down in the three square-blocks of R Street to O Street, between 21st and 22nd streets (Figure 2). The city website said at least 48 residences would be removed, plus additional commercial buildings. The defunct Northeast Radial, another city project some years ago, replaced old homes with row-house construction, further reducing the extent of suitable swift chimneys in this portion of town.

Aged and deteriorating buildings can also be readily removed for construction of the new buildings and settings, things depicted in the well-prepared web-presentations for the JAVA corridor.

[Chimney at Professional Tire, downtown Lincoln]

This is the first chimney where a pair of chimney swifts were noted in latter April, 2007. It is at 1145 L Street.

An example, perhaps, is 2020 O Street. Apparently built in 1890, it was a hotel for workers on the nearby railroad. It was a mattress factory and Ben's Auto Parts for decades. Most recently there was an unsuccessful dollar store. There is now a for sale or rent sign in the front window of a most unique roofline with eight chimneys, fine for generations of chimney swifts (Figure 3). The sagging brick walls of this big place would be easier removed than renovated, according to the current owner, anticipating redevelopment.

A well-worn house in disrepair on north 22nd Street - across from an impending greenway - could easily be torn down for something new, perhaps a new residence according to planning suggestions.

A condemned house on north 18th street is across the street to the block parcel that was being considered as a site for a multi-million dollar hotel. Among the old places in the Haymarket, a towering chimney will tumble when removed when the site is transformed into a pricey condominium.

Along the main streets of Lincoln, and among the urbane scene and at its neighborhoods, Chimney Swifts have suffered from destruction of chimneys. The trend of redevelopment projects causes an ongoing loss of those exquisite brick places that are a reliable home or roost for Nebraska bugeaters that are forced to adapt to the continual decline in roosting and nesting habitat.

Spring 2007 Update

Additional information has been gathered on the swifts about downtown Lincoln. Buildings are gone from the area...

Chimneys which indicate the changes to this habitat used by swifts in urban Lincoln (Photographs © 2007 J.E. Ducey).

[Chimney used y swifts, torn down in Haymarket]

North Haymarket chimney destoyed for condominium project.

[House chimney demolished for urban redevelopment]

House removed on 100 block of north 18th street, torn down for area redevelopment.

[House moved to make way for urban redevelopment, Lincoln]

House moved to another location and renovated for continuing use.

[Business buildings removed for Lincoln JAVA Project]

O Street business buildings removed for the JAVA project.

Two large size roost chimneys on the block for the so-called Catalyst One project, with a large scale, multi-million construction project to include a hotel and parking garage. These two chimneys have been present since 1918, at the original name, H.E. Woods building.

[Large chimneys on P Street, summer 2005]

Plans announced on April 26, 2005 indicate the remainder of the buildings presently on the city block will be removed for new high-rise construction. This will occur in the next few years. A Phase Two is hoped for, which will remove additional buildings from the area.

A date is not available on when the two illustrated chimneys will be removed from the chimney-scape of urban Lincoln. The former movie theatre, visible in the background, has already been removed, and is now a dirt lot.

Swift use was noted in the west chimney at dusk on April 26th. Other swifts occur at additional chimneys in the immediate vicinity, with about 15 noted during the evening survey.

22 April 2007

Studies Document Historic Avifauna of the Niobrara River Valley, Nebraska

By James Ed. Ducey. A condensed version of this was previously published: 1989. Birds of the Niobrara River Valley, Nebraska. Transactions of the Nebraska Academy of Sciences 17: 37-60. This version, prepared starting about 20 years ago and finished ca. 1988, has been only slightly edited and not updated.

The Niobrara River starts as a small narrow river in Wyoming and flows 487 linear miles (784 km.), through northern Nebraska, where the maximum east to west basin is 300 miles (482 km.) in length. The flora of the Niobrara Valley undergoes obvious transitions. Higher-elevation tablelands in the west are replaced by lower-elevation eroded tablelands in the east. Rough and rugged ridges, bluffs, and slopes in the central Valley are vastly different from the rolling, upland prairie further west. The woodlands of the Valley are a strong comparison with the dunes and swales of the adjacent Sand Hills. Near the Missouri River, towering cottonwoods are part of the floodplain forest. Wetlands abound along the entire channel area. In the western portion of the valley, a reservoir influences the occurrence of various species of birds.

The Niobrara River area has been recognized for many years for its unique setting and its influence on distribution of the avifauna. The Valley is an important site for the study of avian biogeography and hybridization. Many species found in the river woodlands have a range extended or disjunct from where they typically occur. Threatened and endangered birds use the Valley during migration or the breeding season.

[Niobrara Valley scene (JEDucey photo)]

There have been notable studies of birds in the Niobrara River. Some of the earliest notes were more than 150 years ago. When combined, these records provide an overall view of the Valley avifauna. This paper compiles the many different sources of information to present a summary of birdlife in the Niobrara Valley. For this paper, the Valley is limited to the river channel and its floodplain, and the canyons cut by the river and its tributaries up to the ridges along the deeply incised Valley. Extensive adjacent grasslands on the upland are excluded.

Bird Studies

Explorations on the Plains

The Niobrara River was an obvious landmark for explorers on their journeys along the Missouri River. Some expeditions happened to record their bird sightings for the area while others did not. But each observer noticed when the River was passed. The notes during the period of exploration of the Plains provide the first records of birdlife for the lower Niobrara.

Lewis and Clark Expedition

William Clark's entry for 4 September 1804, as he wrote it, read: "Came to at the mouth of the Qui courre (rapid) [based on the French name L'Eau qui Court which means the river that rushes] this river Comes roleing its Sands whuch (is corse) into the Missouris from the S W by W this river is 152 yards [139 meters (m)] across the water and not exceeding 4 feet [1.2 (m)] Deep Throwing out Sands like the Platt (only Corser) forming bars in its mouth it does not rise high when it Does it spreds over a large Surface, and is not navigable the river widens above its mouth and is devided by a great many Small islands & Sand bars, the Current verry rapid" (Moulton, 1983).

Wilhelm Expedition

Paul Wilhelm of Germany traveled in the eastern part of Nebraska in 1823 (Wilhelm, 1835). In the latter part of summer he went from Fort Atkinson on the Missouri to the mouth of the Niobrara. Birds seen in the area near the confluence of the two rivers included large flocks of ducks and geese, the greater prairie-chicken and what he said was a "grosbeak." There were no additional notes on birds, but Wilhelm mentioned several plants since he apparently was more interested in the flora than birds.

Expedition of Prince Maximilian of Wied

Prince Maximilian of Wied, Germany, made a journey up the Missouri River to study the features of the land. In addition to his many other studies, he kept extensive notes on birdlife. While traversing the Missouri on the steamboat Yellowstone, the expedition was in the Niobrara River area on 12 May 1833 and 5 and 6 May 1834. Despite Maximilian's usual flair for writing extensive descriptions of the sights seen during his travels, he simply wrote: "It is a pretty river." and said nothing more specific about the Niobrara River (Orr and Porter, 1983). I include seven species in this review because they were seen in the vicinity of the mouth of the river: American white pelican, passenger pigeon, cliff swallow, house wren, brown thrasher, yellow warbler, and rufous-sided towhee.

J.J. Audubon

The celebrated naturalist, John James Audubon, made a journey up the Missouri River in 1843. He made numerous observations of birds but none in the specific area of the Niobrara. He did however write: "the swift-flowing L'Eau qui Court, in some places is fully as broad as the Missouri itself, fully as muddy, filled with quicksands, and so remarkably shallow that in the autumn its navigation is very difficult indeed" (Audubon, 1960). No sightings were mentioned for the downriver trip either. Along with Audubon was his friend Edward Harris. Harris' journals mention that the Say's phoebe and western kingbird were shot or seen in this area on 21 May when they stopped to view the remnants of abandoned Fort Mitchell (McDermott, 1951).

The Warren Expedition

The Warren Expedition of the middle 1850's explored the Nebraska and Dakota Territories during reconnaissance for a travel route to the Black Hills. The main responsibility during this three-year exploration was to assess potential trails for horse-drawn wagons and to determine the best route to reach western outposts from a Missouri River depot. Wagon trains of supplies from Missouri River steamboats were to supply government posts such as Fort Laramie and the northern Great Plains in general (Warren, 1875).

An integral part of the expedition was a survey of the natural history of the region. F.V. Hayden, M.D. was the member of the party mainly responsible for preparing a catalogue of collections in geology and natural history prepared after the expedition was completed. There were many bird specimens collected during this time. These reveal what birds were present just prior to the time of the first settlers. The 1857 season was spent mostly in the region of the Nebraska territory. During this summer, two parties of the expedition met at the mouth of the Loup River to continue westward through the eastern Sand Hills and then north along the Niobrara River. They continued to Fort Laramie, through the Black Hills and returned to Fort Pierre via the Niobrara.

The observations made by the Warren expedition on the L'Eau Qui Court and Running Water, two historic names for the Niobrara, were included in two sources. The report from the Warren expedition presented the information but a second work done by Spencer Baird includes the dates when the specimens were collected (Baird, 1858). The dates provide information that helps determine the time of the observation to better determine status. Coues is the second source where specific specimen localities are given (Coues, 1875). The original Warren work was not used here because it was not specific about the locality where a species was noted.

Collection dates for pertinent expedition specimens are: 12 May 1856, May 1856, 15 August 1856, 20 October 1856 and 14 and 16 August 1857. Fourteen species were noted for the Running Water by this expedition: northern harrier, red-tailed hawk, greater prairie-chicken, burrowing owl, least flycatcher, cliff swallow, common raven, black-billed magpie, rock wren, brown thrasher, loggerhead shrike, rose-breasted grosbeak, chestnut-collared longspur and American goldfinch.

Other Historic Observations

In 1902, Robert H. Wolcott and other University of Nebraska personnel took a journey along 100 miles (160 km.) of the Niobrara River to examine and collect specimens (Ducey, 1983). The party left Long Pine on 14 June and proceeded downriver by boat until they reached the town of Niobrara on 9 August. They made a stop of two weeks at the Springview bridge and then a month at Carns to do more extensive studies in those areas.

In his manuscript, Wolcott (see Ducey, 1983) noted the changes in the vegetation along the river. He wrote:

"As we proceed eastward the character of the country gradually changes. The rugged surface outlines soften, the steep, shaly river banks caused by the eroded hills become less and less steep and finally melt away altogether, while the rough hills and canyons back from the river modulate into gentle undulations. When we reach the western border of Holt County the pines and cacti are left behind, the prairies begin to assume a greenish hue and an occasional cornfield in a moist Valley betokens the advent of farming land. After passing the northern bend and again turning to the south, the river country is predominated by eastern characteristics, until by the time we reach the Missouri we are on genuine prairie land.
"Even the character of the river itself changes, and from a broad, shallow stream studded with sandbars and dissipating its current in a myriad of little streamlets, it concentrates into a deep and narrow stream of great swiftness. The vegetation in the immediate vicinity of the river also undergoes a change, but more of a change in degree than in kind, for the narrow belt of cottonwood [Populus deltoides] and bur oaks [Quercus macrocarpa] broadens into timber of considerable size, while the underbrush of black [Salix nigra] and diamond willows [Salix eriocephala], buffalo berry [Shepherdia], choke cherry [Prunus virginiana], wild plum [Prunus americana] and similar thicket plants becomes denser.
"With the decided transition of conditions it is natural to expect a merging of eastern and western avifaunas and that is exactly what occurs."

A year later Dr. Wolcott and Frank Shoemaker made a visit to the lake district of east central Cherry County in the area of present day Valentine National Wildlife Refuge. Rivers Stilwell, the owner of the ranch where they were staying, used a light horse-drawn wagon to take them for a three day trip from 1-3 June. They went through Schlagel Creek Canyon and then along the Niobrara to Valentine. Shoemaker's notes give the species he noted in each area traversed. They took a side trip apparently to the river northeast of Valentine since the Shoemaker Collection includes a photograph of the river in that area. They made additional sightings during the return trip to the ranch in the Sand Hills.

William E. Beed, another zoologist associated with the University of Nebraska, made studies of the birdlife of the Niobrara Game Preserve near Valentine in 1934. He spent a summer there and included in his report a list of species and their associations with the biotic communities in this area which is now the Fort Niobrara National Wildlife Refuge (Beed, 1934). The most common species he noted on the uplands were the horned lark, lark sparrow, and western meadowlark. He also commented that the Preserve had a greater number of raptors than surrounding areas. His study provides valuable information for this region of the Niobrara during that time.

During the same summer, on 22 July 1934, Shoemaker rode with Harold and Margaret Cook to the Agate Springs Ranch. The weather in region had been hot and dry, but upon reaching the ranch Shoemaker wrote:

"The ranch is the coolest place I have encountered in many weeks. There are long lines, sometimes minor groves, of cottonwoods, some of them 80 feet [± 25 m] high and their girth four feet [1.2 m] from the ground exceeding ten feet [3 m]. There are lines of immense willows bordering beautifully grassed areas; there must be at least eight acres [3.24 hectares (ha)] of lawn about the ranch buildings, all watered regularly and kept in order. There is a pond of considerable extent, derived from the cold waters of the Niobrara. This pond is bordered with a multitude of cattails [Typha sp.] and other water growths. This ranch was laid out and the trees planted by Captain James H. Cook over 50 years ago."

Shoemaker hiked on the prairie and along the rocky rims, keeping notes on birds as well as looking for artifacts and enjoying a cool swim in the river. His list was 30 species, including those seen in the area of the ranch house. His conclusion for the day was: "I thoroughly enjoyed the seven hours which I spent in this wonderland which I have learned to love. [I] noticed one thing this evening on the ranch lawn which definitely interested me. It is a great place for birds; western robins, bronzed grackles, brown thrashers, yellow warblers, wrens, eastern and western kingbirds, and strangely enough, killdeer plovers, are almost always present."

Recent Observations (1955-1988)

William Youngworth spent several years studying the birdlife in the area of the Niobrara Game Preserve northeast of Valentine. His studies (Youngworth, 1955), starting in 1932, with the fourth trip in 1947, were made in response to an invitation by Frederick M. Dille, who was ranger superintendent from 1917 until 1930. The two men camped in a cabin in the woods below a small waterfall. Youngworth collected birds which Dille prepared as specimens. Most of their work was with passerine birds.

Recent attention to portions of the central Niobrara River is due to environmental studies required for the Norden Dam of the O'Neil Project. The primary facet of interest was records of birds observed along specific transects through the habitat types present on the study area (Longfellow, 1977). Longfellow also kept a list of other species observed.

The extensive studies made in the central Niobrara River Valley continued after The Nature Conservancy bought the Niobrara Valley Preserve in 1980 (Figure 3). That tract covers about 54,340 acres (22,000 ha), with its headquarters north of Johnstown in Brown County. The area was purchased because of the unique co-occurrence of ponderosa pine forest, eastern deciduous forest, northern forest, mixed grass prairie, sandhills prairie and tallgrass prairie habitats within 1-2 miles (1.6-3 km.) (Brogie and Mossman, 1983).

Once the area was purchased, the Conservancy conducted an extensive natural history survey. The birdlife was extensively surveyed daily from 4 April to 10 July 1982 and less extensively during the remainder of that summer (Mossman and Brogie, 1983). Status and breeding information was summarized for this survey period and incorporated information from local residents and other pertinent records for the following fall and winter.

Further west in the Valley, field studies have been made at Box Butte Reservoir in southern Dawes County since 1973 (Rosche, 1982). The reservoir offers high water in the spring followed by draw-downs that leave extensive exposed mud flats suitable for bird use from mid-July on. Perhaps the best stand of large cottonwood and willow habitat in the entire western half of the Valley is found at this site. Most of it is ungrazed and it provides, perhaps, the optimum riparian-type habitat available for migrant species in the entire western section of the Valley (1989: R.C. Rosche, pers. comm.). Cropland and grasslands are also found in the vicinity. These sightings add a valuable perspective on how a reservoir and its associated human-created habitats influence the occurrence of bird species. In addition to published records, more recent and current observations were provided of the diverse avifauna recorded at this site.

Many records for the town of Niobrara at its current upland site were contributed by Mark Brogie, of Creighton, NE, who also conducted bird work at the Niobrara Valley Preserve. His records, from 1986 through 1989, are primarily within a one and a half mile radius of the town of Niobrara. This includes the Valley but also the floodplain and hills where the Niobrara River empties into the Missouri River. Many dates are available through this field work but only one representative date is given in the species accounts. Status information is summarized where available.

Records for western Cherry County were provided by Lois Simmons at the Simmons Ranch south of Eli (section 6, T33N, R35W and a few miles to the west and east) and Don and Sharon Moreland at the Twisted Pine Ranch along Highway 61 south of Merriman (Sections 20 and 29, T33N, R37W). Both the Simmons and Morelands are casual observers, watching birds for personal interest.

The Simmons Ranch has a variety of typical Niobrara River habitat including river floodplain and meadow, small midriver sandbars, and coniferous and deciduous woods, and sandhills prairie on the upland. The Twisted Pine Ranch is unique in having a large open water lake with associated wetlands. There is also floodplain forest and coniferous woods on the Valley slopes. Both areas are gazed by cattle.

Ducey studies of birdlife along the Niobrara River started in 1982. Most of the sites visited were in the immediate floodplain of the river. Others are in canyons that are part of the Valley drainageway such as Bohemia Prairie or Thomas Creek Wildlife Management Area. The only upland sites included are those immediately adjacent to the river Valley.

[Waterfall in the central Niobrara River valley]

The dates of observations were: 1982: Anderson Bridge WMA, 5-7 May, 6-7 July, 19 August and 29 September. 1984: Bohemia Prairie WMA, 16-17 June. 1985: Bohemia Prairie WMA, 8-10 June; Mariaville, 25-26 April, 11-13 June, 9-10 August and 21-22 September; Thomas Creek WMA, 25 April, 13-14 June, 9 August and 20-21 September; Schlagel Creek, 11 August and 18 September; Anderson Bridge WMA, 14-16 June and 19-20 September. 1986: Bohemia Prairie WMA, 26 May; Pishelville Island, 27 May; Elk Creek, 27 and 28 May, 4 June; Anderson Bridge WMA, 18-19 April, 28-30 May; Eagle Bluffs 30 May to 1 June; Agate Fossil Beds National Monument, 1-2 June. 1987: Agate Fossil Beds NM, 13 June 1987; Anderson Bridge WMA, 11 June, 5-6 September; Eagle Bluffs, 6-7 September; Elk Creek, 5 September. 1988: Anderson Bridge WMA, 26-27 May; McCann Canyon, 27 May.

Several different areas were visited during field trips along the entire length of the Valley: 1). Agate Fossil Bends National Monument (Sioux County). The area is about 2,000 acres (810 ha) containing five habitat types. The channel of the Niobrara is about a meter wide, with wetland meadows and marsh adjacent to the river. Also on the floodplain to a limited extent is willow in the moist lowland. Drier areas on the upland have shortgrass prairie with rocky buttes along the bluffs of the river Valley. The woodland areas are especially rich in birds since this type of habitat is limited. There are some limited groves of cottonwood trees nearby. There is a former oxbow of the river, which has been dredged and deepened in the ranch house area of Agate Springs Ranch (1989: Dorothy Meade, pers. comm.).

2). Eagle Bluffs is private land on the Niobrara south and a little east of Rushville (North ½ of section 19, T30N R43W, Sheridan County). Habitats include river channel with sandbars, wetland meadow, floodplain forest, rocky buttes with pine and upland prairie.

3). Anderson Bridge Wildlife Management Area (WMA) covers 137 acres (±55 ha) 5.5 miles (8.8 km.) south, two miles (3.2 km.) east and five miles (8 km.) south of Kilgore (Cherry County). This diverse area along one mile of the Niobrara River includes deciduous woodland on the floodplain and coniferous woods on the upland. There is a several-acre former pasture near the river that was heavily grazed in the past and a limited amount of native sandhills prairie on the upland that continues to the south into the extensive grasslands of McKelvie National Forest. Wetlands include a small pond with an excellent variety of marsh plants including water lily (Nymphaea tuberosa), cattail, common reed (Phragmites australis) and wetland grasses. There is a small stream and the channel of the river that provides additional wetland habitat. The avifauna of this area has been surveyed previously (Nebraska Bird Review (NBR) 51:62-63). Three other sites were also visited on only one occasion, including McCann Canyon on the north side of the river three miles (4.8 km.) west of Anderson Bridge WMA. The two other areas along the Niobrara River were in western Cherry County. The vicinity of Bear Creek (sections 31 and 32, T33N R36W) was visited on 20 May 1989. This area of the river in some places has only a limited amount of floodplain. Instead, the prairie typical of the uplands continues to the river bank in some places. In a few spots sandstone cliffs are immediately adjacent to the river. The Valley here changes character often with its width and amount of vegetative cover highly variable. The Twisted Pine Ranch was visited on 21 May to visit with the Moreland's about their bird sightings. A brief time was spent studying the lake and floodplain area.

4). The Schlagel Creek area is directly south of Valentine (Cherry County). The area is hayland on the floodplain and grassland and pine forest on the uplands. Deciduous trees occur along the creek and on the floodplain in groves. The land is grazed by cattle. There is also an oxbow area among the cottonwood forest. The river is fairly wide and shallow with sandbars in this area. I visited this site solely to observe the effects of wild fires which burned portion of the pine forest and prairie in 1985.

5). Thomas Creek WMA comprises 692 acres (± 280 ha) 2 miles (3.2 km.) east and 3 miles (4.8 km.) south of Springview, Keya Paha County. This rugged area is nearly 90% woodland that is predominantly ponderosa pine on the canyon slopes and bur oak in the sheltered draws. Native grasslands occur on the upland, with many small prairie tracts being invaded by sumac (Rhus glabra). Over a mile (1.6 km.) of small feeder streams with perennial water occur in the bottom of the canyon. A pond just to the south of the state property has open water and marsh habitat that attracts bird species not found elsewhere.

6). The Elk Creek vicinity is private land north of Bassett, Rock County (North 1/2 of sections 28, 29 and 30, T32N, R19W). The area I surveyed included the river channel, vegetated islands, a wetland complex of open water and emergent vegetation, deciduous woods with portions where oaks grow among conifers, and upland prairie.

7). The Mariaville site is private land along the Niobrara River 12 miles (19.2 km.) north and 2 (3.2 km.) miles east of Newport, Rock County (North 1/2 of section 35, T33N, R17W). The most interesting feature here is a natural lake of several acres. According to an analysis of aerial photos taken of the lower Niobrara Valley area, this lake is the largest open water body along the river from the eastern boundary of Cherry County east to the town of Niobrara (Ducey, unpublished maps). Wetland habitats associated with the open water include cattail marsh, shrub wetlands, hayland meadow, and small isolated potholes in floodplain forest bordering the river. The channel has extensive sandbar areas and a wooded island. Where cattle have access along the river, the area is heavily grazed preventing natural development of vegetation. The wetland meadow was cut for hay during mid-summer.

8). Pishelville Island, Knox County, has over 400 acres (± 162 ha) of floodplain forest. The island has a channel of only a few meters that separate it from the upland. Cottonwood is the predominant tree, with limited dense stands of cedar (Juniperus sp.). There are also grasslands, open water areas, wetland shrub growth, and backwater sloughs. Cattle graze the area.

9). Bohemia Prairie WMA is 680 acres (275 ha) 5 miles (8 km.) south and 4 miles (6.4 km.) west of Niobrara or 4.5 miles (7.2 km.) west and 5.5 miles (8.8 km.) north of Verdigre, Knox County. About 85% of this area is native prairie, including a very limited area of a sandhills blowout which is uncommon this far east. Deciduous woodland habitat occurs along creeks in the northwest and northeast corners. These woodland habitats are a part of the Niobrara Valley with the river about one-half mile (0.8 km.) to the north. There are also two small ponds. Nebraska Game and Parks Commission personnel have planted conifers and other woody plant species in the prairie, supposedly to increase habitat diversity for game birds. This will affect grassland species occurrence as the woody vegetation becomes a predominant feature of the landscape.

Niobrara River Habitat

River Characteristics

The Niobrara River Valley has an obvious physiographic change from west to east. At Anderson Bridge WMA the Valley is narrow with rugged buttes and steep canyon walls. The deciduous vegetation is limited to a narrow band along the river. Farther east, the Valley is enclosed by rolling hills with a gentle grade to the floodplain. Deciduous plants grow up the ravines and are more common on tributaries on the upland. The river in the east is wider and has numerous open sandbars in the channel. In central Cherry County, midchannel habitat is limited to very small, vegetated islands in a narrow channel. In Sheridan County the river is more open, flowing through a Valley predominantly of grassland with limited growth of deciduous trees on the floodplain and pines on the Valley slopes. The river is in a narrow channel with sandbars regularly. In Sioux County the Niobrara is narrow, with grassland predominant in the Valley.

Habitat Types

Several floristic studies have defined the separate biotic communities of the Niobrara Valley (Beed, 1934; Tolstead, 1942; Harrison, 1980). Information from each report, plus additional observations made by the author is summarized to characterize the diverse habitat available for birds along the river. There are many species of grasses, trees, shrubs and forbs in the habitat types given; only a few are given to indicate the more notable or predominant plant species. Plant nomenclature is based on the Flora of the Great Plains (Great Plains Flora Association, 1986).

Floodplain forest: the predominant species on the lower river is the cottonwood (Populus deltoides) and also American elm (Ulmus americana) and common hackberry (Celtis occidentalis). At Pishelville Island and elsewhere, the cottonwoods grow to a huge size. The forest area can be a mix of small open areas with grasslands, some wetland area, shrubs and other woody vegetation similar to the deciduous forest. Typical birds include songbirds such as vireos, warblers, the black-capped chickadee and white-breasted nuthatch. This forest is often used by great blue herons for nesting colonies.

Deciduous upland and stream side forest: the most obvious species is the bur oak (Quercus macrocarpa), with American elm (Ulmus americana), green ash (Fraxinus pennsylvanica) and box elder (Acer negundo) also representative. Birds include the Cooper's hawk, turkey, house wren, great blue heron, robin, orioles and the northern cardinal.

Coniferous forest: ponderosa pine (Pinus ponderosa) is the predominant tree. This community is also known for the cedar. Representative birds include the common poor-will, red-breasted nuthatch and chipping sparrow.

Spring-branch community: occurs to a limited extent in the central Valley area on the southern slope. Two distinct forest types have been recognized: the linden (Tilia americana)-cedar-ironwood (Ostrya virginiana)-ash forest in which white birch (Betula papyrifera) also occurs. The white paper birch forest is the secondary forest type in this community. Bird species that use other deciduous woodlands also occur in this habitat. An open-springs vegetation type, with sedges and rushes (Juncus), also has been characterized. Many rare and unusual plant species have been identified as components of this floral community (Harrison, 1980).

Shrub communities: represented by wild plum (Prunus americana), chokecherry (Prunus virginiana), buck brush (Symphoricarpos occidentalis) and buffalo-berry (Shepherdia argentia). Sumac (Rhus sp.) is a shrub which invades prairie areas. Representative birds are the gray catbird, rufous-sided towhee, loggerhead shrike and yellow-breasted chat.

Emergent wetlands, lakes, and shrub wetlands: wetlands occur in many places along the entire river. There are but a few natural lakes and two man-made reservoirs. Marsh vegetation includes cattails, sedges (Carex sp.), bulrush (Scirpus sp.), common reed (Phragmites australis) and arrowhead (Sagittaria latifolia). Marsh birds are best represented by the red-winged blackbird. Shrub wetlands have a predominant growth of willows and are used most notably by swamp sparrows which have a very localized occurrence. The lakes are a mix of open water, floating vegetation and emergent wetlands near the lake edge. Notable plants include white water lily plus the same plants typical of emergent wetlands. Lakes are used by a large number of migrant birds including waterfowl, pelicans, black terns and others. The Mariaville area has many of these habitat types within a relatively small area, with the shrub wetland the most unique. At the Elk Creek site, there is a lake area with several wetland communities.

Wetland meadow: typical plants are bluestem (Andropogon gerardii), Indian-grass (Sorghastrum nutans), bluejoint reedgrass (Calamagrostis canadensis) and tall dropseed (Sporobolus asper). The eastern meadowlark and bobolink are the most characteristic species. The largest wetland meadow I visited during my field studies was annually cut for hay as are the majority of the meadows in the Valley.

Sandhills prairie: representative flora are the bluestem grasses (Andropogon sp.), switchgrass (Panicum virgatum), indian-grass, needle and thread (Stipa comata), Canada wild rye (Elymus canadensis), blowout grass (Redfieldia flexuosa), hairy grama (Bouteloua hirsuta) and other types of grasses. Species occurrence varies with available moisture. Yucca (Yucca glauca) occurs in places where the grassland has been overgrazed. Typical bird species include the grasshopper sparrow, horned lark and vesper sparrow.

Tallgrass prairie: typical plants include big bluestem (Andropogon gerardi), indian grass, and switchgrass. A transition from wet meadow, to tallgrass prairie and then to upland prairie occurs with changes in available moisture and ground elevation. This habitat is limited since most of it has been tilled for the planting of agricultural crops. Typical birds species include the meadowlark and grasshopper sparrow.

Mixed prairie: grasses such as needle-and-thread and blue grama (Bouteloua gracilis) with a sedge (Carex filifolia) are typical. Bird species include the grasshopper sparrow, horned lark, western meadowlark, and vesper sparrow which are typical in almost all grassland habitats mentioned.

Shortgrass prairie: occurs on the upland and is comprised mostly of buffalo grass (Bulbilis dactyloides) and blue grama grass. A representative area is Agate Fossil Bed NM. Typical birds include the long-billed curlew, McCown's longspur, western meadowlark and horned lark, to name a few. The mixed grass and short grass prairie areas have similar species of birds which occur.

Riverine sandbars: mid-channel sandbars with a varying amount of vegetation. Plants on an open sandbar include cottonwood saplings, short growths of cattails, sedges, willows (Salix sp.) and annual weeds. The most extensive growth of vegetation is represented by cottonwoods and willows. Characteristic species when vegetative cover is limited (typically less than five to 10 percent) are cranes, the piping plover, and least tern, and many other shore and water birds when vegetative growth is still sparse. An increasing growth of plants means a transition in bird species to such species as the Bell's vireo and yellow warbler.

Rocky buttes and cliff faces: bare rock cliffs near the mouth of the river which have no vegetation. The characteristic species is the cliff swallow. In the western Valley the rocky buttes have a mixture of grassland, woods and scattered bare rock. Characteristic species are the rock wren and common nighthawk. In this area, sheer rock faces with a ledge suitable for nest building may be used by golden eagles, prairie falcons, ferruginous hawk and red-tailed hawk. The Say's phoebe occurs in the grassland areas of this habitat and nest in crevices and holes in the rocky buttes and cliff faces.

Most of the bird studies that noted floristic conditions along the Niobrara River noted the obvious differences in habitat characteristics of the Valley from east to west. These changes can be shown with photographs of the areas I visited during my recent studies (Figures 3-8). The habitat differences are due to different physiographic features of the river Valley (Figure 9). The Valley in the east has a more expansive river bed and floodplain. The central Valley has deeper canyons that offer more shelter from harsh growing conditions which allows a greater diversity of flora to thrive. The western Valley, near Agate, is open country of mostly grassland with some woody vegetation right along the river.

A comparison of the same area where Frank Shoemaker took his photo in 1903 shows an increase in woody vegetation. In some localities, cattle grazing in recent years is causing a decrease in woody vegetation.

Quantitative studies have been done on the habitats of the river channel. An extensive survey of riverine habitat features along the eastern Niobrara River was conducted as part of environmental studies associated with the Norden Dam project (Environmental Research and Technology, 1981). Identified habitat types and typical plant species, characteristics of habitat types and prepared maps showing the land cover types of the river channel from the Norden Bridge east to the Highway 137 bridge in Rock County are the basis for the report. It shows that the prevalent land cover types along the river are the channel area itself, riparian woodland, hay meadows and pastureland.

As outlined in this report, the successional sequence along the lower Niobrara River shoreline is:

1). mixture of herbaceous species and shrub and tree seedlings established on barren sand
2). seedlings of shrubs - willows, indigo bush (Amorpha fruticosa) - increase in height, and develop large intermeshed root systems
3). tree saplings (green ash (Fraxinus pennsylvanica), cottonwood) begin to overtop surrounding shrubs
4). shade-intolerant shrubs (willows) begin to die out as canopy cover of the taller trees increase (Environmental Research and Technology, 1981, p. 3-40 to 3-58)

Bird Species

Whooping Cranes

There have been eight confirmed sightings of whooping cranes on the Niobrara River since 1957. All have been between Carns and Fort Niobrara NWR (Nebraska Game and Parks Commission 1988). The numbers varied from one to five, with an average of three. Site features, when given, were characterized by sandbars with no emergent vegetation in an area where the river was wide, braided, and shallow.

Piping Plover And Least Terns

The first reference that the Niobrara River was important breeding habitat for these birds was made by Wolcott (Ducey, 1983). During his float trip down the river, he first noted four plovers near the Springview Bridge. He later found the nest. During the remainder of the trip, he located no nests but noted plovers commonly. He did not see terns until further downriver near Badger, Holt County, when a flock of eight or nine birds was seen. From there downriver terns were very common and he noted them daily. Wolcott's notes also said that "every large bar was certain to have several of the little fellows hovering about, uttering their harsh, squeaky notes as they plunged into the shallows or chased each other about in the air."

Historic studies give some insight into the occurrence of the piping plover and least tern. They do not however provide an overall perspective. Once the plight of these two species became apparent to biologists in the modern era, more extensive work was initiated to provide accurate and current information needed to assist in developing management plans to ensure the continued survival of the species.

The Nebraska Game and Parks Commission has been conducting annual surveys of piping plover and least tern population since 1980 with the exception of 1986. The first efforts were aerial surveys with a follow-up check of areas where birds had been seen. In 1985 and 1987, more thorough surveys were done by a thorough search of the sandbars after birds were observed from the adjacent water channel while passing by on an airboat. The number of birds noted at colonies varies from one to more than 26. Most of the colonies have from six to 20 terns, with more than 25 sites having 6-10 terns.

Populations and number of sites where recorded for Piping Plovers and Least Terns on the eastern Niobrara River (Information courtesy of Nebraska Game and Parks Commission).

Norden to Highway 137

Highway 137 to Niobrara



# (2)

LETE (3)









-- (4)












































































(1) Piping Plover. (2) Number of sites where recorded. (3) Least Tern. (4) Populations were not surveyed.

In some years, floods may decimate nesting populations by washing away nests. This was recorded most recently in 1987, when all known nesting attempts were destroyed. Nests are easily flooded because their height above water averages only .43 feet (±102 mm) for the piping plover and .56 feet (± 128 mm) for the least tern (Nebraska Game and Parks Commission, unpubl.).

These studies indicate the Niobrara River, with its extensive amount of water and sandbar channel area provides important nesting habitat for these threatened or endangered birds.

Other shorebirds also occur along the river channel. To assess use of the river by all shorebirds in the summer, two approximately five mile (8 km.) stretches were surveyed in June, 1985. The areas are near Pishelville, Knox County (southwest 1/4 sec. 24, T32N, R8W to northeast 1/4 sec. 3, T31N, R7W) and near Redbird, Holt County (northwest 1/4 sec. ;6, T32N, R10W to north 1/2 sec. 11, T32N, R10W). I did the census by walking in the river channel and counting the birds seen or heard.

The estimated shorebird and waterbird numbers recorded are given here to indicate relative abundance along these portions of the Niobrara River. Since no specific nesting areas for plovers or colonies of terns were noted, this does not indicate populations but shows the differences in the number of these birds that occur.

Number of breeding season waterbirds noted in two locales on the lower Niobrara River.

Census Area

Piping Plover


Spotted Sandpiper

Least Tern











*Based on a pair per site of observation.

Piping plovers were the least obvious. Killdeer were very obvious and easy to count. Spotted sandpipers were as common or numerous as Killdeer but may have been present in greater numbers. They were not as vocal and occurred in vegetation on the sandbars, islands and shore which made them sometimes less obvious.

During this census, I noted that over 75% of the sandbars in the eastern portion of the Pishelville census area were overgrown with willows. The growth of vegetation reduced the habitat available to these species. At one open sandbar area less than 25 yard (± 23 m) in diameter, terns showed defensive behavior, but no breeding activity was located and the birds left the vicinity. This was the only suitable nesting substrate in the immediate area. Riverine sandbars upstream were of better quality being more extensive and open and occurred to a greater extent.

Changes may have occurred over time as the river's flow has varied during the past decades. The pool of Lewis and Clark Lake has reduced the scouring effect of riverine sediment. As the river nears the water level of the reservoir, the sediment is deposited in the riverbed. This deposition has resulted in an increase in sandbars. As a result, vegetative encroachment has occurred. Higher than average flows would deposit more sediment among the vegetation on the sandbars and further increase the height of these areas above the river water level. This would decrease the ability of water flows to scour the sandbars clean of any plant growth. The Corps of Engineers has studied this portion of the river to determine the effects that would occur if the pool level of Lewis and Clark Lake were increased. No actual measurements have been made of the influence of this water structure on the riverine habitat of the Niobrara near the Missouri River.

Wintering Bald Eagles

Habitat along the Niobrara River is suitable for bald eagles in the winter and during spring and fall migration. In addition to regular sightings at a specific area, there have been annual surveys since the 1950's of eagles. Only information since 1980 is given here because the counts were made using the same, standard survey method.

Number of Bald Eagles counted in National Wildlife Federation midwinter surveys along the Niobrara River (Information courtesy of Nebraska Game and Parks Commission).










Region 1










Region 2










Region 3










Region 4




















* indicates no birds were sighted during the survey

During these surveys the number of eagles present were counted for certain stretches of the river. To allow a geographic comparison, these stretches were placed within the five river sections designated for this paper. The five sections are further described in the species accounts portion of this paper.

The census information shows a greater use by eagles of the river east of the Valentine area. Although no bald eagles were seen west of Dawes County during the midwinter census, the species does occur in that area based on sightings in the Agate Fossil Beds NM area and elsewhere in Sioux County.

Based on the rare occurrence in summer, and the breeding activity of these eagles elsewhere in Nebraska (Ducey, 1988), it could be expected that the bald eagle may eventually nest in suitable areas along the Niobrara River.

Avian Population Studies

Only two surveys have been made to quantitatively assess bird use of the Niobrara River Valley, both for the environmental studies for the O'Neill Project. The first survey of bird use of the river channel was done by the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS). The FWS conducted two surveys and separated their numbers into four river segments between Highway 137 and Smith Falls (Longfellow, 1977). The counts were done in October and November of 1976 and April of 1977. The information for each segment has been combined and summarized. Average values have been rounded to the nearest full integer.

The fall survey counted unidentified ducks on 13 of 14 surveys, with a range in numbers of 20 to 228, averaging 74. Eleven of the 13 counts were between 20 and 95, averaging 42.

Spring counts by the FWS were more inclusive and noted a larger variety of species. American white pelicans were counted four times with numbers of one, seven and 15 seen twice. Double-crested cormorants were noted on nine of 15 counts with a range of one to 25, average 7. The high values were 11, 13 and 25 with the remainder between one and five. Great blue herons were seen on seven of the 15 surveys. Usually only one bird was seen in a river segment but on one occasion seven were seen. The spring count included mallards, pintails, blue-winged teal, wood duck and northern shovelers and recorded these ducks on 14 of 15 surveys. The range was 20 to 228, average 75, with 11 of 13 counts between 20 and 95, average 42. Common mergansers were seen on 12 of 15 surveys. Numbers ranged from two to 23 and averaged 14. Four counts were less than five, five were between 10 and 20 and there were three counts of more than 20 common mergansers.

Sandhill crane numbers are available for the fall period only. Survey counts between four and 2,850 were made on nine of 14 surveys. The average was 568 with an average of 251 for the seven counts between 120 and 1,030 birds.

Numbers of sandhill cranes counted during a fall aerial survey of the Niobrara River (Longfellow 1977).

Date *

Highway 137 to Highway 7

Highway 7 to Meadville

Meadville to Norden Bridge

Norden Bridge to Smith Falls


22 Oct






23 Oct






26 Oct






27 Oct






28 Oct






29 Oct






31 Oct






3 Nov






4 Nov






* No sandhill cranes were seen on 24, 25, 30 Oct. and 1, 5 Nov.

The second study was done of five transects through representative habitat in the Niobrara Valley. Studies were carried out in the spring and fall (Longfellow, 1977). In addition to those birds listed, additional species were seen but no density value was designated. The most abundant species were the western meadowlark, horned lark, mourning dove, house wren, black-capped chickadee, northern oriole, red-winged blackbird, and lark sparrow. "Populations of each species noted during this study are lower, on the average, than those in areas where larger stands of comparable habitat occur" (Longfellow, 1977; attachment 5, p. 20). That study noted how the many ecotones contributed to the number of species recorded.

Avian Hybridization

The mix of habitats that occur in the Niobrara River Valley provides ideal conditions for the co-occurrence of several bird species that may hybridize. Specific studies have shown that hybridization has occurred between what were once called red-shafted and yellow-shafted flickers; lazuli and indigo buntings; and what were once called Bullock's oriole and Baltimore oriole (Sibley and Short, 1959; 1964; Short, 1961; 1965). The Niobrara Valley area in the vicinity of Valentine was noted to be the center of the zone of hybridization for the orioles and buntings.

These same studies have mentioned the possibility of hybridization occurring between the western and scarlet tanagers, rose-breasted and black-headed grosbeaks, and western and eastern wood-pewees. Distribution records indicate that during the period of record the tanagers have had overlapping ranges. However, the western tanager is apparently erratic in the vicinity of Valentine whereas the scarlet tanager is common eastward from Valentine. Sites where the wood-pewees were noted indicate an overlap in their range. This has been recorded at Box Butte Reservoir on the western Niobrara River in Dawes County. The western wood-pewee is common while the eastern wood-pewee is rare in the same area during the breeding season. A hybrid eastern and western wood-pewee was noted in Valentine in May 1989 (1989: R.C. Rosche, pers. comm.). Additional field work could better define the portion of the Valley where these species overlap and occur with some regularity during the breeding season.

Species Summary

In order to better assess any changes bird species occurrence through time, two conventions are followed in the summary of species. First, the river is divided into five stretches selected to represent the different character of the river and where observations seemed to be grouped. Time periods selected are similar to previous work done with Nebraska birds (Ducey, 1988).

The regions for the species listing table were:
Region 1: The easternmost stretch of the Niobrara River, including the area around Niobrara, Bohemia Prairie WMA, Pishelville Island, and the mouth of the River.
Region 2: Includes areas of Mariaville, Elk Creek, Thomas Creek WMA, the Niobrara Valley Preserve and historic Fort Niobrara Game Reserve (now the Fort Niobrara NWR).
Region 3: Central and western Cherry County in the vicinity of Anderson Bridge WMA, south of Eli and south of Merriman at Highway 61.
Region 4: The river Valley in Sheridan County south of Rushville on private property designated the Eagle Bluffs area.
Region 5: Box Butte Reservoir and westward to the vicinity of Agate Fossil Beds NM.

Time Periods of A = Pre-1920; B = 1921-1960; and, C = Post-1960, were used to evaluate any changes through time in the distribution of birds along the Niobrara River. Habitat changes have occurred due to increased woody vegetation growth following the suppression of prairie fires. Construction of two reservoirs has provided open water habitat that was historically not present.


Extensive habitat diversity supports a large number of different species in a small area. The number of bird species currently recorded along the Niobrara River is 268. The review of species in this paper also illustrates unknown occurrence areas in a species range. Additional field work could help fill in the range of some species and lead to a better understanding of the avifauna of the Valley.

The valley is a transition area for eastern and western avifauna. From west to east the habitat and bird composition change. The dominance of prairie gradually changes to a predominance of woodland in the east.

This lower portion of the Niobrara is noted for its wide and shallow river with many bare sandbars. Here lakes on the river floodplain are larger and deeper, whereas at Anderson Bridge the lake size is a result of dam-building efforts by beaver. These water areas attract a large variety of shore and water birds. In the western portion of the Valley, Box Butte Reservoir attracts many species that add to the diversity of the Valley bird list. Especially notable are the shore and waterbirds. Loons, grebes, waterfowl and gulls are examples. Many of these species would probably not occur in the Valley if it were not for the habitat created by the reservoir. The most obvious reason for this difference, I suggest, is the natural riverine and wetland habitat in this region of the river, which is not as extensive elsewhere in the Valley. If these species were to occur elsewhere in the undeveloped portion of the Valley, it would probably be in the lower reaches of the river. At Spencer Dam on the eastern river, the same type of extensive use by a variety of waterbirds would not be expected since there is no large body of deeper, open water.

Of the total number of species included in this paper, over 75 are associated with wetland or riverine habitats. This does not include the red-winged blackbird or killdeer and others which occur in diverse habitats. This is about one-fifth of the total and illustrates the importance of riverine habitat. Included in this category are several threatened or endangered species - the whooping crane, bald eagle, piping plover, and least tern - which points out the importance of conserving mid-river sandbars to be used by a number of shore and water birds. Habitat is available now but there are some changes that could alter this. Near the mouth of the Niobrara, the scouring effect of river flows has declined as the pool level of Lewis and Clark lake became established. This has led to an increase in the growth of vegetation on sandbars. The Corps of Engineers once proposed raising the pool level behind Gavins Point Dam which would further influence channel habitat in the easternmost area of the Niobrara. Extensive changes in flow regimes could also affect the sediment and scouring features of the river water. Limited habitats such as wetland lakes and wet meadows also need protection from destruction and degradation. Retaining floodplain forest is essential for species to mix and provide the habitat overlap needed for hybridization. Reservoirs in South Dakota have flooded and subsequently destroyed woodland habitat where flickers and orioles occur and hybridize (Anderson, 1971) and this could also happen in Nebraska.

The analysis of records shows some notable apparent changes in the distribution of three species in particular. The Swainson's hawk once nested and was a regular summer resident at the Niobrara Game Preserve area but current records list it only as occasional. The rock wren once was said to also nest in the central Valley area but now is listed as rare there. Nesting habitat is present but actual nesting has not been confirmed for the current period in the central Valley which is the fringe of the normal range for this wren. The barred owl was listed as an uncommon resident at Fort Niobrara by Youngworth (1955) but has only recently been recorded in the easternmost portion of the Niobrara Valley. The raven and tufted titmouse were recorded in the recent time period but there are no records for the current period.

There are some other notable items on species range based on the information. Two species, the merlin and red crossbill, have been noted for the area of the Valley which have an extensive growth of pines - the preferred habitat of the crossbill during the breeding season.

The benefits of further field work can be indicated by more sightings of migratory songbirds. Regions 1 and 2 have a larger number of warblers seen than any other region, resulting from field work done at the Niobrara Valley Preserve and near the junction with the Missouri River.

The western Valley has species limited to the region, including: Cassin's kingbird, western wood-pewee, green-tailed towhee, McCown's longspur. Many migratory species associated with Box Butte Reservoir have been recorded only at this site.

There are some records from this area also which are unverified and unaccepted sightings. At Agate the range of the ruby-throated hummingbird would have a lengthy extension from the central Valley from its previously reported range. The rufous hummingbird, Selasphorus rufus (Gmelin), is the species expected in this area and the broad-tailed hummingbird, Selasphorus platycercus (Swainson) also occurs occasionally as migrants. The red-shouldered hawk, chukar, green jay, ruby-throated hummingbird, and groove-billed ani are unexpected and unverified state records.

Based on personal field work, it was noticed that changes in vegetative character may promote changes in bird species distribution. No quantitative data was collected but the extent of shrub growth has increased here. Several species were observed at Anderson Bridge in 1985 that had not been noted in 1983. Recorded in 1985 but not noted in 1983 at Anderson Bridge WMA were the: black-and-white warbler, red-bellied woodpecker, hairy woodpecker, yellow-breasted chat, great-crested flycatcher and indigo bunting.

The chat in particular would be expected to find more suitable habitat on the area as vegetative growth increased once cattle grazing was stopped. At Anderson Bridge WMA, livestock removal has led to a continual increase in the growth of shrubs and other plants. Ovenbirds, which also occur in the woodland understory, would also benefit from greater vegetative cover.

Cattle have a drastic effect on the character of the vegetation throughout the Valley. This impact is most obvious in the floodplain forest. At Mariaville the floodplain forest was void of any understory vegetation due to the grazing and trampling by cattle. In the western Valley, only the sides of steep north-facing slopes have any significant riparian vegetative growth. Cattle not only prevent seasonal plant growth but also prevent any new growth of trees and shrubs. At Anderson Bridge WMA, the growth of vegetation in the woodland understory is remarkably different from adjacent areas used as pasture for cattle. Shrub, grasses and other plants grow undisturbed and provide significant wildlife cover.

Along the entire Valley, the only decent riparian growth is limited to wildlife refuges, wildlife areas and other public lands. Marshes, especially along the edge, are disturbed by cattle, although these animals may not walk into the deeper water areas so plant growth here may occur undisturbed. In some canyons on private land, the steep and rugged terrain may limit cattle access and allow growth of deciduous and coniferous vegetation. Grassland areas can also have little or no plant growth where cattle grazing occurs. Cattle also graze on sandbars. In the long term, overgrazing has lead to a decrease in floodplain forest since no regeneration of trees and shrubs can occur.

Another additional impact on the river occurs below the dam at Box Butte Reservoir. Here the river is little more than an irrigation canal used to transport water to the Mirage Flats area south of Hay Springs where agricultural crops are grown. One other agricultural practice has an influence on the occurrence of some birds. Alfalfa is always irrigated in the west part of the Valley, hence it provides and artificial man-made habitat for eastern meadowlarks, bobolinks, dickcissel ad perhaps ring-necked pheasants (1989: R.C. Rosche, pers. comm.).

An increase in vegetative growth in the Valley would promote the occurrence of birds and increase their range since habitat conditions would be improved. For eastern species, suitable habitat would especially occur to a greater extent further west along the Niobrara River.

Some changes in occurrence may be due to shifts in range on a short term basis. The indigo bunting was very obvious in 1985. The red-bellied and hairy woodpecker have also been observed only during one season at Anderson Bridge.

It has been noted that bird populations are smaller because the extent of available habitat is less (Longfellow, 1977). Changes in bird populations are most evident on the edge of their range. This may be the reason for changes in species occurrence in this region of the Valley.

In one case, a gradual but continual increase in range has also been noted in the Valley. The northern cardinal was very uncommon at Anderson Bridge in 1985; only one singing male was present in a small tract of deciduous woods. By 1988 there were at least two pairs of territorial birds. In the early 1950's, Youngworth noted the species was moving west along the river from the area of the Fort Niobrara Game Preserve. There were no historic sightings previous to the mid 1900's despite field work in the area. Apparently the cardinal has become established in the Niobrara Valley only during this century.

The wood duck has also extended its range. It was not recorded during any field studies prior to 1960 but is now known to occur along most of the river. This duck has extended its range westward with an increase of woody vegetation. Within just the past few years, wood ducks have been added to the bird list at Agate NM and Box Butte Reservoir.

In addition to the well-documented co-occurrence of several species, the Valley also has other bird species of similar taxonomic classification which occur in the same areas. Three species of nightjars have been noted in the area of Bohemia Prairie (Ducey 1985), at the Niobrara Valley Preserve (Brogie and Mossman, 1983) and at Thomas Creek WMA (1989: R.C. Rosche, pers. comm.). At Anderson Bridge WMA, four species of woodpeckers were seen in a single day of birding. Among these was the red-bellied woodpecker which now occurs as far west as central Cherry County whereas it was previously noted only in the Valentine area. This woodpecker is fairly common from the vicinity of Bohemia Prairie to the junction of the Missouri River (1989: M.A. Brogie, pers. comm.)

The Niobrara Valley is recognized for having disjunct or range extension in the Nebraska region. This paper indicates there are 15 species which have range extensions in the Valley. Many of these species are associated with woodland habitats or wetland habitats. These species have a range extension in their know range in Nebraska. A range extension does not necessarily mean the Niobrara River provides a corridor to a birds' range elsewhere in other regions or states.

Species noted to have range extension or limits in the variety of Niobrara River valley habitats, include.

• Prairie falcon: eastern limit, sandstone cliffs
• American woodcock: western limit, riparian woodland
• Whip-poor-will: western limit, woodland edges
• Red-bellied woodpecker: western limit, open woodland
• Western wood-pewee: eastern limit, pine woodland
• Eastern wood-pewee: western extension, riparian woodland
• Blue-gray gnatcatcher: western limit, riparian woodland
• Wood thrush: western limit, deciduous woodland
• Yellow-throated vireo: western limit, riparian woodland
• Black-and-white warbler: western extension, deciduous woods
• American redstart: western extension, riparian woodland
• Ovenbird: western extension, deciduous woodland
• Scarlet tanager: western extension, oak woodland
• Western tanager: eastern limit, pine woodland
• Black-headed grosbeak: eastern limit, open deciduous woodland

The American woodcock is an eastern and northern species whose range has reached the lower Niobrara River as it has been recorded near the confluence with the Missouri River (1989: M.A. Brogie, pers. comm.) and along the rivers edge at Spencer Dam (1989: R.C. Rosche, pers. comm.). The blue-gray gnatcatcher is a second species which is apparently extending is eastern range into the lower Valley. Both are expected to probably breed in this area. If woodland and wetland habitat along the river was in better condition - floodplain forest and prairie not over grazed and meadows not hayed - species would find suitable conditions to extend their range further. This is especially the case with the birds which occur in the deciduous forest, floodplain forest and shrub habitats along the river.

The prairie falcon nests in western Cherry County in the sandstone bluffs adjacent to the river channel. This is the easternmost site record for the prairie falcon in Nebraska. The northern cardinal has reached Anderson Bridge WMA and been seen once in spring along the river at the Simmon's Ranch about 40 km (25 miles west). If suitable habitat is present, this species would be expected to eventually occur further west.

Two probable breeding species have indications of a possible increase in range. The northern mockingbird was noted along the river at Elk Creek. The Niobrara provides suitable habitat to connect the usual eastern habitats with suitable sites in the west. The scissor-tailed flycatcher has been noted as a vagrant in the spring and into the summer in the central and western Valley, respectively. Breeding season occurrence would extend this bird's range farther north. A semi-open mix of woods and grasslands habitat is present in the many ecotones in the Valley area.

It has been pointed out that reservoirs along the Missouri River have destroyed habitat where species would overlap and hybridization could have occurred (Anderson, 1971). Along the Niobrara, a reservoir would have the same impact by destroying habitat in a zone of hybridization for several species.

The loss of woody habitat would also destroy a corridor that connects a species range with outlier areas such as the Pine Ridge and Black Hills where species are known to nest. Examples of species where this would occur include the eastern bluebird, tree swallow, white-breasted nuthatch, red-eyed vireo, American redstart and ovenbird.

Those species with an extension in their range in the Valley clearly indicate the Niobrara provides suitable habitat to create a connection between eastern populations along rivers such as the Missouri and western breeding populations in the Pine Ridge and Black Hills. Some species also have habitat suitable to extend their range either further to the west or eastward.

The Niobrara River Valley habitats are a diverse and important biological setting for a large variety of avifauna. Maintaining this biological setting is important not only for the avifauna but for the relict plants as well. The Niobrara Valley is a modern faunal refugium from the arid and treeless surrounding grasslands (Kaul et al., 1988). The Valley provides important habitat for species hybridization and serves as a corridor to connect different populations of breeding birds. The key is retaining the habitat conditions necessary for the flora and animal life to thrive and maintain the ecological setting. Conserving the habitat will also allow the changes in bird range to continue without any interference from human development.

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