2022-07-21 Nebraska’s Sandhills

Pied-Billed Grebe - Podilymbus podiceps
After driving for hours, when I spotted a pull-out ahead, I took advantage of the opportunity to rest. This was the serendipitous way I found Willy Lake in the Sandhills of Nebraska. One of the treats I enjoyed at the lake was the company of juvenile Pied-Billed Grebes and their parents.

As I pen this story, I’m in northeast Kansas. By my calculation, I’ve been traveling for over 12,000 miles on this trip, with miles to go before I sleep. The voyage began in Southern California and carried me all the way up the Pacific Coast to the Olympic peninsula and Washington state. Then I turned east and meandered my way through Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Wyoming, and Montana, before I crossed the border into Canada. After a lengthy tour of Canada that included Alberta, British Columbia, the Yukon, and Saskatchewan, I returned to the USA in eastern Montana. I drove south to tour northeast Wyoming, and the Black Hills of South Dakota before continuing on to Nebraska. This episode is about my tour through Nebraska’s Sandhills.

2022-07-19 Tuesday

After leaving the Black Hills of South Dakota on Monday, I began Tuesday morning at Maverick Junction near Hot Springs South Dakota. I parked overnight in a truck parking lot and began my drive by taking the route south into Chadron Nebraska where I enjoyed a lovely breakfast at a restaurant called the Country Kitchen.

Those folks who’ve read my earlier travelogs might wonder why I place importance on cafe breakfasts. There are several reasons I seek such places. Primarily, what I enjoy most about such stops is the connection to local culture it often gives me. Local cafes provide a glimpse into the lives of its community members that drive-through observations fail to deliver. Another motivation for me to visit these places, aside from the food, is that I can spend quiet times with my own thoughts, and write in my journal on the events of the preceding days. These mental ruminations are fodder for the stories I share here on my blog.

Blue Dasher - Pachydiplax longipennis
Dragonflies and Damselflies were thick at the Willy Lake’s shoreline.

After my breakfast in Chadron, I continued south until I reached the town of Alliance. From there, I turned east and drove on Highway #2, a two-lane routh into the heart of the Sandhills. I kept an eye out for a wide place to stop and explore, and when an interesting-looking place along the road presented itself, I stopped to take a break and stretch my legs. I found a lake, a marsh and cottonwoods there. Better yet, there was a very convenient place for me to park well off the road, and so I took advantage of it. I spent time trying to photograph the birds I found, but the light was not wonderful, and the birds were a little skittish. Nevertheless, I enjoyed the break from the drive. I later learned that the lake here is called Willy Lake. It seemed like a good place for me to stop for a while, so I parked and prepared to settle in for the evening.

My curiosity about the origins of the Sandhills here in Nebraska caused me to do a little research. I learned that the sand was deposited here after the retreat of the last glaciers on the Rocky mountains, and then the winds carried the sands out to the prairie. These dunes cover about a quarter of the state of Nebraska. Some are as high as 400 ft and 20 mi long. I know sand dunes conjure up visions of arid plains, but these dunes are held in place with native prairie grasses.

As I walked along the road with my camera I noticed the sand on the side of the road was quite fine. It is a quartz sand according to the reports I read. It covers a huge underground water source called the Ogallala Aquifer. The sand acts like a sponge to hold the moisture, but it’s shallow enough that plants can reach the water with their roots. There is no shortage of lakes and marshes in this region. Most of the low places between the hills support lakes and wetlands.

Upland Sandpiper - Bartramia longicauda
Upland Sandpipers were high on my wish-list for this trip. And these birds were putting on quite a show. I left the main highway to follow a narrow ranch road that penetrated the heart of Nebraska’s Sandhills. 
Upland Sandpiper - Bartramia longicauda
Seneca Road provided some of my favorite bird encounters in a while.

This area is sparsely settled and there have been restrictions from fencing which kept it from being more densely occupied. There was a rush to homestead here in 1904, when parcels were as large as 640 acres. But the restrictions about no fencing made it difficult for those who attempted to settle. Most failed and left the area, but a few stayed on and apparently have done very well, with some of the highest densities of cattle in the nation.

2022-07-20 Wednesday

My stay at Willy Lake last night turned into a buggy affair. I spent time taking photos during the day, and the only bugs I saw were dragonflies and damselflies. In fact, I’ve never seen such a density of population of these voracious mosquito-eaters. I thought, what chance does a mosquito have with so many hungry mouths to feed? But that was before the sun went down. I mistakenly left some gaps in the screens that keep the tiny vampires out of the RV, and I paid the price. While my attention was focused on work at the computer, an invasion of biblical proportions was bestowed on me. Without resorting to chemical warfare, I tried my best to assassinate as many of the little varmints as I could, but as anyone who’s ever attempted such a mission can testify, you just can’t count on complete success.

Before surrendering to the horizontal plane, I charted a course for my next day’s tour through Nebraska. I found a breakfast cafe, Big Red’s in Mullen, only an hour from my Willy Lake camp, and an interesting wildlife reserve (Valentine) near enough to my intended route, that I could not resist an exploratory side trip.

2022-07-21 Thursday

I had a great day on the road yesterday. I left Big Red’s in Mullen and headed east about 20 miles and found a rural road that led to the Valentine NWR I’d read about. The road was called Seneca Road, and though it was paved nicely, wasn’t wide enough for two cars to pass without both rigs putting their right wheels on the dirt shoulder. Luckily, I mostly had the road to myself.

As I began driving this road, I wasn’t sure I’d made a wise choice of routes for the day. This primitive road was likely an old wagon route used by the early pioneers to connect to the outside world. While the major arteries across the Sandhills followed the lowest creases between the long grass-covered dunes, this route criss-crossed over the berms and I got to experience more thoroughly the natural wonder of the region. But what sealed the deal for me, was meeting dozens of Upland Sandpipers only a mile or two down the road posing on fence posts. I knew I’d lucked out. I’d been denied opportunities to capture these endearing birds during my travels further north, and I’d all but given up hope for finding them on this expedition. These birds more than made up for my past frustrations with this species.

I also met Bobolinks here, but theirs was a more shy response, and I wasn’t able to approach them as closely as the sandpipers. Once, though, as I was working on my best opportunity, and I was outside the RV and parked mostly to the side, a car came up behind, and I had to move the van so they could pass by. When the maneuver was completed, the birds vamoosed, and I didn’t get the results I’d hoped for. Still, I enjoyed the meeting.

Dickcissel - Spiza americana
On my last day in Nebraska, I toured several locations near Clay Center. Only at the Massie Waterfowl Production Area did I have any meaningful bird meetings. It was Dickcissels here that made the stop worthwhile.

When I reached the northern end of the road, I took a left turn on the highway to Valentine NWR. I reached the reserve, but there was no staff working that I could get information from. I explored the dirt roads leading from the headquarters as best I could, but found no opportunities for meaningful wildlife encounters. I reversed course and resumed my southerly journey toward Kansas. Valentine NWR may not have been such a great place for me, but the road that led me there sure was. I stopped for the night, still in Nebraska, in the town of Broken Bow.

The next morning in Broken Bow, I found the perfect place for breakfast, called the City Cafe. There was a table full of good ol’ boys enjoying friendly conversation at the front, and a gathering of good ol’ gals seated further back. After the boys departed, yet another table of gals filtered in and sat down for their own pow-wow. It was perfect.

Nebraska Highway #2 led me east out of town, and I could see the agricultural exploitations in the fields as I passed by. Here corn was king. Fields of this tall crop seemed to go on and on for miles. No longer were there dunes of grass covered sand. This land was as flat as land can be, much like I pictured for the entire Midwest.

I noticed throughout Nebraska the trains seemed devoted to the transportation of coal. The roads I drove mostly followed the rails, and I saw miles and miles of coal cars, both full and empty. There were no other goods being transported that I could see.

When I reached Grand Island Nebraska, it no longer felt like I was in the rural country I’d passed in recent weeks. The place felt very metropolitan, replete with a strong industrial and commercial presence dominating the landscape, and all the traffic that goes with it. 

I’d found online suggestions about places to find birds along my route to Kansas, and 45 miles south of Grand Island was the town of Clay Center, where several locations were mentioned. The first two locations turned out to be on private property, and so were off limits. But a third place, called Massie Waterfowl Production Area, provided me with some alone-time with several Dickcissels, and capped off a memorable tour of Nebraska’s best.

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