Dear Department of Roads

Trees removed ahead of highway widening

Dear Nebraska Department of Roads:

For decades our narrow highway has been at the top of your most-urgent-projects list and we are thrilled to see our dream coming true. Driving on the first new segments, we appreciate seeing that hills are now flatter and curves more gradual.

Big things are happening fast, and none too soon. Even though two lives have been lost this winter on our highway, we continue to drive too fast and try to pass where there is no room. We are counting on this highway to make us safer.

Small things are also happening fast.

Trees removed ahead of highway widening

Trees removed ahead of highway widening

Bucket loaders and  scrapers remove whole rows of mature trees and roadside shrubs in a day. The 20-foot pile of trees that burned near our county road this week is only the latest in a series that has preceded the advancing construction.

What is our plan to replace these trees?   The sodbuster law would require mitigation if a landowner developed native prairies. A wetlands law would require mitigation if we disturbed wetlands.

Your own Plan for the Roadside Environment (2008, p. 13) states your aim to “minimize effects on biotic communities, limiting possible negative effects of construction and maintenance activities on the living features of the natural systems the roadway corridors traverse. “

Our highways are important wildlife habitat. Roadside planting of prairie grass and flowers has been customary for the Nebraska Department of Roads since the 1980s. But grass is only a start. Are we still the Tree Planter State?

What bird would nest along a busy highway?

Remains of 3 nests near highway with traffic

Several birds nested on the edge of this highway last summer.

Birds nest only where food is available. The insects they depend on are only available where native plants grow. The nests in the accompanying picture are left from last summer’s dickcissels or goldfinches, indigo buntings or yellowthroats. All of these birds are on the Audubon Society’s radar as their habitat is being cleared across the great plains. The same is true of our state bird, the meadowlark, which nests in tall grass.

A glance east or west of Highway 133 will confirm that bigger farm equipment is prompting farmers to remove fences and accompanying native trees and shrubs. Roadsides are becoming crucial wildlife refuge. We leveled their habitat, we need to replace it.

When these trees go, what habitat is left?

When these trees go, what habitat is left?

As you inspect the construction, look also at the fields beyond. With a new blank slate along the roadside, decide where trees and shrubs would enhance the highway. Start planning for new native black cherries, buckeyes and hickories, an occasional bur oak, and clusters of wild plum and dogwood.

One for each tree and shrub removed. Thank you.

 

Paul Dunbar’s Big Year in Nebraska

Paul Dunbar is becoming legendary.  Among those in a certain group, his name evokes that other Paul, the Minnesota lumberjack. Paul Dunbar saw 347 different bird species in 2013 – without leaving Nebraska.

Nobody else in Nebraska has come close to his list. You can see it at   [http://www.omaha.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20140208/OUTDOORS/1unbar40208687].

Three wild turkeys display on the picnic table.

No problem identifying these new neighbors. Dunbar also saw turkeys in January.

What kind of a guy is Paul Dunbar? As are all those who get into birding Big Year lists, or birding-as-competitive-sport, he’s got to be a bit of a nut-case.  Nevertheless, it’s not likely that people will doubt his claims. He is a Methodist pastor. His wife and his congregation supported his 2013 Big Year, according to the article.

Reverend Dunbar recorded the first time he saw each species, from a junco on January 1,  to a long-eared owl on December 31. What does he know that most of us don’t? Let’s look more closely at his list.

Early January lists began with predictable birds. Dunbar is lucky to live almost exactly on the 100th meridian, where the East traditionally meets the West in the U.S. He could expect to see the cardinal-robin-dove group and winter woodpeckers, and to add in the junco-tree sparrow winter birds including last year’s erupters such as redpoll. Near his central Nebraska home, he was also familiar with grassland birds such as Harris sparrow, horned lark and prairie falcon, and he found some January open water holding goldeneyes and widgeons.

After New Year’s week, he usually listed birds only once or twice a week. As spring approached he added migrants. By July he added only a single bird many weeks. He said his method was to go to the edges of the state on his days off.

Dunbar also tuned in to the state’s rare-bird network, and must have often dropped everything and driven hours to view something such as a marbled godwit someone reported. He even came here in February to see the evening grosbeak a friend told me about on a feeder up on the hill. Someone similar must have led him to a calliope hummingbird on July 29.

Big Paul must have had witnesses for unusual listings. Looking at the 21 warblers he found south of here on May 10, I would bet he was walking a conservation area with a naturalist I know who is a warbler guru. Suppose he knew such individuals throughout the state – some at lakes, some on western prairie buttes, some in southeastern forests. That could account for the exaggerated number of gulls, sandpipers, and flycatchers.

Peterson Guide page 19, showing cackling goose

Page 19 of the Peterson guide, 2010

So I got out my Peterson Guide and looked up unfamiliar birds from the list. Here’s where the legend grows. Big Paul knew enough to look for the small cackling goose mixed in with Canadas, identical except for size. I had never noticed it on the goose page, but the cackling goose is well within our range.

He went west where horned grebes, golden eagles and rosy-finches are less than exotic, but he also knew where to look. And to listen. Surely he found whippoorwills and short-eared owls by their calls, even if he didn’t see them.

In April, even secretive birds like Henslow’s sparrow and Say’s phoebe would have been singing. In May he must have known the difference between calls of a Swainson’s thrush and the gray-cheeked thrush he saw a week later. I’ve heard that some birders work more than 80% by ear, and Big Paul might be among them.

On the other hand, hawks can only be known from distant wing patterns or flight habits. Dunbar listed almost every hawk in the book, the western ferruginous hawk we might never see as well as the Mississippi kite that supposedly migrates through here if you know enough to look for it.

Following Dunbar’s list, I found a whole page of flycatchers in our range that I had never noticed in my well-worn bird guide. Townsend’s solitaire. Pipits and waterthrushes. Longspurs. Dunbar knew to look for them where most of us would assume a bird is the usual robin, sandpiper or horned lark.

I do have to wonder about a few claims on even Big Paul’s list. A mew gull is so rare no range is listed, though it might wander through most any location. You wouldn’t think Nebraska would be big gull country, but surprisingly a lot of gulls migrate through here. On the other hand, distinguishing marks for gulls are minute. Where I see a flock of gulls, Big Paul can find every gull on the page. At least with flycatchers or even warblers and sparrows, their calls separate them.

I have to hand it to you, Reverend D. You found a Lapland longspur and a white-winged dove. You knew enough to spot a black duck and a ruddy turnstone. How can I doubt your plumbeous vireo or your glaucous-winged gull?

The only one I doubt is surely a typographical error: a ruby-throated warbler. Among your four other hummingbirds, all rare for Nebraska, you couldn’t have missed the more common ruby-throated.

Now you approach spring of the year-after-the-Big-Year. Yep, there you are, out there listening and listing all over again. Raising the bar for the rest of us.

 

January bird questions

Birders are excitable people, ready to take any suggestion to get out and see something. They usually have wide-ranging interests and few dull days. But I have to wonder when I listen to a birder absolutely  identify a bird he saw only at a fleeting glance.

With effort I have mastered the distinction between downy and hairy woodpecker: sure, one is bigger, but when do they sit side by side? The secret is to look at the beak, not the feather pattern.

Another puzzler here is the meadowlark. We are lucky to have a place where both species of meadowlarks sing in April. Nobody can tell eastern from western from their appearance, but even to me their songs make it easy.

And the hawk that visits our feeder this winter has a tail exactly between square and pointed, but it confuses me no longer: the Cornell Lab tips me to check out the head pattern and size, so I believe I can now distinguish Cooper’s from sharp-shinned hawks.

This is birding progress for me. Not much, though – a good birding trip still leaves more questions than answers, and I guess I am not holding my breath for the day when I really know birds, anyway.

January is a good time for lists. This year I may:Low possible vireo nest Loess Hills

Find the vireos. I have found the excellent shallow-basket nest, and the Cornell Lab (allaboutbirds.org) says vireos may be the most common bird group in our summer woods. Who knew? If I see one, nothing makes me sure it is not a warbler. It would help to learn the calls, as I guess they sing all day long.

 

See migrant hawks. Nearly every big hawk you see turns out to be a red-tail.  Colors vary greatly even among red-tails, and they change for several years as they mature. I know red-tails overhead now by their dark shoulder patch. If I keep my eyes open, I should see six or eight other hawks that visit here.

rough legged hawkThe past month a group of rough-legged hawks have hung out on a floodplain near us while they wait to return to Canada and the Arctic. They really beg us to watch as they perch on power poles and even sometimes hover over the mice or whatever they hunt that I can’t see.  I can’t say I know their rough legs, but they reliably have dark spots on their “wrists” under their open wings. And certainly they think more highly of our January than anyone I know.

 

Woodpeckers were here

Woodpeckers were here

This may be the year I locate a few of the cavity nests of my yard’s woodpeckers, nuthatches and chickadees. I haven’t a clue.

 

In 2014 I hope I will also hear a wood thrush. Are they really in my woods? Maybe I will have to go out at first light.

And 2014 may be the year I finally discover an ovenbird.

 

Creeping fall color: Vines get no respect

It’s been dry in the northeast Iowa woods this year, and the leaf-tourists are disappointed. Instead of the usual mid-October reds and golds, most leaves just wither to dull brown and drop off. Only the vines have leaves left, and they don’t really count, do they?

Wait, where would the woods be without Virginia creeper, wild grape and poison ivy?

This walnut has lost its leaves but Virginia creeper glows

This walnut has lost its leaves but Virginia creeper glows on.

 

Even when the fall trees color up spectacularly as expected, a good share of the drama is added by the vines. Virginia creeper, wild grape and poison ivy are more widespread in American forests than any tree. They may be a bit spineless, depending on tree trunks to reach the light, but they do know how to adapt, growing from northern Mexico to southeastern Canada.

 

 

Part of Virginia creeper’s image problem goes back to its close relation to poison ivy.

Virginia creeps with 5 red fingers, produces purple berries. Green here is an interfering grape.

Virginia creeps with 5 red fingers, produces purple berries. Green here is an interfering grape.

Poison ivy holds on with hairy rootlets, berries are white.

Don’t touch this one. Poison ivy holds on with hairy rootlets, berries are white.

Both VC and PI are in the sumac family and the leaves look similar. However, a Virginia creeper leaf has five prominent fingers, except on a few tiny new leaves. The creeper is not poisonous, unless you eat a bunch of the small purple berries, which look like wild grapes in loose clusters.

 

 

Poison ivy vines have three-leaf clusters and white berries. One reason both vines spread is because animals including birds eat both kinds of berries. No animals are known to be allergic to the urushiol oil in poison ivy, except people.

 

Instead of hairy rootlets, Virginia creeper holds on with tendrils.

Instead of hairy rootlets, Virginia creeper holds on with tendrils.

 

 

 

 

Virginia creeper and poison ivy both cling to tree trunks as they climb, but the creeper holds on with tendrils and the ivy grows a bunch of hairy rootlets along the stem.

Besides providing food for animals, both Virginia creeper and poison ivy also add security to nest sites, provide browse for deer and other animals, and attract insects.

 

Grape vines can be small and green or big and shaggy. They hang on trees without attaching..

Grape vines can be small and green or big and shaggy. They hang on trees without attaching.

The wild grape doesn’t do much for fall color, but of course it is also among the most valuable to other woods inhabitants.  In the woods, grape vines hang like swings in Tarzan’s jungle, unattached to the trees they climb.

A woods without vines would be a room without furniture.