100 Birds in 2018 – #15 Sharptail

I worked in the Nebraska Sandhills on the Nebraska National Forest near Halsey for about two and a half years.  It was working there that really piqued my interest in birds and their relation to the prairie.  Often people, myself included, drive through these open spaces without seeing what’s really there.  These are big landscapes where you can see for miles and miles.  It’s something I value…being able to see the whole landscape.  However, it’s when you slow down and focus on the small things where you find the true wonders.


Sharptail Grouse (1/2000, f/6.3, ISO 500, Canon 7D Mark II, Sigma 150-600 C)

I grew up in the shortgrass prairie in northwest Nebraska and somehow, didn’t witness the Sharptail Grouse’s spring mating ritual until just a couple of years ago.  Last year I finally took the time to get out early in a blind and photograph it in better detail.  I haven’t done it yet this year, but plan to in a few weeks.  I took this photo a couple of weeks ago from a county road.  The birds were so busy doing their thing, they didn’t even seem to notice my truck parked a hundred yards away.

Sharptails live throughout the northern Great Plains from Nebraska on up into Canada.  According to the Cornell Lab, their populations have been relatively stable since the 1960s, however the biggest threat to them is the loss of grassland habitat to farming or energy development.  They need a variety of grass “structure” to survive.  They like very short grass for their spring leking, and taller grass for nesting and protection from the harsh winters that are common in their range.

If you’re driving through the Great Plains, I hope you take the time to slow down and see some of the creatures that make up the whole of the prairie (like the Sharptail).  Many public land agencies offer free grouse viewing blinds, allowing people the opportunity to see the spring ritual up close and for free!  It’s worth the early morning!


100 Birds in 2018 – #14 White-crowned Sparrow

Sparrow identification can be tough for me.  But this one is pretty easy, especially with adults.  The White-crowned Sparrow gets it’s name from the obvious white feathers on the crown of it’s head.  Juveniles can look like Tree Sparrows as they tend to have redish brown feathers surrounding the white crown instead of the more bold black of the mature birds.

White-crowned Sparrow

White-crowned Sparrow  (1/3200, f/6.3, ISO 500, Canon 7D Mark II, Sigma 150-600 C)

I would guess this guy is just stopping through on his way north to breeding grounds in the north, but I have seen them in the summer, so who knows, maybe he’s just coming back.

Heres’ a couple of cool facts about White-crowned Sparrows from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology:

“A migrating White-crowned Sparrow was once tracked moving 300 miles in a single night. Alaskan White-crowned Sparrows migrate about 2,600 miles to winter in Southern California.”

“The oldest recorded White-crowned Sparrow lived in California and was at least 13 years, 4 months old.”

Interesting little birds that one might not notice if you don’t take the time to learn about them.

100 Bird in 2018 – #13 Red-winged Blackbird

Ah, the Red-winged Blackbird.  There’s only a few birds that bring back my childhood memories of the seasons.  This is one of them.  There was an intermittent pond behind the house i grew up in.  It held water in the spring and stayed pretty swampy through the summer.  Just as the days were starting to get longer, we’d start hearing the distinct sound of the flashy male singing out to all the girls.  I just heard that sound again about a week ago.

Red-winged Blackbird

Red-winged Blackbird  (1/2500, f/6.3, ISO 1000, Canon 7D Mark II, Sigma 150-600 C)

The Red-winged Blackbird is a Robin sized bird that makes its home in marshy wetland areas across North America.  According to the Cornell Lab, the are year-a-round residents of Northwest Nebraska, however, I’ve seldom seen them between the months of November and February.  They are one of the first to come back.

Males defend their territory and spend much of the spring getting as high as they can and singing their “conk-a-la-ree!” at the top of their lungs.  I found it interesting that males have many mates and have been found to live for up to 15 years.  I sure am glad that spring is coming and I’ll be hearing more of them and seeing more and more birds around this area.  I’ve got a ways to go before I get to 100!

100 Birds in 2018 – #12 Golden Eagle

I have better photos of a Golden Eagle than this one, but I like the way it tells a story.  I have been reading a book on the North American prairie called “Prairie Dog Empire“.  In that book, the author talks about all of the species that inhabit grasslands.  Prairie Dogs (obviously), Bison, Badgers, Pronghorn, etc.  But somehow, the Golden Eagle surprised me a little.

Golden Eagle

Golden Eagle (1/2500, f/7.1 ISO 320, Canon 7D Mark II, Sigma 150-600 C)

I generally relate eagles to areas of water.  Probably because I see so many pictures of Bald Eagles catching fish and flying around wooded areas.  However, the larger Golden Eagles almost exclusively hang out in open areas of prairie.  That’s why I chose this photo.  You can still see that it’s a Golden Eagle by the tan/gold cape and it also shows the openness of the prairie contrasted by the clear blue sky’s.

These are magnificent birds who have made a comeback in their numbers.  In the mid-1900’s, in an effort to rid the grasslands of Prairie Dogs and Coyotes, humans poisoned hundreds of thousands of acres.  Many times, the poison they used ended up in raptors bodies causing them to die as well.  Since that time, regulations have been put into place to minimize this secondary poisoning and numbers seem to be on the rise.  This is great!  I would be a shame to not see these iconic birds cruising the wide open spaces of the American West.

100 Birds in 2018 – #11 American Goldfinch

This little bird has a special place in my heart. It’s my daughters favorite!  The first time she saw one was on a family drive through the Valentine National Wildlife Refuge in the Nebraska Sandhills.  She loved the bright yellow colors and active nature of the little guys.  This is the bird that hooked her on nature.

American Goldfinch

American Goldfinch  (1/3200, f/6.3, ISO 400, Canon 7D Mark II, Sigma 150-600 C)

I like the little guys myself.  They are hilarious to watch at the feeders jumping and fighting and jockeying for position.  So fun.

According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, these tiny finches migrate south from here and return in the spring.  However the last couple of years I’ve seen them year around.  The photo attached is one I took a couple of days ago.  This one looks like a male beginning to wear his spring and summer plumage.  He doesn’t have the striking yellow feathers just yet, but he is starting to get the distinctive black crown.  I’m sure we will start to see more and more of them as things start to thaw here in Northwest Nebraska.

“The Things They Carried”

So, I just finished the book “The Things They Carried” by Tim O’Brien. This is one of the best written books I’ve ever read. Ever.

Bald Eagle-1

Bald Eagle (1/2000, f/7.1, ISO 500, Canon 7D Mark II, Sigma 150-600 C)

I spent my 20’s going from naive college kid to war veteran to young adult making his way up through the federal personnel system. I’ve always thanked my military service for who I have become and the opportunities my service has given me.

It opened doors to my career. Gave me leadership experience others my age hadn’t had the opportunity to get. It gave me a view of the world many of my peers could never imagine. But I never saw what a lot of my fellow Soldiers saw.

Sure, I saw death. I saw the results of war. I was a truck driver, leading convoys, doing the best job I could.

See, I deployed in 2003-04. IEDs and convoy strikes were just starting to become common when I rotated out. We traveled Iraq in unhardened vehicles delivering beef jerky, MREs, and bottled water to places all over southern and central Iraq. Luckily, every person in my Company came home. We had a few who came home injured due to freak accidents, but no one died or was wounded from enemy contact. We were lucky, I was lucky.

There was a chapter (Ghost Solders) in this book that resonated with me though. It was where Tim had been wounded for the second time and had been relegated to duty in the rear. When his unit came in for leave, he’d felt left out, not a part of the team anymore. That’s something I’d never felt. See, I’ve always known my service mattered. I did what was asked of me. I still do. But I also see the pain in our veterans that have seen such terrible things. I know people who have taken their own lives because they couldn’t process the things they saw or did. It’s hard for me to relate and tends to leave me feeling like I’ve not seen enough.

I’m not a war monger, hoping for the next war to prove my mettle. I think all war is wrong and not the way to solve the worlds problems. War is scary and brings the worst out of humanity. If it can be avoided, it should. But if it’s inevitable, we need to provide the help our veterans need.

Tim O’Brien found writing to deal with his war. I found my work to deal with mine. However, thousands of veterans haven’t found a way to deal with their war. As a country, as a populace who counts on these veterans to protect them and their way of life, we owe those hero’s the help they need to deal with their war, the things they carried.

Thousands of veterans take their own lives every year. These are people who gave their all for their buddies, their units, their country. It hurts me to the core that they couldn’t find the help they needed before it was too late. There are resources out there…but most are too prideful to take advantage of them.

All I ask is we ask someone if they are okay. If someone looks like they are struggling talk to them. Tell them they have resources. The VA, civilian, it doesn’t matter. If someone needs help, get it to them.

100 Birds in 2018 – #10 Sandhill Crane

Each month, I travel across the State of Nebraska to attend my monthly National Guard drill.  It’s about a six hour drive for me.  Most months, I dread it.  The long trips every month wear on me.  I have found ways to make the trips more enjoyable the last couple of years though.

Sandhill Crane

Sandhill Cranes  (1/2500, f/6.3, ISO 400, Canon 7D Mark II, Sigma 150-600 C)

I’ve only gotten into bird and wildlife photography seriously in the last couple of years.  As I learned more about it, I’ve realized how lucky I am to live in a state with such a diverse population of birds and home to one of the greatest birding spectacles in the world.  The great crane migration. Beginning in late February and lasting into early April, nearly 500,000 Sandhill Cranes stop along the Platte River in Nebraska on their way to summer breeding grounds in Northern Canada.

Sandhill Crane2

Sandhill Cranes  (1/3200, f/6.3, ISO 320, Canon 7D Mark II, Sigma 150-600 C)

This is the second year that I’ve made some time to experience this amazing event.  The thing about it, is it’s easy and mostly free to experience.  I simply woke up early, took a drive on some of the county roads between Grand Island and Hastings and saw and photographed as many cranes, geese and ducks as my memory card could handle.  I never left my truck.  Last year, I did stop in at Fort Kearney State Park and viewed them from the walking bridge over the Platte.  It was definitely worth the cost of a park entrance sticker that I would use across the state anyhow.

With this being the Year of the Bird, I encourage everyone to take in some of these local spectacles and enjoy them if you haven’t already.  For those of us in Nebraska, it’s the crane migration or the mating dances of our native prairie grouse.  I’m sure other areas have similar experiences.  I hope you will share them in the comments below.