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!
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 (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.
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 (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.
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 (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.
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 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 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.
These birds can be considered pests, invasive, and just a pain. Even with this, they do have some interesting characteristics. I love the iridescent feathers along their throat, (though they don’t show in this photo) and the calm coo-coo that they make.
Rock Pigeon (1/1250, f/6.3, ISO 500, Canon 7D Mark II, Sigma 150-600 C)
The Rock Pigeon is a transplant from Europe, brought to North America in the 1600’s. They are an adaptable and hearty species who has, over time, found ways to survive in cities, country sides, and just about anywhere with adequate food supplies and nesting areas. In Europe, they were primarily cliff dwellers, but have adapted to use skyscrapers, bridges, and grain elevators.
I took this photo in south-central Nebraska where this pigeon, along with a bunch of his pals were making a home near a collection of shipping containers. Like I said earlier, very adaptive!
So, I’m traveling this week. Funny how much more time I have when I’m not chasing kids or getting distracted by things at home. Today, I decided to post a photo that i took just last week.
Great Horned Owl (1/1600, f/7.1 ISO 2000, Canon 7D Mark II, Sigma 150-600 C)
We hear this Great Horned Owl every night. Last week, on my way home, I saw something perched on a power pole just a few hundred yards from my house. When I got out of my truck and headed into the house, I heard the “Who… Whooo…”. I hurried into the house, grabbed my camera and jumped back in my truck. I was able to drive within 30 yards of this handsome owl and take several photos.
Although they are found just about everywhere in North America, according to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, the Great Horned Owl has one of the most diverse diets of all the raptors in North America. This is likely the reason they can be found in so many different habitats.