Loves Me Some Minimum Maintenance Roads

Oh, the places we took this bus on our field trip!

Saturday in Nebraska we went to explore other birding areas. We drove by Funk Waterfowl Production Area which in the past few years hasn't been all that great because the cattails had grown up and hidden the ducks. But the powers that be had improved the area for wildlife viewing and it would have been perfect for our field trip--if the water had not been frozen--doh!

So we headed south for Harlan Reservoir. You can take one of the main highways, but we opted to take some minimum maintenance roads towards our destination instead. These barely maintained roads have produced some of our best birding and wildlife opportunities in the past. This time we saw came across a prairie falcon (the blurry bird above). The best part was that this falcon flew right over our group so that we got a chance to see its black armpits (a distinguishing characteristic).

One of the challenges with birding Harlan Reservoir is that you are not allowed to stop your vehicle at some of the best places to watch for waterfowl. This was near the town of Alma, that's mostly cackling geese and greater-white fronted geese in there.

We were happy to see so many geese. One of the volunteers at Rowe Sanctuary said that there wasn't much at Harlan the day before, just some diving ducks. We decided to drive the length of the lake and headed east. We found tons of robins, bluebirds, rough-legged hawks, bald eagles and gulls.

There were quite a few redhead ducks and I took an opportunity to try and figure out my mojo with my new digiscoping camera. While I was photographing the ducks, I noticed a strange sound. I had a tough time trying to determine if it was animal or mechanical. When we scanned the other side of the lake with my scope, we could see thousands of gulls, but it didn't quite sound like a flock of gulls. I decided that it was some sort of farm machinery and didn't give it much thought.

We continued driving and stopped at Republican City to have lunch at the prairie dog town--always a crowd pleaser.

I noticed a new addition this year to the prairie dog town. See the large stick nest in the above photo? Let's look through the scope and see who is nesting inside:

There we see a red-tailed hawk head. What smart hawks...and what unfortunate neighbors for the prairie dogs! Ah well, that's the food chain for you. Amber and I had birded here before, but Stan had not. We told him that if we went a few blocks away we had a pretty good chance of finding a great horned owl nest.

Sure enough, there it was. It's so weird to me that Amber and I know this area fairly well just by birding here one a year for the last several years. I think the red-tails switch nests with the great horneds from year to year. I wonder if next year the owls will be in the nest over the prairie dog town?

Even still, a red-tail right over the town and a great horned a mere few blocks's a good thing prairie dogs breed like...prairie dogs.

As we continued around the reservoir we found this rather cooperative hawk in a little marina community. It had such a tiny little head I almost thought it was some weird dark morph broad-winged hawk, but it was a red-tailed hawk. Now we just had to figure out what type of red-tail. It's a dark morph red-tail, but is it just a dark morph or is a dark morph Harlan's red-tailed hawk? It had some white on the chest...

It had some what on the scapulars, and no red on the tail. The striping looks like the striping you would see on an immature red-tail. We came to the conclusion that is was an immature dark morph Harlan's red-tailed hawk. And when I checked my Wheeler books at home that seems to support the id, but if anyone cares to add their two cents worth, please feel free. We don't get too many of this type of red-tail in Minnesota.

As we worked our way around the lake, I told Stan to stop the bus and let me out. I looked at the lake and asked, "Is that ice?" If you look in the distance of the lake, you can see a long line of white. I looked through my binoculars. It wasn't ice. It was all snow geese. I felt kind of like Sam Neil's character in Jurassic Park when they first saw the dinosaurs. We had seen strings and strings of snow geese flying over all day and didn't realize they were heading towards Harlan. We decided to drive closer.

We kept taking minimum maintenance roads to see if we could get closer and we finally found a road that let out on a hill. We stopped to see if we could get out and get a clear view of all the snow geese.

I got to the top of the hill, I saw this view to my left...

And this view to my right. The snow geese just went on and on and on and on. We estimated the flock to be a mile wide and two miles wide. The sound was unbelievable and remember how I said that I heard some unidentifiable sound earlier? I now realized that I had heard the ginormous flock of snow geese.

More still came in and the flock seemed to be in a constant state of flux, rearranging itself on the water. When we later told some of the volunteers at Rowe Sanctuary they said that the day before the lake was devoid of geese and that this was the third round of snow geese to come through on the reservoir--wow.

Here is our field trip group in front of the geese. Nebraska is known for its cranes, but in some ways the geese are even more spectacular. I wonder how many Ross's geese were mixed into that flock? As amazing as the geese were to watch, we still needed to get back to our crane blind and had to keep going.

Talk about your roads less traveled! We started to go off map at this point. We had an idea of where we were but didn't know for sure. Some of the road zigged and zagged but we felt that if we went on, we would at some point reach the other end of the reservoir and a major highway to get us back to Kearney. I think we made a couple of people nervous with our exploratory ways, but Stan whipped out his iPhone and we found exactly what road we were on and were able to figure out an alternate route when the road became too muddy to continue.

One of the great things about traveling with Stan is that he knows a lot about all sorts of stuff and he is easy to egg on. My favorite things to do on a trip with him is point out a hole and tell him to stick his hand in there...sometimes he sticks his whole body! Most of the time he can id it, I think this hole was some sort of fox.

We continued to find all sorts of gems like this opossum. We also found pheasant and a flock of about 50 wild turkeys. We finally made it back onto an actual road and Stan I noticed that the signs telling use the miles to the next town specified that they were in Nebraska.

Then we passed this welcome to Nebraska sign. Somehow we had taken the minimum maintenance roads into Kansas. Who knew?

Then we passed a speed limit sign and saw this bird--can you tell what it is? If not, no worries, it was most cooperative. We pulled ahead and got out to put the scope and cameras on it.

Check it out--an owl on speed! Seriously, this is a short-eared owl perched on a sign. Its back was to us and then it turned it After we got a good long look, we loaded back into the bus and continued on our way, it took off and we got to watch its bouncy flight over the fields.

What an awesome day of birding! I think its one of the best I have ever had in Nebraska. And to give you a hint of what all those snow geese sounded like, here is a mini video that I took: