Cristo built his running fence while I was growing up in the San Francisco bay area. People were in awe of the beauty and the execution of a concept; it was a piece of art integrated with the outdoors. My view was different. I regarded it as an anomaly, an incongruity. It just didn’t fit in my mind. I didn’t get it at all.
What I did understand was the natural, unadorned beauty of California. My first revelation was the time I saw the Pacific after rounding a corner on an impossibly steep hill in San Francisco, it was an expansive, undulating, deep blue mass. The perspective from the hill we were standing on made it appear as if it were tilted. It angled up and disappeared into the haze on the horizon. It still awes me. California offered many more of those moments.
I have lived in many states now and I can honestly say that very few are as audaciously impressive as California. I am biased having grown up there, but I have also found each state has its own natural beauty. And I have searched. In many states it required some real investigation. The Mississippi delta is one example. The combination of the humidity, winter light and flat, stark terrain is remarkably beautiful.
I came to Nebraska on orders. I knew next to nothing about this state the day I drove into it. Situated in the center of the contiguous states, you would think more would been mentioned about it in school. The railroad I knew about. Being a hunter, I investigated those opportunities and had some information about pheasants. What really lay in store for me was uncovered in stages through years of experience.
The east slope of the Rockies gradually peters down into Nebraska where it forms a watershed of many lazy rivers. By the time you find yourself east of North Platte the state is hopelessly flat. There is some occasional relief in the river bluffs formed by river erosion. Most of these rivers eventually drain into the Platte. This river wanders east through the state and provides rest and refuge to migrating waterfowl on their journeys both north and south. It skirts the north edge of a region in the center of the state called the Rainwater Basin. The concentration of little potholes over this area provide additional refuge during the fall and spring. It is this convergence of topography, watershed, location and habitat that creates Nebraska’s true spectacle.
In the fall when the waters begin to freeze up north a succession of bird species begin to arrive. White pelicans are usually the first and they generally follow the Missouri river corridor, but you can sometimes catch a large flock in the central part of the state. I usually spot them early in fall on days where cumulus clouds are formed on the thermals the pelicans ride. They are gregarious and circle in unison as they gain altitude in the rising air. The flock almost disappears as they turn away, then suddenly appear again in contrast against the sky.
The pelicans are followed by blue winged teal, pintails, wigeon and whitefront geese. If they are traveling on the clock, there are usually trickles. They show up in the basins and along the river overnight in relatively small bunches early, one day you’ll notice small flocks of ducks buzzing along the river or orbiting a marsh. The sandhill cranes
A large storm up north hastens the migration as the bird’s food is covered with snow. I don’t know how they know, but many times they bunch up and all come down at once in front of a storm. These are the days you want to be in the marsh or on the river. The early migrants leave before the storm, and then flocks of snow and canada geese, mallards, gadwalls and all the divers push south. Long, noisy strings of geese and high, fast clouds of ducks fill the sky and parachute in to cover up the river, ponds and marshes. The next few weeks are busy in the marsh before the freeze. A harrier cruising a wetland will reveal the ducks as they flush its approach.
This is a good time to decoy birds. On a heavy migration day the birds are willing and respond to decoys and call with abandon. You don’t see them at first, but notice the sound of distant, ripping canvas. Looking straight up a group of bowling pins arcs down from an impossible height. As they lose altitude, the mallards circle down closer and begin to inspect your set. Careful to remain concealed, you hammer them with a call on the corner of their swing and they turn as one to close on your spread. If you are lucky, they will find it suitable and make one last swing to downwind, turn and cup up their wings to pile in. Once, a reluctant group hung up and orbited to scrutinize the decoys. Not satisfied, these mallards strafed the decoys in an arcing, high speed pass ten feet off of the water. In brilliant breeding plumage and full sunlight, they were magnificent.
As spectacular as it can be, the fall migration pales when compared to the spring. The fall waterfowl remain only as long as there is open water, or only long enough for a rest on their way to the southern tier of states, the gulf or tidal waters of Mexico. As the days grow longer in late winter, the snow line recedes northward. It is this line the birds follow. Each day more birds pile in to north west Missouri. Squaw Creek loads up with geese and ducks. You can see them on NEXRAD radar. The snow geese are the most numerous and daily fly up towards the rainwater basin and back searching for open water and bare fields. Eventually the conditions are judged acceptable and the move is on.
You can’t comprehend the sheer mass of birds that can pile into the basins overnight. One marsh was estimated to hold 2 million geese. Other geese, canadas and whitefronts, and every specie of duck accompanies them. But, the snow geese are the main show. They literally fill the air. I’ve driven underneath one long string that was twenty miles long. Their destination was a winter wheat field already occupied. A beehive can’t describe how many geese were on the ground, directly above and on their way towards that field. One day the field was green, the next it was a black splotch.
For a month the basins and Platte hold most of the mid-continent waterfowl population as they rest on their way north. It is an important resource for the birds. Without this important habitat, they would likely face increased stress on their systems. Fewer birds would make it back to the breeding grounds in the prairie pothole region and up to the tundra.
I have been in Nebraska now for eighteen years. I’ve hunted nearly every one of those years, and have spent a lot of time outside. The state has changed greatly in that time. We’ve had very wet years and a drought. Since the time I arrived, no-till farming and center pivots have proliferated. Economic conditions rewarded increased production. Land that by most accounts should have been left fallow has been planted. Water is pulled from the watershed to irrigate. The net sum is the landscape is changing.
Luckily for the waterfowl, for the most part they can adapt. The Schilling Wildlife Management Area was once a federal waterfowl refuge. Schilling used to be a major stop for snow geese and other waterfowl in both the fall and spring. For various reasons, all due to a changing environment, the geese stopped coming. It is believed they moved their route to the west. I know the days of stepping outside on a late fall night in Plattsmouth to hear roosting snow geese are gone.
I have killed my share of ducks and geese. As I have matured, I have learned to value the spectacle and beauty, and the wildness these remarkable birds represent. I don’t know what is in store for our waterfowl. It would be a shame to sacrifice these beings to sate a material want.
Snows on the Feed south of Waco, NE