Over the first sixty-mile segment of the Niobrara National Scenic and Recreational River, the river makes a graceful bend south, reaching its southernmost point along the northern border of Rock County. There, about twelve miles northeast of Bassett, a new Audubon wildlife sanctuary is situated, like a green emerald set dangling below the blue necklace that is the Niobrara.
The sanctuary, nearly five thousand acres in expanse, is the remarkable gift of the late Harold Hutton, son of a prominent multigenerational homesteading family and a rancher, author, and entrepreneur. Harold was also a lover of nature and decided that he would like to have his land preserved as a nature sanctuary after his death. He initially approached the National Audubon Society, which proved to be unwilling to promise that the land might not be ultimately sold. Luckily, Harold found a willing and interested listener in the form of Ron Klataske, executive director of Audubon of Kansas.
Ron Klataske first met Harold Hutton in 1980, while Klataske was serving as a regional vice president for the National Audubon Society and helping to establish a strategy to win congressional approval for naming a seventy-six-mile stretch of the middle Niobrara as a national scenic river. This would ensure that its remarkable geological, paleontological, and ecological treasures would not be destroyed by the impoundment of the valley by a proposed $200 million dam and diversion to be built near Norden. The Norden Dam was part of an envisioned “reclamation” project that would have benefited only a few agricultural interests, at the expense of the regional destruction of Nebraska’s most unique and most beautiful river.
Fortunately, the Norden project was eventually abandoned, the national scenic river designation was congressionally approved, and the bonds of friendship that had been formed between Klataske and Hutton persisted. After Harold’s death, his widow, Lucille, requested that Audubon of Kansas accept the title and stewardship responsibility for the land. It was not until 2008 that the last legal obstacle to the property’s grazing leases was settled and the slow process of habitat restoration could begin.
I was part of an informal delegation representing Prairie Fire who visited the sanctuary in May 2014. Four of us spent nearly three days roaming the grasslands, woods, and wet meadows, trying to absorb the rich diversity of plant and animal life. A sharp-tailed grouse lek, with over twenty participating males, was located on a grassy hilltop only a half-mile from the beautiful guesthouse (Hutton’s last home) where we slept, and from which we could hear the birds’ daily dawn dances.
From the guesthouse’s kitchen windows I watched and photographed many of the bird species attracted to the honeysuckle shrubs and backyard feeders, such as spotted towhee, blue grosbeak, black-capped chickadee, yellow warbler, and northern bobwhite. Turkey vultures patrolled the prairie beyond, and dozens of barn swallows swarmed around the nearby dilapidated barn like excited bees. Two gigantic cottonwoods immediately north of the house housed probable nesting pairs of red-headed woodpeckers and northern flickers, as well as a possible pair of American kestrels. In the past wood ducks have also nested in the trees’ numerous cavities. The porch on the east side of the house had an eastern phoebe nest with a resident incubating female, who was repeatedly frustrated by the frequent human disturbances she had to endure.
One of the two cottonwoods, a three-trunk giant, towered over the other. I decided to roughly estimate its circumference by seeing how many of my fingertip-to-fingertip units of personal measurement (about eighty inches, here defined as one “johnsgard”) were needed to circumscribe it. I found that the distance was in excess of six johnsgards, or about forty feet! What a rich history that tree has no doubt had, and what wonderful animal guests it must have hosted within its cavities and under its leafy canopy over the past century or so.
Along the sanctuary’s sandy upland roads I saw uncountable lark sparrows, eastern and western kingbirds, western meadowlarks, and mourning doves, dozens of grasshopper sparrows and upland sandpipers, as well as a few long-billed curlews, northern bobwhites, and sharp-tailed grouse. White-tailed deer periodically bounded over the rich Sandhills prairie, and a lone, apparently lost, male bison plodded peacefully past us on his way down a sandy trail toward some destination known only to him. A colony of black-tailed prairie dogs was thriving within a well-fenced boundary, with at least five families present. Ron had skillfully managed to negotiate the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission to allow him to reestablish this colony on the property and exhibit the animals for their educational values and scientific significance. The commissioners’ nineteenth-century policies toward prairie dogs are purely political and are an absurd failure to recognize the ecological values of this native keystone species. We saw at least four babies peering out of burrow openings that had been protected with heavy iron grating to keep out badgers.
The road down to the river bottom wetlands was rich in scenic beauty and biological diversity. Nearly all the trees, other than the invasive red cedars, were deciduous hardwoods, especially plains cottonwood, but there was also green ash, boxelder, and various eastern woodland shrubs, such as red osier dogwood, wolfberry, and chokecherry. A few ponderosa pines are present on the sanctuary’s property and are probably the easternmost naturally occurring ponderosas on the south side of the Niobrara Valley. A grove of mature bur oaks surrounds the original homestead site, where a beautiful wood-frame house that had been built in 1903 and had replaced an earlier log cabin still stands, as does a precariously tilting outhouse. The house’s fate remains to be determined, although the outhouse is now probably only acceptable to porcupines and eastern wood rats, which don’t seem to object to its sloping seats.
The bottomlands had several meadows supporting territorial bobolinks and red-winged blackbirds, as well as a few yellow-headed blackbirds, whose squeaking courtship calls sounded like so many rusty gates. Sandhill cranes have nested and produced young in at least one of the marsh meadows during the past few years, representing perhaps the first record of sandhill cranes breeding in northern Nebraska since the late 1800s. Virginia rails have been heard calling from the pragmites marsh, and we flushed a lone great blue heron.
One evening we heard whip-poor-wills, an eastern forest species near the western edge of its range, calling in an oak grove. We also heard yellow-breasted chats calling in the riverine woods; this now mostly western species has nearly disappeared from eastern Nebraska, so its occurrence so far east is noteworthy. The orioles here appear to be of the eastern (Baltimore) species rather than the western-oriented Bullock’s oriole. Likewise, the bunting here is reportedly the eastern indigo bunting rather than the western lazuli bunting, whereas the resident grosbeak is evidently the western black-headed species rather than eastern rose-breasted type.
All of these species pairs sometimes hybridize in the Niobrara Valley, as do the yellow- and red-shafted forms of the northern flicker. Both eastern and western meadowlarks have also been reported from Rock County, further illustrating this region’s transitional biogeographic nature.
Along the river’s edge we could see evidence of beaver activity, and river otters have also been observed here. Farther out on the river a flock of nonbreeding Canada geese was gathered, and several pairs were scattered over the meadows where they could fight over territorial boundaries. Male bobolinks, resembling feathery flowers while perched on taller plants, periodically erupted from the meadow into their melodic song flights, and on the adjacent hillside nearly a dozen wild turkeys were clustered, preoccupied with their own equally spectacular mating rituals.
After a long afternoon of hiking and birding, our last sunset was spent on an overlook that provides both upstream and downstream vistas for a mile or more. Looking upstream, the river is notably wide and shallow, with many bare, sandy islands of varied artistic configurations. As we stood there, silently watching the daylight turn softly into twilight, and the sky colors slowly burn out into shades of gray, the unison calls of two sandhill cranes suddenly broke the silence and echoed down the valley. I felt the goose bumps form on my arms as my favorite and most emotionally powerful sound in the world suddenly penetrated my consciousness; it reminded me yet again why Nebraska is my one and only true spiritual home.
Image Credits: Nancy Hamer
Johnsgard, Paul A. This Fragile Land: A Natural History of the Nebraska Sandhills. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1995.
Johnsgard, Paul A. The Niobrara: A River Running through Time. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2007.