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    Moving on from the Chicken Dance Trail

    Moving on from the Chicken Dance Trail

    Moving on from the Chicken Dance Trail

    Nearly a year ago, the Wildlife Division Administrator of our agency announced he was taking a different job and leaving us.  At that moment, I had a feeling that I would end up moving to Lincoln.  For over 11 months, every day I thought about things like “Can I move my kids and family?” and “Can I leave all of these things I love?”.  Through a long and drawn-out process, my boss moved up into the Wildlife Division Administrator position, which left the Assistant Division Administrator – Partners Section position open.  About two weeks ago, I was offered that position and I have accepted it.  So, I will be moving to the Lincoln area, starting in a new role with Statewide responsibilities on April 17th.  This new position will afford me opportunities to impact private land habitat programs, partnerships, public access programs and more across the state.  Unfortunately, that means I am leaving the Chicken Dance Trail area.

     

    Nearly 15 years ago, I was an Assistant Park Superintendent at Ponca State Park, leading the Outdoor Education Program at the park.  With a growing family, and struggling at times to make ends meet, I applied for a job in North Platte as a “Fish and Wildlife Biologist II”.  Having minimal experience in that part of the field, I nearly turned down an interview.  My wife had friends that lived in North Platte, so we decided to go see them, spend the night and do the interview.  As we approached North Platte from the east, I noticed the Loess Canyons (I didn’t know their name then) off to the south.  “WOW” I thought to myself as I saw the tree covered slopes and rough terrain from a distance.  From the balcony of our friends apartment, I looked out to those canyons again and thought “What a neat place that would be to work in!”.  I did the interview, with no expectations of actually getting the job, and thus without being nervous at all…and I got the job.

    Falling in Love with an Area

    Over the next 6 months, as I learned more and more about the area I was working in, I fell in love with prairie streams and rivers, flowing bodies of water where grassland gradually sloped down to the water’s edge.  Growing up in northeast Nebraska, where rivers and streams have “banks” (steep drops down to the water), I had never seen streams like this, and I was amazed.  I also found and fell in love with playa wetlands, which are shallow basins on higher, relatively flat portions of the landscape in the Chicken Dance Trail area.  When it rains hard, they fill up with water.  When it is dry, they dry up gradually over time and eventually dry up completely.  Ducks and shorebirds love these playas during migration and Sandhill Cranes use them during fall migration.  It was much easier to find the Southwest Reservoirs (Enders, Swanson, Medicine Creek and Red Willow) and I found out that they were not only magnets for waterbirds but also for migrating warblers and other migrants.  During all of this, I learned about the Loess Canyons as well…

    Loess Canyons and American Burying Beetles

    I don’t know if I had ever heard about the Loess Canyons, and knew very little about the American burying beetle (ABB), which is an endangered species that lives there.  In 2004, I started a Master’s degree research project in the Loess Canyons to learn more about the ABB and what impacts the rapidly increasing coverage of eastern red cedar might have upon them.  I spent day after day in the canyons, I learned more and more.  I heard my first Common Poorwills, saw my first Loess Canyons elk, and became familiar with the songs of Field Sparrows, Black-headed Grosbeaks, Great Crested Flycatchers, Yellow-breasted Chats, and Bell’s Vireos, just to name a few.  And over the next two years, I caught a lot of ABB, and caught significantly more of them where there were fewer cedar trees, the battle had been defined.

    Working in the Loess Canyons, with partners such as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Natural Resources Conservation Service, Pheasants Forever and most importantly, the landowners and their burn association, the Loess Canyons Rangeland Alliance (adding later the Central Platte Prescribed Burn Association and Upper Medicine Creek Prescribed Burn Association) has been the most rewarding thing in my career.  I have observed landowner attitudes about the ABB (again, an endangered species) shift from fear (of the Endangered Species Act) or apathy, to tolerance and even pride in having the ABB on their land.  There are VERY few places in the United States where such a success story related to an endangered species has happened, it has been an amazing thing to be a part of.  We have collectively battled the cedar invasion, and are making headway, but still with a long way to go.  A part of my heart will stay in those canyons when I leave.

    If you haven’t ever been in the Loess Canyons of SE Lincoln County – it is a place you should see and experience.  Go after a relatively dry period (a few days or more) in late May or early June and arrive before sunrise, to listen to the morning chorus of grassland, woodland and shrubland birds.  Go back in late June to early August, especially in a year with decent precipitation to see the abundant wildflowers like ironweed, snow-on-the-mountain, verbena and more.  Then you need to go back again in early fall (dates vary by year) when the leaves start to turn to see the golden-yellow, yellow and red colors of the green ash, American elm and sumac.  It is a beautiful place that far too many people haven’t ever seen.

    Thanks, Chicken Dance Trail Readers

    I will occasionally come back to the Chicken Dance Trail area, for work or to recreate.  And you haven’t heard the last of me as if inspiration ever hits, I will submit another newsletter.  In the meantime, two talented photographers and outdoor enthusiasts (that are starting to admit that they might be birdwatchers), Julie Geiser and Boni Edwards, are going to be submitting newsletters in my place.  I have no idea how many years I have done this, or how many newsletters I have submitted, but it has been a pleasure and an honor to share my passions, my career, my family and my life with you.  Thanks Chicken Dance Trail staff and readers for allowing me to do that.  It has definitely been time well spent.

    One final brief update on my resolution – walked less in March – busy times with all the changes, but still managed to lose 4 more pounds as of writing this so I am down 16 pounds since January 1st.  IF anyone has been playing along with me – keep going – you can do it.

    T.J.Walker
    Biologist, Nebraska Game and Parks Commission


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