Republican River

Willa Cather

Yellow-Headded Black Bird"Ivar sat down on the floor and tucked his feet under him. ‘See little brother, they have come from a long way, and they are very tired. From up there where they are flying, our country looks dark and flat. They must have water to drink and to bathe in before they can go on with their journey. They look this way and that, and far below them they see something shining, like a piece of glass set in the dark earth. That is my pond. They come to it and are not disturbed. Maybe I sprinkle a little corn. They tell the other birds, and next year more come this way. They have their roads up there, as we have down here.’”
—O Pioneers!

Willa Cather was one of the most eloquent writers about the beauty – even majesty – of the Nebraska prairie and the Republican River Valley, and somehow, starting this adventure at the Willa Cather Memorial Prairie seems the right thing to do.

Willa Cather Memorial Prairie

Willa Cather Memorial PrairieThe view of what Cather called “this hairy landscape” from the parking area alone is worth the drive, a vast undulating vista of prairie and sky, dropping away to a little pond, “shining like a piece of glass set in the dark earth.” As we gather our gear, a Western Meadowlark voices his approval of a fine spring day, and then another joins him, and a third, faint but distinct. Redwing blackbirds are in abundance, and one perches on a nearby fence inviting us to admire his bright red bars.

A path mowed in the long grass leads off across the pasture and down to the pond. As we approach, a pair of mallards explode from the water and when we get under the giant old cottonwoods, the air is dense with tree swallows. Down here you don’t see the trappings of modern civilization, and it’s possible to imagine the world Cather wrote about and to think, despite the hardships, that it wouldn’t have been that bad.

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Narrows Wildlife Management Area

Narrows WMAWe had actually arrived in Red Cloud, the town where Willa Cather came of age and gathered material for her seminal novels, My Antonia and O Pioneers! the previous afternoon. But before settling in for the evening, we decided to take the advice of a local naturalist and locate the Narrows Wildlife Management Area (WMA) 4 miles west of town on Hwy 136.

We stopped in a grove of trees where the road crosses a former railroad grade bed, the tracks ripped out and stacked in an unruly pile and the resulting trail disappearing in both directions. In the lengthening shadows, the air was filled with a symphony of birdsong.

When the road becomes rougher, we continue on foot down to the river. Massive old cottonwoods form a deep glade with dense undergrowth and it’s a surprise when we break free of it and almost stumble into the river. During the migration season, this part of Nebraska enjoys visits from a wide variety of shorebirds native to other climes, and it’s not uncommon to see/hear warblers, vireos and grosbeaks.

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The River Road

River RoadIn the morning, we hit the trail early, arriving at the Willa Cather Memorial Prairie while the dew is still heavy on the long grass. We’ve planned to cover a lot of ground today, from Red Cloud along the south side of the Republican River to the Harlan County Dam which forms Nebraska’s second largest body of water, along the north side of the lake to Methodist Cove.

From U.S. 281 So. crossing the Republican River, turn west on River Road, a well-maintained gravel road leads west through the trees lining the river. This is beautiful country, and one can see where the pioneers of Cather’s novels might choose to carve out a life here. We pass neat farmyards tucked beneath green hills and tan bluffs. Above, the sky is dotted with clouds, with the threat of rain gathering in the west.

Abruptly, we turn a corner and come upon a broad field of alfalfa, a distinctly deeper green than the surrounding crops. As we watch, we become aware of kingbirds and bobolinks fluttering a few feet above the plants then dropping into them. A bit farther along, we see three hen turkeys feeding unconcernedly at the edge of the road.

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An unexpected treat

Baltimore OriolesBaltimore orioles are not native to Nebraska, but they occur in large numbers during the migration season. Their school-bus yellow and black bodies make them relatively easy to identify, and we aren’t too surprised to see one perched in a row of bushes along the fence line.

As we slow the car to a crawl, and roll down the windows, we spot another...and another...and another. In a moment, we realize the bushes are full of orioles – two dozen at least – fluttering nervously from branch to branch like jeweled, mobile flowers. We are enthralled. They are made nervous by our presence, but don’t take flight; we stay in the car and they give us a floor show for several minutes.

We do get out of the car to walk across a picturesque old bridge over the Republican River at E-F Road, abandoned when the new replacement was built immediately adjacent. It gives us an excellent view of an entire neighborhood of mud swallow dwellings. By now the sun is high, though, and there is no activity to be seen. We hear the distinctive knock of woodpeckers in the trees lining the river and wish we had the skill – as some people do – to distinguish the species by the sound.

Harlan County Dam

Harlan County DamThe steep wall of the Harlan County Dam has been an increasingly prominent feature of the landscape as we travel west, and as we round the south end of it, the reservoir comes intensely into view as a broad, glistening gem almost surreal in the vast panorama.

The Harlan County Dam and resulting reservoir are under the jurisdiction of the Army Corps of Engineers, and they maintain a small visitors center at the north end of the dam. Here you can see displays of some of the local bird and wildlife and talk to people who know a little something about birds and can tell you what’s been seen in the neighborhood lately.

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Methodist Cove

Methodist CoveIf you’re a birder with an RV, the Harlan County Lake has six campgrounds and hundreds of appealing campsites. We took a quick drive through the North and South Outlet Parks immediately below the dam, then skirted around the north side of the lake, through the village of Republican City on Corp Road B.

Methodist Cove Park is a beautiful wooded park with 155 campsites overlooking the lake about two miles West of Alma. As we sat on the bank in the sun, we saw a number of fishermen – Harlan County Lake is reputed to be one of the best fishing spots in the state – and numerous pelicans, pintails, pied-billed grebe and horned greebes paddling in the sparkling water.

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Pheasant Ridge Trail

Ft. Kearney SRAAs we drive on into the charming town of Alma, we stop to admire the Pheasant Ridge Trail, a three-mile paved and lighted trail along the shoreline. This trail is a favorite among local bikers and hikers, and we comment that it’s an ideal bird watching venue for handicapped or wheelchair-bound birders as well.

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The birds of central and western Nebraska:

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Avocet, American
Avocet, American
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Bittern, American
American Bittern.
Bittern, American
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Blackbird, Brewer's
Brewer's Blackbird
Blackbird, Brewer's
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Blackbird, Red-winged
Photo by Don Brockmeier.
Blackbird, Red-winged
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Blackbird, Rusty
Blackbird, Rusty
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Blackbird, Yellow-headed
Yellow-headed Blackbird.
Blackbird, Yellow-headed
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Bluebird, Eastern
Photo by Don Brockmeier.
Bluebird, Eastern
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Bluebird, Mountain
Bluebird, Mountain
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Bobolink
Bobolink.
Bobolink
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Bufflehead
Bufflehead Duck
Bufflehead
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Bunting, Indigo
Indigo Bunting.
Bunting, Indigo
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Bunting, Lark
Lark Bunting
Bunting, Lark
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Bunting, Painted
Bunting, Painted
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Bunting, Snow
Bunting, Snow
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Bunting,Lazuli
Lazuli Bunting.
Bunting,Lazuli
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Canvasback
Canvasback.
Canvasback
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Cardinal, Northern
Cardinal, Northern
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Catbird, Gray
Catbird, Gray
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Chat, Yellow-breasted
Chat, Yellow-breasted
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Chickadee, Black-capped
Black-capped Chickadee.
Chickadee, Black-capped
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Coot, American
American Coot.
Coot, American
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Cormorant, Double-crested
Double-crested Cormorant.
Cormorant, Double-crested
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Cowbird, Brown-headed
Cowbird, Brown-headed
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Crane, Sandhill
Sandhill Crane.
Crane, Sandhill
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Crane, Whooping
Crane, Whooping
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Creeper, Brown
Creeper, Brown
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Crossbill, Red
Crossbill, Red
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Crossbill, White-winged
Crossbill, White-winged
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Crow, American
American Crow.
Crow, American
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Cuckoo, Black-billed
Cuckoo, Black-billed
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Cuckoo, Yellow-billed
Cuckoo, Yellow-billed
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Curlew, Long-billed
Long-billed Cerlew.
Curlew, Long-billed
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Dickcissel
Dickcissel
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Dove, Eurasian Collared
Dove, Eurasian Collared
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Dove, Mourning
Photo by Don Brockmeier.
Dove, Mourning
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Dove, Rock
Rock Dove.
Dove, Rock
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Dowitcher, Long-billed
Dowitcher, Long-billed
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Dowitcher, Short-billed
Short-billed Dowitcher.
Dowitcher, Short-billed
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Duck, American Black
Duck, American Black
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Duck, Black-bellied Whistling
Duck, Black-bellied Whistling
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Duck, Gadwall
Gadwall Duck.
Duck, Gadwall
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Duck, Garganey
Duck, Garganey
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Duck, Mallard
Mallard.
Duck, Mallard
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Duck, Ring-necked
Duck, Ring-necked
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Duck, Ruddy
Duck, Ruddy
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Duck, Wood
Wood Duck.
Duck, Wood
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Dunlin
Dunlin
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Eagle, Bald
Bald Eagle. Photo courtesy of Don Brockmeier.
Eagle, Bald
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Eagle, Golden
Golden Eagle.
Eagle, Golden
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Egret, Cattle
Egret, Cattle

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Thank You

to the following counties and communities for their support:

  • Frontier
  • Harlan
  • Phelps
  • Red Willow
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