The Sandhills Journey Scenic Byway (Byway) stretches along Highway 2 from Grand Island to Alliance, Nebraska. The Byway begins east of the 98th Meredian, at the edge of the humid, forested east. The Byway ends west of the 100th Meredian, in the arid, treeless grasslands of the west. With each mile a different sentence in the great American story is inscribed. The Sandhills is an iconic American landscape, a land that fundamentally changed the way Americans view the country and themselves.
Nebraska’s demographics mirror that of the country’s – an eastern population inhabiting a western landscape. The Mississippi River is often used as the divining line between east and west. Almost 60% of the country’s population resides in the 26 states east of the river. Drop Texas and California, and the west is vacant.
Nebraska’s population is even more dramatically skewed. The largest two cities, Omaha and Lincoln, hug the eastern edge. The third largest city, Grand Island, has around 50,000 residents. When the University of Nebraska football team plays at home in Lincoln, the stadium becomes the third largest city in the state.
Eighty-nine percent of the cities in Nebraska have fewer than 3,000 people. Nebraska shares this characteristic with four other Great Plains states: Kansas, Oklahoma, North and South Dakota. Hundreds of towns have a population of fewer than 1,000. Sioux County, in the far northwestern corner, averages less than one resident per square mile.
The vast majority of Nebraska’s birders live in Omaha, Lincoln, and the eastern suburbs. They bird in the east, and they report eastern birds. Reports from Fontenelle Forest and Sarpy County in the east far outweigh those from the Oglala National Grasslands or Crescent Lake NWR in the west. Birders report from where they live. No one lives in the west.
I suspect that more tourists visit Alaska than western Nebraska each year. In fact, I suspect that more visit Alaska in a year than western Nebraska in a decade. Of course Nebraska is closer. But Alaska is known, and Nebraska is an unrecognized void. The state is just another one of those rectangles in the middle of the country.
Birders tend not to follow the paths of traditional tourists. We do venture to the hinterlands (the lower Rio Grande Valley of Texas, the Huachucas in Arizona). But birders are also habituated, and most of us follow the preferences of those around us. When a place like Nebraska is unknown and unvisited, it will remain ignored.
I have been working in the Sandhills for the past few months. I recently completed an 11-day trip spiced with field work and a few community meetings. I covered the Byway for its entire 272-mile length, from Grand Island to Alliance. I also made side trips to Loup City, Crescent Lake NWR, the Pine Ridge, and the Oglala National Grasslands. In those 11 days I never laid eyes on a birder. Most days I rarely laid eyes on a human being.
Birds are another matter. The Sandhills is one of the most intact native grasslands remaining in the country. The Sandhills is also the most extensive wetlands complex in the country, overlaying the Ogallala aquifer (yes, the aquifer is spelled differently from the national grassland). The grassland birds in the Sandhills are overwhelming at times. Upland sandpipers, grasshopper sparrows, horned larks, and lark sparrows litter the landscape. How do you count the countless?
I confess that being alone with countless birds is appealing. I enjoy spending a day without saying a single word. I love the opportunity to become immersed in nature, to shut out the world and simply be. I admit that I prefer birding alone.
But I also believe it tragic that more Americans have not experienced one of the country’s iconic landscapes, the Sandhills, and that more birders have yet to experience grassland birds where they continue to thrive. Think about the word “thrive” for a moment. When did you last visit a place where the singing (if that’s the right word) of grasshopper sparrows could not be quelled, where you went to bed with their buzzing in your ears? What about lakes shrouded in black terns, towns blanketed with Franklin’s gulls, lark buntings sprinkled across the grasslands like dominoes, or wetlands chocked full of dabbling ducks and deafened by the raucous calls of yellow-headed blackbirds?
The Sandhills still offers us the chance to see this nation’s bounty as it appeared to our predecessors. The grand herds of bison are gone, and antelope no longer play in the numbers of the past. But there remains a prolificacy that still grabs your throat and snatches your breath away. Teddy Roosevelt said that “the farther one gets into the wilderness, the greater is the attraction of its lonely freedom.”
As a birder knows, and I suspect as TR knew, the freedom is from fellow man, not nature. In the Sandhills the retreat is from the noise of modernity, and the embrace is of a landscape that has escaped man’s predilection to manicure the land to his favor. The story in the Sandhills is about how man has adapted to the land, rather than the obverse. This lesson concerns how man has simply joined the legions of other creatures who have adapted as well.
For information about the Byway itself, click on this link.
The most active statewide birding group is the Nebraska Ornithologists' Union.
I have created Pinterest boards with my images from the Sandhills. Click on the following links to access the boards.