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Middle America's Natural Paradise : Nebraska Sandhills Are an Unlikely Home for a Startling Variety of Wildlife

August 08, 1993|RICHARD HOMAN | Homan is an assistant foreign editor at the Washington Post. and

I'd never seen a wild turkey do a double-take.

But as I sat in my car on a little-traveled dirt road in the Nebraska Sandhills, one emerged from the brush ahead of me and ambled nonchalantly across to the thick bushes on the other side, giving no evidence it had noticed me. Halfway in, it stopped suddenly, backed out, turned and stared at me for a long moment, and then plunged headlong out of sight.

Farther along the road, I stopped to photograph a field of blazing golden black-eyed Susans. A horse grazing alone promptly came galloping to the fence to look me over. I exchanged greetings with him, then turned back to the car and saw that what had been a random cluster of two dozen cattle munching grass on the other side of the road now were lined up side-by-side, staring at me.

In a wildlife refuge later that day, I drove carefully through some bison and Texas longhorn cattle, several of which lumbered laboriously to their feet to acknowledge my presence and leave the roadway where they had been snoozing. Nearby, five elk grazed along a stream, knee-high in a blanket of yellow and purple flowers.

I had wanted solitude when I went to northwestern Nebraska early last August for a few days' relaxed enjoyment of the wildlife and magnificent scenery that few outsiders realize is there. From the surprised reaction of the turkey, the imploring attention of the livestock and the patience of the beasts I stirred from the road, I decided I had reached one of the dwindling number of nature's beauty spots where human beings are still the exception.

When I was a child growing up in Nebraska, the 100th Meridian, a few miles west of our town, became a magical frontier for me. An ornate arch straddling U.S. 30--in those pre-Interstate times a major transcontinental highway--proclaimed the line, and while to most people it was simply a part of geographers' meticulous carving up of the globe, to me it was the beginning of the West.

On one side of the 100th Meridian were farmers, who grew corn and raised dairy cattle, and people who had jobs in town and thought of themselves as Midwesterners. On the other side were ranchers who considered themselves Westerners, who grew hay and pastured beef cattle on whatever land hadn't been buckled into buttes and ravines by ancient upheavals and erosions.

Even today, the differences remain strong; while you might see people wearing Stetsons while they eat in cafes east of the 100th Meridian, it's only to the west that it passes unnoticed. I didn't have one, but was able to blend in by wearing a cap--though not one from a seed company, which seemed the headgear of choice after a Stetson.

Valentine, 25 miles west of the 100th Meridian, was the start of my tour, and after a weekend of family visits in Omaha I made the 300-mile trip northwest nonstop, zipping through Norfolk ("He-e-e-re's Norfolk! Proud Hometown of Johnny Carson!"), Atkinson (a 20-foot-tall Hay Man proclaimed the annual "Hay Days") and Ainsworth (where sagebrush and sunflowers took over the roadsides). They all looked inviting and offered tempting stops--but not for this time.

Between Ainsworth and Valentine, the Sandhills, the Western Hemisphere's largest tract of dunes, begins. The rolling, grass-covered terrain was dismissed by early explorers as desert, and federal surveyors warned that the plains west of the 100th Meridian were unsuited to normal habitation. But by the late 19th Century, the Sandhills--which covered a dozen or more counties, one of them five times the size of Rhode Island--had become one of the nation's prime cattle-raising regions.

At Valentine, a town of 2,800, the Niobrara River, Nebraska's prettiest, carves through the Sandhills, providing a lush setting for the Fort Niobrara National Wildlife Refuge. South of town is the Valentine National Wildlife Refuge, encompassing prairie grasslands, hills and dozens of the small lakes that dot the Sandhills and provide nesting areas for numerous species of birds and feeding sites for migrants and other wildlife.

I found a motel and headed for Fort Niobrara refuge. My chief target there was a burrowing owl--which, unlike most birds I know, lives underground. I'd looked for the fluffy little owl in Florida and Texas without luck, but knew that they are often found in prairie dog colonies, where they take over abandoned burrows and blend in so well that, seen casually from a distance scurrying around or standing possessively on mounds next to their burrows, they are assumed to be prairie dogs themselves.

Just inside the refuge entrance was a prairie dog colony and I quickly spotted some burrowing owls among the gregarious little rodents. With binoculars I could see that more than a dozen of what I would have taken to be prairie dogs were actually owls--but they blended in so well that I was glad when a couple of them rose into the air, providing confirmation.

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