September 28, 2023
It’s a warm, still night in late September along the Niobrara River, flowing east through Nebraska’s sandhills prairie. The moon is nearly full, casting a sparkly white trail of ripples along the water’s burbling curves. The humid night air is vibrating with life. Ground crickets, tree crickets, and many other singing insects that I don’t recognize give voice to this place with a thousand wings and legs. The sounds are different from the nighttime chorus I know in Montana, but equally magical.
The owls that were singing a few minutes ago have fallen silent. I can no longer hear the plaintive tremolo of the eastern screech-owl, nor the deep hoots of the great horned owls in the distance. But now, above the melodic burbling of the water, something starts making a terrible, screeching racket, as if Halloween has come a month early to this forest. I suspect this horrible sound is a young great horned owl.
The personality of a place
I came to Nebraska for a few days to work on a field biology project. Now the work is done, but I’ve stayed for a little while longer. There’s something fascinating to me about getting to know the plants and animals of a new area, the sounds and smells, the seasonal patterns—that whole unique combination of creatures and happenings, that tumult of life that gives every place on earth its own unique personality. For one area along the Niobrara River, this story is a sketch of that personality.
It’s impossible to express in words how much I love riparian areas, those amazing habitats that trace the edges of rivers and streams. Living in the western United States, in the cold, dry interior of the continent, it’s no wonder. In this harsh region, it’s impossible to ignore how important riparian areas are to all sorts of plants and animals. And there’s something wonderful to me about being immersed in such an abundance of life. Along Montana’s rivers, I think of the cottonwood stands where the western wood-pewees and least flycatchers sing, where northern flickers and tree swallows nest. White-tailed deer bed down underneath. At night, beavers swim out to forage from their dens in the riverbanks and yellow-breasted chats sing in the darkness.
Plants and animals along the Niobrara River
Here along the Niobrara River, there’s so much that is different—but at the same time it’s so much like home. The air is more humid, with moisture carried from the Gulf of Mexico. The Plains cottonwoods (Populus deltoides) and green ashes (Fraxinus pennsylvanica) that I know from eastern Montana are joined by trees and vines typical of the deciduous forests farther east—and the birds are a bit different, too.
Bur oaks (Quercus macrocarpa) spread their strong limbs and form groves along the river, dropping acorns for wild turkeys. The nasal calls of the blue jays join the familiar ones of the robins and cedar waxwings. Exuberant wild grapes (Vitis riparia) climb the trees and dangle juicy clusters of small fruits. The grapes have tart skins and large seeds, but they’re abundant, and the juice is incredible, rich and acidic and complex.
Along this Nebraska river, there are the familiar flickers and downy woodpeckers I know from Montana, as well as the red-headed and red-bellied woodpeckers of the eastern United States. The hackberry trees (Celtis occidentalis) are new to me, the patterns of their corky bark forming a beautiful contrast with the cottonwoods. They have small purple fruits with a large seed and a thin, dry pulp that tastes incredibly like dates. The seeds, once I’ve scraped the tasty pulp off with my teeth, are covered with an intricate, net-like design.
Sparrows and sandhills
In this place, many of the migrant songbirds of late fall are the same species I know from Montana. Flocks of Lincoln’s sparrows and juvenile white-crowned sparrows call softly from the American plum thickets, already leafless with the approach of fall. The green ashes along the river have turned golden and a few yellow-rumped and orange-crowned warblers hunt insects in the canopy, the stragglers in the fall flood that warbler migration has been.
In the dry hills of sand above the river, vesper sparrows and Savannah sparrows fly up from the wild sunflowers along the road. But other than the wild sunflowers, the prairie plants are quite different here. Reddish-purple expanses of little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium) and the tawny seedheads of sand bluestem (Andropogon hallii) have replaced the bluebunch wheatgrass (Agropyron spicatum) that is so common in western Montana. The moonlike flowers of white prickly poppy (Argemone polyanthemos) glow along the dirt roads.
The connections of memories
Years ago, before I became an avid naturalist, I lived in North Carolina. Here in Nebraska, there are sounds and creatures that make me think of that place, stirring half-conscious memories from long ago. Voices of the nighttime insect chorus. Wild grapes climbing with joyful abandon. Oak forests along the river.
There would have been eastern screech-owls in North Carolina, too, though I don’t remember them from my childhood. As far as I know, this is the first time I’ve ever heard that tremolo in the night. I had hoped I might, sleeping out under the stars in this incredible place, this richness of big cottonwoods, hackberries, and grape vines.
This story can’t do this place justice. But it’s a sketch and an invitation: that we can spend time getting to know places like this, places that can remind us that life is vast and we are part of it. The rivers are paths of life. These forests along their banks are full of magic, seen and unseen.
Coyotes in the night and seeds in my pocket
Suddenly the coyotes join the nocturnal chorus of insects, yipping and barking in a crescendo from the ponderosa pines to the north. It’s good to know they’re here, these animals whose voices weave into the stories of so many of the original people of this land. And a few minutes after the coyote music has faded away, I hear the screech-owl again. The owl is directly across the river from me now, voice plunging in a series of hauntingly beautiful whinnies. Sometimes the song stays level, a melodious, pensive trill.
The next day, as I return home to Helena, I go with one pocket filled with grape seeds. Another is full of hackberry seeds.
I don’t know why. Both are species of the Great Plains and of eastern North America. The native distribution of hackberry barely reaches eastern Montana, while wild grape is found just in the southeastern corner of the state. Planting them around Helena, several hundred miles farther west, probably doesn’t make much ecological sense. It’s very possible that both will end up sitting on a shelf in labeled envelopes, moments of inspiration set aside for the future.
From the Niobrara River to riparian life everywhere
But I think there’s something important here: a “seed,” if you will, of love for riparian habitats. Anytime I’m in a place like this, where the screech-owls sing and life is thriving, I want to help it thrive even more. And so I notice patterns: which plants the birds and insects like, which native species are uncommon and could be more common. I gather seeds, and plant them. I pull non-native grasses from around patches of goldenrod, wild mint, and other native riparian plants. Sometimes I help plant cottonwoods and chokecherries on stream restoration sites. And I camp in places like this, where the owls sing and the wild fruits ripen, and I dream of a few more of them, along our rivers and in our yards.