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This one’s for the birds

White-faced ibis
A white-faced ibis stands near a Sandhills lake in southern Sheridan County last week. Along with the other photos on this page and many other images, it was captured during a few hours on the evening of May 3. (NEBRASKAland/Justin Haag)

I probably owe my job to birds as much as anything.

Prior to my NEBRASKAland days, just after getting my student loans paid off, I bought a 100-500mm telephoto zoom lens and set out on the back roads of the Pine Ridge region in search of animals to photograph. Loving both the outdoors and camerawork, wildlife photography just seemed natural, so to speak.

As I launched my new pastime, I was excited to get images of the charismatic mammals of our region. I live in a land of elk, bighorn sheep and pronghorn, and I know I am the first one to give them first consideration when setting out for wildlife watching in the Panhandle.

American coot
An American coot works on its nest. (NEBRASKAland/Justin Haag)

More than any other class of animals, though, the birds are what kept me shooting photos in those days. Outdoor education professionals, who teach children about birds throughout the year, know that our feathered friends are fantastic “gateway animals” for appreciating nature. Regardless of where we are, chances are birds are nearby and easy to see. Not to mention, there are multitudes of different species to keep our interest. Before turning a photographer’s eye to it, I had not realized the outstanding wildlife diversity that had been under my nose – or above my head, rather — all my life.

Black-crowned night heron
A black-crowned night heron searches for prey in the shallows. (NEBRASKAland/Justin Haag)

Immediately after those days afield with my new lens, I rushed back to the computer to download photos and began scouring Internet sites for identification. When stumped, which was quite often, I would email wildlife professionals for help. They were patient and seemed more than willing to share their expertise with a rookie. The more I photographed, the more I learned. My interest led to purchasing bird guides and downloading identification apps. On road trips, my family has since endured me blurting out seemingly odd statements from behind the wheel such as “lark buntings!” or “loggerhead shrike!”

Of course, I still love photographing birds and I am fortunate to have a career that allows me to do it frequently. The enjoyment I found in capturing images of animals, many of them avian species, during those days is largely what prompted me to apply for the job I have now. Furthermore, the excitement of photographing a bird species for the first time never wanes. Such an occurrence happens less frequently as time goes on, but I am still nowhere close to having photos of them all – sources say there are more than 900 bird species in North America and more than 450 of them can be found in Nebraska.

Waterfowl and wading birds swim as the sun sets on the Sandhills. (NEBRASKAland/Justin Haag)

As we make our way through Nebraska Bird Month and approach International Migratory Bird Day on Saturday, May 13, I encourage you to see how many species you can find. From majestic raptors to diminutive finches, there are birds to see year-around in our state.

Crescent Lake NWR Map
A map created by the Crescent Lake National Wildlife Refuge for International Migratory Bird Day shows all of the wildlife one might see during a drive through the region. Click on the image for an enlarged view.

One of my favorite locations for bird photography this time of year is the Sandhills, which are teeming with a diverse set of birds and other wildlife. Marlin French, at biologist at Crescent Lake National Wildlife Refuge, created an informative map showing probable locations of the wildlife you might see on a drive between Antioch, Lakeside, Oshkosh and Lisco as part of the remote attraction’s Bird Day festivities. The drive through that area may not be quick, but it is always well worth the time.

If you do not have time for such an adventure, how about picking a location or two from this fantastic guide of opportunities in the Game and Parks Commission’s many park areas? You can also learn more by attending one of Nebraska’s many International Migratory Bird Month events. The website nebraskabirdmonth.org has a list of the events and other great resources for birdwatchers.

As for me, I will be celebrating birds throughout the year by pointing my camera at whatever species is within view. Considering I owe my job to those feathered friends, I figure they will always deserve some love from my camera.

Blue-winged teal
A drake blue-winged teal makes its way across the pond. (NEBRASKAland/Justin Haag)

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About justin haag

Justin Haag serves the Panhandle as a public information officer for the Commission, also serving as regional editor for NEBRASKAland Magazine. Haag was raised in southwestern Nebraska, where he developed a love for fishing, hunting and other outdoor pursuits. After earning a bachelor’s degree in journalism from Chadron State College in 1996, he worked four years as an editor and reporter at newspapers in Chadron and McCook. Prior to joining the Commission in 2013, he worked 12 years as a communicator at Chadron State, serving as the institution’s media and public relations coordinator the last five. He and his wife, Cricket, live in Chadron, and enjoy introducing their two children to the many outdoor recreational opportunities of the Pine Ridge region.

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