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Northwestern Exposure: The Bright Lights of Cottonwood-Steverson

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As the weather warms up, I love overnight trips to our great public lands in the region. The more remote the better. For the first trip of the season, I chose Cottonwood-Steverson Wildlife Management Area in the Sandhills between Merriman and Hyannis.

Upon arrival, the Cottonwood-Steverson welcoming committee promptly greeted me.

Grazing cattle at Cottonwood-Steverson
Grazing cattle at Cottonwood-Steverson

While many water-loving species are attracted to Cottonwood-Steverson and its Sandhills lakes, I found myself attracted to the many small birds fluttering among the trees. The warblers were out in force.

Such as this black-and-white warbler (Mniotilta varia).

Black-and-white Warbler
Black-and-white Warbler

This male yellow warbler (Setophaga petechial).

Yellow warbler
Yellow warbler

And, of course, the yellow-rumped warbler (Setophaga coronate).

Yellow-rumped warbler
Yellow-rumped warbler

Long ago, I worked in sports information at Chadron State College and the following bird gave us fits. Every time someone wrote the word redshirt, as in “redshirt freshman,” the spell-checker wanted to change it to redstart. So, behold, my first photo of the American redstart (Setophaga ruticilla). While it’s not a stellar image, it’s a handsome bird and serves as a promising recruit to my list of bird photos. I’ll gladly give it another shot.

American redstart
American redstart

The biggest disappointment of the trip was the absence of great blue herons. The property features a heron rookery — a colony of nests high in a row of hardwoods near the west entrance. Those stick nests high in the trees were vacant, though, even though there were a few herons there during a quick stop I made in early April. Commission wildlife officials suspect a combination of weather-related factors that came later – or perhaps harassment from predators or humans — caused their hatch to fail. Total bummer.

After several hours in the blind, I retired to the tent cot for what I thought would be quiet night. After all, other than a little local traffic of ranchers and the occasional semi rolling down Nebraska Highway 61, it seemed I was alone in this serene location. Little did I know, however, Mother Nature had a sound-and-light show planned for me. Out came the camera.

Lightning over the Sandhills
Lightning over the Sandhills
Lightning over the alke
Lightning over the lake

After the stormy night, I rose early to catch the next light show: Sunrise.

Cottonwood-Steverson sunrise
Cottonwood-Steverson sunrise
Cottonwood-Steverson sunrise
Cottonwood-Steverson sunrise
Joe Rydell with Muskie
Joe Rydell with Muskie

And, finally, I was no longer alone in enjoying this great property. A solo fisherman had taken to the water. The 680-acre lake is listed high in this year’s fishing forecast for crappies. That’s not all that swims its waters. Here’s a giant muskie that Joe Rydell, one of our fisheries biologists, caught and released during sampling efforts there earlier this spring. It caused quite a stir when he posted it to social media. “Whoever said Nebraska doesn’t have big fish must not be a very good fisherman,” he wrote.

Fishing at Cottonwood-Steverson
Fishing at Cottonwood-Steverson

Our fishing guide also lists walleyes, saugeyes, bluegills, yellow perch, largemouth bass, and common carp residing in the lake.

Big fish, little birds and great light shows. My kind of place.

About Justin Haag

Justin Haag has served the Commission as a public information officer in the Panhandle since 2013. His duties include 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 have two children.

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