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Panhandle Passages: Recording Our Assets

One of Nebraska’s great assets is the variety of animals that can be found when traveling from one end of the state to the other. Just as the landscape changes as one heads westward, so do the set of creatures one is likely to see.

Within a short drive from Chadron I have a fair chance of seeing pronghorn, mule deer, elk and the occasional swift fox or golden eagle. And, of course, one of the state’s most prominent media darlings, the bighorn sheep, makes its home in our butte country.

When it comes to wildlife viewing, June has been a great month for me. Tips and guidance from friends and coworkers helped me view and photograph a variety of the animals unique to this end of the state.

Bighorns enjoy the most rugged buttes and canyons of this part of the state – being able to scurry up and down steep canyons and buttes serves as a reliable defense mechanism and great entertainment.

Bighorn Sheep
A bighorn sheep ewe and a fawn standing high on a Sioux County escarpment in early June.

If rugged buttes aren’t your style there’s the swift fox, which enjoys the sea of short grasses and rolling hills of which so much of our land consists. Watching swift fox pups play is something everyone should have on his bucket list. I wasn’t set up for video the day my son and I were watching the foxes play in Sioux County as a small thunderstorm was approaching, but did get a short clip with an iPad that might help set the scene. (You’ll want to watch at full screen if you want a chance to see the action.)

Swift fox pup

And, although northwestern Nebraska may not be known for its wetlands, we do have a few “puddles” that attract a variety waterfowl. I was certainly glad to see a flock of American avocets land near my blind at a small lake just before sunrise one morning this week.

American avocets
American avocets wade in the shallows of a small lake in Dawes County.

Beautiful creatures, all.

A Frightening Takeoff

In order to see bighorns, sometimes you need to be willing to hike across those buttes and canyons they call home.

During a recent outing at Chadron State Park with Commission wildlife staff members Laura Woodrum, Rick Arnold and Todd Nordeen, I found myself climbing a steep canyon wall to get to the other side.

During the climb I popped my head over a ledge, only to see two beady eyes and a bald head within arm’s reach. With such an occurrence, it takes a person what seems an eternity to answer the question, “Exactly what creature am I dealing with, here?”

Before I could answer the question, the unidentified critter flapped its wings several times — beating me over the head while gaining enough clearance to fly away.

As the mysterious beast was flying down the canyon, I got a good look at it and turned to see the nice clutch of eggs on which the animal had been sitting.

The evidence proved my adversary to be a hen Merriam’s wild turkey that had previously decided to nest in the exact area that I chose to climb. With my heart still beating rapidly and images of flapping wings firmly imprinted in my mind, I made my descent and found another route up the canyon wall.

Of course, the photographer in me soon asked the question, “Why, oh, why, couldn’t a video camera have been strapped to my head during the encounter?”

We did manage to get close to some bighorns that day — four magnificent rams that seemed to be in much better shape than me.

Bighorn sheep ram.
A bighorn sheep ram at Chadron State Park.
Panhandle Passages is written by Justin Haag of Chadron, a public information officer for the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission and regional editor for NEBRASKAland magazine. He can be reached at justin.haag@nebraska.gov or 308-430-8515.

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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