• Photo Showcase: Bird watching (spring migration)
* * *
Clem Klaphake loves his birds. Big or small, he loves them all. Ask him if he has a favorite and he stumbles over an answer. “It's like picking your favorite child,” Klaphake said.
He has been a professor at Bellevue University for 39 years, and the compiler for the Sarpy County Bird Count for the past decade. He also teaches birding every spring at Fontenelle Forest, has taught seminars on the sandhill crane and is active as a volunteer at the Hitchcock Nature Center's Hawk Watch program in Pottawattamie County.
According to the National Audubon Society, there are more than 50 million birders in the United States — more than the number of fish and game hunters — and it is a fast-growing outdoor activity. Klaphake has been watching most of his life and has taken it seriously for more than 30 years.
Nebraska and western Iowa are birding hot spots, several areas classified as Important Bird Areas by the National Audubon Society with 440 species recorded in Nebraska.
The Sarpy County bird count, an annual inventory of migratory birds passing through the area, was held Saturday in several locations throughout the county. In 2011, the group recorded a record 172 species, but this season has been challenging.
It has been hard to view smaller birds as they migrate to the area because the warm spring meant foliage developed almost a month early. And the 2011 floods changed the habitat along the Missouri River, killing and taking down trees and washing away seeds and ground cover that birds depend on.
“If they don't find what they need, they move to a new habitat,” Klaphake said.
One example is the reclusive pileated woodpecker. Undocumented in Nebraska during the 20th century until 1999, the crow-sized woodpecker had been spotted in a few locations along the Missouri River, including a pair in N.P. Dodge Park last year. But the pair may have moved north to more suitable habitat as park officials work with heavy machinery to repair the flood-ravaged riverfront park, Klaphake speculated.
Still, there are many success stories.
In wild areas in Jefferson County, Neb., more than 25,000 acres have been returned to natural prairie.
Kent Pfeiffer of the Northern Prairies Land Trust said his group has worked for the past eight years, spending an average of $250,000 a year, to help return properties in the area to the natural habitat by cutting invasive cedar trees. The trust works with private owners to teach them the importance of maintaining natural habitats, demonstrating the economic value of controlling cedars and, in return, providing a better habitat for wildlife.
As a result of the efforts, prairie chickens and other species have returned to the area for the first time in decades.
“It is comforting to know that it will remain,” Pfeiffer said.