News of the discovery flew through the state’s birding community.
In early June, a state biologist spotted four fulvous whistling ducks at Wagon Train Lake, hanging out near the shoreline with local waterfowl.
This was big: Never before had these ducks — more at home along the Gulf Coast and points south — been confirmed in Nebraska, and now they were about to become the 462nd species on the state’s official bird list.
The biologist’s photos zipped from phone to phone, from birding listserv to birding websites — and to a hospital bed in Council Bluffs, Iowa.
Ross Silcock was recovering from a stomach problem, but he opened his laptop and started typing. The retired insurance agent sent his report to Joel Jorgensen at the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission and, that afternoon, it was posted to the new Birds of Nebraska website.
“We had the account online that same afternoon,” Silcock said. “You can’t do that with a book.”
But Silcock and Jorgensen had been working on a book. They’d spent the past couple of years revising their 2001 “Birds of Nebraska: Their Distribution and Temporal Occurrence.”
They were updating every species entry, gathering photos, working with their publisher. And then they decided to go digital instead.
“Obviously, a website has a lot of advantages over a book,” Jorgensen said. “It’s cheaper to produce. It’s accessible to a lot more people and we have the ability to update it all of the time, which is a huge advantage to us.”
Their original book had cataloged every bird species reported in Nebraska, with photos and maps showing where and when they’re likely to be found — helping birders add orchard orioles and surf scoters and tufted titmice to their life lists.
But birds aren’t always creatures of habit. Their distribution and movements change, influenced by humans and the environment and land use, Jorgensen said.
Some birds stop coming around. Others add Nebraska to their range.
The Mississippi kite wasn’t here 30 years ago, and now they’re breeding in the southwest corner of the state. The lesser gold finch has crossed the border from Colorado’s Front Range. And the Eurasian-collared dove, originally from the West Indies, is all over the state.
Enough had changed since 2001 that Silcock updated all of the listings. “If a bird expands its breeding range, we note that. If there’s an earlier or later date, we’ll change that. Some species accounts, the whole thing has to be seriously rewritten,” he said.
Which is why they scrapped the idea of a second book. Now they can update in real time, and not wait another 17 years for the next edition.
The site has enough scientific and historical information to be valuable to hardcore birders, Jorgensen said, but it’s also useful to readers simply wondering what landed in their backyard.
It includes all of Nebraska’s confirmed species, whether common — such as the common grackle, common crane and common tern — or rare. In 1951, for example, the state’s first and last confirmed clapper rail from the Atlantic Coast was found dead in a Logan County mink trap.
It also describes the three species that have since gone extinct — Carolina parakeet, Eskimo curlew and passenger pigeon. And it lists dozens of unaccepted species. These are birds that escaped captivity, such as parakeets and ringed turtle doves, or unconfirmed reports, like a road runner in Phelps County.
Jorgensen and Silcock worked with the Game and Parks Commission to build Birds of Nebraska, which launched in April.
“We would have only sold a couple hundred copies of the book, probably,” Jorgensen said. “But we’ve already had tens of thousands of people looking at the site.”