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Oregon to Oklahoma

June 2003

Part 11:  On to Nebraska!

Now unfortunately, the next day was one of those days where the bird list didn’t help me a bit: it (the list) was terribly short, which meant it must have been an official chase day! I do remember stopping at Buffalo for lunch, trying a new café that actually turned out to be quite busy and quite good, and I believe that before landing in Sturgis SD that evening, we did find a supercell that we stopped for and actually started going through the motions of lowering its wall cloud. We had several of these moments when David went bananas, declaring how the storm itself was going bananas and was going to produce a large tornado at any moment! And without fail, that puppy would sure enough look like it was just about ready to "drop a hose" as they say, but then just as suddenly dissipate and fall apart (at which point the air would turn blue, and not from sunlight breaking through the clouds, either! J).

The next day’s models suggested that southwest Nebraska looked promising, so we headed south, and since we didn’t have far to go (relatively speaking; I’m learning that a two-hour drive in storm-chasing time is nothing) we stopped at Bridgeport State Rec Area along the Platte River and just hung out while David continued to download data and figure out which direction to go once the data started "verifying" the models: all the forecasting models could do was give us a general picture of what the upcoming days might have in store, but as David was fond of saying, "The devil’s in the details," and you had to be continually downloading hourly surface observations and radar images to see how those predictions were actually panning out, and if it looked as though a supercell was about to explode somewhere, that’s when we would all jump in the van and tear off! This was a nice little lake with several trees, and while it was hard to hear with the van running and the jet skis zipping all over (besides it again being the worst time of day) I did manage to pick up both kingbirds, a Blue Jay, and a Spotted Sandpiper that went barreling through.


Whizzing by Teddy Roosevelt National Park (or at least close to it), and a “turkey tower” (an updraft gone to pieces)


We pause at picturesque Bridgeport State Rec Area, on the Platte River in Nebraska, so David can download data via his cell phone.


David utilizes Lisa’s pillow to shield his laptop from the sun (so he can read it)! 

Things did indeed start to pop, and before long we were headed down to I-80 (I think) towards North Platte. But before we got that far we found the storm and went racing up a little county road that put us right next to the storm, and once again, that wall cloud dropped right before our very eyes (and we got a good feel for the warm, moist inflow whipping at our backs as well), and sure enough, scud started forming and what the guys were convinced was a funnel cloud started slowly dropping to the ground! But before long it became rain-wrapped, and I was dubious because I saw no rotation at all; it just looked like plain ol’ scud to me. At any rate, we jumped in the van and headed up and over towards Oshkosh, where Stu had the weather radio going constantly as it issued severe thunderstorm warnings and tornado watches without stop! A tornado warning was actually issued shortly (based on radar), and before long we found ourselves in the core, and it was wicked: it was black and torrential with some hail (not large, thankfully), and even David got to the point where he was unwilling to go any further for fear we might drive right into the tornado. A train went by, headed right for worst of it, and as we headed out and back and eventually toward Valentine, we found out later that a tornado was indeed reported near Oshkosh and knocked some train cars off the tracks! No one was hurt, thankfully, but I couldn’t help but wonder if that developing funnel we saw was indeed the very tornado that ended up going through Oshkosh (where, ironically, several years ago I was birding and heard the sirens go off that night for the first time)!


A promising storm near Oshkosh, Nebraska (note the narrow "shelf cloud" in the middle)  A wall cloud drops ominously from the cloud base...   


A funnel starts to drop!!!  (Unfortunately it became rain-wrapped before we could see it fully form...)

This is where I’ve lost my mind, because the next day we started in Valentine and ended up in Huron, SD, and I don’t remember a blasted thing chase-wise! (David did come drag us out of the lobby the next morning to see the "Tornado-Mobile" an Imax cinematographer and his wife were gonna use to actually penetrate a tornado!) The memorable storms were to come the next day, but I will say in our racing around Bill nearly ran down my life Greater Prairie Chicken! At least I’m assuming that’s what it was; there are only three "chickens" of that size that occur in the area: Pheasant, Sharp-tailed Grouse, and Greater Prairie Chicken, and this guy (as he took off) had a short, squared-off dark tail, so it had to be him by default (unless it was a Bobwhite on steroids…). Most everyone wanted to see a picture of it, and David of course teased me mercilessly (but in good humor) saying, "Now, if you had to choose, would you rather see a life bird or a tornado?" to which my answer was, "Well, since I’m not seeing a tornado at this very moment, I’ll take the life bird!" At one "data stop" where we all got out and stretched our legs, three Upland Sandpipers flew around and called excitedly; I had never seen that many before in one spot, so that was a lot of fun! This may have also been the day where we had a memorable supercell at sunset, next to an old abandoned building where Cliff Swallows were nesting in swarms, and a mama Killdeer was trying to draw us away from her baby hunkered down in the field next to where we parked! (I think David may have been nonplussed that at that point most everyone was more interested in the baby Killdeer than the storm…) But although this one produced no wall cloud (that I can recall), the photo ops were just spectacular!


An impenetrable (???) vehicle created by an Imax cinematographer and his wife to actually penetrate a tornado!


The actual IMAX camera, which films 360 degrees!  Meanwhile, David explains our adventures to a group of curious tourists (future clients???)


On the road again, David takes on-the-spot readings with a hand-held device (and doesn’t seem real encouraged...!)  Meanwhile, many Upland Sandpipers fly around and make a fuss...    At right is a "Shear Funnel"


We track down another impressive storm!  Blowing dust on the ground often form what are called “gust-nadoes”, not true tornadoes.


Sometimes the gust front (strong outflow winds at the leading edge of a storm) will kick up enough dust to become visible!   


Another "gust-nado" and "shear funnel"


This time Bill takes readings while Stu and Lisa look on; notice the funnel-like rain shaft in the distance, which some people may mistake for a tornado.   


Another powerful storm develops—notice the smaller dark clouds being sucked in by the inflow (this is what the storm feeds on)


A huge wall cloud forms right overhead! (Didn’t produce anything, though...)    The tower at right defines the edge of the updraft


The classic "mother ship" shape of a supercell; the entire base will be rotating!


A line of storms at sunset; notice the ice-cream cone-like "penetrating top” left of the barn!


Cliff Swallows swarm around an abandoned building


The glorious scene is constantly changing as the sun sets! Cliff Swallow adds an angelic feel...


But the day isn’t over yet: we find another wall cloud dropping!


Stu sets up his camera with great expectations, but this cloud is content to only spin scud...


We run into other storm-chasers and share “near-nado” stories (kinda like birding in that sense...)  

Go back to Makoshika State Park

Continue to the Aurora Storm

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