Three participants – Jen & Peter Clement and Jim Romansky – joined Eileen and me as Alula Birding & Natural History Tours made its second trip to “Natural Nebraska” from March 19th to the 23rd. (It was my fourth sojourn there.) Jen, Peter, Jim and I met at MacArthur Airport bright and early for a 6:10 a.m. flight to Kansas City with a stop first in Baltimore. The two legs of the flight were uneventful and we arrived in Kansas City. Here we met Eileen, picked up our van, and headed up Route 29 north heading toward Omaha, Nebraska.
We soon had the surprise of the trip! As we were passing some farm fields bracketing both sides of the highway I noticed a live bird on the ground adjacent to the road and immediately recognized it as a Barred Owl. Fearing it was hit by a car and injured I braked and we carefully backed up on the shoulder to investigate. As we neared the spot where the bird was seen a Red-tailed Hawk flew off and I immediately doubted my 60 mph identification. However, there was indeed an owl in the short grass of the shoulder and the hawk must have come in to investigate, perhaps in an attempt to make a kill. Jen got out to retrieve the bird and securing it safely by grabbing its talon-tipped legs brought it into the van, out of harm’s way, to inspect it. At first we thought one eye might be damaged but after looking it over for several minutes we couldn’t find any sign of injury or trauma. Jen took the bird and walked about 50 yards away from the highway and placed the owl on the inside of the fence of the adjoining wooded property. Let us hope that the owl is fine!
Jen with the “rescued” Barred Owl.
Further down the road we came across a large flock of Snow Geese feeding in a farm-field on the east side of the highway. I pulled over and we scanned for several minutes. While most of the geese were the “normal” white morph birds that give rise to their name about a third or more of the several hundred birds in the field were of the blue morph variety, a percentage that prevailed throughout the trip. This is a higher percentage than is typically found in east coast Snow Goose flocks. We also had one Greater White-fronted Goose.
While we were pulled over several of us noticed activity on the other side of the highway several hundred yards in the distance. Scanning that “flock” we soon came to realize it was composed of decoys and the white bird flying erratically above it was a cloth decoy held by a thin rod under the control of a hunter sitting in the middle of the flock. We didn’t see any geese that got faked out by the decoys so we headed off.
We made good time as we headed toward the Platte River in south central Nebraska where each year approximately 500,000 to 600,000 Lesser, Greater, and Canadian Sandhill Cranes pass through on their way to breeding grounds further north. (These three subspecies are migratory; there are three other subspecies – the Mississippi, Florida, and Cuban subspecies that are non-migratory.) Some will only travel a few hundred miles further north before reaching their breeding haunts; remarkably though, some Lesser Sandhill Cranes travel across Alaska and across the Bering Straight to breeding grounds in Siberia!
There are several locations along the Platte River where cranes can be quite visible as they come in at dusk to roost on the sandbars in the river as well as flying out in the morning. We were heading to the Alda Road overlook in Wood River, Nebraska to see the birds come in at sunset but since we had time we stopped in at the Crane Trust Nature and Visitor Center just south of Interstate 80. In the parking lot we saw our first Eurasian Collared Dove. The Crane Trust is an important conservation organization devoted to the conservation of cranes. It owns more than 10,000 acres of land along the Platte River which it manages to benefit cranes and other wildlife. It also conducts research on various aspects of crane biology and ecology.
After visiting the Center we headed off to the overlook in anticipation of a cacophony of cranes. They were starting to arrive. This overlook provides nice views upriver and a short walk across the bridge offers clear views downriver. Cranes were beginning to stream in and over the next hour we were treated to an absolute spectacle as countless flocks of various sizes came into the river. During this entire time there were many hundreds if not several thousand cranes in the air at the same time. At first birds landed to the west upriver from our position but as that filled up many thousands of cranes selected the sandbars to the east of the Alda Road bridge. It was fun to watch as the sandbars went from containing no cranes to filling up cheek-by-jowl eventually spilling over into the shallow water of the river. As night fell totally we headed off to dinner.
As the sun started to set, thousands of cranes began settle on the sandbars of the Platte River, where they would roost for the night.
The next morning we went to another overlook about fifteen miles west of the one we visited the previous night, near the Lillian Rowe Sanctuary owned by the Audubon Society. This time we watched as the immense flocks lifted off to begin their day feeding in wet meadows along the Platte or, in much greater numbers, in the thousands of acres of cornfields flanking the river valley where they feed on the waste corn left over from last year’s harvest. Using my scope I scanned west from the road shoulder next to the overlook; many thousands of Sandhill Cranes were mingling about on sandbars when a slightly taller, white bird caught my eye several hundred yards distant – a Whooping Crane! We all scanned through the scope at this rarest of delights. Slightly more than 300 wild birds exist and we had seen one that was migrating north with its Sandhill Crane brethren.
As the morning wore on and the cranes began to thin we headed to our next destination – several Wildlife Management Areas (WMA’s) in the western section of the Rainwater Basin. The WMA’s of the Rainwater Basin, of which there are eastern and western sections – the eastern section being larger, provide a tiny slice of what a prairie pothole landscape looked like in this area of Nebraska before agriculture plowed it all under. The first WMA we visited was a black-tailed prairie dog town made up of many hundreds of animals. Using the van as a blind we were able to get several good views of adult animals sitting next to their burrow entrance. We also saw two thirteen-lined ground squirrels scurrying about and had wonderful views of Eastern Meadowlarks singing from numerous fence posts. In about a month Burrowing Owls would be back to take up residence here.
Black-tailed Prairie Dog.
The next stop was to the Funk WMA, a highly productive area for waterfowl and shorebirds (and an occasional Whooping Crane) with two large but shallow ponds, one on each side of the local road. The pond to the south was populated by a large flock of ducks that were mostly Mallards with a few Blue-winged and Green-winged Teal. We headed down the road to the parking lot next to the other pond ready to walk out to the blind overlooking it when we realized there was no pond!! It was bone dry and hence no waterbirds of any kind were to be seen.
A bit disappointed we headed off, traveling north toward Burwell, Nebraska. Our specific destination was the Switzer Ranch about ten minutes north of Burwell, on the east side of the Calamus Reservoir. We arrived by late afternoon. Our reason for the stay at the ranch was twofold – to view the courtship behavior of Greater Prairie Chickens and Sharp-tailed Grouse as they display in groups, known as leks, at sites they use each year.
The 12,000-acre Switzer Ranch is a successful cattle ranch but has become so much more. About a decade ago the family decided to diversify their operation as Calamus Outfitters and began offering opportunities for hunters, family recreation such as Jeep tours, tubing and tanking (a Nebraska specialty where you float in a water tank) down nearby streams and rivers, and the chance for birders to view grouse leks. This diversification has led this very foresightful family to manage the ranch with the priority strategy of protecting its natural resources and features as paramount.
Shortly after we arrived a hearty dinner was served in the main lodge and all the guests (there were another dozen or so people there to watch the birds) were treated to a film the family produced in cooperation with the World Wildlife Fund, explaining the ecological value of their ranch for wildlife and the operational changes they’ve made to it to protect wildlife. Some went out on the porch to relax and watch the stunning sunset over the Nebraska Sandhills. The night sky then appeared with no light pollution to obscure the view. What a delight it was to see the milky band of our own Milky Way Galaxy so clearly!! I was even able to find the Andromeda Galaxy and point it out to some viewers, a pretty special thing since it is the farthest point the unaided human eye can see in the universe, being about 2.6 million light-years from earth.
We met at 6:00 a.m. the next morning, which broke clear and cold, to get on a school bus to take a short trip through the grassland to another school bus serving as a blind. We were joined by John Murphy, a very knowledgeable naturalist from the local Audubon Society, who is also employed by Calamus Outfitters. We climbed aboard the bus in the dark and waited impatiently for the sunrise. In the southern sky both Scorpius and Sagittarius blazed above the horizon. Scorpius with its red star Antares looks life a scorpion and Sagittarius the archer looks more like a teapot dumping steaming hot water into the Milky Way. Pete and Jen heard a Great-horned Owl calling from the cedar forest located north of the bus.
Soon wisps of light came in and objects began to reveal themselves. What was revealed were a dozen Greater Prairie Chickens displaying in a communal lek in front of the bus. Males would pair off, often squatting facing each other; occasionally they’d go at it with their feet flaying out toward each other in an aggressive behavior, but more often they’d stand apart and rapidly pat their feet, throwing skyward their paired pinnae feathers to reveal orange air sacs. They’d inflate these making a deep cooing or booming call (if you go on YouTube you can see the display). The displaying was interrupted when a female Northern Harrier made an entrance on the scene. The bird continually dove on the prairie chickens but the effort was almost always half-hearted. It was almost as if the harrier knew that she was “supposed” to try and take a chicken but realized that their size prevented her from doing so.
A booming male Greater Prairie Chicken on his lek.
After two hours of watching the lekking behavior and the prairie chicken/harrier interaction we headed out of the blind to go back to the lodge. Our client Jim was especially excited at seeing prairie chickens performing their mating dance as it was the fulfillment of a 63-year long dream!! He shared the story of when, as a young lad of seven years, he saw the mating dance on television followed by a demonstration of the prairie chicken dance by Blackfoot Indians and wanted to have those experiences in person. While we couldn’t provide members of the Blackfoot tribe for a dance, Jim was just feet away from booming prairie chickens. What a wonderful way to spend the morning!
After a nice breakfast that included biscuits and gravy our group piled into the van and we headed to spend the morning birding around the nearby Calamus Reservoir. The reservoir, slightly larger than 5,100 acres in size, was formed when the Calamus River was dammed in 1986. We went around the reservoir in counterclockwise fashion first stopping at a fishing access site where several beaver-gnawed stumps were evident. We also heard a Downy Woodpecker and saw several Cedar Waxwings. Soon, we came upon the highlight of the ride – watching a flock of one hundred or so American White Pelicans, birds with an amazing nine-foot wingspan, circling synchronously above the northern part of the reservoir. To see a pelican up close, the word graceful is probably not a word that immediately comes to mind, but riding thermals or wind currents this species is nothing but.
We continued around the reservoir and soon found several immature Bald Eagles roosting in lakeside trees. Shortly after we turned into the first of several access points that led to the edge of the reservoir passing a few small ponds as we went. Here we had several species of waterfowl including some Bufflehead, which seemed to me to be out of place since on Long Island I associate them with sheltered saltwater bodies like harbors and bays. Here they were on small freshwater ponds. A few Ring-billed Gulls were along the edge of the reservoir and we heard dozens of Northern Cricket Frogs calling from a pond near the reservoir; their call was distinctive, reminiscent of a finger running down a hard plastic pocket comb.
After the morning of birding we headed into the nearby town of Burwell to enjoy a leisurely lunch at a local cafe. We then walked around the center of the town defined by a central square of stores bounded by a road – Grand Avenue – and visited an antique and a western clothing store. I bought a few World War II nickels. It was then back to the Switzer Ranch for a relaxing afternoon. Peter and Jen went for a walk in the prairie, which inspired Jim, Eileen and I to join them. Unfortunately, we took a wrong path and never did hook up. We did see several Eastern Bluebirds though and enjoyed watching some small fish darting in the riffles of Gracie’s Creek (probably a species of darter) as well as panoramic views of the ranch before heading back to the lodge for dinner.
After dinner it was a look at the stars again and Jim and I heard a Long-eared Owl calling from the nearby treed windbreak. It was then bedtime because 6:00 a.m. comes early. This time it was to view Sharp-tailed Grouse displaying on their lek. Once again we waited for the curtain of darkness to lift. As it did we could see a number of birds jockeying for position, pairing off in various parts of the grassland lek. Sharp-tailed Grouse mating displays are different than prairie chickens, most notably by their spread wings and the shaking of their tail, which produces a sound akin to a dry brush or broom being shaken in the air. As like the morning before, a Northern Harrier showed up and periodically disrupted the display by flushing birds off the lek. In one particularly close encounter the harrier dove upon a bird several times and twice I could see the grouse defend itself, jumping up and by twisting its body thrusting its feet and claws at the hawk, which served as an effective deterrent. We didn’t see the harrier take or injure any grouse.
We finished up watching the display and headed back to the ranch for breakfast and after that said our goodbyes and got on the road as we had a long ride ahead of us to the Flint Hills of eastern Kansas. We arrived at our destination – the Konza Prairie Preserve – in late afternoon and spent several hours hiking through this beautiful and fascinating landscape. The Flint Hills got its name, and the reason it exists largely intact today, due to the underlying layer of chert or flint near the surface that thwarted efforts to cultivate the soils for agriculture. We hiked on a 2.6-mile loop trail that took us to the top of a ridge providing commanding views of the surrounding area. In the distance to the east we could see several large flocks of American bison grazing and to the west was the “skyline” of the City of Manhattan – Kansas that is!
We headed into Manhattan for a meal and our lodging, which was next to our last stop of the trip – the Flint Hills Discovery Center. The next morning we had about an hour and a half to tour the museum before needing to head to the airport and it did not disappoint. The Center does exactly what its name indicates – providing an opportunity to discover the natural and cultural features that make the Kansas Flint Hills a special place. Fortunately we were there when a traveling photo exhibition called “Save the Last Dance” was on display, showcasing the outstanding, indeed stunning photographs of Noppadol Paothong. His photos, which have been compiled into a book with the same title as the exhibit, illustrate the nation’s grassland game-birds – Greater and Lesser Prairie Chickens (including the federally endangered Attwater’s and the extinct Heath Hen, which used to be on Long Island!), Sharp-tailed Grouse, and Greater and Gunnison’s Sage-Grouse. Two other things that struck me about the Center were the foyer floor containing an inlay of the Flint Hills geographically and the exhibit where you walk through a tunnel under the prairie soil. This exhibit shows just how deep some roots of native grasses extend downward – in some cases 10-12 feet, an adaptation that enables the grass to survive drought. No wonder why pioneers had so much trouble busting the prairie sod.
We then headed to the Kansas City Airport for an uneventful trip back home. Although we were all sad the trip was over, we had memories of dancing chickens and grouse, untold numbers of sandhill cranes, a whooper, 66 bird species in total, many prairie dogs, an unexpected owl, great camaraderie, and beautiful landscapes in our minds as we headed home.
The group, from left to right – Jim, John, Jen, Eileen and Pete at the Switzer Ranch.