Trip Blog – Kansas/Nebraska 2016
The gang – Val, Eileen, Peter, Jim, Ann, John, Ceci, Eleanor, Robert and Georgia, outside the childhood home of Willa Cather in Red Cloud, Nebraska.
Joined by six enthusiastic participants – Jim, Ceci, Ann, Peter, Robert and Eleanor – and mine and Eileen’s spouses, Georgia and Val – Alula’s 2016 sojourn to central Nebraska’s Platte River began in downtown Kansas City, Missouri, where we all met. After loading the two seven passenger vans we headed off for the ride up Route 29 through western Missouri, which was largely uneventful bird-wise except for numerous views of Red-tailed Hawks perched in the trees along the open roadway, bracketed by farms and open country in all directions.
Our first trip destination was to the Platte River to witness one of North America’s, indeed the world’s, greatest wildlife spectacles – the annual northbound migration of some 600,000 Sandhill Cranes which pass through the Platte River for several weeks each year. They use the Platte River because it provides the two necessary ingredients for a successful migratory stop-over site – ample food supplies in the form of waste grain in many farms found north and south of the river where the cranes feed during the day, and a safe place to roost at night – on sandy islands and in shallow water that define the braided river that is the Platte.
We soon passed into Iowa before breaking west and passing over the Missouri River of Lewis & Clark fame. Just outside of Lincoln, we picked up Interstate 80 westbound at which point I urged the van occupants to look out for cranes which can be seen feeding in the corn fields along the highway. To entice them I offered a prize – a spiffy Alula ball cap (tan with orange lettering). Robert, peering to the north, soon was the first to spot a flock of cranes feeding amidst the stubble in a corn field. I’m sure the cap will look great on him!
Before heading to the Platte we shot south to visit one of the wetlands that make up the eastern section of Nebraska’s Rainwater Basin, a well-known collection of wildlife management and waterfowl production areas located in south central Nebraska. This basin gives some hint of what was once a vast collection of prairie pothole wetlands, probably numbering in the millions that once pockmarked the middle part of the country as well as central Canada. Unfortunately, 99% of the wetlands of the Rainwater Basin have been destroyed, converted to agricultural purposes many decades ago.
The Rainwater Basin is broken into two major areas – the eastern and western sections, the former being the larger of the two. The eastern section was especially convenient as we headed west on Route 80 so we got off to pay a visit to one of its main attractions – the 478-acre Pintail Wildlife Management Area. Water levels were on the low side resulting in less extensive wetland areas but in the shallow pools that persisted we saw Green-winged Teal, Blue-winged Teal, and Northern Shoveler. We also saw a pair of Killdeer along the shore of one of the ponds as well as another Red-tailed hawk and a female Northern Harrier.
As the sun was well in the western sky and we wanted to witness the arrival of thousands upon thousands of Sandhill Cranes as they flew into the Platte River to roost for the night we left the Basin and got back on Route 80 heading west. A little before sunset we arrived at the Interstate 80 “Exit 305” overlook located on the north side of the river.
Over the next hour the cranes came in force. The sky was never empty, with thousands of birds in the air pouring in from the north and south after a day of feeding in the extensive corn fields bracketing both sides of the river. And with the birds came their burry-sounding bugling that filled our ears with a constant stream of sound. Skein after skein of Sandhill Cranes dropped in on both sides of the bridge, filling first the sand bar islands in the river and once these areas filled up landing in the shallow water surrounding them. As the temperature dropped and we left to go to dinner a smaller but still steady number of cranes continued to land in the gathering darkness.
We spent the night in Kearney, Nebraska and after a quick breakfast at the hotel headed to the “Exit 285” overlook at Lowell Road. We were expecting to see the reverse of what we watched last night – tens of thousands of cranes lifting off the river to head out for a day of feeding in the corn fields throughout the area. But we couldn’t have expected to see what we saw – the simultaneous lifting off of what I estimated to be about 30,000 cranes, many of them veering to the east to bless us by flying over our heads bugling all the while as they went over. As I looked up to soak in this winged spectacle I could see dozens of small “snowflakes” drifting downward. These flakes weren’t snow but small body feathers dislodged as the cranes took flight. I could see more feathers in the river as the current carried them under the bridge.
From there we headed to the Iain Nicolson Audubon Center at Rowe Sanctuary situated on the south bank of the Platte River about a mile and a half west of the Lowell Road turnoff. The Center, a green certified building insulated with straw bales, has some displays and exhibits on crane migration and the Platte River. The center also has a large assortment of gift items in the gift shop to cater to all of the tastes and styles desired by “craniacs” including clothing, jewelry, books, videos – even crane lawn ornaments! They’ve set up a bird feeder station on the north side of the center, where we saw one Downy Woodpecker, many Red-winged Blackbirds and a dozen or so American Goldfinch in various stages of molt, as they transitioned into their breeding, or alternate, plumage. We could also see several dozen cranes lingering in the river west of the building.
We left the Center heading south to visit the western area of the Rainwater Basin, with two stops in mind – the Funk Wetlands and Black-tailed Prairie Dog Waterfowl Production Areas. Funk wetlands, which has proven highly productive in the past, proved a disappointment this time due to very low water levels and the little bit of water existing in the southeastern corner of the property was frozen. The prairie dog town, just shy of 900 acres in size, did not disappoint, however, as several dozen prairie dogs were in full view of our scopes and binoculars. Never straying far from the safety of their burrows the prairie dogs scampered to and fro or sat and rested on the rim of the burrow. We also saw a distant cousin to the prairie dog in the form of a Thirteen-lined Ground Squirrel and enjoyed several Western Meadowlarks singing from fence posts as we drove along the edges of the town.
Our next stop reflected a change in theme as we moved from the natural world to the human one – specifically one human being – Willa Cather, a prolific, Pulitzer Prize winning writer who spent a portion of her childhood in Red Cloud, Nebraska near the Kansas state line. Many of her books were about Nebraska and the residents she grew up with. After a lunch in Red Cloud we visited her first childhood home, being escorted through the house by a very knowledgeable docent who mentioned there were a dozen locations to visit as part of a complete tour of the legacy left by Willa Cather.
We left Red Cloud and began our several hour trip north to Burwell, Nebraska where for the next two days we’d be visiting the Switzer Cattle Ranch in search of displaying Greater Prairie Chickens and Sharp-tailed Grouse.
We arrived at the ranch just in time for dinner after which we learned about the efforts of the Switzer family to diversify operations at their cattle ranch to include more eco-tourism based activities. These include watching the lekking behavior of prairie chickens and grouse, hunting, and “tub” rides down the nearby Calamus River. They have also begun to manage and operate the ranch for these purposes in mind rather than strictly to maximize cattle ranching.
So it was the next morning, well before the first hint of light in the eastern sky, that we piled into an old yellow school bus and headed to a long-established lek used by Greater Prairie Chickens. A lek is where birds communally gather to display, with males jockeying for dominance by participating in ritualized fights among rivals. Typically, the dominant male displays on the most desirable territory of the lek – in the middle. Females come to the lek to assess the most desirable males and usually mate with the dominant male (and sometimes with a sub-dominant bird nearby).
It was important we settled in the bus that was serving as the blind before first light so as not to disturb the gathering birds. We heard them before we saw them with several birds cackling in front of us on the lek. As the curtain of darkness lifted we enjoyed, tremendously, watching the chickens pair off, stomp the ground rapidly, throw their pinnae feathers forward and expand their orange colored air sacs to “boom”. They did this for the time we sat and watched, most birds being within 40-50 feet of the bus blind. We also enjoyed the numerous Eastern Meadowlarks calling from the lek and the grasslands immediately around it. After about two hours we headed out the back of the bus blind to return to the ranch to enjoy a hearty breakfast.
For the rest of the day our mission was to explore the nearby Calamus Reservoir and the uplands around it. Our first trip down to the bank of the reservoir produced eight Bald Eagles (of several different year classes) perched in dead trees opposite the reservoir, Redhead and Bufflehead ducks, a few American Coots and several dozen American White Pelicans floating on and flying above the water. These birds are enormous, with nine-foot wingspans tying them with the California Condor for the largest wingspan of any North American bird. The birds were adorned with a bony plate on their upper mandible, a feature they develop during the breeding season but which falls off as the season progresses. A stop along the Calamus River near where it begins to morph into the head of the reservoir produced a large flock of Ring-billed Gulls, some Green-winged Teal, Gadwall, Wood Ducks, and Northern Shoveler. At another stop on the west side of the reservoir we added Ring-necked Ducks and heard the calls of Blanchard’s Cricket Frogs calling from wetlands adjacent to the reservoir.
It was on to the Town of Burwell located a few miles south of the ranch for lunch at the Sandstone Grill. Lunch was tasty and almost everyone ordered a slice of pie from the two dozen choices the restaurant carries which included a few regional specialties such as a raisin and sour cream pie.
After lunch we toured the nearby Calamus State Fish Hatchery and although the outdoor pools were closed we were able to view some of the interior exhibits and chat with staff about the details of fishery operations. We were alarmed to learn that staff occasionally shoot Great Blue Herons and Double-crested Cormorants that feed on hatchery fish. Hopefully, in the future they’ll employ less lethal means. For example, a dog trained to harass birds, would certainly discourage herons from feeding as the dog patrolled the ground between the pools. Netting might prove effective too.
As we left the hatchery we were treated to nice views of a pair of Eastern Bluebirds which we watched for several minutes as they flitted about in some trees growing along the road. Two nesting boxes on the eastern side of the hatchery access road are undoubtedly used by the birds.
We returned to the ranch for some downtime before dinner. Georgia and I went for a nice mile and a half loop hike in the sandhills prairie of the ranch during which we saw several more meadowlarks, a Ferruginous Hawk flyover, a flock of 50 or so Cedar Waxwings feeding on red cedar berries, and the same group of prairie chickens still displaying near the bus blind in the distance. We also saw a lot of burrows and small pillows of sand created by Plains Pocket Gophers, a ubiquitous prairie animal that provides a service in aerating the grass from all the burrowing and soil moving they do.
While waiting for dinner this night some of us sat on the porch overlooking the front of the ranch offering pretty views of the western sky and the reservoir below us. Several bird feeders were active with blackbirds when suddenly a beautiful male Yellow-headed Blackbird landed for a few moments before the whole group was spooked. It was a short but sweet moment! We also saw a Northern Flicker feeding in the grass down by the main entrance road into the ranch.
The next morning we were up before dawn again but the weather was colder and much more blustery than the morning before. We were off to the Sharp-tailed Grouse lek but were concerned the strong winds might dampen the grouse’s behavior. It somewhat dampened our behavior as the door of the school bus was regularly pushed partially open from the strong winds making for cold conditions in the bus! We were right about the grouse as the birds didn’t fully display in the blustery conditions, although they would face off occasionally and conduct their characteristic spread wing dance which is, to this day, emulated by several Native American tribes of the Great Plains including the Blackfoot. Toward the end of our visit at the grouse lek a female prairie chicken flew in and that, not surprisingly, got the male grouse displaying more actively as they spun around her with open wings, inflating their purple-colored air sacs and shaking their tails. Also, we watched the behavior of a prairie chicken-grouse hybrid displaying on the periphery of the lek. It had the coloration of a prairie chicken and displayed courtship behavior of a chicken but possessed purple-colored air sacs characteristic of the grouse.
After breakfast, as we were concerned about potentially bad weather (snow was forecast), we said goodbye and headed off. As we drove south for Kansas the weather improved remarkably and the air warmed considerably, going from 38o at the ranch to 82o near Manhattan, Kansas! After several hours of driving we arrived at the Konza Prairie Biological Station. It felt great to get out of the vans and walk among the hills of this special place.
The Prairie Biological Station property, just shy of 9,000 acres, is jointly owned by The Nature Conservancy and Kansas State University. Here they work to conserve the prairie species, provide public education and conduct research to better understand the ecology of the Flint Hills prairie, including maintaining a herd of approximately 300 American Bison on 2,400 acres of fenced tallgrass prairie. The bison graze and live as naturally as possible, un-supplemented by man. As grazing is an important ecological process, its effects on the prairie are studied. For the next two hours we went on a very enjoyable hike through the rolling hills of the prairie and stream-side woodlands found there. Hiking in the prairie and seeing the bison was an exhilarating experience!
The next morning contained our last trip highlight – a visit to the Flint Hills Discovery Center in the heart of Manhattan, Kansas, conveniently located across the street from the hotel at which we were staying. The Discovery Center does a remarkable job of interpreting the Flint Hills region of Kansas, including the ecological processes that shaped the area, its many indigenous plant and animal species, as well as Native American habitation use of the prairie. It also portrays the settlement of the prairie by cowboys and cattle ranchers. My favorite exhibit there is the display illustrating the root systems of the native grasses like Indian Grass and Big Bluestem. You walk in a tunnel under the prairie earth with the numerous roots of prairie grasses hanging downward in front of you. The root lengths of both Big Bluestem and Indian Grass were impressive, reaching ten to twelve feet in length and giving new appreciation to the works of pioneers in their efforts at “sod-busting”.
We said goodbye to Robert and Eleanor who extended their vacation a bit by heading to visit the Eisenhower Presidential Library in Abilene, Kansas. The rest of us drove to the Kansas City Airport to return east and bring a close to what was another wonderful trip to experience the natural sides of Nebraska and Kansas.
Links for Val’s crane videos: