Nebraska Trifecta & More (Day 7)

June 22nd, 2017 No comments

(Previously on Nebraska Trifecta & More – NE Day 1, NE Day 2,  NE Day 3, NE Day 4,  NE Day 5, and Day 6)

And we’re back in the dark, back in a blind made from recycled school buses – three this time.  It’s not as cold as yesterday but still quite chilly and quite dark. And the Meadowlarks are singing again helping us to welcome the warm morning sunshine. But this time, we’re looking to check Prairie Chickens off our list of birds to see in Nebraska.

Was it just as amazing seeing the Prairie Chickens as it was seeing the Sharp-Tailed Grouse the previous day? Absolutely!

The dance is different – the Prairie Chickens do not lower their heads as much but they boom louder and blow out their neck pouches further.

There were more females who walked around ignoring the dancing males….and more males dancing for them.   By the time we left the blinds, we had seen twenty one (21) males and five (5) females. We only had nine (9) males and three (3) females at the Grouse Lek the previous day.

The Prairie Chickens moved around more and moved faster than the Grouse did in their dance so photographs were even more difficult to take. Because the Prairie Chickens did not have those special tail feathers, they did not have the “clicking” sound that the Grouse did when they danced.

As I noted, the Meadowlarks continued to sing throughout our time at the Lek.  We also had a marvelous flyover of maybe two hundred Forster’s Terns. I couldn’t imagine so many Terns out in the middle of Nebraska so far from the ocean but there they were flying overhead and swooping down low over the Lek as if they too wanted to see what the Prairie Chickens were up to way out there in the Sandhills.

I inadvertently did something right when we first got to the Prairie Chicken Festival at Calamus Outfitters and had to sign up for activities.  As I stood in line waiting for my turn at the clipboards, I noticed that everyone wanted to see the Prairie Chickens first so were crowding around that particular clipboard adding their names to the list. Thinking that the tour would be getting too full, I opted instead to sign us up to see the Sharp-Tailed Grouse on the first day (Saturday) which would mean we’d see the Prairie Chickens on the second day (Sunday).

This turned out to be a great decision. As suspected, the Saturday Prairie Chicken group turned out to be the larger group and that meant more people sharing the blind. As we were in the smaller group of 22 people, we had more room to spread out in the blinds….more room and less jostling for position…..and the guides had fewer people to deal with so could provide more individual attention to us in answering our questions.  As noted above, at the Prairie Chicken Lek there were three buses so the guide was able to separate the professional photographers from the rest of us thereby giving them their own bus/blind and making them happier since they could use their tripods and gear that they wouldn’t normally be able to use in a crowded blind.

Again, the time passed too quickly and way too soon, we were back on the bus and headed to breakfast and the end of the festival.  Time to bid farewell to the Prairie Chickens, Sharp-Tailed Grouse, White Pelicans, Forster’s Terms and those beautifully singing Meadowlarks and head back to Omaha and home. We’d made the Trifecta – we’d ticked the three target birds off the list – Sandhill Cranes, Prairie Chickens, and Sharp-Tailed Grouse. But we’d also caught a few other lifebirds so we had already deemed the trip a huge success. Now, we had start the journey back home……it was time to leave Switzer Ranch and Calamus.

Our original plan was to take Route 11 south to Saint Paul and then take Route 92 straight across to Omaha. Route 92 would roughly parallel Route 30 which was the road we had taken on our way west to see the Sandhill Cranes at Gibbon. However, we had decided that Route 30 wasn’t the scenic route that we thought it would be and now we figured that the landscape around Route 92 would be equally non-scenic. So, we decided to head straight to Interstate 80 and take the fastest possible route to Omaha….so the plan was Route 11 to Saint Paul and then Route 281 to Grand Island, then jump on the Interstate 80 to Omaha.  I knew there were a few state parks near the Interstate so, depending on how quickly we traveled, we might just be able to squeeze in a park or two along our way.

So, off we went – heading out on Route 11, driving straight through Burwell and south along the Loup River.

There was one stop I wanted to make on the way to Saint Paul – Happy Jack Peak and Chalk Mine.  We found it easily enough – it was right on the highway but, alas, it was closed – it was Sunday, after all – so we were not able to tour the mine.  Guess you have to leave some treats for the future. We were able to look down the hill and see the mine entrance and see Happy Jack Peak overhead.

Happy Jack is one of two chalk mines in the country and the only one that offers tours to the public….again, maybe next time.

At some point I realized that we could bypass Saint Paul and maybe Grand Island because Route 11 would take us on a straighter path to the Interstate….so we decided to take 11 all the way. And what a great idea that was….because we found Dannebrog.

Dannebrog was a bit unexpected – a quaint town worth visiting just because, well…..it is a neat small town with Scandinavian flair. Dannebrog is unique in that, in 1989, the Nebraska State Legislature proclaimed it to be the Danish Capital of Nebraska. Why, I didn’t even know that Nebraska had a Danish capital and here we were driving right through it.

The town was founded in 1871 when Lars Hannibal led a group of Danish immigrants from Wisconsin to the area and settled near Oak Creek. The town was named Dannebrog after the red and white Danish flag.  Although the original plan was that the town would be solely inhabited by Danish immigrants, immigrants from other nationalities (Germans, Czechs, Poles, and Swedes) also came to Dannebrog and made their homes there.  But do not be dismayed, there are still plenty of people of Danish descent in Dannebrog. Why, they have a festival every year in June just to celebrate their Danish heritage. (Hmmm….future road trip, perhaps?)

We took a quick drive through the town and stopped to get some photographs of the local church.  Some of you may be familiar with my “old country church” blogs so will understand that I took time to stop and see a church but not the local museum.

As I was taking a photo of the church, I noticed a cool little tractor planter in the yard behind me so I swung around to get a photo of that….only to be “busted” when I heard a voice behind me informing me that taking photos of that particular tractor on private property would cost me $100.  I smiled my most charming smile – at least I tried to be somewhat charming…and got ready to explain myself. Right off, I noticed that he was wearing a baseball cap indicating he had served in Vietnam. I introduced myself, thanked him for his service and told him that I might consider paying for the photograph if I could get him to pose with that little wooden tractor.  I got the best end of the deal in the end. I got to meet one of the town’s best named “Muley” who agreed to let me take the photos, reduced the price to $0, and gave us a short summary of Dannebrog’s history. He highly recommended that we go on down to the end of the road and check out the old cemetery inasmuch as I seemed to like old churches I ought to like cemeteries too. He was right about that.

Well, you gotta check out the old town cemetery – right? Especially if it’s recommended…how could you not? So, we drove on down the road until the road gave out and ended right at the cemetery gate. It was beautiful – old oak trees and old lichen-covered tombstones that reminded me more of South Carolina than Nebraska. It was quiet and peaceful on this Sunday morning as we wandered through the tombstones noticing the dates and names (mostly Scandinavian) and I pondered that there were so many souls laid to rest here……so many lives…..so many stories that we will never know…voices gone silent now for so many years.

Then we spotted a Red-Headed Woodpecker – then another – and then another – four in all. “Oh my goodness”, to quote Shirley Temple! Now, we’ve seen Red-Headed Woodpeckers before but not very often. In fact, I think maybe we’ve only seen four (4) in the past twenty (20) years or so since we’ve been chasing birds. To see four (4) all at once when we weren’t even looking for them was just too fantastic.  That turned out to be a great recommendation from our new friend Muley of Dannebrog…and that is why meandering around is what we do most of the time…..you just never know what you are going to find…..Danes and Woodpeckers right there in the middle of no-where Nebraska.

But too soon, we were back on the road and zipping east on the Interstate – at 75 MPH…..boom-shacka-lacka.  We took a detour and explored Platte River State Park (SP) which turned out to be a nice park for youth camping – good looking cabins and lots of recreational things to do…but not so much for peaceful birding at least not this day when there were kids everywhere. I think it would probably be great for walking and birding during non-camping season or, say early in the morning but not on a sunny spring day. Amazingly, Platte River SP does not have access to the river although it sits right on a ridge overlooking the river – talk about false advertising in parks.

The park ranger recommended we also check out Louisville State Recreational Area (SRA) a few miles down the road which does have river access…so we did. It was also set aside for recreation and camping but had the river, several small lakes, and lots of green space for camping and picnicking so there seemed to be more opportunities to see birds. It was a sunny spring day and quite warm which means the park was filled with day trippers and campers enjoying picnics and fishing and plenty of kids just running around being kids who seemed to be rejoicing that they were finally outside after being cooped up all winter. (Okay, they seemed to be making lots of noise.) We did a drive-through and saw a few good birds including Yellow-Rumped Warblers and lots of domestic ducks/hybrids. We looked around but didn’t tarry too long in the park.

It had been a long day and we still had to get to Omaha and get a hotel room for the night.  We found the Holiday Inn near the airport where we stayed our first night in Nebraska with no problems and checked in for two nights. One more adventure day before we headed home and I knew just where I wanted to spend that last day – DeSoto National Wildlife Refuge.

 

Links:

Burwell
Switzer Ranch/Calamus Outfitters
Happy Jack Chalk Mine
Dannebrog
Platte River State Park
Louisville State Recreational Area (SRA)
DeSoto National Wildlife Refuge

Itinerary:

April 3 – Baltimore, MD to Omaha, NE (via Minneapolis, MN): 1153 Miles
April 4 – Omaha to Grand Island (via Route 30): 160 Miles
April 5 – Grand Island to Kearney (via Interstate 80): 49 Miles
April 6 – Meandering @ Kearney & Gibbon (Interstate 80 and the Back Roads): ?? Miles
April 7 – Kearney to Calamus (Route 10/Route 2/Route 183/Route 96): 122 Miles
April 8 – Calamus Outfitters, Calamus Lake: Maybe 25 miles around & about.
April 9 – Calamus to Omaha (via Route 11 and Interstate 80): 247 Miles

Sites Visited Thus Far:

ADM Grain Company Driveway (Day 2)
Audubon’s Rowe Sanctuary (D3 & D4)
Calamus Outfitters & Switzer Ranch (D6 & D7)
Calamus Reservoir (D6)
Crane Trust (D3)
Dannebrog (D7)
Dowse Sod House (D5)
Eagle Scout Park (D3)
Fort Kearney Historical Park (D4)
Fort Kearney State Recreation Area (SRA) (D4)
Freemont State Recreation Area (SRA) (D2)
Gracie Creek (D5 & D6)
Grandpa’s Steak House (D4)
Great Platte River Road Archway (D4)
Happy Jack’s Peak & Chalk Mine – Unfortunately closed (D7)
Higgins Memorial (D2)
Louisville State Recreation Area (SRA) (D7)
Mormon Island State Recreation Area (SRA) (D3)
Platte River State Park (D7)
Townsley-Murdock Trail Site (D2)
Windmill State Recreation Area (D4)

birds spotted D7

Categories: Birding, Traveling Tags:

Nebraska Trifecta & More (Day 6)

June 12th, 2017 2 comments

cropped-cropped-Good-Birding-to-You.jpg(Previously on Nebraska Trifecta & More – NE Day 1, NE Day 2,  NE Day 3, NE Day 4, and NE Day 5.)

It’s dark.

And it’s cold.

And the wind just won’t stop blowing…..which makes the cold even more biting….especially to someone sitting in the dark trying to be perfectly still and quiet.  No talking is allowed in the blind where I sit shivering and holding my breath worried that I might make some inadvertent noise that would not only ruin the adventure for me but also for everyone else huddled in this blind.

The blind is an old yellow school bus with all the seats removed along with all the windows along one side of the bus. We sit as comfortably as possible on plastic folding chairs that we’ve pulled up to the window openings as closely as we can where we are straining to hear…well, at this point, anything……anything that might signal that there is something out there in the darkness in the Lek besides us.

Lek define1

And then as if on cue, we hear the clear beautiful sounds of a Western Meadowlark as he sings to greet the morning sun. Then, faintly at first, we start to hear the clicking and booming of the Sharp-Tailed Grouse, our target bird.  Suddenly, it sounds like they are all around us but we are still totally in the dark and I try with some difficulty to follow the sounds with my eyes to catch even a fleeting glimpse of the birds to no avail.

As the sky lightened behind the bus/blind, I could sense movement out there in front of me in the dark. Jerry leaned over and whispered asking me if I could see the white tails out in front of us along a small ridge about forty feet away.  I couldn’t…but that’s why we have binoculars so I raised the glasses up to my eyes and…..behold, the birds were there….right there in front of us.

grouse at dawnThe Grouse were spread out all along the little ridge which formed the outer edge of this Lek. They were “dancing” – heads down, wings spread, walking to and fro, clicking and booming all over the place.  There was a little preening, some strutting…and just a few territorial squabbles among the males doing the dancing.  Without the binoculars – nada; with the binoculars – a whole lotta shaking going on.

dancing2As the morning sun filled the Lek and the blind with warmth and light, we could see more clearly, the cameras came out and the soft click and whir of photographs and videos being taken added to the sounds around us. Everyone had put electronics on mute so the predominant sound would be the clicking and booming of the birds in front of us.  We didn’t dare speak or make any sound that might scare the birds away.

Of course, the males were the ones doing all the dancing – trying to get the attention of one of the females who had started to show up about daylight…. after the males had been dancing for some time. And, as expected, the females walked around the Lek nonchalantly as if there weren’t even any males there at all let alone dancing right in front of them. They acted as if they just couldn’t be bothered with all this nonsense.

female grouse2

sharp tailAnd then, a female Prairie Chicken showed up! Two life-birds for us in one fell swoop!  We had signed up to see Prairie Chickens tomorrow so this little female was a preview of things to come. But what was she doing here at the Grouse Lek?

hybridAnd the appearance of the female raised another question. We wondered if Prairie Chickens and Sharp-Tailed Grouse ever mated….being that their Leks were relatively close together in the Sandhills and the birds were somewhat similar. Jerry whispered the question to our guide who pointed to a bird right there in front of us in the Lek…..a bird that looked a little different…a little bit bigger than the other Grouse males and with coloring just a little bit “off” when compared to the others…..it was a hybrid.  He was quite the dancer…..the guide told us (in whispers) that, although the hybrid had been coming in to dance for several years, there was no indication that the he had ever been successful in breeding with or producing offspring with any of the Grouse females.  The hybrid hadn’t been seen up at the Prairie Chicken Lek so perhaps he thought he was a Grouse rather than a Prairie Chicken.

dancing

sexy2I took an unbelievable number of photos.  I knew that many were destined for the digital trash can on my computer so I took as many as possible in the time allowed hoping for some good ones. Too soon, it seemed the guide alerted us that it was time to go. We headed out of the opposite side of the bus and walked silently and quickly back down the hill to where another old yellow school bus was ready to take us back to the ranch.

Creeping awayThe rest of the day was scheduled to be a blur of tours and activities…we needed a break after such an amazing morning. So, after breakfast and a presentation on Bald Eagles, everyone else set out on festival activities and we headed back to the cabin for a brief rest. The cabin was actually a small house that we were sharing with two other couples……..note to self – next time, get there for an early check-in so you get the master bedroom and not one of the extra bedrooms.  The house has a lovely view of Gracie Creek so after a nice shower, I found a big ole easy chair in front of the picture window and just contented myself enjoying that view and any birds that happened to come along.

GracieWe headed back to the big barn at the ranch for lunch and afternoon activities….which for us meant birding around the Calamus Reservoir Lake.  But first, there was a presentation on land management and the arduous task of removing non-native Spruce Trees from the Sandhills.  I’d never thought about trees being the problem but it appears this non-native species has become quite invasive and is changing the ecosystem but not in a positive way. So we learned more about controlled burning than I ever thought possible…such is the way of briefings at conventions.

straw flowersThe festival offered optional tours for the morning and afternoon giving participants three options that would allow one to do two out of three – a ranch tour, birding at the lake, or birding around town at Burwell. As noted, we rested during the morning tours and took the lake birding option for the afternoon.  We opted to follow the school bus this time in our own vehicle….lots more comfortable that way.

waxwingsWe enjoyed the afternoon birding which started near Gracie Creek so that everyone could get good looks and photographs of the American Pelicans there. The weather had changed…the sun had brought warmth and the wind died down….for the first time since we’d traveled north into the Sandhills…..and without that breeze, it got downright hot. We spotted lots of fishermen – the people kind as well as the bird kind – along the lake and quite a few picnickers as all the locals seemed to come out to enjoy the beautiful day

owlThe prize of the day though (well, other than the Grouse) had to be the Long Eared Owl that was nesting right there on the ranch. I had seen a group of people heading out and looking like they were intent on something over in the trees by the cabins. I took a chance and followed them taking a moment to wave wildly at Jerry to come too. If you’re out and about and see a bunch of people standing and gazing upwards into a tree, then you’d best follow them and see what’s going on.

The reward was the afore-mentioned Owl – rare even for Nebraska. She was nesting up in one of the trees and we could only see her head and those long ears…but it was enough. I tried to get photos but there were just too many branches and twigs in the way…this mama had chosen her nest well.  But just to see the bird was enough to get me doing the “lifebird” dance. Yes, it was turning out to be a great trip.

storytellerEvening brought dinner and a wonderful presentation by a local storyteller, Ms. Cherrie Beam-Callaway, who was just amazing. One minute she was giving us an overview of how she got into telling stories in the first place and the next she was a lonely pioneer living on the prairie with her husband and ten children just trying to survive the harsh winters and never ending wind and sand. I was spellbound as she told “her” story which actually was a concoction of the stories of many pioneers that the storyteller had gathered over the years. She had stitched them all together flawlessly into one fifty year saga like some scrap-work quilt detailing the hardships for one small family living on the prairie in the late 19th century.

Since we had just visited the Dowse Sod House, in my mind, this strong Irish immigrant and her family was living right there in that little house near Comstock.  I could see them going about their daily chores, cooking, sometimes getting together with friends, working the fields, rounding up cattle, growing what vegetables they could in that unyielding ground, and generally just living out their lives trying to make do.  Okay, I realize that the Dowse House wasn’t built until 1910 and really wasn’t associated with these stories at all……but in my imagination, it all worked out somehow…..so much so that, when the storyteller recounted the horrors of a great raging thunderstorm that flooded the area and tore out one whole wall of the little sod house destroying almost everything they owned, I could see it happening right there to that tiny house we’d just visited.

Needless to say, this was one talented storyteller and she ended the evening with a bang for us. After the presentation, we found that we’d been sitting at the table with the lady’s husband and grand-daughter both of whom looked very twenty-first century and had been discussing the lack of wi-fi and which roads to take back to Omaha so that the grand-daughter could practice her driving skills.  Back to reality it is…

We headed on back to our cabin intent on getting to bed early that night…..the next morning we’d be up before dawn again and looking for Prairie Chickens. We were ready.

robin

Links:
Sandhills of Nebraska.
Burwell
Switzer Ranch/Calamus Outfitters
2017 Prairie Chicken Festival
Gracie Creek
Calamus Lake.

Itinerary:
April 3 – Baltimore, MD to Omaha, NE (via Minneapolis, MN): 1153 Miles
April 4 – Omaha to Grand Island (via Route 30): 160 Miles
April 5 – Grand Island to Kearney (via Interstate 80): 49 Miles
April 6 – Meandering around Kearney and Gibbon (Interstate 80 and the Back Roads): ?? Miles
April 7 – Kearney to Calamus Outfitters/Burwell (Route 10/Route 2/Route 183/Route 96): 122 Miles
April 8 – Calamus Outfitters/Switzer Ranch, Calamus Lake: Maybe 25 miles around & about.

Sites Visited Thus Far:
ADM Grain Company Driveway (Day 2)
Audubon’s Rowe Sanctuary (D3 & D4)
Calamus Outfitters & Switzer Ranch (D6 & D7)
Calamus Reservoir (D6)
Crane Trust (D3)
Dowse Sod House (D5)
Eagle Scout Park (D3)
Fort Kearney Historical Park (D4)
Fort Kearney State Recreation Area (SRA) (D4)
Freemont State Recreation Area (SRA) (D2)
Gracie Creek (D5 & D6)
Grandpa’s Steak House (D4)
Great Platte River Road Archway (D4)
Higgins Memorial (D2)
Mormon Island State Recreation Area (SRA) (D3)
Townsley-Murdock Trail Site (D2)
Windmill State Recreation Area (D4)

Birds spotted

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