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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

Nebraska Trifecta & More (Day 1)

April 24th, 2017 2 comments

 

Lately I’ve noticed that when contestants tell their amusing little personal anecdotes on my favorite quiz show, Jeopardy, they always seem to start with “So, we were” or “So, I was” or “So, this or that or the other”. It really doesn’t matter what question Alex Trebek asks them, they clearly have rehearsed their “moment” in their minds endlessly before appearing on the show and somehow or another it always begins with “So”. So, in the spirit of all Jeopardy contestants of whom I will never be one, I’m starting this series of travelogue blogs about our trip to Nebraska with…..

SO we were going to Nebraska…..and I had planned this trip for weeks…well, for several months. When our earlier planned winter in sunny Florida got cancelled for medical reasons (I had to get some surgery and figured I ought to recover in the same state where my surgeon was just in case things didn’t go so well), I decided we needed a consolation prize of sorts. SO, (see how easily that word just slips in at the beginning of every sentence?) I started thinking about trips here and there to see a few birds since I am partial to traveling long distances to see birds I have never seen before. Then I thought “what about Nebraska and Sandhill Cranes”? Now, Sandhill Cranes wouldn’t be new birds for us but I had heard that there’s this thing about Nebraska in the spring that attracts thousands of Sandhill Cranes….well, to be a little more precise, maybe a half a million Sandhill Cranes according to official counts.

Nebraska is a well-known layover for the Cranes to give them a bit of time to fatten up in the fields around the Platte River on an eighty mile or so strip between Grand Island and Kearney (car-knee). People from all over the world put on lots of layers of clothes and gloves and hats and wrap scarves around their faces to go and stand out in the cold (Nebraska is very cold in early Spring), trying not to stamp their feet to thaw your toes (don’t want to disturb the birds) or shiver too much in the dark confines of an oversized duck blind to watch these birds come down into the river for the night or, as an alternative, watch them leave the river before dawn. Yep, that’s the kind of vacation for me! Sounded awesome although anyone who knows me knows that my birding is severely curtailed because I really… really…. hate to get out of bed at the crack of dawn for anything (or, as my friend, Glo, says “the crap of dawn”) but a few hundred thousand Sandhill Cranes would be just the thing to drag my lazy bones out of a warm bed. Well, maybe.

So (there it is again…another “so”), the planning commenced and no sooner had I started googling and binging Nebraska and Sandhill Cranes, that I found that early spring is also the best time of year to see Prairie Chickens and Sharp-Tailed Grouse doing their courting dances at the Leks (what you call the place where these birds do their courtship dances). Bingo! We could see the three big birds of a Nebraska spring all on one trip – a veritable trifecta…without the wagering, of course. We were on our way in no time flat.

Now, note that I’m dividing the trip into several blogs because it will be easier to divide the photos and thoughts on the three different birds that way and, well, frankly, because I can get pretty wordy sometimes and the blogs can get rather long. If you know me, you understand. But this series of blogs will be more of a travelogue than the recent blogs that I have completed….good to change things up now and then, don’t you think?

This first blog (Day 1) is rather uneventful because it mostly involves travel and, for the blog, an overview of the planning and whatnot. But, look at it this way – I will bore you on the “going to” Nebraska travel day and I will try not to repeat it on the “coming back” to Maryland travel day. Deal?

Travel days are rather boring because you get on a plane and fly an hour or so, then get off the plane and race through a large unknown airport and then get onto another plane and fly another couple hours to the final city and walk a mile or so through an airport to the rental car stations and wait for a bit until you get a car and head out to a hotel (depending on the time of day) where you find yourself totally exhausted, which is why I have learned to leave day 1 of any traveling for just that – doing the airport, rental car, hotel thing – if we have to fly to get there. A good night’s sleep makes all the difference in the world on how much you enjoy your first official vacation event whether it is birding or beaching or wandering around (like us) or heading to museums or reenacting the Civil War – whatever – it is much better when you’re not totally exhausted. And, since no one got dragged off the plane by the airport police and turbulence was not bad and the pilot did okay on the landing, our travel to Nebraska was not really noteworthy although, as usual, our arriving gate at the transition city, Minneapolis, was at the most distant possible point in the airport from our departure gate to our final destination, Omaha, and there was, as always, limited time to get from one to the other but we made it easy peasy.

Omaha was rather unexpectedly nice – not too big and not really small being the largest city in Nebraska. We had a rather nice view of the city from the parking lot of our hotel just outside the city limits and a rather not so nice view of a tank farm from the window in our room. We saw our first Nebraska birds on the drive out of the airport (Eppley Airfield) – Double-Crested Cormorants – at Carter Lake which is not really in Nebraska so these were our first Iowa birds….we got two states in with one airport.

Omaha sits right on the Missouri River (which was a nice bonus also on this trip since I do not recall ever seeing the Missouri before) and, the river, as you might guess, is the boundary between Iowa and Nebraska. But, back to the birds which were our FOT (first of trip) birds along with a couple Canada Geese and that made the trip official – we were on a birding trip and we’d seen birds. There ya go. Mission accomplished. Well, not quite.

We were tired and we were hungry. You can get absolutely anything you want to eat in an airport these days but somehow it seems not to be enough because whenever I fly, I end up hungry. The little peanuts on the plane are just never enough. Oh, we did have one tiny bit of drama on the plane. Someone was allergic to peanuts so the stewards made them disappear like magic and we were offered pretzels and granola cookies instead.

But, back to being hungry, SO, we were in Omaha, the home of Omaha Steaks, and it stands to reason that we started looking for a good steak house. The hotel manager obliged by telling us that the more local steakhouse was not really the best in his humble opinion so he gave us directions that took us right through to the south side of the city to world famous (at least that’s what the sign said) Anthony’s Steakhouse. Turned out to be a great recommendation…for me….my filet mignon was delicious – tender as butter (or should I say “butta”). Jerry said his prime rib was good but not as good as my filet – yes, we taste each other’s meals liberally – heck, we have been together for a coon’s age and share bout near everything anymore. But, overall, the food was delicious and the experience was all very Nebraska right down to (or up to) the giant bull on the roof of the building.

One final note on day 1, I am a big fan of the NCAA basketball playoffs, aka March Madness. I do not follow basketball at all otherwise but I love the tournament. And, I am a really big fan of the Carolina Tarheels and every year, I root madly for UNC. And this year, they were, amazingly enough considering the challenges they had met and overcome during the tournament, in the final championship game. And, we were right there in the hotel and ready for the game to commence…….and I fell asleep. Yep, I slept pretty much through the whole game. I occasionally woke up and Jerry would tell me how exciting the game was and how the lead was back and forth throughout the game and how I was missing it all….but I could not stay awake….not to save my life. And, of course, UNC won! And I missed it all.

SO, a long day of travel and a tummy full of steak, I was tuckered out. Tomorrow, we would set out to explore south east Nebraska but tonight, you could stick a fork in me, I was done.

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Day 1:

April 10 – Baltimore, MD to Omaha, NE (via Minneapolis, MN): 1153 Miles

Birds Spotted So Far:

Canada Goose
Double-Crested Cormorant

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