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.
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)
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)