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.
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.
The 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.
As 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.
And 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?
And 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.
I 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.
The 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.
We 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.
The 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.
We 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
The 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.
Evening 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.
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)