Nebraska Trip Part I: Greater Prairie-chickens

By Joe Sebastiani, Members Program Team Leader:

Last week, I led the annual Delaware Nature Society trip with 5 great participants to Nebraska to see the Sandhill Crane migration on the Platte River as well as to catch other highlights of local wildlife.  This year, our trip began at the Calamus Outfitters near Burwell, Nebraska.  Calamus Outfitters is located in the Sandhills region of the state.  This 20,000 square-mile area is the largest sand-dune formation in the western hemisphere.  The sand-dunes are stabilized by prairie grass and wildflowers, making it one of the last great grassland ecosystems of America.

We had finally arrived at one of my favorite places...Calamus Outfitters in the Nebraska Sandhill region.
We had finally arrived at one of my favorite places...Calamus Outfitters in the Nebraska Sandhill region.

Calamus Outfitters is a 12,000-acre cattle ranch that also offers tours in the spring to see Greater Prairie-chicken and Sharp-tailed Grouse on their display ground (lek).  They have facilities for overnight stays, and they feed you very, very well.  The Switzer family, who run the operation, are wonderfully hospitable and very enjoyable…happily explaining their way of life and the operation of the ranch.

Sunset over the Sandhills on our first night at Calamus Outfitters.
Sunset over the Sandhills on our first night at Calamus Outfitters.

After some much needed rest, we woke early to view Greater Prairie-chickens on the lek.  Calamus Outfitters takes you to a blind in front of the displaying birds, which is a school bus parked on the prairie.  I call it a “Blus”.

A Greater Prairie-chicken hoots with it's bright orange throat sacs, feet from our blind.
A Greater Prairie-chicken hoots with it's bright orange throat sacs, feet from our Blus.

The display from the males is altogether comical, beautiful, haunting, and aggressive.  The strange sounds the birds make are bizarre, and their fighting, entertaining.  I picture the extinct Heath Hen from our area carrying out this ritual long ago in Delaware, and think about how different it must have been when this bird lived in our state.  The Sandhills area of Nebraska is a stronghold for this declining species, and it was great to know that places like this still exist.  We enjoyed every minute of it, cold hands and all.

To see a short video of the Greater Prairie-chickens displaying in front of us, click here.

After the chicken show, we looked forward to a hearty Nebraska breakfast, and more birding around the ranch and Calamus Reservoir later that day.  Stay tuned for the next installment of the story of our trip…

Our group happily watching and photographing Greater Prairie-chickens from our "Blus", the school bus/observation blind.
Our group happily watching and photographing Greater Prairie-chickens from our “Blus”, the school bus/observation blind.

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