By Joe Sebastiani, Seasonal Program Team Leader
This past March, I led the Delaware Nature Society trip to Nebraska for the fourth year in a row. The first two-thirds of the trip are spent in Nebraska’s scenic and wild Sandhill region. This is not your typical mid-western corn-belt area. The Sandhills are 20,000 square-miles of rolling sand dunes covered in natural prairie. This is the largest area of sand dunes in the Western Hemisphere, and one of the largest intact prairie ecosystems in the United States. It is also a stronghold for healthy populations of Greater Prairie-chicken and Sharp-tailed Grouse. We base our stay at the Switzer family ranch, otherwise known as Calamus Outfitters. The Switzer family, who own the 12,000-acre ranch, take you into the prairie to see the chickens as well as feed and house you for your stay.
The “chicken” show has us getting up way before sunrise. We down a quick cup of coffee, then motor out to our blind…an old school bus parked on the prairie. The birds will not see us, but we will get an awfully good look at them. As light starts to illuminate the native grasses, male Greater Prairie-chickens fly in to claim their spot on the lek (display ground). In a flurry of running, jumping, booming, and fighting, the males perform for the females in attendance and try to gain a spot in the middle of the lek. The top chicken is obvious, even to us. The other chickens don’t mess with him, and his display is performed perfectly. He chases other chickens off his turf with authority. The natural range of the Greater Prairie-chicken has been reduced dramatically, and the species is considered “Threatened” across its range. The Sandhills region of Nebraska is one of its biggest population centers.
On our second morning at the ranch, we repeat the process…up early, down coffee, and motor to a school bus blind. This time, we are awaiting the arrival of the Sharp-tailed Grouse. This is another species of wild chicken, but has a slightly different display. These birds stoop forward, lower and rattle their wings, stomp their feet, and inflate a purple throat sac, making a haunting “cooing” sound. Think of Native American dances with stooping over, stomping feet, and shaking rattles. We can see the inspiration for this dance while watching the Sharp-tailed Grouse. This species has an extensive range which extends up to Alaska. Overall, their populations are fairly stable.
The grassland comes alive as you witness these chicken species displaying on the lek. These spectacles were commonplace across the ancient prairie landscape, but now are restricted to special places that remain relatively undisturbed and natural, such as the Nebraska Sandhills. More of our adventures from the 2010 Delaware Nature Society Nebraska trip will follow…