Al Batt is a writer, speaker, storyteller and humorist. He writes humor and nature columns for many newspapers and does regular radio shows about nature. He writes a number of nationally syndicated cartoon strips and is the author of the book, "A Life Gone to the Birds." He also is a columnist for "Bird Watchers Digest" and writes for a number of magazines and books.
Noppadol Paothong is a nature/conservation photographer with a passion for the conservation and survival of grassland grouse. Nop has published two books, "Sage-Grouse, Icon of the West" and "Save the Last Dance, A Story of North American Grassland Grouse." He is also a staff wildlife photographer for the Missouri Department of Conservation.
Thank you to Sandra Noll for her description below and accompanying photos of her visit to see the Prairie-Chickens.
Part of the challenge - and magic - of seeing grassland birds on their leks is getting up at 5:30, bumping across a pasture in an old yellow school bus to climb a small hill to another bus (stationary on this ridge for weeks to become an accepted part of the bird’s landscape) and sitting in the cold darkness waiting for the prairie chickens to begin “booming” - calling the hens in. Our guides alerted us to anticipate songs of horned and meadow larks and the "whinny" of snipe prior to the almost visceral booms of the chickens themselves. This pre-dawn auditory experience proved as stunning as sandhill cranes waking on their river roosts.
Like sharp-tailed grouse, male “chickens” are known for elaborate courtship rituals. They inflate air sacks on the sides of their throat (bright orange with purple highlights) creating sound, patter feet, erect bright comb-like eyebrows (eat your heart out, Groucho) and pineal feathers - elongated head feathers that lie flat along neck but can be raised rather like horns - and spread wings to intimidate other males and attract females. After extensive “dancing” interspersed with threateningly-still face-offs, the males may also jump and attack one another with claws and beak. Feathers fly but it’s more about dominating than injuring one’s opponent. This can go on for hours involving many males. When females show up - as 12 did this morning - the action intensifies. It is the female who selects her mate based on the genetic traits she favors, and initiates copulation. Males can only intimidate rivals, show off their best attributes and hope.
After 2+ hours of observation, I was shivering, fatigued, and ready for the hearty breakfast awaiting my attention back at the ranch house. The chickens showed no sign of letting up and I reluctantly left the lek wondering how these birds manage weeks of such intense focus and energy expenditure.
The survival of both prairie-chickens and grouse relies on threatened habitat - prairie grasslands. How fortunate that there are families, like the Switzers, committed to sustainable grazing practices that preserve both the grasslands and the birds so long adapted to them.
Festival participants will have the opportunity to view greater prairie-chickens and sharp-tailed grouse in viewing blinds on the Switzer Ranch, which is the home of Calamus Outfitters. In addition, participants will enjoy extra birding excursions that highlight the diversity of species in the area, educational and inspiring speakers who will share their knowledge and passion, fabulous food and a fun, relaxed atmosphere focused on celebrating these awesome birds species, the grasslands they inhabit and the culture that surrounds them. The Nebraska Prairie-Chicken festival is limited to the first 50 registered participants, plus working volunteers and sponsor representatives.
The Switzer Family actively manages for sustained and improved habitat for grassland birds, with prairie grouse being their focal species. Management strategies employed on their ranch include prescribed grazing, prescribed burning, invasive control and monitoring. Annual prairie-chicken and grouse counts are held each spring to aid in identifying any population trends within the context of ranch management. The Switzer's have also teamed up with neighboring ranchers to form the Gracie Creek Landowner's Association which strives to protect the shared natural resources of the area, including prairie grouse habitat.
The Switzer Ranch is part of the first privately owned land in Nebraska designated as an Important Bird Area (IBA) by Audubon Nebraska. The Greater Gracie Creek IBA (of which Switzer Ranch is a part) is adjacent to the Calamus State Recreation Area IBA. These two IBA's offer a broad diversity of habitats which provides for great bird watching!
We invite you to ranch country, in the beautiful Sandhills of Nebraska, for a great weekend of birds and fun!!
In addition to seeing the Greater Prairie-Chicken and Sharp-tailed Grouse, we have a lot of fun finding other birds in the area. Here is a sampling of what some festival participants have seen while at the festival.
Greater White-fronted Goose
American White Pelican
Great Blue Heron
Great Horned Owl
Northern Rough-winged Swallow