Monday, April 7, 2014

Playing Chicken

Highlights From The Amazing Nebraska Prairie Chicken Festival
April 4-6, 2014
The Switzer family hosts the Nebraska Prairie Chicken Festival on their 20,000 acre ranch in the sand hills of Calamus, Nebraska, about 1,500 miles from Savannah, not counting our scenic diversion detours.  

Is it worth the drive?  OH YEAH! 

The headline acts of the festival are the Greater Prairie Chickens, and their less flashy relatives, Sharp-tailed Grouse.  Both species have chosen spots on the ranch to use as leks--little arenas where the males compete in dancing and jumping contests to see who gets first rights to claim the females for mates.  

To see the males strutting their stuff, we get up at 4:45, layer up, and drive out to the ranch in time to catch the 6 a.m. bus that takes us out to viewing blinds placed near leks that the birds use year after year.  We go to a Prairie Chicken lek on Saturday morning, and a Grouse lek on Sunday.  

Here are the stars of the show:

The male Greater Prairie Chickens make an eerie droning sound that can be heard up to a mile away. 
They also squawk and squeal and carry on as they challenge each other, bending low and expanding their bright orange tympanum, which pushes their neck feathers up like bunny ears, then they have jumping contests to compete to be the alpha male. 
The winner gets the center part of the lek as his territory, but there is a constant competition to move up in the pecking order.

 The Sharp-Tailed Grouse raise their tails, spread their wings and do a sort of shimmy as they stamp their feet rapidly and vibrate their tail feathers to make a rattling sound while they laugh and hoot. 
They prefer their lek to have tall grass, so they are harder to photograph than the Prairie Chickens.

The lek action quiets down by around 8 a.m., and we head back to the ranch for a hearty pancake breakfast in the barn both mornings.

But there is much more to the festival than just these birds and breakfasts!

We begin shortly after noon Friday, April 4 with a three hour guided bird tour around the sand hills. We see eight different species of ducks, hundreds of beautiful white pelicans, and many other birds.  When we arrive back at the Switzers’ big barn to register, there are lots of vendors and environmental advocacy groups set up to welcome us with information and opportunities to purchase locally made items.  We enjoy a long conversation with a Raptor Recovery representative who comes with five “ambassador birds,” including this beautiful kestrel.

We sample a luscious Argentinian wine that sells for $150 per bottle, commissioned by the folks from the Morgan Ranch (the Switzers’ next door neighbors and good friends) to accompany their Wagyu Beef, which sells for up to $150 per pound.  Our barn dinners on both Friday and Saturday night feature Morgan Ranch Wagyu beef--it is wonderful.  

After dinner Friday, we have two outstanding presentations--one on prairie preservation by a Nature Conservancy expert who is also a talented nature photographer; and the other by a professional photographer who has been shooting Prairie chickens and Sharp-tailed Grouse here for years.  He uses his photographs to explain the intricate display behaviors we will see over the next two days.

The last activity of the evening is stargazing with a professional astronomer--a unique opportunity, since the Nebraska sand hills are one of the least light polluted spots in the continental United States.  We are too tired to stick around to look through the telescope, but we can appreciate the stars shining brightly in the clear night sky with our naked eye. 

Saturday is a very full day. 

After Prairie Chicken watching and breakfast, we head out to tour a beautiful conservation award winning 15,000 acre cattle ranch managed by Homer Buell and his son, the fifth and sixth generation Buells on the ranch (his brother has 15,000 acres next door--they split the 30,000 acre family spread).  After Homer gets on our bus and guides us around his scenic fields and pastures, explaining how he manages his lands and herds, we return to his barn for lunch, where he and his son share statistical analyses they do tracking every detail of their cattle’s lives and movements (all are radio-tagged for easy logging). 
Every cowboy needs a computer, it seems--cattle ranching today involves a lot of statistical analysis and number crunching, in addition to riding the range.  Speaking of riding the range, Homer told us that he finds it faster and easier to do most ranch work riding 4 wheeler ATVs, but he keeps horses, because it makes it easier to hire ranch hands--most prefer to ride horses.  

After lunch we visit a research ranch owned by the University of Nebraska, where we learn about their prairie chicken research--we view shots of predators caught on their trail cameras,  and see how they set traps on a lek to catch females so they can tag them and put radio collars on them to track their movements.  Then we hike around the ranch a bit, enjoying the sunny "warm" afternoon.

There is lots of entertainment when we get back to the barn at Switzers'.  A bird photographer shares a very entertaining presentation of his death-defying adventures getting “that perfect shot.”  After seeing the blizzards and far below zero temperatures he is willing to go through for his art, we feel a little sheepish about thinking that our adventures braving 30 degree temperatures in a sheltered blind for a couple hours are a hardship.

A Lakota Indian drums and sings a native dance tune based on the dance of the Prairie Chicken, and shares stories and history. 

While we enjoy our big barn buffet dinner, a country western band plays, and soon they get the dance floor filled with people who live around here and know how to dance to boot scooting music. 

The band leader, Joan Wells, was the Women’s World Champion Trick Roper in 1979 and was inducted in the National Cowgirl Museum and Hall of Fame in 1989.  After she finishes playing with her band, she gives us an extraordinary trick roping demonstration--running that rope all around her, jumping in and out of one rope and two, twirling three ropes at once--she could do anything with those spinning ropes. 
Yee-haw--though it has been over thirty years since she earned her big silver championship belt buckle (and she has let  that belt out quite a few notches since then), she still has the moves--you go cowgirl! 
I love it when she muffs a complicated trick dancing through two spinning ropes.  As she picks the tangled rope up and restarts, she says, “Well, I got all my feet but one through there.”

The evening festivities end with a campfire, but we are too tired to attend--we need to rest up before our 4:45 alarm clock wakes us for the grouse.  

When it is all over after breakfast Sunday, we leave amazed at how much fun, entertainment, good food, new adventures, learning opportunities, and scenic photo ops the Switzers have squashed into less than 48 hours. 

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