Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Chicken and Stars Report

One of the things that struck me about the first chicken and stars tour was just how unbelievably beautiful the Great Plains are. Nebraska is indeed a beautiful place. It does not have the requisite mountains or large bodies of water, but it has a depth of character that can only be described as complex. The Rocky Mountains are like rock and roll and the Great Plains are like a symphony.

Photos and more after the jump

We have just come out of a busy as ever spring migration with lots of people coming from all over the place to look at lots of large noisy sandhill cranes and other birds. It’s easy to see the attraction. This now begins what I think is the more challenging part of our mission; that is to provide a place where people of all ages can connect to the Great Plains, Nebraska and the Platte River.

Enter Chicken and Stars. This was a beginning for us. We put our toe in the water before we jumped in to see if there existed a need to host a group of people on a grouse-viewing safari to Mullen, Nebraska. The answer was a resounding yes! People like to connect with a group and our group was no exception. We had a great time with a great group of people.

With the guidance of our friends from the Highway 2 scenic byway, we were able to connect with a great restaurant called the Cattleman’s in Seneca, where we officially got things underway. Seneca is a little berg with about 25 people residing just a stones throw north of Highway 2, bisected by the railroad and the Middle Loup River. The town itself is tidy and deeply proud of who they are. As we got to know each other through good conversation, we were served up a great meal. Then it was off to view the stars, as the guest of Sharon Hughes, on her cattle ranch some six miles north of Seneca.

When you plan a trip like this, you are at the mercy of the weather. We have had a crummy spring weather season this year, but the weather turned out perfect that Friday evening for a star presentation by our Education Coordinator Dan Glomski and teacher Mark Urwiller of Kearney. These guys have forgotten more about astronomy than I will ever know, and they did a marvelous job of teaching all of us about the night sky.

After a few hours of stargazing, it was off to bed and up at 5:30 a.m. central time to head out to see the prairie chickens. (Mullen is in Mountain Time and this makes you constantly guess what time it is.) Our guide and host was Mitch Glidden, owner and operator of the Sandhills Motel in Mullen. Mitch has done a fantastic job of creating a destination for people through wildlife and river trips. We broke our tour into two groups, photographers and birdwatchers. We rode two small busses on about a 15-minute trip to the blinds. The blinds consisted of a live stock trailer for the photographers and an old school bus for the rest of us. The bus has the seats removed on one side with a smattering of chairs so each person could pull up to a window and watch the show. Mitch pulls right up to the door of one bus with the other so your feet never touch the ground. We stayed on the warm bus until the sun started to come up and you could hear the unmistakable sounds of the prairie chickens.

This is about the sixth time I have gone out to view the greater prairie chickens booming. It is a captivating wildlife show that rivals anything I have ever seen. The chickens can best be described as a group of Jr. High boys pushing, showing off, being loud and looking for love. Toss in a few females into the mix and they all go nuts! Our guide Mitch did a good job of pointing out behaviors displayed and he said he thinks the birds are “trash talking” each other and saying things like “ Your mama is a sharp tail!” and so on.

After the morning viewing, some folks headed off on their own to explore and others went to view the sharp tails on Sunday morning. That’s what Randy Hampton and I chose to do. We met up with Dan Glomski and his wife Tracy the next morning to view sharp tail grouse. Randy set up a portable blind the day prior just a few yards away from the public viewing blind provided by the forest service. I recommend that you go out the day prior so you can find your way under cover of darkness the next day. We left for the blind at 5:30 a.m. central time.

This was my first time in a sharp tail grouse viewing blind. I have to say it was one of the best wildlife viewing experiences I’ve ever had. Those birds are just remarkable. They all dance and then simultaneously freeze, then one coos like an owl and they all start in again. It made me laugh out loud at the antics. I shared a blind with Dan and Tracy and there was room, but not a lot. Four people could do it but two people would be the best for the size of the public blind provided.

If you go, bring a variety of warm clothing and be prepared to walk about ten to fifteen minutes to the blind. All in all it was well worth the effort to go and I’ll be going back again next year.

Grassland Dance, Mullen, Neb. 308-546-2206 or 1-888-278-6167, www.grasslanddance.com

Nebraska National Forest, Bessey Ranger District, Halsey, Neb. 308-533-2257.

Also a special thank you to the Sandhills Journey Scenic Byway for helping us to plan this trip.

Dave Hendee from the Omaha World Herald recently wrote an article that provides a lot of good information to help plan a trip as well.

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