Monday, April 11, 2011

Nebraska Prairie Chicken Weekend Report April, 2011

Click’n with Chickens wrap-up report:

We returned from our Click’n with Chickens weekend Sunday afternoon. It was a great outting and was enjoyed by all. The idea was to provide a great prairie chicken viewing opportunity while getting a photo workshop at the same time. I know that I learned a lot of great new information that will help me to be a better photographer. The event was held at the Switzer Ranch located eleven miles north of Burwell, Nebraska.

Our journey started on Saturday morning when Dan Glomski and I decided to check out the prairie chicken viewing at the Taylor Ranch, located northwest of Grand Island. We were joined by Blake Hatfield at about 7:30 a.m. on One R Road where we found a lot of booming activity. It was foggy, limiting visibility, but the booming sounds were very easily recognized. We could make out the ghost-like sillouettes of the birds as the male birds strutted around and did their best to impress and intimidate their fellow courters on the lek (booming ground).

While viewing the birds we stayed on the county road and it was important to keep and eye and ear pen for cars, as they do pass through at high speed. If you go, be sure to park safely off to the side so oncoming traffic can see you.

We ran into several other bird watchers that morning. Some were in the Nature Center the day before and the other car was none other than CPNRD biologist Mark Czaplewski, who was out with his family watching the birds. Mark said he has been watching birds at this location for more then twenty years.

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After Dannebrog, we made our way up Highway 11 to Burwell. Along the way, Blake pointed out various places where he had been during his many raptor recovery missions to recover various injured birds. Blake knows where all the eagles nests are located along the Loup River. We had planned to meet our group at the Sandstone Grill located on the town square in Burwell, but we arrived early so we took a short walk around the square. Dan spotted a copy of the Grand Island Independent that featured a photo on the front page of the hooded crane that has been seen around the Alda area in the previous weeks. I noticed that the photo was taken by photographer Tom Mangelsen. It was pretty cool to see crane viewing hit the front page of the local paper. We all agreed it was big news for sure.

After our walk, we still had time ot kill so we decide to head up the the Calamus Lake and see what we could see before meeting at the grill. We made our way up to the driveway of our hosts, the Calamus Outfitters, where an active eagles' nest is located. We quickly set up the spotting scope and saw a bald eagle sitting on the nest. It is amazing to me just how large those nests are. We were more then a ¼ mile away so photography was difficult, but I could easily see myself watching this nest, if time would allow, for hours or even days.

Bruce Switzer was in his pickup talking with a neighbor and came across the road to say hello. We were telling him we would be out after lunch when another car pulled up with Alan Bartels of Nebraska Life Magazine and photographer Tom Mangelsen. They had just been out viewing prairie chickens that morning and were headed back to Grand Island. I pointed out to Tom that his photo had made the front page. You just never know who you might see on a back road in the sandhills of Nebraska.

Our lunch at the grill was excellent and was the perfect launch point for a weekend of photography and bird watching with friends.

When we arrived at the Switzers, we checked into our rooms and then had a two hour photography training session on all things photography. Randy Hampton was our primary instructor. Randy has a great ability to relate complex concepts in such a way that they are understandable. We covered exposure and techniques that were all useable in the field. The next part of the plan was to put Randy's teaching into action.

A ranch tour by an open top Jeep is one of the offerings that we chose to get the group outside. It was a perfect way to spend the middle portion of the day. If you have never travelled through the sandhills portion of Nebraska, it is truly a magical place that is a wide open landscape, best experienced by riding out into the pastures.

The Click’n Chicken for me is a closing to the busy spring migration and tour season that occurs. I can not think of a better way to culminate the season than to sit on top of a dune in the sandhills with a 360 degree panarama that is punctuated with migrating sandhill cranes making their way to their nesting grounds. Though the sandhill cranes are not named for Nebraska’s sandhills, they are so at home there that they certainly could have been.

After the tour, we relaxed a bit on the porch of the bunkhouse and waited for dinner. I had a chance to catch up with John Murphy, a friend of mine who was at the ranch with a group of his friends. John is a fantastic birder with a real heart for sharing the beauty of birding with anyone willing to look through his venerable Leica spotting scope. He had that scope trained on that nesting bald eagle and was quick to let anyone take a glace before supper.

Supper at the Ranch included a healthy portion of beef brisket and a friendly dose of conversation followed by a short story by our host, Bruce. After supper it was back to the bunkhouse for a brief session on how to set our cameras for the morning bird watching.

We met for coffee at 6 a.m. and then were loaded into a school bus for a ten minute ride out to the prairie chicken lek to view the birds. We had a short walk up a hill that was lit by the headlights of our bus and we then found our way into the viewing blind. The blind was a modified school bus with blacked out windows on the back side and open windows on the bird viewing side of the bus.

We each found our way to a seat and then settled into the hurry up and wait mode of wildlife viewing. This reminded me of the many sandhill crane viewing tours I have been on. It wasn’t long before the sounds of the booming chickens began to fill the blind. I was able to make out the shapes of birds dancing in the pre-dawn darkness. A few photographers shot a frame or two in the dark, just because.

It wasn’t long before the sunrise came and the birds were active booming and strutting. I would have liked to see a little more light on the lek, but it was an overcast making the scene a bit dark for the camera and lens combination that I had. I did take some photos, but really enjoyed the show and the people more than making images that morning. It was good.

After the viewing, we made our way back to the ranch for a hearty breakfast. We wrapped it up with a look at the photos and some instruction on how to process the images and Randy answered questions as to why things looked the way they did.

As we left, we stopped by the Calamus reservoir and watched the thousands of white pelicans that have been staging there as they migrate north. What a sight! When we got back to the Nature Center, Dan and I then searched for the rare hooded crane that Mangelsen had photographed a few days earlier. We were fortunate to be able to see it before heading home.

We are now looking forward to our next trip to the hills to view chickens with author and ornithologist Dr. Paul Johnsgard. We will be going to the Sandhills Motel in Mullen Nebraska. We've dubbed it Chicken and Stars. I can’t wait.


  1. When is, typically, the season to go view/photograph prairie chickens?

  2. Adrian, This is the time. In mid March the birds will begin activity, but early April through about the later part of the month will provide some of the best activity. I hope you are able to get out and watch them. It sure is a greta thing to watch.