Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Report: Chicken & Stars 2011

Our second annual Chicken & Stars tour is a wrap!

On Friday, ten participants gathered at Sandhills Motel in Mullen, then headed off to Cattleman's Restaurant in Seneca for a great meal. Dr. Paul Johnsgard gave a wonderful presentation on the greater prairie chicken.

During dinner, I took frequent peaks at the sky, wondering if we would see many -- or any -- stars that night. Forecasts earlier that week had not sounded promising. But the clouds did indeed part; in fact, the sky was almost perfectly clear by observing time! The stars were magnificent, with the zodiacal light (the "false dawn" created by dust in the plane of the Solar System scattering sunlight) easily visible in the west. I know a couple of us would have stayed out longer, but a cold wind and the excitement of prairie chickens next morning was too much to handle.

Created through sunlight-scattering dust,
the zodiacal light is visible only from dark locations

Early Saturday morning, we stumbled out to the bus that would take us to the prairie chicken booming ground. Here the males inflate their air sacs, stamp their feet, and defend their territory against other males -- all efforts to attract hens with which to mate. At least four hens visited, putting the boys into a frenzy. We saw several attempted matings -- attempted because every time a male would try to mate, he would be knocked off the female by other males. (Perhaps this is why the hens refused to leave, which they normally do after fertilization.) Eventually the chickens outlasted us, as that wind had put a big chill on just about every participant. But what a show!

Male prairie chickens battle for territory

After a hearty breakfast at a local coffee shop, a few folks had to head back home for Easter, while others explored the area. Four of us drove towards Valentine National Wildlife Refuge, viewing ducks, geese, cormorants, pelicans, teal, shrikes and many other birds. (And we can tell you which road NOT to take through the refuge!)

Cinnamon teal

Following dinner Saturday night, the remaining participants hopped on the bus Easter morning to witness the mating ritual of the sharptail grouse -- similar in purpose to the prairie chicken, but much different in form. On this cold and drizzly morning, no sharptail hens appeared on the dancing grounds; as a result, the male sharptails were not as active as they can be. Even so, it was a fine display.

Male sharptail grouse displaying

With minds full of memories and storage cards loaded with images, those who had remained for the sharptails headed home.

The nature center extends a big Thank You to those who took the trip. Special thanks go out to Mitch and Patti Glidden of Sandhills Motel for their wonderful hospitality, and Dr. Paul Johnsgard for his company and vast knowledge of grassland grouse.

Mitch Glidden

Dr. Paul Johnsgard

Next year's Chicken & Stars tour is scheduled for the weekend of April 14. Mark your calendars!

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