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Five essential spring birding trips – #3

Spring is a terrific time for birds and birding.  I am currently in the middle of highlighting five birding trips and experiences that all outdoor enthusiasts should consider attempting this year.  Certainly there are hundreds more out there for the taking, but I’ll start slow.  Now that we are in the latter days of winter, it is time to pencil in dates and make plans.   Essential spring birding trips #1 and #2 focused on migration spectacles, #3 is focused on courtship and the struggle to pass on one’s genes.

#3 – Prairie grouse booming

Greater Prairie-Chicken
Male Greater Prairie-Chicken dancing on a Nebraska lek. NEBRASKAland photo.

Nebraska is fortunate to have two species of “prairie grouse,” the Greater Prairie-Chicken (Tympanuchus cupido) and the Sharp-tailed Grouse (Tympanuchus phasianellus).  Each spring, males of these two grassland species aggregate at specific sites, called leks, to perform spectacular courtship displays.  Each male attempts to outdo all other males in the hopes the effort will catch the eye of any females that wander onto the lek.  Like males of any species with raging hormones, there is tension and there is fighting.  Ultimately, the goal for any male is to mate with a female and pass along his genes.  It is quite a production and witnessing dancing grouse should be on everyone’s bucket list.  Nebraska is also fortunate to have a range of opportunities, from go-it-alone adventures to guided blind trips, which are scattered in different parts of the state.  Some option have one species, a few have chances to see both.  Since visiting a lek requires an early morning and knowing where birds are, do not underestimate the value of a guided trip, particularly if this is your first time.  There is also a special event, Nebraska Prairie Chicken Festival, focused on lekking prairie grouse.   The opportunities, along with a few additional tips, are outlined, below.

  • When:  Lek activity peaks in April, although displaying birds can be observed earlier in March or later in May.
  • Where:  See the list of options, below.

PUBLIC/FREE/UNGUIDED

Crescent Lake National Wildlife Refuge

Species:  Sharp-tailed Grouse
Location:  near Ellsworth, NE
Guided Lek Trip?  No. Blinds are available on a first come, first-served basis with reservation.
Contact:  308-762-4893

Nebraska National Forest – Bessey and McKelvie

Species:  Primarily Sharp-tailed Grouse, but Greater Prairie-Chicken may be available
Location:  near Halsey, NE, (Bessey) and Cody, NE, (McKelvie)
Guided Lek trips?  No. Blinds are available on a first come, first-served basis with reservation.
Contact:  Nebraska National Forest, 308-533-2257

Valentine National Wildlife Refuge

Species:  Greater Prairie-Chicken and Sharp-tailed Grouse
Location:  near Valentine, NE
Guided Lek Trip:  No. Blinds are available on a first come, first-served basis.  Reservation required, please call the number provided.
Contact:  402-376-3789 or 402-376-1889;  Additional Valentine NWR information

Burchard Lake State Special Use Area

Species:  Greater Prairie-Chicken
Comment:  Not recommended at this time because lek locations have recently moved off of public land.

GUIDED/COMMERCIAL/OUTFITTERS

Calamus Outfitters

Species:  Greater Prairie-Chicken and Sharp-tailed Grouse
Location:  near Burwell, NE
Guided Lek trips?:   Yes. Available all days from 15 March through April, EXCEPT Easter Sunday
Website:  http://calamusoutfitters.com/index.htm;    Special Event:  Nebraska Prairie Chicken Festival April 4-6, 2014;  http://calamusoutfitters.com/2014-nebraska-prairie-chicken-festival.htm

Prairie Chicken Dance Tours

Species:  Greater Prairie-Chicken
Location:  McCook, NE
Guided Lek trips?   Yes
Website:  http://www.prairiechickendancetours.com/; download the PCDT2014Brochure.

 Sandhills Motel and Glidden Canoe Rental

Species:  Greater Prairie-Chicken and Sharp-tailed Grouse
Location:  Mullen, NE
Guided Lek trips?:   Yes
Website:  http://www.sandhillsmotel.com/

  • What not to miss:  The spectacle and the drama, see below.

  • Tip #1:  Bird numbers and activity at a lek can be affected by lousy weather, particularly strong winds and precipitation.  Nice, calm spring mornings are ideal.  If you are traveling a long ways to specifically see grouse, it may not be a bad idea to pencil in more than one morning to increase the likelihood for a great experience.
  • Tip #2:  Lekking prairie grouse can be detected along county roads in appropriate habitat.  However, birds are more likely to be detected by sound than by sight.  Furthermore, getting good looks at birds from roads can be challenging.  Nevertheless, it is a good idea to be familiar with the sounds and vocalizations of prairie grouse.  Listen to displaying Greater Prairie-Chickens here (the birds really get going about a minute in) and here.  Sharp-tailed Grouse can be heard here (note:  this audio was recorded in Nebraska).  On a calm day, their sounds and calls can be heard over a mile away!
  • Tip #3:  If you are looking for grouse along county roads, please remember that most of Nebraska is privately-owned, please do not trespass.

Again, this is an ESSENTIAL birding trip, so just do it!

Other Essential Spring Birding Trips:   Number One     Number Two

Nongame Bird Blog

About Joel Jorgensen

Joel Jorgensen is a Nebraska native and he has been interested in birds just about as long as he has been breathing. He has been NGPC’s Nongame Bird Program Manager for eight years and he works on a array of monitoring, research, regulatory and conservation issues. Nongame birds are the 400 or so species that are not hunted and include the Whooping Crane, Least Tern, Piping Plover, Bald Eagle, and Peregrine Falcon. When not working, he enjoys birding.

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