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Dance Party

Prairie grouse dancing begins in mid-March and will last into May at a prairie near you. Read on for viewing locations.

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Male sharp-tailed grouse stomp their feet and dance in circles, inflating purple air sacs on their necks, in an effort to impress a mate.

Story and Photos by Eric Fowler

There are some things you just have to see to believe, and others you have to hear. Few provide a treat to both of those senses like watching prairie grouse perform their courtship dances in the spring.

Sitting in a blind before first light, you will hear the birds fly into the lek before you can see them. When the greater prairie-chicken’s eerie, moaning call hits your ears, you will wonder what kind of creature could make such a noise, and then understand why their lek is also called a booming ground. And even after you’ve heard it, you still might not believe how much noise can be made by a sharp-tailed grouse clicking its tail feathers together. Sprinkle in the clucks, hoots, coos and squawks, and it’s music to a birdwatcher’s ears, or anyone’s for that matter.

Until darkness fades, you will strain your eyes until you find the source of the sounds. When the subject is clear, you might shake your head in wonder as you watch male sharptails inflate the purple air sacs on their necks, stomp their feet and dance in circles – or at the larger, orange air sacs of the prairie-chicken and its upright pinnae feathers. You will watch almost as intently as the males watch each other when they crouch low to the ground in a face-off. And you might wonder if any birds ever lose an eye when they launch themselves in the air and bare their claws at each other.

And they do it all just to try and get the girl, who will occasionally pop in on the lek to check on the boys, strolling through with a sense of indifference that causes them to try even harder to impress her.

The dance begins in mid-March and will last into May at a prairie near you. It’s something everyone should see and hear. And you still might not believe it.  ■

Viewing

Nebraska has two species of prairie grouse: the greater prairie-chicken, found throughout central Nebraska and in some locations in the southeast, and the sharp-tailed grouse, found primarily in the Sandhills and Panhandle.

Males begin to arrive on leks in late February and remain into early May, but courtship displays don’t begin in earnest until mid-March, and activity peaks in mid-April. The best way to experience this unique ritual is from a lek-side blind. A list of these opportunities ranging from free, self-guided blinds on public land, to guided blind visits packaged with lodging and/or breakfast, follows.

Grouse arrive at leks well before sunrise. If you are using a public blind, plan on being settled in at least 45 minutes before sunrise and staying until the birds leave roughly 2 hours later so you do not disturb the lek. If possible, visit the day before so it will be easier to find your way in the dark.

Michigan photographers Al Charnley, at left, and David Stimac spent time at Valentine National Wildlife Refuge to photograph great prairie chickens last spring.

Free Public Blinds

  • Bessey Ranger District, Nebraska National Forest, Halsey/Thedford. Sharp-tailed grouse and prairie-chickens. Two blinds available April 1, first come, first served. 308-533-2257, fs.usda.gov/main/nebraska/home
  • Burchard Lake WMA, Burchard. Prairie-chickens. Two blinds, first come, first served.
    402-335-2534
  • Crescent Lake National Wildlife Refuge, Ellsworth. Sharp-tailed grouse. One blind, by reservation. 308-762-4893, fws.gov/refuge/Crescent_Lake
  • N-CORPE, North Platte. Prairie-chickens. One blind, March 18-May 3, reservations required. 308-534-6752 or 308-414-2140, ncorpe.org/wildlife-viewing
  • Oglala National Grassland, Nebraska National Forest, Crawford. Sharp-tailed grouse. One blind, reservations required Friday-Sunday, remainder first come, first served. 308-432-0300, fs.usda.gov/main/nebraska/home
  • Valentine National Wildlife Refuge, Valentine. Sharp-tailed grouse and prairie-chickens. Two
    blinds available April 1, reservations required.
    402-376-3789 or 1889, fws.gov/refuge/valentine

Guided/Outfitted Trips

  • Big Blue Ranch, Burchard. Prairie-chickens.
    402-865-4335, bigblueranch.com
  • Calamus Outfitters, Burwell. Sharp-tailed grouse and prairie-chickens. Also host of annual Nebraska Prairie-chicken Festival April 12-14, 2019. 308-346-4697, calamusoutfitters.com
  • Prairie-Chicken Dance Tours, McCook. Prairie-chickens. 308-345-1200 Ext. 318, prairiechickendancetours.com
  • Sandhills Motel and Glidden Canoe Rental, Mullen. Sharp-tailed grouse and prairie-chickens. 308-546-2206, sandhillsmotel.com

About eric fowler

NEBRASKAland Regional Editor Eric Fowler was born in Hastings, graduated from Ogallala High School in 1988 and earned his Bachelor’s degree from Chadron State College in 1993. After six years as a writer and photographer with newspapers in Chadron and Scottsbluff, he joined the Commission in 1998 as Publications Editor and has been a member of the NEBRASKAland staff since 2001. He has won numerous awards from the Association for Conservation Information for writing and photography featured in the magazine. Fowler enjoys spending time outdoors with friends and family, including his son. His passions include hunting waterfowl, upland and big game, fishing, especially in the Sandhills, hiking, camping and watching the sun rise or set anywhere in Nebraska.