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Springtime Rituals

In March of 2008 we watched the Sandhill Cranes head out to breakfast at sunrise one very cold morning. They spend the nights roosting on submerged sandbars in the Platte River.

If you either live in Nebraska or are a birder, you have heard of the annual spring migration of the Sandhill Cranes.  It is an incredible sight to behold – huge flocks lifting from the Platte River with the morning light, forming flight lines criss-crossing the sky, and then settling down into the surrounding fields like blankets of fog.  And the noise!  They have so much to talk about – comparing wintering stories, their hopes for the summer, new found aches and pains, how the kids are so different nowadays.  Their unique voices combine into one loud, confusing, melodious banter.

A lesser known spring spectacle is the mating dance of the Prairie Chicken.  Maybe the reason fewer people know about it is because one state can not claim them as its own – the Prairie Chicken range is from northern Kansas and Colorado up through the Dakotas with a little side-step into Minnesota.  Also, their story is definitely not as romantic as that of the cranes.  The Sandhill Cranes winter in Texas, New Mexico, and Mexico and then all converge on the Platte for about a month to fatten up and hook up (if they have lost their mate over the winter), and then fly north to either Minnesota or the Arctic, depending on the subspecies.  They’ve been covering this same route for millions of years, even before the Platte River existed.  In contrast, the stubborn Prairie Chickens stay put, somehow surviving the bitter Great Plains winters.  And then, of course, there’s the name – Sandhill Crane vs. Prairie Chicken?!  How fair is that?

However, this normally indistinct, fat, little ground bird puts on quite a production every March.  And I had never seen it before.  Like with the Sandhill Cranes, I had to move away from my home state to want to come back to witness it.

The Prairie Chickens have specific criteria for their stage ,which is known as their “booming territory”.  They need a hill ridge with short grass that is at least a quarter of a mile from roads or power lines (not a problem in Nebraska).  My dad knows which ridges on our farm are good viewing areas.  So we put up a small camouflaged tent during the day in preparation for the sunset and then the sunrise performance.

Mitch went that evening but didn’t have much luck.  The prairie chickens congregated too far from the tent to get good photos and were spooked away by a hawk early on.  The next morning, before morning really, I headed out on my own.  Dad had told us that we should be in place and settled at least a half an hour before sunrise or sunset.  So by 6:30 am, temperature of 14 degrees, I was making my way through the cold darkness to the tent on the top of the ridge.

I crawled in the tent, situated myself with the blankets and my thermos of coffee, and waited…and waited.  Frost formed on the part of the blanket that was covering my legs.  My coffee was dwindling.  And then I heard a noise – it almost sounded like a kazoo, a flutter of wings, and then another kazoo.  Soon the kazoos surrounded the tent.  The show was beginning.

It was truly hilarious to watch and to hear.  The Prairie Chickens started flying in from all directions.  As soon as they landed, they looked around for someone to impress.  Their “booming” is a three note song that sounds almost like a bamboo flute but then it is punctuated occasionally with a louder, monkey-sounding call.  They inflate bright orange sacks at their throats as they are booming – the sacks are most inflated with the last note.  As their necks inflate, these two crazy feathers rise up from behind their heads and look like rabbit ears and their tail feathers stick straight up.  Then, when they are fully outfitted, they start to stamp their feet and sometimes take off running.  While all of the males are trying to out-do each other, the females are off on the sides of the ridges, completely ignoring them.

Mitch had to go out again that evening to see if they would land as close as they had for me.  They did, and he got some great photos!

The goats had just had babies and Sunny the cat was jealous that they were getting more attention than she was.

If they would only stay this size forever, Coastal Kayak would have a new mascot.

14 Comments Post a comment
  1. nice photos and funny looking birds 🙂

    April 9, 2010
  2. What a delightful blog and superb photos!

    April 9, 2010
  3. Great pictures. I have friends who went to see the sandhill cranes last year and were equally overwhelmed. I’m a fairly amateur birder, but I’ve been to Cape May during the Audobon sessions, and stopped dead in my tracks when I spotted a common merganser couple on our local city creek. The poor pedestrian who was there at the same learned far more than she expected when she asked what I was looking at 🙂

    April 9, 2010
  4. Thanks for the educational post…

    April 9, 2010
  5. that is one really cute goat!

    April 9, 2010
  6. Great photos. Nice post. Must have been interesting to see it ‘live’.

    April 10, 2010
  7. Nice article. Thanks for sharing.

    April 10, 2010
  8. Took me back to duck hunting with my dad when I was a kid. It was that cold, that dark, and I felt so honored to be asked to go hunting with him. The truth was: he didn’t have a bird dog or a boy.

    April 10, 2010
  9. Beverly J Struble #

    Thanks for taking the time to help folks see the wonderful small things that people so often over look. Great photos !!! Bev

    April 10, 2010
  10. love it!!!!!!!!!!!!!! keep up the good work. shelley antilla

    April 11, 2010
  11. thedreamer77 #

    beautiful post 😉

    April 11, 2010
  12. tigo #

    fotos eselentes relatoes esclresaedore.mais aflo reta entono do rodo anel saupaulo de suma inportasia para omansial da sidade es ta sendo epeculado imobiliario .

    April 11, 2010
  13. The picture with the hawk is amazing. Good use of depth of field.

    April 11, 2010

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