A spring trip to Nebraska combines the subtle beauty of the sandhills with the drama of courting prairie-chickens and the spectacle of cranes by the thousands.
It begins in darkness and wind. In the troughs of quiet between gusts there are ethereal calls—like moaning oboes. The sound is stretched on the surging air, then whipped away. And again it is just darkness and wind.
Eight of us sit with our faces at the open windows of a long-parked school bus, which now serves as a birding blind.Audubon photography editor Kim Hubbard and I are on a five-day trip to witness an exercise in abundance, spring in Nebraska. Ten million birds migrate through. Some arrive before the land has even shrugged off winter. Today we’re in north-central Nebraska, at the Switzer Ranch, a cattle operation that has diversified into ecotourism, including birdwatching.
Over the next five days we will log 30 hours in various blinds, first watching greater prairie-chickens and sharp-tailed grouse at the ranch and then traveling 120 miles south to the Platte River valley, where for probably thousands of years sandhill cranes have used the mid-river gravel bars as a staging area for their extraordinary migration. While environmental tourism is on a scale much smaller than the state’s famed cows and corn, it is growing. “You might think of the cattle and agriculture industries as the economy of the present,” says Richard Edwards, an economist at the University of Nebraska who studies natural resource issues. “[But] there may not be much growth possibility for those industries.” Looking a decade or two into the future, he adds, “High-value ecotourism might be the growth generator for western Nebraska.”
We’re up before dawn to see a show put on by some locals. There is a faint smell of sage on the air. Silhouettes move between tufts of prairie grass, as night grays toward day. Like chanting penitents converging on a remote shrine, birds have gathered on a sandy dome where the bluestem and buffalograss are low. Greater prairie-chickens have come to this lek each spring, for uncounted years, to carry out the mysterious ritual of attracting a mate.
The spring spectacle that has us, as one of our bus mates wryly puts it, “getting up in the middle of the night to watch chickens,” is the display by the males—full-on dances—though on first sight what these 16 meek-looking, pear-shaped birds could do to impress a hen is hard to imagine. That is, until a raucous chicken jug band kicks in. Clucks, whoops, gobbles, and what sound like fits of chicken laughter spill from the lek. One bird’s tail feathers burst into a fan exposing its white undertail coverts. His breast puffs up revealing an orangey-yellow yolklike sac that inflates to produce a droning call. The bird appears to be twice the size he was moments ago.
The males pace protectively around invisible dominions, eyeing their neighbors. Periodically, birds quiver as they stomp their feet in ferocious displays. A hen arrives. The dominant male immediately moves in front of her. Flaps on the side of his head have stiffened until they appear to hover above his head like cartoonish leering eyebrows. His strut turns to a dash. Caught up in the speed of his little legs, he runs, in effect, off stage. The hen loses interest and flies off.
A northern harrier drifts past, scattering the remaining chickens. Though the males eventually trudge back to the lek, the day’s first earnest energy seems gone, and the birds soon disperse.
Stepping off the bus, the ground shifts subtly underfoot, reminding us that we’re in the Sandhills—20,000 square miles of grass-covered dunes in the rough center of Nebraska. The hills comprise the largest dune field in the hemisphere as well as one of the largest remaining areas of contiguous prairie anywhere in North America. Stretches of the dunes look like frozen ocean waves formed by the predominant wind. The Switzer Ranch is about 700 miles west of Chicago. Along the way, the flat of Iowa has turned to ripples. Continue west into Wyoming and those ripples become the Rockies. This place, in the seam between mountains and flatlands, is a natural flyway for migrating birds.
The thin blanket of prairie grasses is just enough to support raising cattle. That isn’t to say this is an easy place to ranch. It is hard to make a living on sand and grass. But it is beautiful. “A man does what he has to, to stay somewhere he wants to live,” Bruce Switzer says. He grew up down the road; his wife’s family has been on the ranch for five generations. The indentation of the cellar in the original sod house, dug 107 years ago, is still visible. His family has 12,000 acres. “That sounds like it ought to be enough, but in this country it isn’t,” Switzer says. “The price of cattle has gone sideways while the cost of everything else has gone up.” When the Switzers’ son and daughter decided they wanted to return to the ranch with their families, the Switzers began looking into additional sources of income. They came up with an unusual sort of ecotourism.