We got up in the wee hours of the morning. That means early, real early. 5:30 a.m. early. Normally, I get up two hours later so let’s just say I was a little loopy. We grabbed fruit from our hotel’s breakfast bar, filled our coffee mugs and headed out.
We were up this early for a prairie chicken tour, yes, I was doing this for the birds. This bird, the size of a domestic chicken, has become popular with birders and nature lovers for it’s wacky dance, but we’ll get to that part. Currently we’re still sipping coffee and boarding the Dusty Trails school bus at the North Platte Visitors Center. Thankfully, it’s just two-minutes away from our hotel, Tru by Hilton.
North Platte is a great place for birds, as you saw by my latest post. On the bus, we got refills from a thermos that Dusty Barner, bus driver and tour guide extraordinaire, had mercifully brought. He’d also had granola bars for the bleary eye birders who’d gotten up early for the excursion.
It’s a bit of a drive to see the prairie chickens, first on the freeway, then a regular road, then a dirt road, then on no road. That’s right, this ride gets bumpy, really bumpy.
For some reason, I had woken up with “All Star” by Smash Mouth stuck in my head. In order to rid myself of this annoying earworm, I decided to quietly sing every Simon & Garfunkel song that I know. Ryan didn’t think this was entertaining, but I proved that I know nearly every word of those songs.
We finally reached the Prairie Chicken dance stage, which looks like every other part of this pasture we’d been bumping through. It was still dark, so some people got out to stretch their legs and use the porta potty Dusty Trails brought out. Yes, they bring a porta potty to the middle of nowhere. That’s important because Dusty brings coffee.
This is the part where we waited, and as I’ve discussed in prior posts, a lot of birding involves waiting. The bus acted as our bird blind. As long as we stayed in the bus, the prairie chickens didn’t mind our presence. Obviously, they have bird brains because it’s a big white school bus.
We could hear them before we could see them. In fact, the prairie chicken can be heard from up to a half-mile away. They sort of whistle and cackle, quietly at first, but as the sun began to rise in the east, they seemed to get a little louder, as did the Meadowlarks. The outlines of birds began to appear before us.
This is a lek, a site where prairie chickens come to dance and strut their stuff. At least, that’s what the male prairie chickens do. Our lek had about 20 males and only two females (that we could see), and that seemed like bad odds since this is a mating ritual that’s been done on these prairies for hundreds of years.
The males do a dance I can only describe as similar to the Broadway play, “West Side Story.” They run at one another, raise the feathers on their heads, blow up air sacks on the sides of their heads, and leap into the air. Sometimes wings flap and the birds fly, sort of. We actually didn’t witness the chickens touch one another but they seemed rather serious about all of this. That is until I spotted one near the bus. Let’s call him Bob.
Bob, the Prairie Chicken was probably young given that he was on the perimeter of the gathering. The top males tend to gather in the middle of the lek with the other males on the outskirts.
He would do all the moves, stomp his feet, aim his head feathers and run and jump, but his opponent was a stationary clump of grass. It took him a long time to get up the courage to join the real fight, but in the meantime, those of us in the bus were highly entertained by his antics. One day, maybe Bob will make his way to the middle of the circle, but not on this day.
Prairie chickens almost disappeared in the 1930s from over-hunting and loss of habitat. Today, they are a favorite of birders who come to Nebraska to see them dance.
We ended our trip by driving by a flock of pelicans floating in the mist. It all looks rather surreal and romantic, but the warm water causing this misty scene flows unromantically from a water treatment plant.
The prairie chicken tour is a new for Dusty Trails and owner Dusty Barner, and the 5:30 a.m. wake-up call is worth it. As we watched the dancing and listened to the calls, I expected David Attenborough to begin narrating. I live for these moments of nature and Nebraska is the place to come for many of them.
The prairie chickens can be seen dancing in North Platte from late March to late April. It requires a tour to see them because leks are often located on private property.
Book bird tours with Dusty Trails at dustytrails.biz.
Read prior post – Commune with Nature: Birds in North Platte with Dusty Trails
Thank you to Visit North Platte for hosting this trip.