It’s been two years since I’ve had the privilege of visiting the Sand Hills of Nebraska with one of the last thriving native grasslands in the country and where Greater Prairie Chickens still return to their leks in a month-long annual courtship ritual. A planned trip last year had to be postponed like so many other long-planned events everywhere due to the Pandemic.
With restrictions eased, we were able to return this year but things are a bit different here at the Switzer Ranch, a large working cattle ranch. We are the only visitors to observe the Prairie Chickens and their sparring this year. Our observation posts are plywood blinds that are a bit cramped and a bit uncomfortable not the spacious converted school buses we were used to from prior year visits. But the two to three hour show in the early morning is worth the cramped conditions and the frigid weather.
While it is still dark, we crawled as silently as possible into the low, drafty structures carrying in our tripods and camera bags. Inside we sat on milk crates, set up our gear and waited for the show to begin. It starts before the light comes up with the booming calls of the Prairie Chickens, an unforgettable sound that resounds over the prairie. The booming sounds are created by inflating air sacs on their necks. As the sun rises, pairs of sparring birds become visible. They are facing off in a stare-down with the occasional skirmish where they try to claw each other with their talons. These stare downs often end with no sparring, just booming sounds and glares. The presence of a female sends the males into a frenzy of skirmishes and showing off. Here, a male Prairie Chicken skulks away from a stare-down with a rival, the raised feathers on his head beginning to droop and the orange air sacs on his neck deflating. No victory for him this time.