Mullen, Nebraska: A grassland courtship

I had no idea what I was hearing the first time the hollow booming of ready-to-mate prairie chickens reached my ears. I was on a houseboat on South Dakota’s Lake Francis Case when I heard those awesome sounds before daybreak.

At first, it sounded like wind moaning through the trees. But the wind that morning was still. And there were no trees. I grabbed my binoculars and finally located the source of the sound. We had unwittingly moored the houseboat near a lek — the gathering place for prairie chickens that had woo on their minds.

I was mesmerized as I watched the dance of male prairie chickens. Orange air sacs — the source of those hollow moans — filled like helium balloons on each side of the neck. Neck feathers were extended and appeared to be horns. Orange eyebrows glowed in the early-morning light.

Males furiously stamped their feet and made short, little runs, displaying their beauty to any appreciative female watching. Their wings were extended a bit and curved downward, much like a tom turkey holds his wings when he struts. There were occasional squabbles, punctuated by fluttering leaps into the air.

I was completely blown away by the grassland courtship dance.

I have since watched prairie chickens on their leks — or booming grounds — in Kansas, Nebraska and South Dakota. I have taken photos at several locations. But I never got the images I wanted until Ruth and I were guests of Mitch and Patty Glidden at their Sandhills Motel in Mullen, Nebraska.

April 1st Registration Deadline for Wings over 2 Birding Conference

April 1st is the deadline to register for Wings Over 2 Birding Conference in Mullen, Nebraska.

Don’t miss your opportunity to watch and photograph prairie chickens and sharp-tailed grouse with professional photographers, Bill Frakes and Brad Mellema and tour guide Mitch Glidden.  This opportunity is developed by the Sandhills Journey Scenic Byway with a grant provided by the Nebraska Environmental Trust.  

This event includes:

  • 2 morning viewing opportunities
  • 2 afternoon adventures
  • 3 keynote speakers
  • 3 catered evening meals
  • 2 box lunches
  • 2 morning breakfasts
  • Transportation to bird viewing locations and afternoon adventure locations.

Please register by April 1st online by clicking here.

or contact Twila Phillips at
Sandhills RC&D 308-546-0636

Renowned Photographer Bill Frakes to Speak at Wings Over Two Birding Conference

Bill Frakes, renowned photographer is coming to Mullen, Nebraska to photograph prairie chickens and sharp-tailed Grouse, during the Wings Over Two Birding Conference starting April 12th in Mullen, Nebraska.  Frakes is the keynote speaker of the event on Friday evening. 


Bill Frakes was born and raised in the ranch country of western Nebraska.


“Frakes started his photography career at the Miami Herald where he worked from 1979 to 1992, covering a wide range of subjects from local stories to politics in Cuba.


He began shooting for Sports Illustrated in 1983. He is a frequent contributor to ESPN. He has worked in more than 125 countries for a wide variety of editorial and advertising clients.
His advertising clients include Apple, Champion, CocaCola, IBM, Isleworth, Kodak, Manfrotto, Nike, Nikon, Reebok, Amway Global and Stryker. Editorially his work has appeared in virtually every major general interest publication in the world. Additionally, he directs music videos and commercial television spots.” sited from Up/Closed website


Frakes joins guides, professional photographer Brad Mellema, director of the Grand Island Hall County Visitors Bureau and Mitch Glidden, owner of Sandhills Motel and Canoe Rental on two morning bird viewing opportunities for conference attendees, near Mullen, Nebraska featuring prairie chickens and sharp-tailed grouse.  


This is a 3 day conference for birding and photography enthusiasts.  In addition to morning viewing opportunities two additional keynote speakers, Greg Wright, wildlife biologist and Mary Bomberger Brown of Tern and Plover Conservation Partnership will speak on Thursday and Saturday evening.


Afternoon outdoor adventure opportunities include trips to the National Forest at Halsey, tanking on the Middle Loup River or a trip to Avocet Wildlife Area.


This conference is developed by Sandhills Journey Scenic Journey Byway with a grant from the Nebraska Environmental Trust. 


The conference is April 12-14th in Mullen, Nebraska. Please register for this conference by April 1st.


Or contact Twila Phillips at the RC&D office at 308-546-0636


Click Here for complete details and registration options.


Sandhills Journey Scenic Byway Wings Over Two Birding Conference Prairie Chicken and Sharp-Tailed Grouse Birding and Adventure Conference

Sandhills Journey Scenic Byway Wings Over Two Birding Conference
Prairie Chicken and Sharp-Tailed Grouse Birding and Adventure Conference

Mullen, Nebraska: Sandhills Journey Scenic Byway with a grant from the Nebraska Environmental Trust is presenting Wings over Two birding and adventure conference, featuring prairie chickens and sharp-tailed grouse in Mullen, Nebraska, April 12th through the 14th.

Sandhills Journey Scenic Byway, a volunteer non-profit organization, works to encourage travel and tourism on Nebraska Highway Two from Grand Island to Alliance. A feature of Nebraska Highway Two is the abundance of wildlife, namely birds. “Every year I can’t wait to get out to the sandhills to watch the annual booming ground ritual of the prairie chickens. It is a natural experience unlike anything else and I’m most excited to be a part of the Wings Over Two festival this year.” Brad Mellema – Director of Grand Island Convention and Visitor Bureau

The Sandhills Journey Scenic Byway Wings Over Two birding and adventure conference is a two-day event featuring Friday and Saturday morning viewing sessions led by Brad Mellema, professional photographer and instructor and Mitch Glidden outdoor outfitter. Afternoon adventure outings are led by Mellema, Glidden and Sandhills tour developer Bill Burdett of Horizons Without Bounds Agri-Tours. Adventure tours include: Avocet Wildlife Area, National Forest at Halsey and tanking on the Middle Loup. Keynote speakers are world renown photographer, Bill Frakes, Mary Bomberger Brown, of Tern and Plover Conservation Partnership and Greg Wright, wildlife biologist.

“The birding conference is a great way to share a few of the secrets that make the sandhills such a beautiful wonder while encouraging travel and tourism in rural communities. The visitors who drive Nebraska Highway Two really get an amazing experience, and rural communities really get and economic boost with tourism dollars” Charity Adams, Economic and Community Development Director, Cairo, Nebraska.

Sandhills Journey Scenic Byway encourages those who love birds and those who want to enjoy the wonderful natural wonders of the Sandhills to register early for the Wings Over Two conference as space is limited. Click here for more information and to register or contact Twila Phillips at Sandhills RC&D at 308-546-0636.

It’s National Art and Humanities Month

October is National Art and Humanities month.  Sandhills Journey Scenic Byway has always been a destination for incredible art.  The Byway is home to several public art galleries and museums.  The 2017 Sandhills Van Tour will feature art galleries, private artists’ galleries and museums as a part of its focus on Art and Humanities.  More information on the tour is located at Follow the Rails Art Trail.

For more information on how you can participate in focusing on arts and humanities during the month of October visit Americans for the Arts.

Below is a list of just a few of the places you can viist to pay tribute to Arts and Humanities month.

Grand Island – Studio K

Cairo – Cairo Roots Museum featuring the works of Solon Borglum and the new book of the Balcom and Green Photography collection.

Broken Bow – Custer County Museum

Thedford – Thedford Art Gallery

Mullen – Mullen Art Center

Ashby – CaLinda’s Pot Shop


2016 was an eventful year for the Visitor Center or the Barn as we like to call it.  Prior to our opening Memorial Day weekend a few things were done in preparation for the season:


Don Cantrell and his crew performed a prescribed burn on the native grass areas to rejuvenate the mixed prairie grasses and wildflowers.  Don also sprayed the property for dandelion control.  Plants, flowers and shrubs were cut back to prepare for new growth and gravel paths and planting beds were weeded.  The outdoor kiosk was updated with new informational material.  An OPEN flag was purchased and installed to the northeast of the Barn that can be easily seen from the highway and has been very useful in letting travelers know when we are available.


The Broken Bow Visitor Center was the host site for the April and May SJSB monthly meetings and notably, thanks to the hard work of our tremendous SJSB staff, Senator Al Davis’ efforts and a grant administered by the Nebraska Department of Roads, six beautiful interpretive panels were received and placed around the property.  Another was funded by the Sempra U.S. Gas and Energy Co. and installed at the observation deck on the hill south of the Barn.  On an extremely hot day in June, a nice open house event was held at the visitor center to commemorate the completion of this project with about 60 people in attendance.  Our guests were offered the opportunity to ride to the observation deck to experience the beautiful views offered of the surrounding terrain.


Later in June the Customer Economic Development Corporation hosted its annual summer picnic at the Barn with over 80 people attending, awards presented and an excellent band performing for the evening.  In September a volunteer appreciation luncheon was held with most of our 35 or so volunteers who staff and maintain the facility in attendance.  Again rides were offered to the top of the hill at the observation deck and all but a couple who hadn’t had the experience made the trip.


We extended our season to the end of September and that decision proved to be well worth it in terms of adding visitors; 301 stopped in after Labor Day.  We also opened for the three days of the Follow the Rails Art Trail event in October and had an artist from Colorado who has ties to Broken Bow displaying several of her works.  We hosted a very successful wine and cheese reception on Friday evening of the FRAT weekend.  In total 110 visitors were counted during the weekend.  For the season, including FRAT, 1752 people signed our guest register which was substantially more than for 2015.


Plans for 2017 include:


Adding a vintage tractor display.

Re-siding the Barn with maintenance free siding and trim.

Starting construction of a replica sod house off the path to the southwest of the Barn.

Participation in NE150 events.

Participation in Neclipse events.

Additional art exhibit events.


Broken Bow has made tremendous strides in the last few years in terms of new businesses, attractions and infrastructure improvements and we are pleased to be a part of the progress the area is experiencing on our Sandhills Journey Scenic Byway.


Thank you, Rick


Broken Bow – Here in central Nebraska, when one hears ‘canteen spirit’ one reflects on the herculean efforts of so many volunteers that greeted and fed our troops when their train would stop at the North Platte Depot during WWII.


‘Canteen spirit’ is synonymous with volunteerism.   Custer County and the surrounding area has that same ‘canteen spirit’ for an event that will bring thousands to the area.


Volunteers are rallying behind Jeff and Lisa Johnson of Anselmo, owners of the Lonesome River Ranch, LLC. who will host the 20th annual Cattlemen’s Ball of Nebraska. Playing on the number seen on Custer County license plates – this year’s theme is ‘4 A Cure’. No one has been immune from this deadly disease that has taken so many lives. This is a benefit to memorialize and to help those still in the fight.


“The ball benefits Nebraska’s Fred and Pamela Buffet’s Cancer Center, with 90 per cent of the net after expenses going to the center and 10 per cent remaining in the area,” stated Karen Evans, one of the co-chairs of the event. The Johnsons were approached to host in the fall of 2015 and when they said yes in April of last year, the wheels started turning on preparing for up to five thousand or more in attendance.


Past balls have had up to forty committees segregated to handle all aspects of the two-day event that is set for June 2 and 3, 2017.


The Broken Bow Country Club hosted for the first time all committee’s members, between forty and fifty enthused volunteers filled the room.


The event will take days of prepping, setting up, feeding the estimated 120 or so volunteers that are needed daily prior to the event.


“The Ball is for all, not just the cattle producers. Dress is casual, comfortable footwear because the tents filled with activities galore will need plenty of foot power to get around.”


Diane Scott is the chairperson of the volunteers. “It is estimated that between 600 and 800 volunteers will be needed for the set-up, the days of, and the clean-up after. Thanks to modern technology, I have enlisted the aid of the school and other ‘techies’ to use forms where volunteers will be able to go onto the website and sign up, but for now, if you would like to volunteer, email me at Put Cattlemen’s Ball in subject line.


All volunteers must buy the Top Hand ticket for $100 if they help during the event. “This is a fundraiser to help eradicate cancer. “We are hoping to keep expenses around 40 per cent, last year’s expenses were over 45 per cent of the gross. In the 19 years of the Ball, over $13 million has been raised for the Buffet Cancer Center and the host areas.”, stated Dick Miles, past president of the Cattlemen’s Board, and one of several board members on hand to answer the myriad of questions.


A few of the other co-chairs that you may ask for more information include Cody Schmick, Sadye Flynn, Lisa Finney, Tim Mason, John Smith and Neal Neth. All donations all welcome as four auctions will occur throughout the event as well as a golf tournament and ribbon painting on the 2nd. Some great musical entertainment will add to the fun. Art show and sales, serenity garden, Promise petals, will also help raise funds.


Go to view the promo and see some of the ranch that will be the site for this year’s ball. Go to for more information on all the events happening to help raise funds ‘4 A Cure’ at the Lonesome River Ranch, 43581 Drive 818, Anselmo, Nebraska June 2 and 3.

Follow the Rails Art Tour Completes Sixth Year

The late Charles Kuralt called Nebraska’s Highway 2 “one of America’s 10 most beautiful highways” exclaiming, “This road will take you to one of the last unexplored frontiers where vast treasures can be discovered.”

For the last six years, volunteers along 272 miles of Nebraska Highway 2, what is known as the Sandhills Journey Scenic Byway (SJSB) between Grand Island and Alliance have encouraged visitors to enjoy the vast treasures of art inside and out during their ‘Follow the Rails Art Trail tour.’

This self-guided tour, always in October showcases the myriad of artistic mediums from the residents and guests as well as the fantastic fall foliage along the way.

“This year we had 14 communities that hosted 36 sites dedicated to the arts from the usual paintings, pottery, woodworking, photography to the unusual – floral, culinary including wines, beers and honey to the musical talents of locals,” stated SJSB president Linda Lacy, Ashby. The communities this year from east to west included Grand Island, Cairo, Ravenna, Mason City, Ansley, Broken Bow, Merna, Anselmo, Thedford, Mullen, Hyannis, Ashby, Antioch and Alliance.

Lacy went on to exclaim the appreciation to the various sponsors that helped make this Follow the Rails Art Trail or FRAT as it is lovingly referred to by the byway volunteers, the best yet. “Radio stations KAAQ/KCOW from Alliance and KBEAR 92.3 in Broken Bow did fantastic jobs of getting our ads out. I and others did live interviews on their stations as well as NPR, Nebraska Public Radio. KCOW did live remote at the opening reception at the Knight Museum in Alliance. KBEAR sponsored the first ever ‘Bow Arts in the Square’ in Broken Bow which had five vendors for its first time. Gaylean Millsap of Broken Bow was the coordinator and should be commended for her effort. Charity Adams, Cairo, also should be recognized as she did the social media posts, FRAT brochures, website and put together our guide book.”

Other sponsors included the Nebraska Arts Council, Custer Co. Tourism and Custer Co. Foundation, Mullen Tourism Board, Thedford Area Community Foundation Fund, Consolidated Communications, PREMA (Panhandle Rural Electric). Alliance supported with outstanding sponsorships from Gregory’s Insurance, Posh Family Consignment Store, Special Stiches and Studio A, Hoffhaus Garden, Alliance Visitor’s Bureau, Carnegie Art Center, Box Butte Visitor’s Bureau, Rock, Paper, Scissors Hair Salon, Sandhills State Bank and Alliance Chamber of Commerce. Hyannis sponsors included That Stop, Whisperin Angel Inn and Hyannis Hotel. Sandhills Oil from Hyannis, Thedford and Valentine also sponsored as did Ashby Lumber and Flowers and Lacy’s own, CaLinda’s Pot Shop and Art Gallery.

For the first time ever, opening receptions at Stuhr Museum in Grand Island and the Knight Museum and Sandhills Center in Alliance kicked off FRAT Thursday evening before its three official days of October 14 to 16. The Hyannis School again ran a one day bus from Hyannis to Alliance and back on the 15th. Also for the first time, a van load of five paid for the chance to take the tour and leave the driving to Bill Burdett of Cairo. Burdett does ‘Horizons without Borders’, offering amazing agri adventure tours for a van or bus load. “FRAT may not be my usual tour offering, but we had a great time and saw a lot of amazing art. I made five new friends as did the byway. The van riders were also the official judges for the student organizations that did bale art during FRAT. Lodging and meals were all inclusive in the cost and all five would recommend doing this art tour again, some want to come next year in their own vehicles. We made it to all 36 sites which was a little rushed, but we didn’t want to miss anything.”

The next major event for the SJSB will be the Polar Bear Tank Race at Mullen the first weekend of March 2017. Go to for more details on that.