Prairie Chickens on Sandhills Journey Scenic Byway

Every spring, a rite of passage takes place on the prairie. That is the courtship ritual of “prairie” grouse called “booming”. For millennia, the birds gather in a central area of their range, usually on a small hill where the males birds will strut, fight, skirmish and posture for the opportunity to breed with the hens. They gather sometime in February or March each morning to claim the best spots and establish their position in the flock. The hens will start to show up in early April and will visit the “lek” until the breeding is finished sometime later that month.

The two species of grouse are found in Nebraska, they are the greater prairie chicken, and the sharptail grouse. The two birds are similar in size but each perform a different dance and tend to gather only with their species. Last year I did see a commingled lek, but that is not the norm. They put on a wildlife show unlike anything I’ve ever seen. It certainly places you to prehistoric Nebraska with the colorful sights and guttural booming sounds of the dance. 

As a photographer, I’ve taken literally tens of thousands of grouse images over the years and perhaps have all that I need. I am drawn, however, every spring back to the lek to witness the event. The birds must be observed from an established viewing blind and they pay little attention to anything Except perhaps Hawk that passes by. They start their booming in the pre-dawn hours. As such you need to position yourself in the blind at least an hour and a half before sunrise. In the pre-dawn hours it is usually quiet and serene until you first hear some unearthly sounds of the first Birds to arrive.

On the lek, there’s a definite pecking order that I’ve described as a hallway in junior high school. A lot of pushing, shoving and loving and the top birds know their place. One of my delights is to sit in a viewing  blind and watch these birds do their thing. The Sandhills of Nebraska are a wildlife Rich environment and many times you will be gifted with the presents of other animals. I’ve seen antelope eagles, hawks, owls, coyotes and deer while spending time in the blind. I have sat in viewing blinds in snowy below zero temperatures as well as summer like t-shirt weather. 

If you decide to go I recommend a guided tour for your first experience. The guide will bring you to an established viewing site and you will see the behavior with an expert guide. I’ve gone many times with Mitch Glidden from the Sandhills Motel and he is one of the best.

As a photographer you will want to take a long lens and be prepared for all kinds of lighting scenarios. I’ve also learned that it is rare for the behavior of the birds and the best light to come together to make images. The only way to overcome that is to go for several days in a row. You will also want to layer your clothing as it is quite cold in the predawn darkness and if it’s a sunny day it can be quite warm by the time you finish your morning. 

Brad Mellema

An Omaha native, Brad has lived most of his adult life in central Nebraska. He took the Executive Director post at Grand Island Tourism in early 2013. Prior to that, he was director of the Crane Trust Nature Center. Brad is also an adjunct professor of photography at Hastings College.

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