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.
After breakfast we climb into Switzer's truck to search out his son, Adam, who is feeding hay to a small herd of Hereford-Angus cows. Adam greets us by pointing to the year's first calf, proof that spring has officially arrived. The Switzers run 1,000 head of cattle in the summer. But they also host families, mostly from Lincoln and Omaha, who want to spend time in the country. They offer trail rides and campfires. The fall attracts hunters for turkeys, deer, pheasants, prairie-chickens, and grouse. Spring brings birders. "Birders are easy," says Switzer. "They arrive excited to see a bird they've never seen before. They leave excited because they've seen it. And if we do our job right, they're happy while they are here." The Switzers host about 350 birders a year out of 3,000 total guests; the hope is that this will allow the next generation to make a living on the ranch.
What the Switzers are doing is significant. They are among the first ranches in the area to explore ecotourism. "The big idea here is that this is a different model. It doesn't require a philanthropist or nonprofit or government entity to do it," Edwards says. "The Switzers represent an idea of how to do conservation on private lands that makes sense for them economically while also creating conservation gains." Their approach is especially important because 97 percent of Nebraska is privately owned.
The Switzers use grazing practices that encourage biodiversity. While much of that entails moving the herds regularly, some steps can be as simple as protecting a thicket of plum bush from feeding cattle. The various efforts add up. In this fragile environment, overgrazing can cause scars called blowouts, which can take 20 years to heal. Says Switzer, "Everything we do to improve our range management means the grasslands do better, the cattle do better, and there is more wildlife."
That ranchers are even thinking about wildlife management is noteworthy, because in these parts wildlife has traditionally been seen as a competitor. Clearly, when part of their income comes from satisfying tourists, there is incentive to take a different perspective. Prairie dog towns, generally considered a nuisance, make great birding for ferruginous hawks and burrowing owls. Quantifying the economic value of a new idea can be challenging. What's clear, though, is that the first people to try something new take on significant risk both financially and, in this very traditional area, socially. Switzer says, "When we started doing this, our neighbors were snickering. They aren't now." Edwards echoes that. "When people see a success they tend to emulate it," he says, adding, "I think the Switzers' impact is going to be very significant in the Sandhills and the Great Plains more generally."
The Switzers, along with two adjoining ranches, have received the state's first privately owned Audubon Important Bird Area designation. The Greater Gracie Creek IBA, which includes 48,800 acres and an estimated 35 greater prairie-chicken leks, is home to other species of conservation concern, including burrowing owls, upland sandpipers, grasshopper sparrows, and bobolinks.
It turns out a rancher can also wrangle sleepy tourists in heavy fog. Switzer has us in place, in another bus blind, before dawn and before the sharp-tailed grouse approach their lek. We look out on a series of grays--grass at the tail end of winter, a darker windbreak of cedars, and the pale flannel of the sky. Without wind, the ranch carries an unusual silence. As the day's light comes up, grouse hoots and gobbles share the soundstage with meadowlarks' sweet, bright songs.
"Both the greater prairie-chicken and the sharp-tailed grouse populations are stable and doing well," says Paul A. Johnsgard, the eminence gris of Nebraska natural history and author of more than 50 books. "That is remarkable for both species, because from a national standpoint that isn't the case for either bird." The key to the birds' healthy state is habitat.
Although the day's poor visibility has given us only hazy views, we are not disappointed. Part of the magic of the lek is that the birds show up in blizzard, sun, or fog. And while displays are better in better weather, we aren't at a zoo; we are at an actual grouse lek, and the reality is that every day is unique.
Soon we say goodbye to the Switzers and head south, out of the Sandhills, into the Platte River valley. The mist burns away and we begin to see flocks of three-foot-tall sandhill cranes foraging among the corn stubble for the missed bits of last fall's harvest.
The cranes' migration route has an hourglass shape. During winter and summer sandhill cranes disperse over thousands of miles. But every spring for a few weeks, half a million cranes come together in the hourglass's slender center, an 80-mile stretch of the Platte between Lexington and Grand Island whose cornfields enable the birds to gain the weight they need to complete their migration and breed successfully.