March Magic

March Magic

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.

By Ted O'Callahan/Photography by Kim Hubbard
Published: March-April 2010

It begins in darkness and wind. In the troughs of quiet between gusts there are ethereal calls--like moaning oboes. The sound is stretched on the surging air, then whipped away. And again it is just darkness and wind.

Eight of us sit with our faces at the open windows of a long-parked school bus, which now serves as a birding blind.Audubon photography editor Kim Hubbard and I are on a five-day trip to witness an exercise in abundance, spring in Nebraska. Ten million birds migrate through. Some arrive before the land has even shrugged off winter. Today we're in north-central Nebraska, at the Switzer Ranch, a cattle operation that has diversified into ecotourism, including birdwatching.

Over the next five days we will log 30 hours in various blinds, first watching greater prairie-chickens and sharp-tailed grouse at the ranch and then traveling 120 miles south to the Platte River valley, where for probably thousands of years sandhill cranes have used the mid-river gravel bars as a staging area for their extraordinary migration. While environmental tourism is on a scale much smaller than the state's famed cows and corn, it is growing. "You might think of the cattle and agriculture industries as the economy of the present," says Richard Edwards, an economist at the University of Nebraska who studies natural resource issues. "[But] there may not be much growth possibility for those industries." Looking a decade or two into the future, he adds, "High-value ecotourism might be the growth generator for western Nebraska." 

We're up before dawn to see a show put on by some locals. There is a faint smell of sage on the air. Silhouettes move between tufts of prairie grass, as night grays toward day. Like chanting penitents converging on a remote shrine, birds have gathered on a sandy dome where the bluestem and buffalograss are low. Greater prairie-chickens have come to this lek each spring, for uncounted years, to carry out the mysterious ritual of attracting a mate.

The spring spectacle that has us, as one of our bus mates wryly puts it, "getting up in the middle of the night to watch chickens," is the display by the males--full-on dances--though on first sight what these 16 meek-looking, pear-shaped birds could do to impress a hen is hard to imagine. That is, until a raucous chicken jug band kicks in. Clucks, whoops, gobbles, and what sound like fits of chicken laughter spill from the lek. One bird's tail feathers burst into a fan exposing its white undertail coverts. His breast puffs up revealing an orangey-yellow yolklike sac that inflates to produce a droning call. The bird appears to be twice the size he was moments ago.

The males pace protectively around invisible dominions, eyeing their neighbors. Periodically, birds quiver as they stomp their feet in ferocious displays. A hen arrives. The dominant male immediately moves in front of her. Flaps on the side of his head have stiffened until they appear to hover above his head like cartoonish leering eyebrows. His strut turns to a dash. Caught up in the speed of his little legs, he runs, in effect, off stage. The hen loses interest and flies off.

A northern harrier drifts past, scattering the remaining chickens. Though the males eventually trudge back to the lek, the day's first earnest energy seems gone, and the birds soon disperse.

Stepping off the bus, the ground shifts subtly underfoot, reminding us that we're in the Sandhills--20,000 square miles of grass-covered dunes in the rough center of Nebraska. The hills comprise the largest dune field in the hemisphere as well as one of the largest remaining areas of contiguous prairie anywhere in North America. Stretches of the dunes look like frozen ocean waves formed by the predominant wind. The Switzer Ranch is about 700 miles west of Chicago. Along the way, the flat of Iowa has turned to ripples. Continue west into Wyoming and those ripples become the Rockies. This place, in the seam between mountains and flatlands, is a natural flyway for migrating birds.

The thin blanket of prairie grasses is just enough to support raising cattle. That isn't to say this is an easy place to ranch. It is hard to make a living on sand and grass. But it is beautiful. "A man does what he has to, to stay somewhere he wants to live," Bruce Switzer says. He grew up down the road; his wife's family has been on the ranch for five generations. The indentation of the cellar in the original sod house, dug 107 years ago, is still visible. His family has 12,000 acres. "That sounds like it ought to be enough, but in this country it isn't," Switzer says. "The price of cattle has gone sideways while the cost of everything else has gone up." When the Switzers' son and daughter decided they wanted to return to the ranch with their families, the Switzers began looking into additional sources of income. They came up with an unusual sort of ecotourism.

 

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.

At the heart of everything is the Iain Nicolson Audubon Center at Rowe Sanctuary, a 1,900-acre facility with four miles of riverfront. The center director, Bill Taddicken, says, "Most people come thinking they will see something special, but the experience has the ability to touch them in a way they don't expect." Even skeptics are drawn in, he adds. "I remember one man telling me his wife brought him kicking and screaming for his birthday 15 years ago. He hasn't missed a migration since," he adds. "When Audubon began what is now the Rivers and Wildlife Celebration in 1971, there was almost no public awareness outside of the local area that this even happened. And now we have 15,000 people through our doors alone, and last year they came from all 50 states and 46 countries. This phenomenon has become known worldwide." Notes Johnsgard, "The sandhill cranes are the flagship for conservation. In fact, they made it onto our license plates rather than a football player, so that gives you some indication."

Audubon works hard keeping the sand and gravel bars clear of brush, a worthwhile investment in many ways. Richard Edwards and Eric Thompson recently finished a study on Rowe that placed the center's direct impact on the local economy at more than $2 million a year. The same study conservatively estimated that the total economic impact of the sandhill crane migration on the state is $10.3 million annually.

Along the Platte, there are both public and private venues for crane viewing. Rowe has group blinds where visitors can watch the cranes settle for the night on the safe roosts offered by mid-river gravel bars. It also has small photo blinds, including one in which we spend our first night. The simple plywood affair is painted to blend with the blond thatch of the river bank. Because it is closer to the water than the group blinds--just feet from the Platte--we must enter well before the cranes arrive and stay until the last birds take off the next morning. It's cramped with two of us, our cold-weather gear, and a very large camera. But we are front row to everything.

As evening approaches, the first cranes arrive from foraging in the fields. The flow, once started, is almost dizzying, like watching the stream of runners in a marathon. Tens of thousands of cranes land right in front of us, their bodies a light gray, with a patch of red on their foreheads.

Some glide in like planes approaching an airport, rolling their wings into billowing brakes at the last moment. Others look like parachutists, legs dangling, dropping onto a target. Birds jostle for space on crowded gravel bars. Squawks and hops erupt when a new crane lands. Some wade into shallow braids. Birds continue arriving even as the sky darkens. It is hard to take in the mass of cranes right here, yet we know this is happening for miles up and down the river. Of the sandhills' 12 vocalizations, churring and cawing come to dominate. With sounds so soothing, it seems natural to settle in ourselves.

We wake to the rhythmic beating of so many wings it sounds like a train. One crane begins a commotion that clears a stretch of river in seconds. As the birds pass 30 feet above us, we can almost feel the whoosh, whoosh of wings drumming the air. The power of each beat undulates through their bodies, sending a ripple up their necks.

With newfound space on the gravel bars, the remaining cranes gallop about like colts. Singly and in pairs, birds pass, slowly flapping, looking, calling. Finally the last lonely bird takes off. The river looks empty.

The cranes, it is believed, have been coming to this river for thousands of years, but the grand scale is new. Following World War II, modern agriculture led to increased crop yields. This reliable food source, at a critical time of year, brought more and more cranes to the Platte. The wide, flat area also offers the birds some protection from predators. A census in the 1940s put the number of cranes in the spring migration at some 40,000 birds. By the early 1960s that was up to 150,000, a number that grew steadily until the 1990s, when it plateaued and stabilized at about 500,000.

Some farmers recognize that the cranes eat waste grain from the fields prior to planting and that they bring tourist dollars to the area. But water, much of it earmarked for irrigation, is a precious commodity here. Seventy percent of the Platte's water is gone by the time the river reaches Rowe. "Water is everybody's livelihood," Taddicken says. "That makes it a ticklish issue." Still, he is hopeful about the overall efforts to make room for all. "We have the Platte River Recovery and Implementation Program, which is a three-state and federal government agreement to manage the Platte River basin as a whole for sandhill cranes and endangered wildlife such as whooping cranes, least terns, and piping plovers. I think people generally recognize that we have an important resource that we need to protect and that conservation is a part of that puzzle."

On our final night at Rowe, cranes sideslip across the sky, flapping hard, facing nearly crossways to winds that will spawn tornados by tomorrow. From a group blind, we watch birds squat in the water. A few let themselves float slowly downstream, like tubers, their wings splayed on the surface. Their splashes, backlit by the setting sun, turn the droplets into brief diamonds.

Though there are more than 20 of us, the blind is silent. When the slow sunset of the Great Plains is finally gone, it's as if the curtain has fallen on a spectacular show, both exhausting and exhilarating.

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