Archive for the ‘Grassland Birds’ Category

Birds to See Now: Greater Prairie Chickens

Sunday, April 2nd, 2017
Birds to See Now: Greater Prairie Chickens
In spring, one of the US’s rare birds puts on a show, as

greater_prairie_chicken
Photo Credit: Stan Tekeila

Greater Prairie Chickens look for mates.  Males in the area gather on their traditional performing “leks” also known as “booming grounds” to display on the grasslands for seemingly uninterested females.  To impress them, the males fluff their feathers to create an appealing shape, stomp with fast tiny steps, fend off other potential suitors and make an unusual booming sound by inflating their cheeks.  It’s an amazing and ancient show which attracts birdwatchers from all over, and one which can still be seen in a few states like Kansas, Nebraska, Colorado and South Dakota. To see a video of this mating behavior, click here.

Greater Prairie Chickens are endangered in 15 states. As their name implies, they need prairies to survive, and these are in very short supply.  Most prairies have been converted to farmland and grazing, and none of these conversions work terribly well for this bird. These days, most prairie chickens have to make do with a combination of cropland or grazing areas mixed with some patchy pieces of prairie.  But in addition to the degraded habitat, birds have difficulty finding each other to mate since their territories are so fragmented and isolated.  These living conditions are not ideal, and in fact have contributed to the extinction of a couple of species of prairie chicken and caused a massive decline in the populations of others.
If you want to see an amazing annual event that still persists, make your way to a Greater Prairie Chicken booming ground and get ready for an amazing sight.  In many instances you will also be able to see other grouse-like birds mating in the area, as this is the season!  The best way to do this is to take a tour from a responsible operator, as local guides know when and where to find the birds, and how to see them displaying while having with the least impact on them.

Don’t Miss The Cranes!

Monday, March 9th, 2015

If you want to take part in an ancient avian ritual that takes place every March for about 6 weeks and involves sandhill_crane hundreds of thousands of Sandhill cranes, then get over to the Platte River right now!  For it is there that every March for millennia, Sandhill cranes which have left their over-wintering grounds in the Southwest from Arizona to Texas, stop en masse in the shallow Platte River to fatten up for the next stage of their migration north.  Then, they make the next leg of their journey to their nesting sites in the far north of Canada, Alaska and even Siberia.

So where is this area that attracts thousands of Sandhill cranes every year?  And why? Nebraska’s Platte River at the Big Bend, which is the part of the Platte River between Grand Island and Lexington, Nebraska is the favored spot.  Originally in the midst of a tallgrass prairie, despite the conversion to cornfields around the river, the birds still find this spot ideal.  Part of the attraction is that the river is wide, calm and shallow, as cranes like spending the night in a shallow river to remain safe from predators.  They also find easy food in the cornfields and in the river and mudflats.

Check out this spectacular migration and get more details at Nebraska Flyway.

The Timberdoodle Skydance

Sunday, April 20th, 2014

The Timberdoodle Skydance

american_woodcock Have you ever heard of a Timberdoodle? These days the official name for the Timberdoodle is American Woodcock (but if you still want to call them Timberdoodles that’s fine with us!). April is a great time to see Woodcocks displaying.  They have a pretty amazing spring mating ritual — made all the more spectacular because it is performed in the sky by an otherwise very quiet and unassuming brown bird.

Woodcocks feed in young forests (unlike other shorebirds). Their camouflage coloring makes them difficult to see as they quietly go about their business hidden in the leaf litter. They take slow steps, using their long, flexible beaks to probe the soil for their favorite food: earthworms. American Woodcock display grounds are usually open fields that are near a forested area and open clearings in the forest or prairie-savannahs are good places to look. Woodcocks are beautiful and secretive wading birds in need of protection as habitat loss has caused a decline in their population. Local birders often know about these display grounds, so contact your local birding club to find out where they are — or go out exploring on your own!

The best way to see Woodocks displaying is to get to the display area just before sunset. As the sun dips towards the horizon, you should start to hear a loud, nasally buzzing sound: PEENT! That’s a male woodcock calling! They call from the ground, emitting a single PEENT once every few seconds. After a few minutes of this, you should see a football-shaped bird rising high into the sky, accompanied by a twittering sound. They fly fast! The male woodcock will make several circles, wheeling high in the sky. The twittering sound is not made by the woodcock’s voice, but by his wings. Several primary feathers are stiff and thin and end in a club-like projection. As the woodcock pumps his wings, the force of the wind over these stiff feathers creates the twittering sound.

After circling the sky, the male woodcock descends towards the ground in a zig-zag. He will land almost exactly where he started, and will start the display all over again. The display will go on until just after dark, and will begin again in the early morning.

The legendary conservationist Aldo Leopold called this the “sky dance”. Here is a quote from his famous book, A Sand County Almanac.  “Up and up he goes, the spirals steeper and smaller, the twittering louder and louder, until the performer is only a speck in the sky. Then, without warning, he tumbles like a crippled plane, giving voice in a soft liquid warble that a March bluebird might envy. At a few feet from the ground he levels off and returns to his peenting ground, usually to the exact spot where the performance began, and there resumes his peenting.”

 

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