I spent the last two days at the Switzer Ranch near Burwell, Nebraska with the Calamus Outfitters photographing greater prairie chickens. My friends and fellow photographers Howard, Chris and Mary invited me to join them for the weekend to photograph sharp-tailed grouse and greater prairie chickens. I had always wanted to see prairie chickens and the timing was perfect since we were all out in Nebraska for the Sandhill Crane migration. We drove two hours north of Kearney, Nebraska to the Switzer Ranch, also known as Calamus Outfitters. The 12,000-acre ranch northwest of Burwell, Nebraska is famous with birders and wildlife enthusiasts for its diversity of wildlife and expert guides. Jane Goodall visited the ranch with Tom Mangelsen in 2012!
Bruce Switzer and his wife Sue Ann were the best hosts ever. Sue Ann’s family has lived on and worked this ranch for 113 years. Their love of the land and wildlife was evident throughout the weekend. They fed us home cooked meals and made us truly feel at home. Our guide, John Murphy of Kearney (see his photo with Jane Goodall below), drove us out to the blinds at around 6:45 a.m. so that it was dark as we settled down in the blinds. The blinds are three old school buses with the windows taken out on one side facing the lek in a semicircle. A lek is an area where birds gather during the breeding season for courtship displays to attract mates. As anticipated the male greater prairie chickens flew in just before sunrise and took their places in the lek. Their courtship displays started almost immediately. The males fought for positions and jumped in the air and lunged at one another. They made a low booming sound as they inflated their orange neck patch. It was an amazing thing to see, especially when a female greater prairie chicken showed up. Then the males intensified their dance which as John Murphy pointed out really resembles many native American dances. The males stomped the feet and went around in a circle making a booming sound and inflating their orange neck patch. Everyone should see this display in person if at all possible. The prairie chicken and sharp-tailed grouse season continues through April and into May. For more information, call (308) 346-4697 or go to www.calamusoutfitters.com.
Here are my greater prairie chicken photographs from the two mornings. Both mornings were overcast but the second morning was also foggy. It was interesting light to photograph the prairie chickens in.
The male greater prairie chicken’s impressive courtship display. During the male’s display the elongated pinnae, which are adapted neck feathers, stand up.
Two Male Greater Prairie Chickens fighting for dominance, Calamus Wildlife Management Area, Burwell, Nebraska
Two Male Greater Prairie Chickens in flight after chasing one another for dominance near Burwell, Nebraska
Male Greater Prairie Chicken in flight near Burwell, Nebraska
Male Greater Prairie Chickens fighting for dominance near Burwel
Thank you John Murphy for an amazing two days! And thank you to Bruce and Sue Ann and their family for opening up their ranch to everyone!
Calamus Outfitters guide John Murphy with Jane Goodall at the Switzer Ranch near Burwell, Nebraska (photo credit: Alan J. Bartels, Grand Island Independent)
Mary, Diana, Howard and Chris at our cabin at Calamus Outfitters, Burwell, Nebraska