I worked in the Nebraska Sandhills on the Nebraska National Forest near Halsey for about two and a half years. It was working there that really piqued my interest in birds and their relation to the prairie. Often people, myself included, drive through these open spaces without seeing what’s really there. These are big landscapes where you can see for miles and miles. It’s something I value…being able to see the whole landscape. However, it’s when you slow down and focus on the small things where you find the true wonders.
I grew up in the shortgrass prairie in northwest Nebraska and somehow, didn’t witness the Sharptail Grouse’s spring mating ritual until just a couple of years ago. Last year I finally took the time to get out early in a blind and photograph it in better detail. I haven’t done it yet this year, but plan to in a few weeks. I took this photo a couple of weeks ago from a county road. The birds were so busy doing their thing, they didn’t even seem to notice my truck parked a hundred yards away.
Sharptails live throughout the northern Great Plains from Nebraska on up into Canada. According to the Cornell Lab, their populations have been relatively stable since the 1960s, however the biggest threat to them is the loss of grassland habitat to farming or energy development. They need a variety of grass “structure” to survive. They like very short grass for their spring leking, and taller grass for nesting and protection from the harsh winters that are common in their range.
If you’re driving through the Great Plains, I hope you take the time to slow down and see some of the creatures that make up the whole of the prairie (like the Sharptail). Many public land agencies offer free grouse viewing blinds, allowing people the opportunity to see the spring ritual up close and for free! It’s worth the early morning!