Prairie Dance

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Greater prairie-chicken male booming during mating display. Switzer Ranch, with Calamus Outfitters. Nebraska Sandhills.

Foot drumming, flutter jumps, fights between males punctuated by sky walking leaps, and booming displays with puffed out bright orange air sacs are just a few of the antics of Greater prairie-chickens on a grassland lek in spring. I’d been on a Greater prairie-chicken (actually a grouse species) lek nine years ago when I was working on Prairie Thunder (book), so I was ready for the otherworldly blowing across the top of a pop bottle sound males make when they arrive on the lek in near darkness. Yet, no matter how many early mornings you spend in a blind for lekking birds, it’s always a rare and special experience to be witness to such an awe-inspiring display. With friends and clients Buddy and Mitch Jacoby – who love to freeze in a blind as much as me even though they’re from the south – we were guests of Calamus Outfitters on the Switzer Ranch in the eastern Nebraska Sandhills. The Switzers run cattle near Calamus Reservoir and Gracie Creek in this magical tallgrass prairie about two hours north of Kearney, Nebraska; known as the sandhill crane capitol of the world. Greater prairie-chickens and sharptail grouse are a big draw for Calamus Outfitters, the hospitality side of the business that caters to photographers, birdwatchers, turkey and deer hunters, and folks that float the Calamus River in stock tanks on hot summer days. The Switzers have a great story and are doing important work to conserve the Sandhills, vulnerable to crop conversion when the price of corn rises, a nearby transmission line, and the Keystone XL pipeline. Prairie-chickens need unbroken prairie to thrive, and the Nebraska Sandhills are the Greater prairie-chicken’s last remaining stronghold. These Sandhills are good fuel for the human spirit as well. A must watch video about the Switzer Ranch is at the bottom of this post. Continue reading “Prairie Dance”

Shelter From The Storm

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Storm Protection – A great horned owl adult – most likely mom – shelters owlets from an oncoming spring snowstorm. Jefferson County, CO

Returning to the nearby owl nest, I was hopeful that I’d see one of the adults on the nest with her young. A storm was coming with three inches of snow predicted and I wondered how this open broken cottonwood nest would fare. Of course they’d made it this far and mom could tough it out. With the sun setting on a pewter grey evening, winds picking up, and clouds rolling in over the Front Range, mom had her three young tucked underwing; two of them visible in this frame. I decided to go back the next morning to check on them.

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Great horned owl adult in spring snow. Jefferson County, CO

At first light, mom was off the nest in a thick cottonwood gallery forest nearby. Two of the owlets had their fluffy heads barely poking up. Everyone was fine, and that day one of the owlets fledged from the nest to a roost in a pine across the irrigation canal, soon to be hunting skunks and rabbits.

Frosty Meadowlark

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A frosty western meadowlark on a February morning at Rocky Mountain Arsenal NWR, CO

This year’s backyard bird count has begun and is the inspiration for this meadowlark image pulled from the vault and dusted off. In my first winter of photographing at Rocky Mountain Arsenal NWR, I was surprised to see small flocks of western meadowlarks picking for seeds in a world covered with hoar frost. It was about -10F when I made this image, which doesn’t phase meadowlarks – as long as they can forage. Lately, the number of wintering bald eagles has dropped as they’ve begun their northern migration, their void filled by sweet melodies of meadowlarks. It’s been an unusually warm winter (who knows what spring has in store?) but meadowlarks would be returning to Colorado’s shortgrass prairie anyway – they’re on schedule. Back then I was shooting with a Nikon F5 and absolutely in love with that film camera. You could pound nails with one of those things and I even told Marla that I thought I was all set for gear – who could’ve predicted the digital revolution of the last decade?

Prairie Merlin

Female Prairie Merlin, Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife

Prairie merlin hunting from a brush perch on a chilly winter morning. Rocky Mountain Arsenal NWR, CO

These small falcons look like tiny missiles while hunting. Preying mostly on small birds, the powerful merlin is fast and muscular; able to turn at very high speed in mid-air. The prairie (Richardson’s) merlin is 10″ tall and weighs about 6 ounces.

Return To Roost

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An adult bald eagle returns to roost, one winter evening. Rocky Mountain Arsenal NWR, Colorado.

There are sixty or so bald eagles roosting at Rocky Mountain Arsenal NWR this winter, right on the edge of Denver. The eagles come back every year, using the tall cottonwoods for hunting perches to pick off a prairie dog or cottontail rabbit, and sometimes feast on winter-killed white-tail and mule deer. The eagles that return from Canada and Alaska join a resident pair that have a gigantic nest in a cottonwood gallery forest located in the middle of the refuge. Bald eagles are roost communally, and you can see them leaving the roost in blue-black predawn light, threes or four at a time traveling low across the refuge. They return in the evening, generally one at a time and over the course of an hour or two, until a few cottonwoods at the roost site are full of bald eagles, like dark ornaments. They chatter and fight for a favorite branch to spend the long winter night. Some of the eagles stay on the refuge to hunt, using cottonwood trees and decommissioned telephone poles. Others leave, possibly to fish along the South Platte River. Photographically, it’s somewhat of a mystery how to best position myself to make images of the eagles leaving and returning. I do my best not to bump them off of loafing perches – they spend up to 90% of their day loafing, or resting to conserve energy in winter. But it’s maddening to see them flying all over the refuge, just high enough or or too distant to photograph. For this image, I stood sentinel in a forest of cottonwoods where I’ve seen eagles graze the tops on their evening flight to roost. This particular eagle flew right over my head, a bit higher than I would have liked, but still thrilling. If you remember the days of DDT and how rare and endangered bald eagles were in the ’60’s and ’70’s, it’s still a rush to see one up close.