Sharp-tailed Grouse in the Nebraska Sandhills

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Curt

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Nebraska is not a destination place. No National Parks here. Only a couple of National Monuments. In fact, very little publicly owned land anywhere. About half of the State's population live in 3 counties on the eastern edge containing Lincoln and Omaha. There are 90 other counties most of which are experiencing declining population. There is actually quite a bit of backcountry in this State. Unfortunately, accessing the vast majority of it would be an act of trespassing.

Most people who've been to Nebraska have driven the I-80 corridor down the Platte River valley or along the Missouri River valley. It would be natural think that Nebraska is miles and miles of cornfields and that's what it is along those two areas. But about 1/3 of the State is covered with sand dunes. Some of that is farmed along river valleys but most of it is covered with grass and is basically what is left of native prairie in North America. In Nebraska it is known as the 'Sandhills'. The Sandhills is basically ranch land and has a very low population density. It also has some increasingly unique wildlife due to habitat loss nearly everywhere else.

So, the wildlife I went out to the Sandhills to see were Sharp-tailed Grouse. The range of these birds is mostly limited to Nebraska, the Dakotas, Montana, and portions of Wyoming and Colorado. I had read about some blinds on the Nebraska National Forest. In this time of Covid-19 it was also an opportunity to practice some social distancing. I called the Forest Service to find out if the place would even be open. They told me that I couldn't use any campground or any facilities anywhere but I was welcome to pull off anywhere else and camp and I could use the blinds - first come first served. Oh, and by the way, I would need a 4wd vehicle to get to the blinds. Ok. No problem. I didn't think the 'first come first served' part was going to be a problem. An ice storm was predicted during the daylight hours that day with overnight temps in the low teens and winds running about 20 mph - so wind chills around zero. I didn't think anyone else would stupid enough to go out there. Turned out I was right about that. It also turned out to be one of the colder nights I've spent in a tent.

I got a map to the blinds but could not find them on Google Earth which was concerning because there was a note that a half mile walk was also required to get to the blinds. Due to my work schedule I knew I would not arrive until just before dark. I was not looking forward to trying to locate them in featureless grassland in the dark. It turned out that they weren't hard to find at all.

Here's what the blinds looked like in the daylight. The Forest Service said that this could accommodate 3 people but I think that's stretching it. Fortunately I brought a lawn chair. There was nothing to sit on in there and it wasn't tall enough for me to be able to stand up.
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Last light from camp
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There are very dark skies here so I got up early to try to get a Milky Way photo. Unfortunately, the Moon was still up in the western sky, there were some clouds on the horizon and the air seemed Misty. No Milky Way to be seen. But I wasn't going to crawl out of the sleeping bag for nothing and not get something.
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Went back to bed and got up an hour before sunrise to go out to go to the blind. View from the blind while I waited for enough light to get pictures.
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I didn't know what to expect - whether the birds would be close or far or how many there might be. I wasn't prepared for them to be close. It turned out that there were many birds and many came very close. One even landed on top of the blind once.

This is mating season for the Grouse and they do mating dances which involve calling and very rapid stamping of their feet. The males also try to drive off the others and so there are many face downs, spreading of wings and jumping in the air.
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Grouse aggression.
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Back at camp. Social distancing.
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While this is part of the National Forest there were no trees in this area. But there are trees. The forest was actually planted during the depression. This was taken from the Fire Lookout Tower.
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The Fire Tower itself.
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Thanks for looking.
 

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Titans

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Super cool photos! I love the details in the feathers and the night time light beam photo is amazing too. Thanks for sharing, glad you got away to enjoy the outdoors. We are familiar with the I-80 corridor and I especially remember the section along the Platte River. Last fall we stayed a night in Ogallala.
 

b.stark

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Super cool photos! I love the details in the feathers and the night time light beam photo is amazing too. Thanks for sharing, glad you got away to enjoy the outdoors. We are familiar with the I-80 corridor and I especially remember the section along the Platte River. Last fall we stayed a night in Ogallala.
If you're ever in that area again, pop just north of Ogallala and make a stop at Lake McConaughy. Some nice beach camping to be had and a nice little peek into the edge of the Sandhills. Can be crowded sometimes.


Great photography as usual Curt. It's been a few years since I've been to that particular area. Have camped there a couple times and it's an interesting experience. It's "backcountry" with barbed wire fences and windmills all over, makes for a bit of a strange feel but it's a really interesting place and as long as you're not there during deer hunting season you're unlikely to see much of anybody. The first time I was there, I woke up in the middle of a chilly fall night to find myself in the middle of a meteor shower (can't recall which one). No moon that night so it was quite a show.
 

Titans

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If you're ever in that area again, pop just north of Ogallala and make a stop at Lake McConaughy. Some nice beach camping to be had and a nice little peek into the edge of the Sandhills. Can be crowded sometimes.


Great photography as usual Curt. It's been a few years since I've been to that particular area. Have camped there a couple times and it's an interesting experience. It's "backcountry" with barbed wire fences and windmills all over, makes for a bit of a strange feel but it's a really interesting place and as long as you're not there during deer hunting season you're unlikely to see much of anybody. The first time I was there, I woke up in the middle of a chilly fall night to find myself in the middle of a meteor shower (can't recall which one). No moon that night so it was quite a show.
Funny you mention Lake McConaughy, I did try to convince Rick to camp there (and not in a hotel), but we were squeezed for time by a snow storm in the Rockies and wanted to get across the mountains before it hit. Next time I hope we can check it out and maybe also see the Sandhills.

@Curt & @b.stark : When is it deer hunting season in the area, do you know?
 

b.stark

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Funny you mention Lake McConaughy, I did try to convince Rick to camp there (and not in a hotel), but we were squeezed for time by a snow storm in the Rockies and wanted to get across the mountains before it hit. Next time I hope we can check it out and maybe also see the Sandhills.

@Curt & @b.stark : When is it deer hunting season in the area, do you know?
If you ever want to explore the sandhills, feel free to shoot me a message about it. There isn't a ton of hiking (but there is some) but there are tons of backroads to explore. I haven't seen all of them, but know enough to have a few suggestions.

The time to really avoid is rifle deer season(Nebraska calls it "November Firearm Season"), which is usually the second full week of November (for example, this year it's November 14-22). Archery is September 1 through the end of the year, and muzzleloader is the month of December. All hunting seasons are posted here, if you want to check: http://outdoornebraska.gov/huntingseasons/ The only one that's really important to know (to be able to avoid) is the November firearm season. It's the most popular season, and the tendency is for people without private land to hunt to flood our tiny amount of public lands. Apart from that season, it's usually not too bad.
 

Titans

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If you ever want to explore the sandhills, feel free to shoot me a message about it. There isn't a ton of hiking (but there is some) but there are tons of backroads to explore. I haven't seen all of them, but know enough to have a few suggestions.
Thank you @b.stark - will PM you later this year! We should be ok with avoiding the riffle season, most likely it would be mid October.
 

Outdoor_Fool

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@Curt Awesome photos and experience. Good for you for putting forth the effort to witness the "rut".

They range much wider than what you described if you include Canada and it may surprise you but we have sharp-tails in Alaska.
 

Curt

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@Curt Awesome photos and experience. Good for you for putting forth the effort to witness the "rut".

They range much wider than what you described if you include Canada and it may surprise you but we have sharp-tails in Alaska.
Thanks for the clarification. I did know that they went up in Canada and have a much wider range in Canada than they do in the continental U.S. I didn't know that they are in Alaska. Nebraska is actually at the southern end of their range. I should have said up above that their range is decreasing in the continental U.S. (rather than North America) due to the loss of their prairie habitat. As far as I know, they're holding steady in Canada.
 

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Miya

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Wow! With a name like "Grouse" I wasn't expecting them to be so pretty. I am digging their colorful eyebrows. Might have to try something cray cray like that one day, hehe just kidding.

Ashamedly, it took me a second to realize the 'Blinds' were not a very peculiar portapotty.

Thanks for sharing!
 

Curt

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Wow! With a name like "Grouse" I wasn't expecting them to be so pretty. I am digging their colorful eyebrows. Might have to try something cray cray like that one day, hehe just kidding.

Ashamedly, it took me a second to realize the 'Blinds' were not a very peculiar portapotty.
Yeah! Those orange eyebrows are pretty cool. I also like the purple patches on their necks. And that hairdo!!!

They do kinda look like portapotties. It was fiberglass like that, and kinda noisy like those. A couple years ago I went out to see Prairie Chickens and the the blind for that was a horse trailer.
 

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