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“Cranes have been moving up and down this highway for centuries,” says renowned nature photographer and author Michael Forsberg. “They’ve seen the rise and fall of civilizations.”
The prairie chicken dance
Like those who travel to East Africa for the Great Wildebeest Migration of Kenya and Tanzania, birdwatchers flock from all over the world to climb aboard the crane train that begins in late February and lasts until April. Peak times are about the last two weeks in March.
“It’s a place where you have to linger,” says Forsberg. “The more you stay here, the more you want to stay. It’s not just a great gathering of birds but a great gathering of people.”
And a great gathering of prairie chickens in a lek. Don’t let the word scare you. A lek is Swedish for crazy chicken mating on the wide open prairie, or something to that effect. A lek is just a gathering of birds, and to see them dance — puffing up, strutting, stomping, dancing and singing under the wide open prairie — is just Plains fun.
“The prairie chickens are no more a chicken than anything,” explains Mellema. “They are a grouse.”
Grouse or chicken, the sounds are amplified and you can hear every peep and flutter for miles around.
The Rowe Sanctuary can arrange a birding trip for you, but you have to be up at the crack of dawn, as the early prairie chicken bird gets the corn.
I’m not a bird expert by a long shot, only a lifelong admirer of all winged creatures, great and small. Perhaps, like me, you’ll come away from what National Geographic calls the greatest wildlife phenomenon in the country all insane for cranes.