Iowa Prairie Chickens and Nebraska Common Crane – April 7, 2014

On April 7, 2014, I left Des Moines about 7:00 a.m. and drove to the Ringgold County Conservation Area to see the Prairie Chicken mating display.  I was hoping that this distinctive, and now rare in Iowa, prairie resident would represent number 100 on my 2014 Iowa species list.  The Ringgold County population is the only known remaining population of Prairie Chickens in Iowa, and this only because of extensive reintroduction efforts.  As I was driving through Kellerton, a Eurasian Collared Dove blatantly displayed itself on the road in front of my car and I could not ignore it, so this introduced species became my 2014 Iowa #100.

A few miles later I was the lone observer at the deck looking eastward toward the Prairie Chicken lek.  I was not disappointed, for 10, I believe all males, were cavorting about.  They made a great display and a good start for my day.  I hope this reintroduction effort succeeds in restoring such an iconic prairie bird in Iowa for the delight of generations to follow.  I was reminded of my father’s account of his childhood trip by wagon across northwest Iowa to their new farm home in 1884, where the Prairie Chickens flushed from the grasses by the dozens per mile.  I was also reminded that he became one of the best shotgun hunters in the area, bringing home Prairie Chickens which were a staple of the dinner table in his farm home.  He would have enjoyed watching this now rare display, as he loved, as well as hunted, the birds.

I left about 8:30 and drove Highway 2 west to Lincoln, Nebraska, to connect with Interstate 80 for the next leg on my journey.  I would try to find the Common Crane that others had seen in the preceding few days near the Elm Creek exit just west of Kearney, Nebraska, on the Platte River plain.  “The Common Crane is a Eurasian species, [an] accidental vagrant to the Great Plains, western Canada and central Alaska, almost always with migrating flocks of Sandhill Cranes.”  [National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America, Third Edition]

The weather was not conducive to birding.  High, cold, north winds and intermittent rain squalls prevailed all afternoon.  I drove up and down muddy Buffalo Creek Road, using my spotting scope to look south from the protection of my car, as the rain and wind pelted the north side window.  Thousands of Sandhill Cranes were crowded into a field of corn stalks, but they stayed quite close to the south border of the field, about a quarter mile from the road and adjacent to I-80.  For most of the afternoon I was the lone birder.  About 4:00 a woman from Massachusetts arrived and we agreed to split the duties of scoping the flocks of Sandhills and exchanged cell phone numbers so we could communicate with each other if one of us spotted the “Bird”.  As the rain became heavier, the cranes spent more time shedding the rain with their necks extended, making it more possible to distinguish the Common Crane, if present, from the Sandhills.  She first spotted the Common Crane, then lost it.  Knowing it was there, and the general location, I was able to refind it and we both were able to enjoy excellent looks as it moved to the nearer edge of the Sandhill masses.  Thus, the Common Crane, a Code 4 ABA bird, became number 719 on my North American Life List.

I arrived home about 10:30 p.m., for a satisfactory closing to a very long day on the road.


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