It’s possible to appreciate the Nebraska Sandhills through a car window. Until a few years ago, that was about as close as I’d been to the grass-stabilized sand dunes that cover a quarter of our state. That’s because up in ranch country, the majority of the landscape is privately owned. As much as I wanted to, I just didn’t know how to get out in the heart of those pristine hills without risking trespass.
But that all changed when I met Sarah Sortum. Sarah runs Calamus Outfitters along with her family: her brother Adam and parents Bruce and Sue Ann. Located on the Switzer Ranch, a fourth-generation cattle operation in the Calamus River basin, the Switzers make their living off the land via a combination of traditional ranching and somewhat non-traditional ecotourism.
Ecotourism was the reason for my initial visits with the Switzers. Calamus Outfitters was one of the principal case studies I explored for a regional initiative, the Great Plains Ecotourism Coalition, in my previous position with the Center for Great Plains Studies. This month, I had a chance to return. Packing my cowboy boots and binoculars, I traveled up to the ranch to participate in the fourth annual Nebraska Prairie Chicken Festival.
As something like 80,000 football fans filled Memorial Stadium for a spring game in Lincoln, hundreds of miles away 60 or so die-hard birders filed their cars into a field-turned-parking lot, eager to get up close and personal with some charismatic grassland birds – the greater prairie chicken and their close relative, the sharp-tailed grouse. Coming from as far away as Arizona and Virginia, festival participants enjoyed two full days of birding and talking about birds, interspersed with some great meals featuring the neighboring Morgan Ranch’s world-renowned Wagyu beef.
After waking up at 5 a.m., we were shuttled in old yellow school buses to yet more yellow school buses parked in the middle of the hills. Slinking in under the cover of darkness, we sat there in the converted bird blinds waiting for the lek – a group of male grouse – to come alive as the light emerged above the horizon. Seeing and hearing the booming of the greater prairie chicken is a truly magical moment. I overheard many serious birders call this experience “a lifer” – as in a first sighting, to be added to a “life list” of bird observations.
During the festival, white pelicans amassed across the road at the Calamus Reservoir. Sandhill cranes flew overhead, leaving the Platte and heading to their breeding grounds in the north. Open with the thaw of Spring, wet meadows and spring-fed lakes welcomed flocks of migratory shorebirds and ducks. Needless to say, the bird people were happy. And I was happy to be able to identify the red-winged blackbird at the bird feeder.
The birds (and the tourists) don’t come back year after year by accident. In Nebraska, we have 27 Important Birding Areas designated by the National Audubon Society. The Great Gracie Creek Landscape (of which the Switzer Ranch is a part) was the first private land in Nebraska granted this distinction. That’s because the Switzers and their neighbors actively manage the land for grassland birds through prescribed grazing and burning, invasive species control and monitoring. As a result, they’ve been honored time and time again with conservation awards for their efforts.
It’s also of course the water that makes this area a birding hot spot. The Calamus River runs just south of the ranch, meeting with the North Loup further downstream, then the Loup, and eventually feeding the Platte River at Columbus. The Switzer Ranch and the Sandhills are not only part of the Platte River basin, they are smack dab on top of the deepest parts of the High Plains Aquifer, bubbling to the surface in a mosaic of spring-fed lakes. The Platte Basin Timelapse Project currently has three cameras on the ranch: two looking at remote lakes – Latta Lake and Shoemaker Lake – and one looking at the spring-fed Gracie Creek. All of these water sources are habitat for wildlife and a host of migrating birds.
The fact that the Prairie Chicken Festival is organized by ranchers gives it the intimate feel of a family gathering. A pack of first graders who live at the ranch ran around in cowboy hats and holsters. The roast beef on my plate lived a happy life grazing the land immediately surrounding us. Wandering the hills at dusk, I was reminded how special it is to be allowed this access, a rare up-close look at conservation on working landscapes.
Today, a mere appreciation from a passing car has been replaced by a genuine awe of the Sandhills landscape – and for the people who work to take care of it.