If you're already in Nebraska for the annual Sandhill Crane migration or if you simply appreciate wildlife in America and are looking for some place to go for a nice road trip, another interesting only-in-Nebraska event is that it's prairie chicken mating season.
Through the end of April, prairie chickens gather here before disbanding when the hens have been bred. Bird lovers from all over the country travel here to see this spectacle, which you can also hear from a distance.
"It's like a hallway in high school. There's a lot of noise, there's a lot of showing off," says Brad Mellema, executive director of the Crane Trust Nature & Visitor Center. "The sound is unreal from these birds, it's an ethereal sound. They'll make sounds like a laughing monkey. It's booming sound you can almost hear it in your chest."
Mellema and other birdwatchers come to Mullen, Nebraska to what's called the "Chickens and Stars" event offered by the Sandhills Motel. Here, you can watch the stars the night before and the next day observe prairie chickens gathering for the annual ritual.
Prairie chickens are grouses and there are two species in Nebraska, the sharp tail grouse and prairie chicken. "Prairie chickens are native Great Plains birds," Mellema said. "Most of the Great Plains is carved up for farming. Here in Nebraska the Sandhills never got carved up. A third of Nebraska is knee deep in sand and on top of that grass grew. That's why these birds are out there, it's still prairie habitat. Nebraska just has a great population of them and in the birding world people come out to see them."
One of the famous birdwatchers is legendary anthropologist Jane Goodall. She was just in the state for her annual trip to observe the Sandhill Crane migration and that included seeing the prairie chickens here.
While a third of Nebraska is Sandhills territory, these are privately-owned ranches and some ranchers allow people on their land as part of this only-in-Nebraska event known within the bird watching world.
Mitch Glidden at the Sandhills Motel organizes the "Chickens and Stars" event so that visitors can watch the prairie chickens congregate in what's called a "lek," a Swedish word, which is a gathering in what is a competitive display during mating season.
"Mitch has a small hotel and he guides people out to see these birds," Mellema says. "I go back every year. Another friend of mine is an expert stargazer and he brings his telescope. Out there it's so remote there are no lights from any cities, you can see the stars forever. It's just awesome. At night, we go for a nice dinner and then we go out and look at stars and then we get up early and look at chickens and then go for breakfast."
The first settlers came to this area in 1884. By 1887, the Grand Island and Wyoming line of the Burlington Northern Railroad began laying rails across the Sandhills. Mullen is the only town left in Hooker County, named after Civil War Union General Joseph P. Hooker.
While Mullen is a great place to watch prairie chickens, you'll also be supporting the livelihoods of the people here in this storybook American small town of about 500. The informal event organized by the motel costs $40 on top of the price of a room, which is about $50, depending on the room.
"It's casual, there's nothing official about it," Mellema says. "It's just a gathering of friends. Nature center people, photographers come. You can watch prairie chickens anytime you want."
While you're there, the hotel offers canoe and kayak rentals and another Nebraska offering -- stock tank rental -- for tanking on the Middle Loup River. The Dismal River is a more technical experience for advanced canoers and kayakers.
OTHER THINGS TO DO IN THE AREA
In addition to observing the prairie chickens in Nebraska, there's an array of things to do while you're in Mullen, which includes Hooker County Historical Museum, the Nebraska National Forest, Valentine National Wildlife Refuge and the Custer County Historical Society Museum, which was featured in "About Schmidt" with Jack Nicholson.
For the wine enthusiast eager to support and try grown in Nebraska wines, Cedar Hills Vineyard is 140 miles east of Mullen on Highway 2. The vineyard and gardens overlook the South Loup River, so you might be able to see some of the area's wildlife here as well. In addition to the vineyard, they also grow a variety of berries.