Birding the Minnesota & South Dakota Border

Don't worry, this post isn't all shorebirds.

On a Friday I was watching these little semi-palmated plovers squabbling on a beach and then the very next day, I'm watching them on a mud flat in western Minnesota...

And getting prickly pear cactus paddles stuck on my leg--owie. Yes, we do have a couple of cactus species growing in Minnesota, you can see them at Big Stone NWR. I went with Stan Tekiela and a group from Staring Lake Outdoor Center in Eden Prairie. These are fun, low key trips where we see some great birds...

...and local color like the Biggest Ball of Twine in Minnesota (if you're wondering if this is the famed ball from Weird Al Yankovic song, it is).

We also stopped at the headwaters of the Minnesota River. Which was chock full of American white pelicans.

They were fishing right at the dam--I think I have a video of it, I'll see if I can dig it out of the external drive and load it later today. These were some urban birds. They did not care about us coming too close at all.

Usually white pelicans around the state are a bit cautious of humans, but these dudes just didn't care.

The fishing must be that good...and hopefully not too polluted right at the headwaters, unlike some of the other parts.

I got a kick out of seeing a band on one of the pelicans, perhaps this is a bird that I banded? If I didn't do it, I'm sure it's part of that same colony, it's very close to the Minnesota Headwaters.

We were hoping to find some shorebirds while we were out here, since Amber and I went on the shorebird workshop and had a great time last year. The weather had not been as cooperative this year. There was a big storm a few days before we arrived and all the prime mud flats were now ponds--not the best stopover for migrating shorebirds. We did find some like the least sandpiper above. The storm damage was incredible. The locals said there were 80 mile an hour winds and it showed in shredded corn fields, barns missing chunks of roof, and LOTS of trees down.

We went to Salt Lake right on the Minnesota/South Dakota border and found more shorebirds there like the Wilson's phalaropes (and lone pectoral sandpiper) in the above photo. It had the best and most accessible variety of shorebirds on the trip including short-billed dowitcher and stilt sandpipers.

This group wasn't all about shorebirds either, and we found black terns and a single Forster's tern (above).

The big stars of the show for the group was the massive amount of swallows around Salt Lake. I tried to get a video of this, but it's so windy and shaky that I think people would get motion sickness if I put it up on YouTube. But see this little section of swallows, it went on for as far as you could see the fence line. There were literally hundreds of swallows of various species. We found bank, barn, tree, cliff, and northern rough-winged swallow all hanging out and staging on the fence.

There was also a family group of savannah sparrows on the fence too. They appeared to have one fledgling with them--go native sparrows! Squeeze in one more brood before you migrate south!

We were seeing quite a few flickers as well and there was a family group with some fledgling flickers too. Young flickers begging always throw me. Yesterday, I was biking a different trail and I heard some begging at first I thought it was a raptor begging, until I saw the young flickers. I have to say, if you are in the Twin Cities and like to bird and bike--the Cedar Lake Trail is GREAT right now. I can't believe the diversity of species right on the edge of downtown. I found a fledging red-shouldered hawk, an adult Cooper's hawk, a pileated woodpecker, red-eyed vireo, indigo bunting and I got dove at by a male bluebird guarding his nest box--it wasn't my fault, someone put the bluebird box right next to the bike trail. It was also encouraging to see another species going for the gold with a late nesting.

Now, I just need to find a way to attach my spotting scope to my bike handle bars so I can digiscope--then I'll be unstoppable!

Bald Eagle Attacks Sandhill Crane

The photos in this blog entry are from Stan Tekiela and Amber Burnette.

This year's trip to Nebraska was just chock full of "Holy Crap" moments. I mean, the common crane (in the above photo) that we saw within thirty minutes of arrival to the area after driving all day was almost too much to hope for. I just found out that it's on the American Birding Association Blog and is classified as a Code 4 Bird (Casual--Species not recorded annually in the ABA Checklist Area, but with six or more total records—including three or more in the past 30 years—reflecting some pattern of occurrence). As a field trip leader you kind of wonder how you will top a sighting like that for the rest of the weekend--but top it, we did!

The following documented behavior is the type of stuff that a girl like me reads about in magazines and wonders if I'll ever have a chance to witness in real life. Again, I want to thank Stan and Amber for letting me use their photos in the blog to share it with you. Click on the photos if you wish to see the larger version.

We were watching a group of cranes forage in a field when we noticed something was spooking them and causing them to fly off. I was in the bus with half the group and Amber and Stan were outside with the rest getting shots of cranes in flight.

That's when we all noticed an adult bald eagle in hot pursuit of one of the cranes. Somehow the eagle had managed to get one crane separated from the flock. I started shouting, "It's going for the crane, it's going for the crane, it's going for the crane!" I wondered if the others outside the bus noticed, but Amber's enthusiastic yelling told me they had. Everyone was shouting on the bus, it was like an intense football game but the crowd was unsure of which team to root for--we all loved eagles and we all loved cranes (I think it's a safe assumption that for Raptor Center alums like Amber and me--we were on Team Eagle).

The bald eagle closed the gap in such a short amount of time, it pumped its wings hard and was soon on top of the crane. It flew past the crane just a little, dove at it and missed.
Here is the eagle making a second attack.The sandhill crane breaks free and starts to drop.

The eagle makes a quick grab a second time.

The eagle has the crane in its talsons and is flying while carrying the crane upside down, wings open!

The bald eagle is holding the sandhill crane for one or two seconds before...

The eagle lost its grip and the crane starts to fly away with the eagle coming after it.
The eagle gives one last chase before breaking off from the crane. What was interesting to me was that the crane and the eagle ended up flying right over our bus. As the crane flew over, the eagle appeared to slow and change direction. I'm left with so many questions from this encounter. Did the eagle not want to fly over humans? Did the crane luck out or fly over us on purpose? We did not see where either bird ended up, but did the eagle make a wide circle and wait out the exhausted crane? Did the crane fly away in its weakened state and become coyote chow? How deep did the talons get?

Out of all the sandhill cranes that took off, why that one bird? Did the eagle see something different or was it just that the crane foolishly went away from the safety of the flock? This was an adult eagle--has it killed a crane successfully before?

Such a cool encounter and yet so many questions unanswered.

Coldest Day In The Blind

cackling geese

Of course, it makes sense--I have about 80 million photos and entries from Nebraska (not to mention a few hundred emails and messages to deal with) and I'm wasting hours because blogger won't load photos (insert Yosemite Sam tirade here).


I have to say that Friday morning in the crane viewing blind at Rowe Sanctuary was the coldest morning I have ever spent in a blind--my camera batteries were totally hating me and I wasn't bummed when the cranes took off before the best morning light for photography (above photo).

blind wear

Like my cold observation blind fashion? I borrowed the Fargo Hat from Non Birding Bill. When I was watching the forecast throughout the week it predicted temperatures in the teens--that's chilly, but doable to me. When I woke up and checked the weather Friday morning, the temperature was 7. When I checked right before we loaded the van at 4:45am, the temperature was 6.2. Thanks to Stan's iPhone we were able to get a temperature update while standing in the crane blind...1 degree Fahrenheit. I was seriously beginning to question my sanity. I had pushed for coming to Nebraska in early March because we would see millions of snow geese as well as thousands of cranes. I didn't think about the possibility of it being this cold in the blind at dawn.

sandhill cranes

And just to prove that I wasn't being a wiener about the weather, take a look at the above photo of a crane in flight. Notice anything weird? If not, take a look at this next photo.


Do you see the difference? Note how the legs are hanging out in back? It was so cold, that as the sandhill cranes would take off from the river they would tuck up each leg into their body. I watched one individual do it. As soon as it had cleared the ground, one leg bent forward and then the whole thing disappeared into its belly feathers and a few seconds later it repeated the same movement with the other foot.

legless cranes

Here is a photo of a whole bunch of cranes in the air. Some crane experts said that only the young tend to do that, but on Friday morning--all the cranes were doing it. It seems to me that the legs in back would act like a rudder--I wonder how much they are affected in flight with them tucked in? The did look like large, strange geese in that flight position.


After we left the blind, the birds went to the field where they usually forage, but in the cold temps, they seemed more focused on hunkering down and staying warm. Above are some sandhill cranes and cackling geese.

More in coming...

Upcoming Events and Trips

Bees are taking over my life more and more. I got an email about being booked as a speaker for the Northwest Sports Show in April. They originally wanted two bird relasted programs and I sent them my list of programs that I thought would be good for that audience. After the fun at the MN Hobby Beekeepers, I included that topic in the list too. They booked me for two bird programs and then asked if I would be willing to do a third on beekeeping! Whoot!

Hey, if anyone wants to see a butt load of trumpeter swans, we space left on our Trumpeter Swan Trip this Saturday. We'll drive to Monticello to see swans and then go look for other birds afterwards. Contact Staring Lake Outdoor Center to make reservations 952-949-8479.


And if you have never see the sandhill crane spectacle in Nebraska, join Stan Tekiela and me for a weekend trip in early march where we will see a few thousand sandhill cranes, a million snow geese, a few dozen prairie chickens, some prairie dogs, and maybe even get to hear the spring song of the western meadowlark. Contact Staring Lake Outdoor Center to make reservations 952-949-8479.

And the next Birds and Beers is 6pm on February 28 at Merlin's Rest. There's been some discussion on spotting scopes on the birding listservs and I might bring mine. Anyone else is welcome to do so for a side by side comparison. Birds and Beers is a fun get together of people interested in birds and we can have a drink and talk some birds. It doesn't matter what you're experience level is. If you are interested in birds, you are welcome.

Portrait Of A Lister

Now, this my friends is a hard core bird lister. If you can't see it, you can click on the photo for a larger version. Note that she has a color coded system as well as a pen to check birds off. I was trying to figure it out. Did the pink just denote birds that were heard and the green was birds heard and seen? Or did the pink indicate birds they group saw, but she did not? Anyway, I admired the listing system, not being a hard core bird lister myself. I have no idea how many birds I have seen in North America. I check off a National Geographic Guide but I haven't counted it in awhile.

Speaking of National Geographic, here is a play of how I stuck both feet in my mouth:

We were all sitting down to a final dinner at the Rio Grande Valley Bird Festival and I'm catching up with old friends and seated next to WildBird on the Fly who is engaged with and older gentlemen. As the food is winding down and people are leaving the table, I insert myself with WBotF and the gentleman--he's talking about a bird club he started called the Western Field Ornithologists--and we start moving on to other topics including touching on politics and I demonstrated on him a groping handshake that I received from a republican senator and had a good time. Someone came by asking for a book to be signed and I asked WildBird, "So, who's the old guy?"

She laughed and answered, "Um, that's Jon Dunn."

We both started cackling loudly--I know who Jon Dunn is--and have almost all of his books, I just had no clue what he looked. I confessed my ignorance to Jon and we laughed. We ended up on the same flight out of Harlingen and I have to say for someone who co-wrote and in depth gull identification book, he really is a well-rounded and interesting guy and not the big, boring scary scientist type.

Wet Wild Duluth Bird Trip

That's our wind swept field trip from this past Saturday. One of the fun things about leading trips to Hawk Ridge in Duluth, MN is that when the weather is right and you get winds out of the northwest, you get a fabulous trip with gorgeous weather and see thousands of hawks. Alas, you cannot as of yet demand these days from Mother Nature and I had a reminder of that on Saturday when I led a trip with Stan Tekiela. Weather prediction: rain and winds out of the southeast.

It was raining at Frank Taylor's hawk banding station, our first stop. I warned our group that on wet and rainy days, those are guaranteed peregrine falcon days. Sure, we wouldn't see the thousands of hawks flying over in migration that Duluth is known for, but boy howdy, these types of days guarantee a peregrine sighting. They are a bird that relies more on powered flight and can fly in any type of weather, unlike the the other hawks that are looking to glide on thermals. Little did I know how right I would be this day. When we arrived, we found a group huddled around a passage peregrine falcon female that had just come into the nets.

When they took her out of the nets, it was discovered that she had a broken leg--that's not how I wanted our group to get their guaranteed peregrine on a rainy day. Fortunately, several members of the Minnesota Falconers Association were at Frank's blind and talents were available for triage. Thanks to some painter's tape, a stick, panty hose, and a falconer's hood, her leg was set, she was secure to avoid further injury, and she was ready to go to a rehab facility. Since our group was heading back to the Twin Cities that day, we offered to take her to The Raptor Center on our way home. Wow! A bird trip and injured bird transport service all in one! I'll find out on Tuesday when I volunteer at TRC if she is still alive. The break looked to be a few days old and she was very thin, you could feel her sharp keel.

The falconers had put a hood on her to keep her calm. When birds can't see what's going on or if they are in the dark, they stay calm and relaxed. She worked off her hood, but fortunately we had a box with a lid so she could stay in a dark spot and be calm. Note how light her head is? I think that is a tundrius subspecies of peregrine, meaning she was probably hatched in or near the Arctic. No one can know for sure since she didn't have a band, but considering that it's migration and the tundrius is a migratory subspecies and a paler form, it is a good guess. Hope she makes it, but if not, at least she didn't have to starve and suffer for several days before finally coming to an end.

Despite the pouring rain, some sharp-shinned hawks did come into the nets, including this beautiful adult. I was glad that our group got to experience watching at least one bird fly into the nets.

Okay, is this not the most adorable photo of Hasty Brook? At one point there were two sharp-shins and Frank gave one to me to hold while he got the blinds back up and he was picking who would be the lucky ones to release them. I gave Hasty Brook the hawk to hold for a minute. Look at the excitement in those eyes.

And I made sure everyone in our group had a chance to stop and smell the birds. It's not every day that you have a chance to smell a wet bird. I love the way birds smell.

Frank was so gracious to show us around and how his nets are set up despite the rain. I also have to say that the people in our group were real troopers to put with it at well.

Here are some members of our group releasing a couple of sharp-shinned hawks in the rain.

After Frank's blind, we headed to Hawk Ridge proper and the sun came out just as we arrived--a chance to dry out. We got to see some hawk movement and several white-throated sparrows hanging around the bushes. I have to give some major bonus points to the staff at Hawk Ridge this year. They have girl sizes... and they look cute. I highly recommend checking out their gift shop--if not for helping support the Ridge, if in support of cute bird shirts for girls that flatter our figures.

Just as our group was about to leave, one of the Hawk Ridge staff told me that a red-tailed hawk was coming out from their banding station and our group could have a chance to see that up close. Though we didn't see a ton of species, we were getting to see some up close view of some really awesome hawks. I got this shot of the hawk being released. I love the few feathers hanging in the air as the bird flies away.

From Hawk Ridge, we headed down to Park Point. The clouds came in and the winds were high off of Lake Superior. The great thing about Park Point is that usually when the weather is crap at the Ridge, the birding is great along the shore.

We did find some black-bellied plovers in fall plumage running around on the beach of Lake Superior. When we first spotted them, we weren't sure if they were black-bellied plovers or American golden plovers--the look similar and both are possible this time of year. Eventually, they flew and we could see their "black armpits" confirming them as black-bellied plovers.

Again, I have to stress what troopers our participants were. It's not easy to go running hither and yon in a rainy day looking for birds, but they stuck with us, made several jokes, saw some cool birds, and help transport an injured falcon to medical help. Job well done in my book.

Spring Movement

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One of the more evil participants on our crane tour just emailed over this photo. On the ride home, I made a little nest for myself on the luggage and fell fast asleep. I was happily dozing when I heard, "whisper she awake...whisper whisper...oh if only we could put this on her site..."

Now it all becomes clear...


Leave it to spring to get people excited about blackbirds! The red-wings are starting to descend on the feeding stations here in Minnesota. Yesterday was an insane 81 degrees in the Twin Cities. Above 80 in Minnesota in March--that was a record. Non Birding Bill and I took a walk around the neighborhood before his rehearsal and heard at least six species singing on territory: mourning dove, house finch, kestrel, cardinal, rock pigeon, and starling. There was one intrepid grackle giving it a try but his call was even squeakier and rustier than usual. They always sound like that when they first arrive in spring. I wonder if it's because of the journey or if it has just been several months since they've given that call? It sure is the equivalent of a bird cracking its voice.

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I think this is my favorite nuthatch shot I've taken so far. I have no other reason for posting it, other than I thought it was cool. I'm having trouble thinking at the moment. We were incredibly busy at The Raptor Center this morning, it was non stop programs and tours. My final program was a very rowdy group of kindergartners. I'm bushed.

Hey, did anyone else see the corgi on Cute Overload this morning? I wonder if that's Phoebe, the Stokes' dog? If so, I'm very impressed.

Saturday's Adventure

Saturday morning I woke up at 3am in my hotel room to the sound of rain beating a pipe outside my hotel room. "Wow," I thought to myself, "If this keeps up, there's no way we can watch prairie chickens this morning." I then rolled over and went to back to sleep.

Our plan had been to get up early and have breakfast, go to watch prairie chickens dance, meet Paul Johnsgard, confiscate Paul for a day of birding and then go watch cranes fly in during the evening on a friend's private property.

At 5:30 am it was still pouring raing and the weather forecast was bleak with a 90% chance of rain all day until 10pm. During breakfast Stan and I weighed our options. Stay and risk staying in the hotel all day or heading home. We opted for heading home.

We did have time to stop at Crane Meadows to meet Paul.

meeting of the minds

Here are Stan and Paul meeting for the first time. I was anxious for this to happen, I think both of them are the only two guys alive who have written the most books on natural history in North America.


And keeping with the glamour classification of the blog, I had to make sure to get in the middle and get my photo taken with Paul and Stan. Me sandwiched between two bird authors--my idea of heaven. I have said it before and I'll say it again, I love Paul Johnsgard. He was a tad under the weather and yet was happy to autograph books and answer questions from our group. Paul is a great public speaker, but I find I learn the most when just listening to him talk as he is sketching. Both Paul and Stan influence people with their writing. Stan's books get new people and kids excited about learning to identify birds, mammals and trees and Paul uses his books to educate people about the conservation of the prairie. I was honored to be the one introducing the two.


On the way home, I discovered a new use for my birdJam and iMainGo speaker: playing calls and having the group try to identify them. The speaker is loud out in the wild, but in a large vehicle, it was harder to hear it, I had to pass the speaker around for the group to hear the calls. It was still a good time.

I also rediscovered my love of the game euchre. We played for several miles and reminded me that I need to find some people to play with more often.

Friday Nebraska Adventures

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So, Friday morning our group went to a crane blind at Rowe Sanctuary. They were kind enough to give our group our own blind that holds about 16 people so our group of 13 fit right in. It was a two story blind, people upstairs got to kind of look down on the cranes, while those on the floor got a head on view. I was on the bottom floor, above is the view from the window.

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Here is the view of the cranes through the scope. The sandhill cranes use the Platte River as a roosting area at night during their spring migration. Our group watched about 17,000 - 20,000 cranes hanging outside of our blind.


During spring migration, cranes will paint themselves with mud, giving their feathers a rusty appearance. You can see on the bird above with wings outstretched, that it has already gotten underway in painting its plumage.

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You do see some other birds on the river, like this greater yellowlegs pictured above. I'm calling this a greater yellowlegs because it was larger than the killdeer running around and because when it called it said, "you you you". Generally, lesser yellowlegs will only give a single "you" or a double "you you", while greater will give three or more. If you're Kevin Karlson, I'm open to other options on the id.

We also heard a great horned owl calling outside the blind. I did see a few red-winged blackbirds and wondered why they even bothered singing on territory since the din of 17,000 cranes tended to drown out their song.

crane group

Normally at a crane blind you sit in there for about an hour and a half to two hours and then they all fly off at once--a big noisy lift off and you can leave the blind. The cranes Friday morning were total slackers and we were there almost three hours and no lift off. Our volunteer guides let us vacate the blind and we thought the cranes would take off, but they didn't. Don't get me wrong, it was still very cool, but I was hoping our group would get to experience watching the several thousand cranes take off at once. Ah well, another adventure for another day.

crane viewing

The weather was absolutely gorgeous and I suspect the cranes we were watching were planning to take off and head north on Friday, so perhaps they were getting in a touch more rest? By mid afternoon the cranes were catching thermals overhead and the easiest way to watch them was to just lay on the ground. Temperatures in the sixties, bright sun, cranes flying overhead--what a great way to spend an afternoon.

disapproving prairie dog

Nebraska is still fairly dry and we had a tough time finding waterfowl in potholes as compared to previous years, but a visit to Prairie Dog Waterfowl Production area proved some great entertainment. We found loads of prairie dogs and some distant waterfowl including snow geese, pintails, shovelers, and greater-white fronted geese. Stan gave a great talk on prairie dogs and tried to get them to bark. All he got was the disapproving look above--I felt surprisingly at home.

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There were quite a few killdeer running around amongst all the mounds. They both look so distrusting. I guess they have good reason--well, at least the prairie dog does. It's hard to find love for prairie dogs among ranchers. I don't know what the killdeer's excuse is.

lone crane

One of the tour participants said that she was having a tough time getting a photo of a single crane. After going through my photos, I had to agree with her. I have the above shot thanks to some cropping. I took this shot on our way to Fort Kearney. We were going to the bridge to watch the cranes fly in.

school group

The bridge was packed. Some of our group was there on Thursday and not many people were around, but Friday night the Kearney night life came out. Above is a group from a local school who are part of an after school/outdoor club. This trip had some fishing and crane watching.


One of the really fun and cool things about this group was the willingness to share bird information and to corrupt Nebraska youth towards birding. I let the kids borrow my binoculars and look through my scope. The guy pointing towards me is Howard, a tour participant who let the kids look through his scope.

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Wow, I thought I was trendy with the digiscoping, but here Howard is helping a youth photograph cranes with a cell phone through his scope. Now that, my friends, is high tech. The kids got some great veiws of the cranes thanks to our optics. I'm grateful the local schools have these outdoor programs and hope the kids know how lucky they are to grow up with multitudes of cranes every spring. They seemed really excited.

Rainy Morning Entry

Some random photos of cranes, because, hey, that's about all I got.


Sometimes you just can't help but take pride in your work--I had that moment in spades yesterday. I really enjoy leading bird trips, they are exhausting but it's so much fun. It's kind of like hosting a mobile party that lasts all weekend. Many people don't realize that bird identification is the smallest part of the job. A more important factor is customer service and anticipating the groups needs and being sensitive with their comfort. The number one priority is not the bird, it's food. People will be forgiving if a target bird doesn't show or if you were planning on seeing 600 swans and only 4 are present. They know that you cannot control the birds. However, you can control food and if you don't have enough and people get hungry. If they don't get fed soon they get hangry (deadly combo of hungry and angry).

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Having led a fair share of birding tours of the years, I've picked up on some little tricks and tasks that need to be done. I usually lead tours with my friend Amber and she is the best organizer. We have our trips planned down to the minute. Doing this trip with Stan has been very different, he's very...shoot from the hip, keep the schedule flexible and just do whatever. I think we're making a good combo as I play Julie to his Gopher (yes, that was a Love Boat reference).


The breakfast situation on Friday morning was up in the air, I knew we were going to Perkins, they don't really do reservations and I wasn't sure of our exact arrival. We have to stay in the crane blind until all the cranes take off which can be anywhere from an hour to two hours. I did call Perkins last week and say "Hey, sometime between 8:30 am and 9:30 am nest Friday you will have a group of about 13 people come in for breakfast. I'll give you a call a half hour before we arrive so as not to overwhelm your staff."

They appreciated the heads up. Yesterday we left the blind, I called, they said the were ready. As soon as our group arrived we were whisked away to a table and the waitress was pouring the coffee--and they were busy too, almost all the tables were full. Just as the last of our group came in, another tour bus arrived with 21 people who had been to a crane blind and they were ready for breakfast--but the tour leader had not called ahead and they were turned away. I smiled to myself and thought "Amateurs." I pitied the tour guide, the bus was looking a little hangry and restaurant options for a large group with no reservations are tough. We've seen the group a few times and they've been having a few glitches here and there. Even if you get great birds, a hangry group can be brutal.

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As I'm typing this, it's pouring down rain--the worst weather for bird watching on minimum maintenance roads. According to Weather Underground it's not going to stop until tonight. Prairie chickens are not Gene Kelly and will not be singin' and dancin' in the rain. We're contemplating canceling the dawn prairie chicken watch this morning and perhaps even heading back to Minnesota today instead of tomorrow. From my table in the hotel lounge I can see the group with the glitches loading onto their bus...surely they are not going out birding in this weather? Not only is it hard to see the birds, but the gravel roads are much too dangerous and slick. Another part of being a tour leader is to "know when to fold 'em" as Kenny Rogers is known to sing.