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Fitness and Photography for Fun - A blog on staying fit by hiking and doing photography by David Mendosa

Greater Prairie-Chickens

April 18th, 2011 · 1 Comment

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This weekend I drove all the way across the state of Colorado to get up at 4:15 a.m. so that I could sit in 30° weather for two hours just to photograph some so-called chickens. It was one of the most memorable experiences of my life.

On Saturday my friend Sharon and I drove 180 miles from Boulder to Wray, Colorado, which is less than 10 miles from the Nebraska border and about 12 miles from Kansas. Wray is a pleasant city of about 2,000 people and the county seat of Yuma County.

Sharon and I stayed at the only Bed and Breakfast in Wray, Doc’s B&B. We had two of the B&B’s eight rooms, each of which had a small sitting room in addition to the bedroom and private bath. The walls and ceiling of my room were painted my favorite color, red. The name of the B&B comes from a local chiropractor with a wide following. He built the B&B in 1924 for his patients who came to his “Temple of Health.”

For the past 17 years the Wray Chamber of Commerce, the East Yuma County Historical Society, the Wray Museum, the Colorado Division of Wildlife, and local landowners have organized tours on March and April weekends for viewing the mating rituals of Greater Prairie-Chickens. Sharon and I were two of the 20 people in the Friday morning tour.

Greater Prairie-Chickens aren’t any sort of chicken. They are large birds in the grouse family. Found only on the North American prairie, they were once abundant, but have become extremely rare or extinct over much of their range due to habitat loss. The largest remaining populations are in Kansas, Nebraska, and South Dakota. Yuma County in northwestern Colorado is the only area of the 11 western states where Greater Prairie-Chickens remain. In fact, when the tours began 17 years ago, only 600 Greater Prairie-Chickens remained in the state, where they were on the endangered species list. Now, we have about 12,000 in Colorado.

The mating rituals take place on display grounds that the Greater Prairie-Chickens use year after year. The name for these display grounds is a “lek,” from the Swedish word for mating ground, derived from that language’s word for play or playground. All of the Greater Prairie-Chicken leks in Colorado are on private land.

To humans the leks don’t seem to be special places. To us leks look very much like the surrounding land except vegetation doesn’t grow high there.

Greater Prairie-Chickens perform striking courtship dances on leks. Males defend their territory by strutting about and stamping their feet with their “horns” erect and their yellow-orange sacs of skin inflated on the sides of their necks. Meanwhile they utter a “booming” deep cooing call that can carry as far as four miles. They leap and whirl in the air, and threaten each other by short runs with tail raised and head down. But they rarely hit each other.

We had to get to the lek ahead of the Greater Prairie-Chicken arrival before sunrise. Meeting in front of the Wray Museum at 4:45 a.m., we took a Wray School District bus about 15 miles northwest of Wray to the lek, arriving about 5:30 a.m. in total darkness. At the lek our blind was a trailer something like a burrito wagon. Once we got settled, the tour leader, Josh Melby, the district wildlife manager for the Colorado Division of Wildlife, turned off the lights and opened the windows.

No birds had yet arrived, but immediately I heard the most unearthly sound. Called “booming,” the name doesn’t come close to describing the continuous deep rumble that male Greater Prairie-Chickens make by inflating their colorful air sacs. While my new Canon 7D camera will record movies with sound, I haven’t yet figured out how. So at breakfast after the tour I asked Josh if he knew of any recordings on the Web. In fact, he was associated with the production of a short film that the Division of Wildlife made at the same lek two or three years ago. For that 8-minute film they hid a high-quality microphone in the middle of the lek, wonderfully capturing the sound to accompany the pictures. Do yourself a favor and watch and listen to “Sand Hill Dancers” at http://www.vimeo.com/3886613

The tours this weekend were the last of the year. Our tour saw the greatest number of Greater Prairie-Chicken this year, Josh told me. He counted 24 males displaying for the attention of 21 females who arrived about an hour after the males.

While sunrise was theoretically at 6:10 a.m., I didn’t start shooting until 6:30, but until about 6:45 the light level was low. From then until 7:30 when we left, I took 475 photos in good light. These are my favorites.

A Greater Prairie-Chicken Inflates His Air Sac for Booming

A Greater Prairie-Chicken Inflates His Air Sac for Booming

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A Proud or Mean Greater Prairie-Chicken Ready to Attack Me

A Proud or Mean Greater Prairie-Chicken Ready to Attack Me

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Two Greater Prairie-Chickens Prepare to Attack Each Other

Two Greater Prairie-Chickens Prepare to Attack Each Other

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A Standoff

A Standoff

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Too Close for Comfort

Too Close for Comfort

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A Short Jump

A Short Jump

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A High Jump

A High Jump

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On Colorado’s eastern plains winter remains. While we had to bundle up against a freezing temperature to view the Greater Prairie-Chicken display, we were lucky that the biggest storm of the year passed through the day before our trip, taking the wind with it. And our time in the cold was just two hours. The Greater Prairie-Chickens display every day for two cold months, making me even more glad to be a man rather than a bird.

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1 response so far ↓

  • 1 Sandy // May 1, 2011 at 2:15 pm

    Amazing pictures . . . but I couldn’t endure a long wait in such cold weather!

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