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May 2006

See the Sandhill Dancers - Wray, CO Greater Prairie Chicken Viewing Tours

This weekend we managed to get reservations for the Wray Greater Prairie Chicken Viewing Tour. We managed luckily to nab the last two reservations for the last tour of the season. We were extremely excited.
A couple of weeks back we did a DIY trip to see the Lesser Prairie Chickens near Campo/ Springfield CO. We wanted to experience something different, and also to have the opportunity of supporting a local economy.

The Viewing tours have been held for about 14 years sponsored by the Colorado Division of Wildlife, East Yuma County Historical Society, The Wray Museum and the Wray Chamber of Commerce.

The tours run typically May 24th through April 23 and 2 tours a weekend are offered: the basic tour package (orientation on Friday night with prairie chicken viewing on Saturday morning) and the Special Tour package (orientation on Saturday afternoon, and viewing on Sunday morning.) The special tour package includes: motel accommodation, orientation, tour of Wray, dinner, breakfast after the viewing, transportation to dinner, tour of Wray, transportation to and from the viewing site (which is on private land) and transportation to breakfast and back to Motel.

We did the special tour package. Cost $105.00 per person, double occupancy. Go here for more info.

For questions and reservations (the 2006 season is now closed) contact the Wray Chamber of Commerce at 970 332 3484

It takes about 3 - 4 hours to drive from Denver to Wray. Kevin and I arrived with plenty of time to spare. We explored the town and found some interesting houses and buildings to photograph.
This photograph was of an odd house that looked as if the bottom half had been cut off.

This is the Wray High school and Elementary School. You'll be forgiven for thinking this was a prison (Wray residents are used to that by now.) It is supposed to represent the rural life. I thought it looked like a factory.


We had to meet at the Wray Museum at 4pm. We assembled there, registered and browsed the Museum. Some monies from the viewing tour go to the museum. The Museum is small and modest but it is jammed packed with some fascinating local interest stuff - from old prom dresses to a collection of brands from farms in neighboring districts. It also has an exhibit of the Greater Prairie Chicken as well as historical exhibits of Beecher Island Battle ground, a trophy room and a country store exhibit.

This photograph was of a collection of ranch brands.

A school bus then collected us and drove through the town. The bus took us to Flirtation Point a point atop a large bluff that overlooks the town. It is really an unusual view:- one doesn't often think of prairie towns as being hilly.


This is Kevin at Flirtation Point.


This is a view from Flirtation Point.

We were also taken to Crider Ponds, a private facility with a man made pond and beautiful cotton woods. Apparently the area is open for hire for private functions such as parties, wedding receptions etc. We could spot some really large sunfish swimming around.
The School Bus parked at Crider Ponds.

Then it was onto the Laird School for a steak dinner, entertainment and orientation. The steak dinner was superb. Produce donated by local farmers. And the Laird Ladies did a superb job with the cooking. My lemon meringue pie was superb! And my steak was delicious - incredibly tender (and I don't often eat steak!)

During dinner we had live music from a local musician. I can't even pronounce the instruments he played, but the music was especially fitting to the occasion.

Here our musician poses for me.

Dessert!!! I had the Lemon Meringue pie - it was FAB!

After eating far too much we waddled into the small hall for our Prairie Chicken Orientation given by the local Colorado Division of Wildlife ranger. He explained that the Greater PC (Prairie Chicken) is doing well. Conservation efforts have resulted in a substantial increase in the population. This was done in cooperation with landowners. Birdwatcher/ tourism interest in the species resulted in many landowners gaining revenue (and incentive) in GPC watching. This incentive lead to habit conservation, and increased population.

The population is now considered sufficiently stable for hunting permits to be issued. Our ranger advised that over the years since hunting has been allowed, hunting permits and bird kills have actually gone down.

I found out some useful facts that I didn't know before:

- that the males hang around until June to remate with females who have lost their nests,
- That the characteristic male "booming" can be heard up to 5 miles away,
- that the dominant males inhabit the center of the lek, and the subordinate males the periphery
- that females will sometimes mate with a number of males from different (but close by) leks. This is to ensure egg fertility
- that the Ranger hasn't found a nesting female or eggs in the entire 15 some years that he has been studying the GPC - goes to show how clever they are at hiding themselves
- that there are 2 kinds of leks - ones that are on top of hills, and the other on a large flat plain. The lek where we ended up viewing the birds was of the latter variety - a large flat piece of prairie.

The Ranger also had a greater horned owl baby that he showed to us. What a gorgeous bird.

After orientation we were herded back into the school bus (my first ride in an American school bus) and taken back to our motel. We were instructed to congregate at 4:20 am in the parking lot of the motel.

We were so excited we barely got any sleep. I kept on waking up expecting it to be 4am.

We were fetched from the parking lot at 4:20 am sharp. The bus drive was a 20 minute drive to the lek. The lek is on private land, and I certainly could not recreate the trip there or back. The viewing hide is a large trailer, with two rows of benches with cushions and blankets to protect the bottoms and legs from the cold and wind. There is an electric light bulb, and a heater (for the extreme cold - but it makes a noise). Once we were all settled, with our gear, tripods etc, the side openings were raised slowly. It was dark but already we could hear the noise - the collective booming of 33 males.

When we visited the Lesser Prairie Chickens we had had a different experience. The sounds they made were different. They didn't "boom" as much as gurgle. With this viewing experience I finally understood what the books were talking about. It really is a boom. But it is a beautiful musical experience; one that vibrates the dark with a thrilling sound. No wonder the sound travels over 5 miles! I can now imagine why the females are drawn to such a wild and thrilling sound.

As the light came we could make out the dark shapes of the chickens: They strutted, and stamped, and boomed. They were quite aggressive, and they often were overcome with the need to take a feather or two away from a competitor.


This is a photo that Kevin took. It shows two males, one with his sacks fully distended.

With the light we saw their booming sacks - fully distended, their proud heads thrown forward and their ear tufts and tail feathers erect. There were some similarities between the two species; both puffed out their ear sacks, and both held a certain erect posture. Both species would occasionally break off to do the "blink and its over" contest, and both would leap unexpectedly into the air.

The first to blink loses...

The differences were a little more subtle. The sounds they made were different. The Greater Prairie Chickens had a deeper "boom" and their range of sounds were different. Kevin is working on striping some audio from our video of both species so we can compare the two.

The Lesser Chicken seemed to "moonwalk" more than the Greater. The Greater would do their stamping, but it didn't look like moonwalking.

We counted 33 males, and 1 female. The ranger told us that this was because most of the females had mated. About three weeks ago they had over 80 chickens at this particular lek. A prairie dog colony had appeared in the lek this season, and about 8 burrowing owls had taken up residence. The presence of 2 other species on the dancing grounds did not seem to worry the chickens at all. We had fun trying to track the female prairie chicken as she did her rounds. It was also fun to see the burrowing owls digging out their burrows, and sleepily blinking at the chickens.

Here is a 1 minute video of the Greater Prairie Chickens that we made. Lots of competition between displaying males! In the first 20 seconds you can plainly hear the booming sound. Kevin thinks it sounds more like "hooo... hooo".

Compare it with the following 1 minute video of the Lesser Prairie Chickens. Several females are the center of attention of the hyperactive males.

After a while the males quieted their dances. All the females were gone, and the males, distracted by hunger were starting to peck here and there in the dust. This was the sign. Quietly we reached out and closed the blind viewing doors. Then we quietly exited the trailer, and went into the bus. I was worried that this activity would scare the chickens away. No sign of any anxiety - not one chicken took off in fright. Astonishing.


Here is my wide angle view of the lek. As you can see it is flat as a pancake and you can just make out dark specks of the prairie chickens.


In this photo I try to capture both bus and trailer situated in the middle of nowhere.

Then it was onto a fabulous farm style breakfast at a local farm. We had scrambled eggs (eggs donated by a local farmer) pancakes and bacon. Coffee and juice was also provided. Again I managed to eat even more.

On the bus ride back to our motel I had to engage in some post breakfast napping.

All in all this was a $105 well spent. I highly recommend this tour. You have some great views of the Prairie Chickens, and if you want to engage in some other birdwatching our hosts are only too happy to oblige. One other great thing about spending the money on the tour is that it helps a small and marginal local economy.

A couple on the tour, Fred and Norma had come up from Holly CO. This couple had just started similar tours on their farm to a lek of the Lesser Prairie Chickens. They call themselves Arena Dust Tours. Go here for more information.

4/15/06 Nebraska Report back

After leaving the Holdrege Library we headed East toward Beatrice. It was extremely windy, and there was so much particulate matter in the air the sky was brown. When we did manage to see the real sky all we saw was blue sky and a few high clouds.
We made some fundamental strategic errors that made this chase a bust for us. We did not do our analysis correctly, we made conclusions ahead of the data (always a bad sign) and we got distracted. Distracted! I hear you wail. How could you!!
I know. But we did, and what do we have to show for it? A bust.
But it wasn't all bad. We got to see some really interesting sites: There is Eustis the Sausage Capital of the World which lured Kevin in with the promise of home made pie, and sausages. We were out of luck on that one as all the shops closed at 12 and we missed them. Then there was Red Cloud home of writer Willa Cather. You must visit the Red Cloud Opera House - it has been beautifully restored. They have some interesting exhibitions. We saw a photo exhibition of Afghanistan. For more about the writer go here.
Then we drove on old byways past small prairie towns, and abandoned farms. There were lots of interesting old barns. Everywhere, over rolling hills we were overcome with green- here in Colorado we are still starved for green. We stopped to take photos of interesting old barns, and the most beautiful prairie church outside Gilead which gleamed in the golden sun.
We spent the most amount of time in Fairbury NE.
If you are in that part of the world do yourself a favor and visit Fairbury. Drive immediately to the town square- the City Hall/ Court Building is gorgeous. Off one of the side roads is the most beautiful wall mural (a recent 1994 addition) which is truly amazing. Go to Doozys and have a sub (a choice of three sizes) great value, and great home cooked food.
We reluctantly left Fairbury and headed for Beatrice where we planned to spend Saturday night. We spotted puddles along the way - could it be? Could there have been rain while we were enjoying our spring day? We arrived at the Super 8 Motel in Beatrice to be told by the desk clerk that their wifi wasn't working due to the storm, and that there had been a tornado warning posted.
We felt extremely silly, foolish, embarrassed etc etc (you get the idea.) What a silly pair of gooses we are!
We found out from the Weather Channel about a nice tornado spotted just outside Beatrice, and after the fact read all the great chase accounts written by motivated, real storm chasers (who don't let things like the light shining on a barn distract them from what really matters...)

I try and comfort myself in thinking that maybe I wouldn't have made the Beatrice storm (bad Friday getaway decision, we were too far west blah blah blah) But I'll never know because we did not try.
As punishment for being so lazy at stormchasing we are on a self imposed ban - no chasing for the next 2 weeks!

Holdrege NE 4/15/06 Report

Kevin and I decided to head out on a storm chase this weekend, even though the forecast looked iffy. I didn't think there would be sufficient moisture. So we headed out for another all night drive, left Denver around 8:30pm and arrived in Lexington NE at about 3am.
We looked at the data this morning and basically gave up.
So we messed around in NE south of Lexington, visiting some places where we always wanted to return: Eustis NE (The Sausage Capital of the World). More on that later.
Now we have decided to explore highway 6 east. We wanted to find a library, or a working wifi hotspot. That is why we are currently in Holdrege NE in the Public Library trying to decide where we should be.
Report from Holdrege: extremely windy, with some really strong bursts. Locals are commenting on the wind. Temperatures are quite toasty. Clouds: High wispy clouds, with some scattered cumulus.
I've checked the data - I think we are too far to the west. The plan: we will head out to the west keeping an eye on sky.
I don't have much hope that this one will turn into anything good - we suspect a bust, but quite frankly I don't care. I am having a whole lot of fun exploring some out of sight places, off the beaten track.

Lesser Prairie Chicken Viewing Guidelines

Here are the birding guidelines for the viewing of the birds:
1. Arrive at the lek approximately 1 hour before sunrise. Vehicles arriving after daylight may disturb the vehicles as well as others who arrived earlier to view the birds.
2. Be prepared for cold weather
3. Bring binoculars, spotting scope, camera and field guides
4. Observe the birds as long as you like BUT
1. Please sign the register at the viewing area entrance
2. Remain in vehicle at all times
3. Park in designated parking area only
4. Please keep noise to a minimum
5. No overnight camping within 1 mile of viewing area
6. Leave dogs at home
7. It is preferred that no vehicles leave the area until 1 hour after sunrise, or 45 minutes after the birds leave. If you must leave early, drive out of the area as quietly and discreetly as possible.

Lesser Prairie Chicken Weekend

This last weekend we did what we have been talking about doing for a year: we drove down to Campo (extreme south eastern Colorado) to view the Lesser Prairie Chickens perform their mating dances.
We left mid morning on Saturday. It takes about 6 hours to drive from Denver to Campo. We had gorgeous weather and we were determined to enjoy every second.

The lek is located on public lands, so there is no problem with access. The route in is well marked, but the signs are unobtrusive. I recommend that you scout the location in daylight because at night it may be difficult to find your way around. We arrived at the lek at about 4pm to scout the location. There are parking spots for about 4 vehicles, and there is a hide. You have to reserve the hide ahead of time at the local USFS office in Springfield. Apparently while the office is not open on a Saturday they are quite accommodating in making the key available (leaving key at motel etc etc.) Call 719 523 6591 to reserve hide.

We met 2 parties of out of state birders - all enthusiastic about the upcoming dancing.

Since we had time to spare we decided to drive around and see what we could see. There were lots of horned larks, meadowlarks, white crowned sparrows. We also saw wild turkey, and a female lesser prairie chicken.

We had planned to camp nearby (the rules state no camping within a mile of the lek, and we had found a great campsite well away from everyone.) But we decided since we had time we visit the lek and see what we could see. We were rewarded with the mating display of 2 visible males. They danced well into the fading light, their sounds floating into the prairie night. We waited well after dark for their sounds to fade away, before we too departed.

Even though we had already one sighting we decided to come back anyway the next morning.

I am glad we did. We set our alarm for 3:45am. We got to the lek at about 4:15am. We had decided to set up the back of our pick up topper as a "blind" and we wanted to get into position with all our tripods well before the time. We had a bit of a wait, but that was fine. We watched the brilliant stars in the sky.

We heard the prairie chickens before we saw them. They had already started to vocalize when a white van pulled up. Quickly about 4 people piled out and walked to the hide, where they seemed to spend forever before getting inside. I was starting to get anxious. We had heard that the sound of coyote could scare the birds away, and here were people standing around. Luckily they moved inside. We then had the most wonderful time watching through telescope, and binoculars these wonderful little birds displaying for us.

The male stretches himself out, and sticks out his "ears" and tail feathers. Behind his ears he has two sacks that he puffs up. He then holds himself in an uncomfortable position while "Moon walking" across the grass. He stops, vibrates his wing feathers, and throwing his head forward, he makes his call. The male rivals seem to ignore each other for the most part. They seem more interested in enticing the females. In a sudden flurry of activity a pair of males will (seemingly) suddenly line themselves up, and facing each other, eyeball to eyeball they stare at each other. They seemed to me to be having a blinking contest;- the first to blink loses. Or, perhaps they are comparing the size of their tail feathers. In any event, what seems confusing to us, must make sense to the prairie chickens.

The males are sent into greater, and higher frenzies of activity if a female should happen to walk toward them. Their calls (a mixture of clucks, and liquid gurgling like calls) become more intense. Their efforts more frantic.

In the midst of all this activity another vehicle arrived - this time USFS enforcement. (I was concerned that this newest arrival would scare the birds, but luckily they did not.)

The females seem shy, coy almost. Occasionally a male will launch himself into a vertical leap into the air. I watched one male on the periphery whose leaps did not seem so good. I tried to imagine if I was a female prairie chicken what I would like. It was enough to give me a headache. (I recommend you do not try it.)

The prairie chickens were still displaying when we were astonished to see people leave the blind. The birds immediately stopped vocalizing and displaying and took off in fright. We were astonished. Couldn't these people have waited another 20 minutes? What was so urgent that they had to leave at that very moment?

The USFS Ranger did speak to the driver of the mini van. But when the mini van left, Kevin decided to talk to the ranger to see what had happened. We found out that the mini van was a tour group from a well known birding tour group. We also were astonished to find out that the viewing guidelines were basically unenforceable, and that the ranger had simply asked to see the driver's permit.

I plan to write to both the USFS and the Tour group.

UPDATE: I have learnt that this is becoming an increasing problem on public lands - tour groups disregard the viewing guidelines, and this impacts both the viewing enjoyment of others, and the birds themselves. I have found out that similar behavior has been observed by tour groups visiting this lek in past seasons, and it has been reported that the numbers of birds now found displaying at the lek have decreased in numbers.

NOTE: The Lesser Prairie Chicken is not an endangered species under the Endangered Species Act. USFWS were petitioned in 1995 to list this species. But the petition was declined. Check out this link here. and check out this link here at the Audubon.

On the way out we saw a pair of Swainson hawks who were quite calm and let us approach them. We also saw a Peregrine Falcon with a lizard. He was more skittish, but it was wonderful to watch him tear at his prey.

RTD Strike

RTD, Denver's Regional Transportation District is how I can get to work each day. Denver is not a City that is hugely dependent on public transportation. But some of us slaves need it. I like not having to think, or deal with the erratic driving of commuters. Sometimes I even nap.
So when RTD drivers voted to go on strike I got a taste of what it is like to commute the 50 miles to and from work every day (roundtrip.) On top of that we had the daylight savings time change. Boy! was I pooped. Then there was the problem of finding parking in down town Denver. Lots filled up fast, and parking fees started rising.
Then there was the strike itself:
RTD had offered a $1.80 per hour increase over 3 years (which works out to a 60 cent increase.) RTD would also offer a 50% contribution to medical insurance. The workers voted and narrowly voted to go on strike. The big issue (for them) is the pay raise and the issue of rising medical insurance costs.
Newspapers reported the workers requesting binding arbitration, and the Governor to intervene. Gov Owens is reported in one local newspaper as comparing workers who go on strike to orphans who murder their parents... (go figure! What a complete tit!)
Then it was reported that RTD had hired security for its contract bus operators. What a nice way of pulling the finger to the striking workers - it is tantamount to saying "we expect things to get ugly, because we are not going to budge"
Today (Friday) workers are voting to accept a new deal which offers more money up front but not more money overall. Newspapers have reported that workers are still unhappy about the new offer, and want to continue the strike. If the vote "succeeds" then workers will return to work on Monday, and services will resume. If not the strike continues, parking lots will continue to fill, and parking fees increase.
The added fly in the ointment is that regardless of how long this strike continues RTD will still make money because 70% of its revenue does not come from bus riding services, but from sales tax revenue.

See this article here at the Rocky Mountain News.

Dodge City KS Report

We had a fun chase day today. We left Woodward and headed west towards a number of storms already picked up on radar. Our first visual was not a very good impression- no organization, too many clusters and no decent towers. But we were hopeful. South of Buffalo we spotted our storm - decent towers, and good knuckles on the cumulus nimbus. Other cloud clusters had too much wispy-ness (is that a word?) which made me think of a too strong upper level wind cap.
True enough our gut feel paid off- our storm developed strongly and we had a precip column to the north of us, and a precip column to the south. I had the distinct impression that the two storms would merge given the right combination of circumstances.
We had pretty strong southerly winds, rain, and hail was experienced. We did not observe rotation, or any tornado's. I had the strong impression that supercell development might develop after dark. (This is what a lot of the forecasters seemed to think too.)

We chased our storm northwards. We had a pretty hairy drive on a dirt road covered with water - I could feel my car start to fish tail. The storm moved off briskly, and soon we were out of it. We could tell that our chase was ending- light was fading, and the storm, gathering in strength and power was moving off in a direction we did not want to go.

We stopped to photograph the sun's rays lighting up some mammatus clouds. What a wonderful good bye. And then we turned towards Dodge City.
I am pooped. Last night Kevin and I had practically no sleep. We only arrived in Hays KS at about 3:30am. Tonight I want to sleep and sleep.

I will review my photos and post them later. I will also post a more coherent account of exactly where we went and what we saw. I can see that the above descriptions are annoyingly vague. But I am too tired to do anything about that now.

From Dodge City (a place I always swore never to return) signing off....

Stormchase: Woodward, OK

We have a small stormchaser convergence at the Woodward Public Library (closing time 4pm.) The issue is where do we go to next?
My feeling is to head west towards some storms already picked up on radar, and then hang around and wait and see. We are too far away from any of the other action... Others are talking about going back to Dodge City area and hanging out there.
Questions, so many questions...