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.