Lesser Prairie Chicken Weekend
April 10, 2006
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.
Thanks for your excellent description of the vocalizations. Thanks for sharing and thanks for supporting the I and the Bird carnival.
I too have wondered about the lack of respect that people have for wildlife, especially when they are paying to see it. For wolf watching in Yellowstone, some of the tour operators clearly educate their clients on correct behavior, while others clearly don't.
Posted by: Rob Miller | April 16, 2006 at 05:26 PM
Thanks Rob. I am enjoying the I and The Bird carnival. I think that people don't bother to think about how their actions affect wildlife.
Posted by: Sally | April 17, 2006 at 09:07 PM