By Duane Morse
At some point in your birding career, you’ll want to go to the spring dance. The greater prairie-chicken dance, that is. And when you do, you’ll naturally want to gate-crash the nearby greater sage-grouse dance, and perhaps observe lesser prairie-chickens strut their stuff. Why not make a grand tour and see as many of these chicken-like birds as possible?
That was my goal in April when I signed up for a commercial birding expedition that focused on these and other gallinaceous (chicken-like) birds. Our group would go to three leks in Colorado, one in Kansas, and one in Nebraska. Along the way, we would visit various parks, lakes, streams, and residential areas for other birds.
All of the lek visits followed the same pattern: We would arrive before sunrise, observe the birds while remaining stationary (in the van or in bird blinds), and depart only after the birds had left the scene (typically two to three hours later). Many of the leks had been used for generations, illustrating bird site fidelity (birds using the same location year after year).
Our first major stop was at Loveland Pass, elevation 11,900 feet to hunt for white-tailed ptarmigan. Though it wasn’t especially cold—probably in the 40s—the wind was strong, making it quite chilly, and gusts would sometimes reposition our binoculars. The field trip leaders were the first to spot the bird, then others in my group found it, and everyone started calling out helpful directions: “Past the tall, sharp, rock!” (There were many such rocks.) Or, “Before the dry patch of grass!” (Many of these, too), though “On the second snowy hill!” was fairly clear. After much hunting, I finally located a snowball in the right location. Then I noticed that the snowball had a dark bill and an eye, and it was moving! Talk about protective coloration!
We spent the first night in Morgan, Colorado, and got up before dawn to drive to the Coalmont lek, stomping grounds for the greater sage-grouse. When we arrived, it was 18 degrees and overcast, and light snow had fallen during the night. We huddled in our van, and before long, up to 60 of the birds were putting on a show 50 to 100 yards away. The giant males would spread out their tail feathers, inflate their enormous air sacs, raise their heads, and, well, it was like watching a silent movie. The sounds the males emitted were so low they were inaudible to me, though others claimed they could hear something.
Just about everyone in the van wanted to take pictures, so we took turns crawling to the front seats to use the only windows that would roll down. It reminded me of the hand-held 15-square sliding tile game I used to play as a kid, in which the goal is to rearranged the numbered tiles by sliding them up and down, using the one empty space. The maneuver was complicated by the fact that we were all wearing so much cold-weather gear that we each looked like the Michelin Man, and our dangling binoculars and cameras kept getting caught on things (usually the appendages of the other birders).
The next morning we were up early to try to see sharp-tailed grouse on the 20-Mile Road lek near Craig, Colorado, but we weren’t terribly optimistic about our chances. Not only was it near the end of the lekking period for this bird, but the number of grouse at this site has been declining in recent years. In our case, there was only a single, lonely male, and he seemed to get stage fright rather easily, so many in our group never saw the bird at all. (We made up for it later by brief views of the bird at various locations in the Pawnee National Grasslands.)
The next two chicken-like birds didn’t require getting up before the crack of dawn. First, we slowly hiked the Coal Canyon Trail near Grand Junction, looking for chukar. After about an hour, two chukar appeared out of nowhere, flew to the top of a nearby hill, and then dropped out of view. One of the guides said he was willing to bushwhack up the hill if others were interested, so four of us clambered up. When we got to the top, the birds once again materialized out of the grass and flew to another hill. One extended uphill hike was enough for us, so we trudged back down and rejoined the group. As we all walked back to the parking area, two chukar toddled across our path and slowly wandered up the hillside, so everyone got a great look after all.
That afternoon, we were treated to a long look at a dusky grouse at Grand Canyon of the Gunnison State Park. The bird was standing in plain view on the seat of a picnic table, and he appeared to think that if he didn’t move, we couldn’t see him. Following proper bird-watching etiquette, we weren’t moving much, either, so it made for a curious tableau. The bird finally left when the field trip leader sat down at the table across from him, but even then he merely sauntered into the brush.
We stayed in the town of Gunnison in order to see the Gunnison sage-grouse, but “seeing” them is, I fear, a euphemism. Organizations that are trying to protect this species (federally listed as Threatened) restrict commercial groups to using a blind that is 0.6 miles away from the lek. Since none of us brought the Hubble Space Telescope along, views (even with good-quality spotting scopes) were rather unsatisfactory. On the other hand, most people who have been to this bird blind have horror stories about the typical bad weather, incorporating terms such as cold, snow, and wind, sometimes all three in the same sentence. When we were there, it was clear and mild, and the intervening pastures were green, so we were quite comfortable, viewing the specks on the distant ridge.
Our first stop the next morning was a residential area in West Pueblo, Colorado, where the field trip leader promised to serve up scaled quail. The houses here were surrounded by scrubby grasslands, the preferred habitat for this bird, so the leader’s promise held true. In addition, canyon towhees put in an appearance on rooftops.
We left Colorado that afternoon in order to go to a lesser prairie-chicken lek near Dodge City, Kansas. The population of lesser prairie-chicken has been declining rapidly the past few years. (It, too, is federally listed as Threatened), and they are now rather difficult to find in Colorado—hence the trip to a neighboring state. This was another instance in which the birds were in a field, and we observed them at a distance from the van. The birds were just far enough away that the pictures we took were adequate only for identification purposes.
The poor views of the Gunnison sage-grouse and the so-so views of the lesser prairie-chicken were more than made up by the fabulous views we got of the greater prairie-chicken at Angus’s lek outside of McCook, Nebraska. The dominant male on the lek was only 30 yards away; the sun was at our back; and we were in a bird blind that had cushioned seats and blankets. Further, it was sunny and mild (mid-50s). Perfect.
The six males put on a spectacular show, issuing eerie moans that reminded me of the sound track from the movie Forbidden Planet, spreading their tail feathers, lowering their heads, raising their head feathers, extending their wings straight back, and doing a rapid stomp that would impress a flamenco dancer. (I wanted to say “flamingo” dancer, but the spell-checker caught me on that). After about 90 minutes of this, all but the No. 3 bird took off. The latter cautiously walked to the center of the lek, looked around, then flew to the top of our blind and did a victory dance on the roof before departing.
When I posted a picture of a posturing greater prairie-chicken to my Facebook page and described the antics, a friend commented: “And that illustrates why women live longer than men.”
Almost every one of the nine days of birding started before sunrise and ended within an hour of sunset. Getting from one site to the next required about 250 miles of driving each day, but the long drives were broken with short birding excursions. By the end of the trip, I had seen 162 species (the field trip leaders saw even more, of course), and we had viewed all of the primary target birds for the trip. In addition, we saw a variety of mammals (three types of prairie dog, for example) and some gorgeous scenery. It doesn’t get much better than this!
Duane Morse is the proud stepfather of seven off-the-street dogs in Phoenix, Arizona. A retired long-distance runner, he now prefers walking shorter distances on birding treks.
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