Monday, April 19, 2010

Rites of Spring: Lesser Prairie Chicken

Alan, our friend Jim Shiflett, and I have journeyed to southeastern New Mexico near the Texas border to find Lesser Prairie Chickens on their lekking grounds. After checking the lek in daylight, we retreat about a mile and camp on BLM land. The prairie chickens dance at dawn and into the morning, so we'll need to arrive before daybreak to avoid disturbing them.

Jim sets up his tent in a swale between dunes in this intriguing habitat. Rolling sand dunes envelop the Shinnery Oak so that only the topmost branchlets emerge from the sand, leaf out, and bear acorns. The rest of the tree is buried in sand! Today the brown drifts of last season's oak leaves catch in the lee of the dunes. Newly unfolding leaves are velvety; they glow in violet and soft green. Cassin's Sparrows sing in display flight, and a Scissor-tailed Flycatcher adorns an oak.

As night falls, rainclouds on the horizon pulse with lightning, while below them twinkles a medley of red lights from an oilfield. Beneath the prairie chickens' thrumming feet are the oil reserves of the Permian Basin.

Before dawn we ease into place, using our car as a blind. Soon we hear the coos and soft clucks of the assembling birds, and dawn reveals about a dozen dancing males and a single female, eyeing the lot, deciding which is the most fit father. They occasionally cast a glance in our direction, but are mostly intent on their urgent spring ritual.

Lesser Prairie Chicken at his lek (Photo by Narca)

If you would like to see prairie chickens on their booming grounds, a very good option is to participate in the annual April High Plains Lesser Prairie Chicken Festival at Milnesand, NM. Local ranchers provide food to participants and open their properties to field trips. It's possible to arrange a room at some of the ranches or to camp in Milnesand. Here's the link:

Be sure to sign up early, because the festival sells out quickly!

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