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!

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Short-tailed Hawks

Last month saw so few postings because I was deep in a manuscript on the first nest of Short-tailed Hawk found in the western US. In May 2007, Helen and Noel Snyder found the nest high in the Chiricahua Mountains, and several of us took turns spending days in a tower blind, observing the hawks' behavior and detailing their nesting biology. Noel was the paper's senior author, and just yesterday it went into the mail to Western Birds, a fine regional journal focused on field ornithology. Now... freedom!

During my sojourn in the blind, the female Short-tail confronted an Apache Fox Squirrel which was climbing the nest tree. When the squirrel was about 80 feet above the ground, the hawk slammed into it several times, driving it leaping down the tree. Here is a drawing that depicts the rout!

Short-tailed Hawk Defends Her Nest
(Pen and ink by Narca)

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Bring on the Poppies!

The El NiƱo storms of winter soaked the desert southwest, and now we're seeing the results: native Mexican Gold Poppies cloak the lower slopes of the Chiricahuas and Peloncillos, and flood the San Simon Valley in a golden tide.

Mexican Gold Poppies

I'm off today to guide my second tour of the spring to Big Bend National Park (this one for World Wildlife Fund), and no doubt by the time I return, many other blooms will brighten these hills!

Sunburst: Mexican Gold Poppies (Photos by Narca)