Saturday, April 05, 2014

Greater Prairie Chicken Lek

Kirk and I visited Prairie Ridge State Natural Area in Newton, Illinois. It was a pretty early morning, since we wanted to be there at least a half an hour before sunrise. Weather and conditions favored us; the wind was not bitter and the birds showed up. Almost as soon as we got to the northwest corner of the yard at the office, we began hearing an unearthly sound in the distance. Books describe the Greater Prairie Chicken's call as blowing across a coke bottle. I guess that is the best description, but it doesn't do the sound justice. Soon we began to make out the prairie chickens on the lek about 300 yards away. Two of them were hooting it up. Soon they started whooping. The naturalist who was watching with us mentioned that the whoops meant that there were female prairie chickens nearby. Sure enough, we spotted first one female, and then four more. The males began dancing in earnest, with fancy footwork and fluttery jumps into the air. The one male kept the other away from the females, and posturing and battles ensued. It was fun to watch this action. Soon, another male and another female showed up. It turns out that at least one of the males was a recently released bird that was captured in Kansas. The naturalist was happy to see him mixing it up with the locals so soon. They have been restocking with Kansas birds because the weather has taken its toll on the Illinois population, especially with an untimely hail storm last year. Eventually the females flew off to the north, leaving the guys with no one to impress. They eventually stopped performing and flew off after seventy-five minutes of strutting.

Who wants to see those crisp photos that are everywhere these days, when you could have photos that look like impressionist art? Did I mention that the lek was 300 yards away in low light?

Anyway, I was happy to capture some pictures that at least I could make out as prairie chickens. Here are the two first males side by side strutting their stuff.

One of the males walking along the top of the lek. The state discs the lek every year to keep the vegetation low.

I don't think I got any pictures of the females. They were clear enough to see in the scope, but they blended right in at that distance and light to my camera. For such large birds, they did a good job of hiding.

Two of the males doing battle.  It was a fun trip out to south-central Illinois to see these cool birds.  It is less than three hours from Indy and easy to get to.

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