Sunday, March 28, 2010

Greater Prairie Chicken Heaven

Today is Sunday 3/28 and it began with a ride on a school bus with a group of birders mostly from Colorado. But I am ahead of myself, so let's go back a day. My sis and I were up later than normal, not hitting the road until 8 AM. Our morning target was some feeders at the Fawnbrook Inn in the little town of Allen's Park, about 45 minutes from Boulder. We were making one more attempt at finding more rosy finches. The feeders were full and there were quite a few birds, but no rosies. Instead we had good looks at many cassin's finches, and a nice group of 8 evening grosbeaks--a new year bird.

We then pointed the tacoma east for a 3+ hour drive out to Wray, CO where we were joining other birders to visit a greater prairie chicken lek. Enroute we stopped at a couple of places to look for short-eared owls, but had no success. We arrived in Wray at 3:30 and checked into the Butte Motel. It was a "small town motel" and had an extensive list of don'ts on the inside door of each room such as no burning of towels. Even though it is an old timey motel, it did have wifi.

At 4:30 we all gathered at the Wray Museum to register for the "event". We (25 guests plus 2 media people from Channel 4 in Denver who were doing a news story on the doings) then got on a school bus for a tour of the town. Wray is a town of 2200 and we were driven by the fish hatchery, the high school, the rec center, the hospital, the not yet functional wind turbine, and flirtation point. We then drove 6 miles to the neighboring town of Laird to have a steak dinner at the community center.

Before eating a local woman gave a talk with many props about the plains indians. It ran a bit long so our medium rare steaks no longer were, but the meat still tasted quite good, as did the baked potato, green beans and green salad. For dessert we had a choice of apple, cherry, coconut cream, or lemon meringue pie, or angel food cake. You might want to check out my sister's blog (morgan creek chronicles) for even more "color" on this event.

After our meal the local Colorado Dept of Wildlife officer educated us about greater prairie chickens. We learned that the dust bowl radically affected the chickens, and by the early 70's there were only 600 greater PC's remaining in Colorado. The state put the bird on its endangered list, and began a program working with ranchers and farmers to bring the bird back. Today they estimate there are 15,000 birds in Colorado. He then told us the do's and don'ts for this morning when we get to the blind which was a trailer with 2 rows of bench seats that even had cushions to sit on.

We left from the museum at 5:20 AM, watched an almost full moon set, and were settled into our seats by 6 AM, just as some early light was tinting the sky. The chickens began what is called booming as they walked in from the sage brush. The so-called booming is the noise the males make as they strut around, blowing out the orange air sacs in their necks, sticking the tail feathers up in the air along with feathers on their neck called pinnae which look like ears when elevated (see top 2 photos--if you click on any photo in this blog, it will be enlarged; double click makes it even bigger; hit the back arrow to return to the blog).

The photos above can only give you a partial feel for these birds mating dance. Try to imagine an open, grassy area that is 200 yards square and has 22 males trying to get the attention of 6 females. The 3rd photo shows 2 males dancing around a single female, and the 4th shows 3 males in competition for the female over on the left side of the picture. The bottom most photo shows 2 males facing off with each other over the piece of ground they are stomping their feet on.

The show goes on until the females tire of being chased around by the males. We, however, departed about 7:30 when the 1st couple of females left the lek, and when our feet and hands were numb from sitting in 35 degree early spring weather. We felt lucky since the group the day before had experienced high winds and 25 degree temps.

We drove about 10 minutes to the Fitzmiller Grazing Association ranch house to have a pancake, scrambled eggs and bacon breakfast. The lek is on the Fitzmiller land, and for the past 16 years they have worked with Wray to offer 8 tours each spring for birders and non-birders to see the truly amazing mating dance of the greater prairie chicken. I have to say that being able to see these beautiful birds in a blind is a gift that everyone whether they are a birder or not would appreciate. Thank you Wray and the Fitzmiller Grazing Assoc.

We bussed back into Wray and were back on the road before 11 AM. I dropped my sis off at the Denver Int'l airport at 2 PM for her flight back to NC. I am now back in Ft. Collins writing this post while watching the Duke Blue Devils battle (and beat) the Baylor Bears to move onto the NCAA final four basketball games next weekend. The greater PC was another new year bird raising that YTD number to 416. The total new birds for this week is now at 51. The travel map at the top has also been updated today. This evening I am going out to look for a boreal owl. Stay tuned!


  1. It's stunning that of 415 birds on your Big Year list- only 14 of them are new to you. I've always known you to be an avid birder but had no idea of the depth.

  2. great pics! What a lot of fun we had, my life list is now up to 431 thanks to the 28 new birds I added with you last week.
    Hope you got those owls.

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