Kansas Prairie Chickens
Tuesday I was up and on the road by 4:30 AM to meet up with five other folks for a chance to photograph Prairie Chickens doing their springtime mating rituals on a lek north of Cheyenne Bottoms NWR. This was an organized tour led by the folks at the Kansas Wetlands Education Center at Cheyenne Bottoms. Limited to six people, a staff member drove us about ten miles or so north of the refuge to a privately owned site where they had set up a small trailer that was used as a blind.
We had to arrive at the blind before it became light to avoid scaring the birds from approaching the lek. Almost as soon as we all were tucked into the tight confines of the blind, I could just make out some birds moving onto the lek about 100 feet in front of the trailer. It was still way too dark to bother taking any photos as about seven or eight males started strutting their stuff in front of us.
With barely any light to work with, since sunrise was still an hour away when I finally started shooting, I had to bump the ISO up to 1600, really too high for any decent shots with my Nikon D810, but these first shots were taken with the lens wide open at ISO 1600, so that I could get a shutter speed that might almost freeze the birds’ movements.
I suppose I was wasting my time shooting under these conditions, but I had never seen a Prairie Chicken before and who knew if there would ever be enough light for some good shots before the birds left the lek.
So I started shooting and was a little surprised when I got these images onto the computer screen and a few of them were fairly sharp.
Nothing great, mind you, but not bad considering how dark it still was. The shots above were taken when you could barely make out the birds in the darkness, these images appear much brighter than the actual scenes as seen with the naked eye.
Gradually, some light began to illuminate the lek as the sun started to approach the horizon.
A Prairie Chicken male with his ” ears ” down and his pouches collapsed.
As the light became a little better, I could now see there was going to be a problem with grasses here and there on the lek. Two thirds of the area where the males displayed was covered in short green grass with the remainder being patches of wispy taller dried grasses that withstood the winter. Needless to say, the birds made no attempt to do their best displays out in the clear short grass, showing no consideration for the folks in the trailer.
In addition to the taller grasses, there also were dried cow pies scattered about the lek and, of course, most of the action took place around one of these.
The males spent the majority of their time just parading around, attempting to impress the few females that showed up. But every so often two guys would square off facing each other, crouch down, and then one, or sometimes both, would hop straight up, I suppose trying to intimidate the other bird.
Unfortunately, most of these aerials were performed before the light became bright enough to be able to freeze the action using a decent ISO and aperture.
As the light slowly became better and I was able to get the ISO down to 800, I managed to start getting some decent shots.
All told, there were probably eight or nine males that performed on the lek the morning I was there. Females were hard to count since they would come in, check out the various performances, then mate ( or not ), then leave the lek. The males all stayed to the bitter end, then trotted off when it was somehow determined that the show was over.
I was in the blind/trailer from around 5:45 AM until the birds all left the lek at about 9 AM. All the images in this post were taken before the sun actually broke the horizon. Since I took over 1400 images during this three plus hour stay, I still have a LOT of images to process, and these unprocessed ones were during the time of decent light. So, next post may have some better images … we’ll see. Stay tuned.
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