April 25, 2018 Cheyenne Bottoms, Kansas

Courting
Courting

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.

Before Sunrise
Before Sunrise

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.

Face-off
Face-off

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.

Face-off
Face-off

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.

Face-off
Face-off

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.

Prairie Chicken Display
Prairie Chicken Display

Gradually, some light began to illuminate the lek as the sun started to approach the horizon.

Male Prairie Chicken
Male Prairie Chicken

A Prairie Chicken male with his ” ears ” down and his pouches collapsed.

Male Prairie Chicken
Male Prairie Chicken

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.

Male Prairie Chicken
Male Prairie Chicken
Prairie Chicken Display
Prairie Chicken Display

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.

Prairie Chicken Display
Face-off
Face-off
Face-off
Prairie Chicken Aerials
Prairie Chicken Aerials

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.

Prairie Chicken Aerials
Prairie Chicken Aerials

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.

Prairie Chicken Display
Male Prairie Chicken
Prairie Chicken Display
Male Prairie Chicken
Prairie Chicken Display
Double Date

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.

Male Prairie Chicken
Male Prairie Chicken
Courting
Courting
Face-off
Face-off
Courting
Courting
Face-off
Face-off
Prairie Chicken Aerial
Prairie Chicken Aerial
Morning On the Lek
Morning On the Lek

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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2 thoughts on “April 25, 2018 Cheyenne Bottoms, Kansas”

  1. Some great shots considering the tribulations of the shoot. The second to last shot of the aerial attack is super. They are impressive birds. No doubt you have some more good images coming! Funny truths about the cow pies and tall grasses….

  2. It’s amazing these photos were taken before sunrise! You really have some awesome lenses and camera. Looking forward to seeing more images. And what a great experience! This has been on my bucket list and hopefully I will be able to do it some day.

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