Chasing Chickens

Monday, May 29, 2017
For years I have been wanting to do a North American chicken run. Chicken run? Yes, you read that correctly. In other words I wanted to go in search of as many displaying and lekking grouse/prairie-chicken species as possible. Realistically this includes six different species:
  1. Lesser Prairie-Chicken
  2. Greater Prairie-Chicken
  3. Sharp-tailed Grouse
  4. Dusky Grouse
  5. Greater Sage-Grouse
  6. Gunnison Sage-Grouse
First things first, what is a lek? If you've not heard the term lek before, it refers to communal area in which multiple males of a species perform courtship displays. Leks are visited by females of the species that may be enticed if a males display meets their approval. Leks are only visited before or during the breeding season, which for many grouse is the early spring roughly late March through early May. 
Greater Sage-Grouse (Centrocercus urophasianus)
Greater Sage-Grouse Lek with 8 Males and 1 Female
The two most difficult species on my "Chicken List" hands down were Gunnison Sage-Grouse and Lesser Prairie-Chicken. The Gunnison Sage-Grouse is only found in three small populations (total population is estimated at 3000 birds), two of which are found in Colorado and the other in Utah. Lesser Prairie-Chicken populations have been in decline for some time due to a variety of reasons including habitat loss and drought. Their population is highly restricted to around he five states in the southern Great Plains and is estimated to be approximately 32,000 birds. The challenges for both of these species is their populations are not great and they lek mostly on private property. A scope is needed to properly view both. The leks themselves for these species are also changing, The birds are moving and no longer using traditional leks or are using different parts of the leks (further explanations to come in future posts).
Lesser Prairie-Chicken (Tympanuchus pallidicinctus)
Lesser Prairie-Chicken male on Lek
Since Gunnison Sage-Grouse are most regularly observed in Gunnison, Colorado we flew west to Colorado to chase some chickens. Upon landing we travelled east to tall prairie habitat in search of Lesser Prairie-Chicken. We got up at 4:30 am and drove in the dark down several dirt roads (which were covered in mud!) through some serious mud puddles until we pulled up next to a lek. It was pitch black when we arrived but the stars were incredible. With the windows of the car rolled down we listened for the birds beginning their dance. When the sky began to go from black to indigo blue we could hear the calls of the Lesser Prairie-Chickens starting. It was a very foggy morning and we were hoping the fog would lift so we could actually see the birds. Sure enough through the dark morning and the fog we could see two males lekking through the scope. Eventually fog began to lift with the rising sun and 3 males were revealed in their full splendor on their lek. The lek was about 600-800 meters from the road on private property so views of the birds were clear but distant.
Lesser Prairie-Chicken (Tympanuchus pallidicinctus)
Lesser Prairie-Chicken male on Lek
It's really hard not to laugh at lekking Lesser Prairie-Chickens because they are so comical. The males have so many vocalizations, in combination with their strutting, expanding of their air sacs on the side of the neck, erecting pinnate feathers and jumping widely in the the air- they are very entertaining while lekking.
Lesser Prairie-Chicken (Tympanuchus pallidicinctus)
Lesser Prairie-Chicken male on Lek
While we didn't notice any females on the lek there was plenty of long grasses for them to camouflage with and it is quite possible some ladies were around watching the show. With the three males on the lek displaying, we also had a flock of four birds fly over the lek into a distant field. After watching the display we were driving some of the dirt roads back to the highway when we stumbled upon a group of 7 Lesser Prairie-Chickens beside the road. Alas, I got no photos as they ran back into the long grass as soon as the car slowed down. :(

Stay tuned for more posts about chicken chasing adventures :)


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