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Chicken Dance!

3/31/2019 - 4/1/2019


It was yet another long week at work, and Saturday morning started a long day of rain. I thought I was okay with that; as I needed to catch up on sleep and get some things done around the house. The urge to get some photos, any at all, proved stronger than my will to do housework. I hung a feeder in the blooming maple tree and waited for the birds to start coming into it. Getting them to cooperate was an entirely different situation.


Saturday afternoon, I hopped in the car and headed west. Sunday morning, I was going to do something I'd always dreamed about. Our state Audubon chapter had arranged a visit to the Prairie Ridge SNA near Newton, IL, where we would get to photograph Greater Prairie Chickens from the photo blinds. It's been a while since the blinds operated. The interpreter estimated the local population at about 120 birds. They hit a population low and were suffering from lack of genetic diversity a number of years ago. A program to bolster the population with birds from Kansas was started, and they are slowly recovering.


To get into the blinds, you have to arrive an hour before sunrise. At 5 AM Sunday morning, a small group of lucky individuals gathered at the headquarters and then drove to the blind location. From there, it was a short 1/4-mile hike across wet fields to get to the blinds. The blinds are small plywood shelters with a 4 to 5 inch slot in one side. There is a wooden bench inside and a trash can. While it lacks a lot in amenities, the view is great. Well, mostly great. The slot is too thin to get the camera lens through. Not that we could stick it out, but I also couldn't rest it on the lip of the slot. The bench was also a bit too close for the length of the lens. So, I'm having to hunch at a weird angle while leaning back and supporting the full weight of the camera and lens. By the end of the day, I was wore out and tired - but very happy. I think we were in the blind for about 4 hours.


It was hard to cut down the number of photos. I took over 2,000. I kept 900 of those and pared those down to 41. From a percentage view point, I did well. :) Promptly at 6 AM, the first "booming" started. From that first curious sound, a cacophony of noises erupted. The chickens make a number of noises. They make the "boom" that sounds more like a hiccup, to me. They also do a variety of cackles and another curious sound that resembles an excited "whooop!". It may very well be; as our interpreter indicated you mainly hear it when the females are present. The females always show up later, and we had a good number of them. I think final counts for the day were 18 males and 11 females. We were all excited and kept trying to take pictures before the sun even rose above the horizon. We just needed to be patient. The sun eventually broke over the horizon and blazed across the field in front of us. We had great light and one of the greatest spectacles I've seen in a long time.

A few things to note from the photos above:

1) The males have long, dark feathers they can raise above their heads. They also have the yellow air sacs on the sides of their necks. The more purple you see around the edge, the younger the bird.

2) Older males also develop a white spot near their shoulder.

3) The hens are smaller and more grayish in appearance.

4) The hens are really good at ignoring the males. Sure, they are keeping an eye on them, but if you look at the photos with males and females in them, the hens are almost always looking away from the male.

5) There is one photo of a male and a female where the male is pressed flat against the ground. He actually went further down, but I lost focus due to the grass. This is called the "nuptial bow". This is one of the dominant males on the lek, and he is basically presenting himself as her best choice for a mate. For the record, he was unsuccessful.

6) The chickens actually have a dance they perform, and on quieter days (it was quite noisy with high winds), you can hear them stamp their feet on the ground.


With all the females around, the action was plentiful. It was hard to tell where to look. We needed to stay in the blinds until the females left. I wasn't sure how much longer I could hold up the camera towards the end. Eventually, a Northern Harrier flew in and harassed the chickens, and the lek cleared. We beat a hasty retreat back to the cars. After a very informative Q&A, it was time for me to head home. Work started at 8:30 that night, and I was going to need a nap.


Thanks for reading,

Mike



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