The last stop on my trip was to Milnesand, NM. This is the area where I hoped to first see and with luck photograph Lesser Prairie Chickens.
According to the Nature Conservancy, the Lesser Prairie Chicken were once abundant in the high plains country of five states. There number have plummeted by 97% since 1900. About half of its current population lives in western Kansas, with the other half in the sand hills and prairies of western Oklahoma, the Texas Panhandle, eastern New Mexico, and southeastern Colorado.
The birds are in even more trouble these days due to the ongoing drought and are becoming even scarcer. It has been 3 years since there has been any significant rain which the young birds need as they feed primarily on bugs produced by the rains.
The Nature Conservancy to date has purchased 28,000 acres of grasslands, which have the proper cover for the LP Chickens.
After a 360 mile drive I finally arrived at the ranch where I was to meet my host Tish Mcdaniels. I was welcomed by a group of people dedicated to insuring the future of the Lesser Prairie Chicken in New Mexico. Each was a specialist in their field and each day they went out in search of birds on their leks. For a birder like myself its wonderful to meet people who have a love for birds.
Leks are areas where male Prairie Chickens display and court females in the hopes of mating with them. At dawn you can hear the males booming call, a sound which is amplified by the air-sacs on the side of their necks, also they make a variety of cackling calls. They also hold their tails erect and stiffen their wings at their sides, all the while stamping their feet which can be heard easily if your close enough. The dominant males are closer to the center and squabbles are common. They continue even if their are no females close by.
Next morning at 5:30am, I went out with biologist Jake Swafford in the hope of finding birds booming on a local lek. Well, I tell you I wasn’t hoping for much but was I in for a surprise. As soon as we were within 300 yards you could hear the birds, getting louder the closer we got. We parked the truck as close as we dared to the lek and waited. You could hear and see movement of at least 15 birds. As the sun came up I realized just how close we were to the displaying birds.
The sun lit up the scene and each male displayed on their patch of turf, at times they squared off facing each other and nothing happened and other times they fought for their turf. A female came into the center of the lek and caused quite a stir. She hung around for about an hour then strolled off without choosing a male. After 10 minutes she came back and again walked amongst the males.
We stayed on that lek for 4 hours of non-stop action.
But the action did slow down considerably once the female left for the second time.
I will remember that morning for a long time through my photos and videos. What a morning.
After we left Jake and I birded for the rest of the day and had quite a good list by the end of it. This is a good area and there’s a good variety of species. I had planned to spend 2 days in the area but I lost 2 days due to weather. I will get back there some day, 24 hours is definitely not enough time.
I wish to thank, Tish McDaniels, Kathleen for the great pizza, Chris, Jake Swafford for a great day, Dave, Dustin,Willard and Lawry (hope we can meet again in Oregon and find the White-headed Woodpecker.
Please Donate to the Nature Conservancy they do some wonderful work.
Ciao for now…