It’s 5:40 AM and I couldn’t see anything yet, though the sky was beginning to lighten in the east. But I could here them. They sounded vaguely like coffee bubbling up in a percolator, not the low booming sound of their bigger cousins. A sound primal in nature and part of the southern prairie, but now too seldom heard. Mingled with this constant booming were chicken-like cackles. At 5:55 AM the dawn light was strong enough that I could see a shape jumping towards the sky, then a second followed by another joining their rival. By 6:05 AM it was light enough to watch a bird fly into the lek, most likely a female drawn to investigate her would-be suitors. By 6:20 AM the males were now clearly visible, running back and forth and jumping in the air, all trying to out strut each other to better attract the wary females. Wary is the operative word. At 6:25 AM a Northern Harrier glided close and the entire group of Lesser Prairie Chickens flew 100 yards further away. Yesterday, while watching the Greater Prairie Chickens north of Wray, the morning ritual was abruptly ended by a Golden Eagle that landed in the middle of the lek.
Lesser Prairie Chickens are not flourishing like the Greater Prairie Chickens. In Southeast Colorado the winter of 2006 was harsh killing many of the Prairie Chickens. There are now only around a hundred birds left in the state according to Fred Dorenkamp of Arena Dust Tours. The critical factor may be sufficient forbs for the young to feed on and Colorado Division of Wildlife is working with area landowners to plant both additional forbs and grasses in thousands of acres in Prowers and Bacca County. Hopefully this will help increase the populations so that the sound of percolating coffee once again bubbles on the Colorado prairies.
The prairie held other surprises for Bill and I. On the drive home we decided to try for Mountain Plovers in the short grass prairie west of Karval, CO. We were rewarded by close looks at three different pairs of Mountain Plovers!
All in all a very successful two day trip with ten new year birds and just as important a better understanding of the Short Grass Prairie.