I'm wrapping up my time in Oklahoma. The Leks, Treks, and More lesser prairie chicken festival is still going on with a cool post tour to Black Mesa, but I have to return to the Twin Cities to do some park rangerin' tomorrow. The festival had birding trips surrounded the Woodward area, but the main thrust of the festival was the lesser prairie chicken.
My first morning at the festival, I met the group at 5am to ride out to the Selman Ranch to get to the blinds. There had been some concerns about the rain that had recently fallen, making many of the unpaved roads we were taking a bit treacherous, but our experienced drivers got to us the area with the blinds. We had to scale two step ladders over a barbed wire fence...only this is a photo of when we were leaving, when we were on our way to the leks, we had to do this in darkness, the sun was not up yet. The leks we visited were on private property, cattle ranches.
These were the portable blinds we sat in on the prairie. Winds in Oklahoma are fierce and the blinds were staked deep into the ground. We sat three to a blind and I actually ended up in a blind with two fellow bloggers: Drawing the Motmot and From The Faraway, Nearby. I was a tad nervous, I discovered that morning that I forgot my deodorant and my toothbrush, I was going into the blind and hoped it would stay cool enough so I wouldn't stink up the joint.
It did stay cool, it felt like it was in the 40s, which was a treat for me, some greater prairie chicken viewing has been in 10 degree weather, so above freezing was a pleasure. The birds were so close, that we really did not need binoculars. I took this photo from the window without my scope. We arrived in the blinds in total darkness and sat waiting for the birds to start their display. I huddled beneath my layers, listening to all the sounds around us. Cattle waking and beginning their deep mooing. Turkeys gobbled in the distance, then we heard the gobbling of the chickens.
As the light in the morning grew brighter, I could get some photos of the male. Cornell Lab of Ornithology describes this interaction as, "Males display by exposing and enlarging the superciliary eye-combs, elevating tail to highest extent, erecting pinnae and positioning them forward and parallel to the ground, drooping wings and spreading primaries, extending neck and head in forward position, stamping feet on ground and moving forward, and expanding esophageal air sacs and producing Booming vocalization"
If that was hard to read or understand, Non Birding Bill made this animated giff of a "Before and After" of a male lesser prairie chicken displaying:
You can also watch a video I took of the behavior too (and more importantly, hear the sounds of these crazy dancing chickens).
The males went at it for a good hour. The danced, fluttered, squabbled, and stamped their feet in their individual territories. Periodically, a male would run over and challenge another male. They would bow and display to each other, almost like the start of some odd square dance. Some times there would be a display and the birds would walk away or sometimes, things would escalate into full on fighting with a few feathers left hanging and falling in the aftermath.
The males displayed themselves into utter exhaustion. I know how winded I can get on a dance floor and I'm just doing it for fun. These birds are doing it...sort of like the guys in the musical West Side Story. They are dance-fighting out their issues, nonstop without eating for several hours. These two males were bowing to each other and the male on the left, appeared unable to keep his eyes open, as if we were saying, "Dude, I'm too tired, let it go."
However, as soon as a female appeared on the scene, every male immediately woke up, it was as if all them were instantly injected with Red Bull. Their displays became more frantic and they ran back and forth around the female displaying their virility. We saw about three or four females approach the lek throughout the morning, it was interesting to watch their behavior. When a male approached, the female would hide in grasses and preen. If a male gave up, she would stop preening and watch the displays, I wondered what in the displays she was hoping to see--the size of the yellow pouches? The droop of the wings? The sound of the gobble?
I only saw one female select a male and attempt mating. That was the video I posted earlier...where we had some "male chicken blocking" going on. Considering how quick bird mating goes, that second attempt was probably successful in fertilizing on egg.
I did notice one male who apparently had some pouch issues. Do you see it? He has a hole. This most likely occured during one of the many fights we witnessed. Lesser prairie chickens have a sharp beak, so a good solid peck would damage the pouch, affected the gobble sounds and reduce this male's chances of mating with a female.
All in all it was a pretty cool experience and I loved hanging out in the blind and just watching one bird and absorbing its behavior. It was a treat sitting next to an artist and watching her sketch the lesser prairie chickens. I admire the ability to do what looks like a few simple strokes and capture the essence of a creature. Her sketchs also capture the movement and mood of the chicken. Here is a link to Drawing the Motmot's lesser prairie chicken sketches that she made in the blind--so cool.
Crap, I just looked at the time, I need to pack for my flight back to the Twin Cities, more Oklahoma adventures coming later!