Seeing a displaying male Greater Prairie Chicken
Most people will say that “if you love birding, seeing a group of displaying male Prairie-chicken’s trying to impress females is a must do in your life time”! At the beginning of this trip I really didn’t think seeing a Prairie-chickens displaying was going to be at all possible, we were going to be chasing storms in the time they display so it just wasn’t going to work.
When the storm front went quiet for a week and the temperatures in Nebraska improved above average my wife and I decided there was no better chance to see one of mother natures great spectacles than right now.
It was defiantly a last minute decision to make the 600km trip from the middle of Kansas up to the North West corner of Nebraska but hey, why not?
We did some Google searches and found out that Valentine National Wildlife Reserve had a couple of Leks (display sites) for the Greater Prairie-chicken and Sharp-tailed Grouse which you could book. The only problem that we hadn’t considered was that we arrived Sunday afternoon and the ranger stations were not open to get information on the whereabouts of the Lek and make a reservation.
We took the risk anyway hoping the blind wasn’t booked as we could only stay two nights maximum before the we had to head east for more worm chasing. We arrived at our destination very surprised by the landscape, there was miles and miles of rolling baron sand hills with very few trees or shrubs at all.
We drove through the park late afternoon and quickly figured out there was no camping here at all inside the refuge. We were lucky enough to see a group of Sharp-tailed Grouse on the side of the road though.
We had a quick look at our camping app and found a camp about 50km north so we headed there. The park was called Niobrara State Park, all we needed was a nice quiet place to sleep for the night and this was perfect as it was deserted and nothing special.
The next morning we decided to get up early and go driving like we always do, we saw a lot of White-tailed Deer, Wild Turkeys and even a couple of Elk roaming around this area.
We then headed towards the town of Valentine and discovered a wildlife reserve on the way, it was called Niobrara Wildlife Reserve and it had a massive heard of American Bison and Elk roaming the park. The Bison even had a couple of very young calves which were pretty cute.
The park also had its own Prairie Dog town, you just had to be very careful navigating around the area as the Prairie Dogs even had holes in the middle of the road which I discovered after a giant thud!
After we did the self tour drive of the Niobrara Wildlife Reserve we dropped into the information centre where we found out we could book the Prairie-chicken blind, luckily for us it was free the morning we wanted it. The park let you book the hide free of charge which was a pleasant surprise, I provided my email address and they promptly forwarded all the information and maps through.
The very helpful young lady at the info centre warned us that it’s best to go and do a reconnaissance mission during daylight hours as the blind is very hard to find in the pitch black of 5am!! She even mentioned she had had people book it and end up not finding it.. Fail!
So we did took her advice and headed to the Lek site, the map showed us to an area where we had to park the car then follow the map along the fence about 800m into the middle of a prairie. The only thing I could see that identified the spot was a small hut (blind) built for people to view these birds and a large amount of poo on the ground around us. We were told the blind would fit up to 4 people, there were 2 chairs inside and I would not recommend anymore the 2 people in the blind at one time, it is very small.
On the way back from finding the Lek we found a colony of Great Blue Herons on there nests, strange seeing such a big water bird nesting so far inland.
We set the alarm for 4.40am as we planned to be in the blind by 5.30am before the birds got there. The alarm went off and up we got, it was pitch black and very cold. We had found a closer camp run by the Department of Fishing Game called Ballards Marsh State Wildlife Area so we only had a 30 minute drive to our destination.
We repeated the trip we had done the previous day but in pitch black, I could very much see how you could get lost even with the most detailed map in the darkness had you not been there before.
We arrived at the blind at 5.35am and got organised, we thought we had about a 40 minute wait before the show began but to our delight the birds started flocking in at 5.50am. It was still pitch black at this time but hearing their booming in the dark was unreal. It was an agonising 40 minute wait until it was light enough to start taking photos, it was actually really cool to watch the sun rise over these spectacular creatures.
We realised to our delight that not 10 metres from the blind was a very dominating male, this was a perfect distance for me to get him full-frame with my 600ml lens without an extender. As the light slowly illuminated the Lek over the next 2 hours we witnessed up to 13 male Greater Prairie-chickens stomp their feet, puff up their bright orange vocal pouch, fan their tails, raise there feather horns and dance about often engaging in combat with other males that dare get to close.
We did not see a single female Greater Prairie-chicken that morning on the Lek but to our great surprise a singular male Sharped-tailed Grouse joined the party much to the Prairie-chickens annoyance. He did not get very close to the blind but we did get to witness his dance routine from afar. His dance was very different to the Prairie-chickens, he points up his bright white tail so you can really see the how he gets his name, then puts his head down and wings out as he displays his bright purple vocal pouch as he quite comically runs around in a circle.
Overall a great experience, we will definitely join the list of people that recommend this spectacle as a “must see” in your life time!
I also captured an awesome video of the full display here