Thursday, 22 April 2010

Little grouse on the prairie

From top: the first Lesser Prairie-chicken emerges from the gloom; then, encouraged by the warming sun, lekking birds start putting on a full display.

The rain lashed down yesterday evening. Sheets of lightening illuminated the night sky above Lamar, Colorado, and I fell asleep to the rhythmic crack and rumble of thunder. Only fools would contemplate going out in such weather, and shortly after 3 am 10 fools did exactly that. To make matters more challenging, after a steady drive on tarmac we decanted into a 30-year-old school bus and ground and slid our way along muddy tracks out onto the prairie. It wouldn't have been so bad if we could see where we were going, but the fog saw to that. A half-mile drive took 20 minutes until, having circled and back-tracked, we finally got our bearings in the gloom and parked up close to where the birds should have been.

Somewhere out there, the prairie-chickens were chuckling at us. We knew this because we could hear their muffled laughter, but clapping eyes on them was another matter. Western Meadowlark, Grasshopper Sparrow and Yellow-headed Blackbird all came and went until, finally, I glimpsed a couple of chickens whizzing past the van in the half light. It was a poor view, and Luke was the only other one to catch them before they vanished.

So we waited. And waited some more. Finally, the decision was made to edge closer to where the birds seemed to be gathered out of sight, and our driver, now aided by the half-glow of dawn, was able to take exactly the right direction. Within a few minutes of parking up again, we began to catch sight of birds moving through the buffalo grass, occasionally pausing in the open before pursuing their rivals.

Then, for a magical few minutes, the sun broke through, and crisp golden light fell across the tall-grass prairie in front of us. Their inner senses triggered, six Lesser Prairie-chickens began catapulting themselves into the air, sometimes randomly on their own, other times at opponents in this ancient yet familiar ritual to win the attention of females. It was an extraordinary spectacle and a privilege to watch as it unfolded in front of us; if only it could have lasted longer. Before we knew it, it was time to leave the booming grounds and head back with Norma and Fred to the ranch for a chuck-wagon breakfast. Our guides were gracious hosts too, and I can tell you, coffee, eggs and biscuit never tasted so good.

The rest of an eventful day included Harris's Sparrow (thanks Luke), a convivial chat with a Colorado state trooper (thanks Enterprise Car Rental), tornado warnings, two distant Long-billed Curlews, a Ferruginous Hawk, an audience with a cattle rancher and more than enough beer to round off the evening. Tomorrow is my last full day in the state - flights back to England permitting - and a last chance for any key outstanding targets. Key is the word - my ABA list now hovers at 599 species.

The Colorado crazy gang, holed up in the chuck house (from left, around table): Jerry, Annette, Sara, Ben, Trevor, Denise, Barbara and leaders Luke and Joe.

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