The banner at the entrance to the last outpost in the northeastern corner of Colorado says, Welcome Prairie-Chicken Viewers (above). This is the quaint town (All American City) of Wray, home to the Sandhill Dancers, named after the Greater Prairie-Chickens (below) that lek on the rolling grass covered sand hills of the Eastern Plains between mid March and the end of April.
Our two visits to the Kitzmiller Ranch lek were two weeks apart. As it gets lighter earlier the further into April one gets, it meant that the second group had to be on the bus, provided by the Chamber of Commerce as part of our tour package, 40 minutes earlier, at 4:30am! It was well worth getting up early. A half hour later we are huddled together on benches in a blind, somewhere on the sprawling ranch.
Somewhere in front of us before it is really light enough to see, we hear the cackling, cooing, booming, crying and laughing sounds of Greater Prairie-Chickens. As our eyes get adjusted small dark blobs in the distance move about and we realize that these are the chickens! By daybreak we are able to pick out that the orange comb and timpani (air sac on the neck) are the same deep orange color. The males are facing off against each other (above), strutting about, stomping their feet, cackling, booming , bowing their heads and raising their pinnae, in an effort to attract a female. On this exposed patch of prairie, some even jump a few feet to get a little more attention. The females walk nonchalantly between the males, ignoring them, teasing them, and in no hurry to pick a mate. The dominant male or males usually draw the most attention. The first trip had 17 males and 1 female on the lek, while the second had 19 males and 6 females, with 3 copulations witnessed.
After several hours in the blind, we boarded the bus and were off to a scrumptious breakfast, that ranch manager Russ, and a wonderful crew of volunteers put on. On my second visit, Russ told us, that the next morning after our first visit, it was the first time that they had to cancel the lek tour. They were unable to get the participants to the lek, because of 5 foot snow drifts across the ranch roads! Somehow we dodged that one.
Bonny Lake State Park (above) is a wonderful place to see Great-horned Owls and we have had also had luck finding Long-eared Owls. Though we could not confirm two birds on nests with the first group, the second group did indeed have both.
We also got our only Clark’s Grebes of the trip as well as a few Bonaparte’s Gulls. While both groups saw Wild Turkey and Chipping Sparrows, the scrubby edge habitat produced Townsend’s Solitaire, Eastern Bluebird and Broadwing Hawk for the second group, while the others had Cooper’s Hawk, Wood Duck, Pied-billed Grebe and Ross’s and Snow Geese (below).