Greater Prairie-Chicken Lek: May 17 & 18


I always wanted to see a Wilson's Snipe on a fence post. They are such secretive birds when I see them in the winter in Alabama. Testosterone drives males to do some crazy things.

After getting supplies for my 9 days of tent camping, I headed north to Grand Forks. I planned to spend Sunday morning birding Kelly’s Slough National Wildlife Refuge then possibly sewage ponds at Grand Forks and Crookston, MN before scouting out my Greater Prairie-Chicken blind in Glacier Ridge NWR in MN. The weather report for the coming two days did not look good: rain developing overnight with heavy storms all day Sunday and then wind on Monday. I got into Grand Forks in late evening and paid $24 to put my tent down in the Red River Recreation Area. This was the oddest camping of my trip. It was crowded, birdless (a field with trailers parked all over it), brightly lit, and noisy because my site was near a fairly busy road and the railroad tracks. But, I was able to walk from my tent to a nice Asian restaurant. For the rest of the trip, I just put my tent down more-or-less wherever I was at the end of the day and got to sleep in awesome natural areas for free.

Kelly's Slough near Grand Forks was packed with Marsh Wrens and other marsh birds.

The wind picked up all night on Sunday and bursts of rain started. The morning was not pleasant. I got to Kelly’s Slough NWR in a windy drizzle and by 830 it was a steady rain that turned into a torrential rain. Before the rain got heavy I saw Hudsonian Godwits, Willets, Baird’s Sandpipers, and American Avocets at the viewing platform and enjoyed an abundance of marsh birds including Virginia Rail, Sora, Sedge Wren, Marsh Wren, and LeConte’s Sparrow. Yellow-headed Blackbirds, of course, were everywhere. Despite seeing many thousands of Yellow-headed Blackbirds during the trip, I still took notice every time I ran into them. It is not a bird I’m used to seeing, and I found it impossible to just look past them.

This guy was among the first but far from the last Yellow-headed Blackbird that I saw on my trip through North Dakota and Minnesota.

The rain really limited my ability to bird Kelly Slough. I got pretty soaked birding from the car with my window open. By 930 I retreated from the refuge as the rain became a torrential downpour that showed no signs of letting up. I had planned to take down my tent when the rain let up a bit, but it only rained harder and harder. Finally, I had to venture out in the downpour to get my tent and sleeping stuff that foolishly left in the tent. I got soaked in the process and so did a lot of my camping stuff.

While I was waiting out the rain, I wanted to cook my lunch on my little camp stove, but there were no shelters in the park where I camped and it was really raining hard. As I drove through Grand Forks wondering where I could stop and cook without getting soaked I notice the municipal parking garage—empty on a Sunday. Perfect. I drove to the second floor and had a vast dry cavern in which to spread out my wet tent, cook my lunch, and regroup after the wet morning.

After lunch I drove across the Red River into Minnesota headed for Glacier Ridge NWR. It was torrential rain until I got to Crookston, near the edge of the park, and then the rain let up. As a matter fact it actually got sunny and breezy for while in the afternoon. When I looked at the weather map, it showed a huge spiraling, hurricane-like storm over the region. The heavy rain was at the leading edge, which had come over me in the morning, with clearing behind. I could see that more bands of rain were coming, but I had a few hours of respite. Glacier Ridge NWR is a neat transitional habitat at the edge of tallgrass prairie and northern deciduous forest. It is more prairie than forest, and it holds key habitat for tall grassprairie birds like Greater Prairie-Chicken, Sedge Wren, and Sandhill Crane. As I drove around in the sunny interval I was thrilled to twice fine Wilson’s Snipe sitting up in conspicuous perches. The first exposed snipe was on the rail of a train track running on a raised bed. This perch put the snipe 10 feet above the surrounding countryside, but it didn’t make for the most scenic photograph. An hour later, however, I spotted a snipe sitting on fence post in perfect light. I got to see something I had read about but never seen before and it ended up being the only snipe I got to see sitting on a post for the entire trip (although I heard them displaying several more times in both Minnesota and North Dakota). It was fund to also see Clay-colored Sparrows, Marbled Godwits, and Brewer’s Blackbirds in their breeding habitat.

Clay-colored Sparrow were abundant throughout North Dakota and the prairie regions of Minnesota. I saw my first for the trip at Glacier Ridge NWR.

Harriers were by far the most common raptor throughout my trip and most of the birds that I saw were gray males. I almost never see gray birds in Alabama. I assume that females were on nests in ND and MN, leaving mostly gray males flying around. Why there are so few adult males in AL in the winter is a mystery, so far as I know.

In the evening I went over and checked out the grouse blind for the morning with winds increasing. As I approached the blind on the little dead-end gravel road I could see a distant grouse on the lek near the blind and a couple of other grouse were already flying. I snapped off a few hopeless photos of the distant birds on the ground and flying because the weather report was dismal for the next morning and there was no guarantee of birds. My “photographic life list” requires that the bird be identifiable in the image. My goal every time I point my camera at a bird is to achieve a photograph worthy of a magazine cover, but the minimum for a species to get on my photo life list is an identifiable image. Remarkably, the grouse in these distant snapshots were identifiable at least as prairie chickens.

The Greater Prairie-Chicken blind that I reserved for May 18 at Glacier Ridge NWR.

I decided to sleep on a dead-end, deserted road near the refuge. There were very few people in this area. I had not passed a single car all afternoon on the roads around the refuge, so putting my tent down on the little road seemed fine. The problem was not that someone might object—the problem was that the wind was rising and the temperature was falling. As I set up my tent at 8pm temps were falling through the forties and the wind was a constant 20 mph. By 9:30 as I struggled to get settled for the night, winds were a sustained 30 mph with higher gusts. My little pup tent was not faring well. This model is built sort of high with a flimsy stick structures holding it up, and the wind was simply flattening it. I finally had to pull my car right against the up-wind side to help break the gail and keep the tent from blowing away. With that technique, I could crawl into the flattened tent and have a little space, although the wind was snapping the side of the tent like a flag.

My poor tent, flattened by wind and covered with late-spring snow, but dry inside!

It wasn’t the most confortable night but at least it was dry inside the tent, which was impressive since there was lashing rain all night. It was sleeting when I woke up and the sleet would turn to snow in a couple of hours. Needless to say, it wasn’t all that pleasant in the grouse blind, but at least the little wooden structure cut most of the wind. I waited to hear displaying grouse as dawn slowly rose behind the heavery overcast, but the only noise to be heard was the rattle of blind as the 30 mph wind tore at it. At about 5:30am in the dim light of the overcast morning three male Greater Prairie-Chickens flew in. They were not that close—probably 150 feet away and the light was terrible, but I set the ISO on my camera to 1600 and was able to get some grainy photos. These pictures were far from works of art, but you could clearly see the head plumes and throat colors of the males to definitively identify them. I didn’t use a flash for fear of startling the birds, but they flew off in a few minutes anyway and never came back. Who could blame them? It was about 30 F with snow accumulating at the bases of grass tufts. About 7am I packed up and headed out. At least rest of the miserable windy morning was scheduled for driving.

Not the photograph of Greater Prairie-chicken that I dreamed of when I set up my trip, but I would get payback the next day at the Sharp-tailed Grouse lek.

© 2015 Geoffrey Hill

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