by Bret “T-Bone” Amundson
The “clucking” began shortly after I arrived. Before I could tell where the sounds were coming from, wings were flapping in all directions. Then the booming began.
The prairie chickens were here.
I’d always wanted to visit a “lek” and watch the annual spectacle that is the spring mating ritual of the prairie chicken. To attract a mate, the males puff out bright orange air sacs, crouch low and show off their best moves. An area on the lek is staked out and defended. Males spar and display for the visiting females who slowly make their way through the crowd, searching for their knight in shining feathers. Leks are traditional areas that prairie chickens return to year after year for spring courtship. This particular piece is thought to be one of the oldest known leks, going back to pre-settlement days.
I heard about a viewing location in Clay County at the Bluestem Prairie Reserve, just 20 minutes from Fargo-Moorhead and called ahead to reserve a spot in one of their two blinds. It’s recommended that you call ahead as blinds get busy and walking out on your own can disrupt the viewing experience for others.
In fact, that happened to us.
Just like a hunting situation, you’re encouraged to arrive an hour before sunrise so that you’re in place before the birds arrive. That meant a 4 am wake up call and pulling up to Bluestem as the dashboard clock illuminated a five and a couple zeros.
One truck welcomed me with a bobbing headlamp in front of it disappearing into the blackness. I grabbed my camera and began the walk down a well-worn path with directional signs and reflectors guiding the way. A wooden blind outfitted with a padded seat would be my home for the next few hours. My morning beverage sat abandoned in the cupholders of my truck- bathroom breaks weren’t going to be a luxury. I opened the blind windows and started to wait.
By 5:30, prairie chickens were inbound. The darkness impeded my ability to take pictures, but the show had begun. If you haven’t heard these chickens on a lek, or “booming ground”, during this ritual, it’s a sound you won’t soon forget. The clucks and chirps are backed by a surreal, atmospheric “coo” (or boom) that seems to come from all directions. You can listen to it here.
By 6:00 am, visible birds were criss-crossing through ankle-high prairie grass making all sorts of racket. It was easy to see how they got their name-their strut and cluck weren’t too far from their domesticated cousins. Although I’d never seen anything that resembled this in a barnyard. Not long after I was able to start getting footage and still shots. I didn’t quite have the light I wanted, but there were a dozen birds within 15 yards and I didn’t want to pass up the opportunity.
6:30 rolled around and two-dozen prairie chickens were in full on display mode, strutting and trying to two-step their way into the hearts of hens everywhere.
Then it all stopped. Heads popped up and turned to the north as the alarm was raised. A late arrival was making his way out to the blinds during the busiest time of the morning. On cue, all the birds up and left. The sheepish visitor climbed into my blind and within minutes, fortunately, the birds had returned.
That’s not always the case, which is why you are asked to arrive early. It’s also not common to have visitors come late like this, but that was the hand we were dealt so we made the best of it.
We still were able to watch males protect their lek territory while hens feigned interest before sneaking away into the tall grass for the next two hours. Mallards and hooded mergansers quacked their way around the sloughs nearby. A mink made a cameo, slinking through as it searched for breakfast. Hawks and harriers buzzed by, while pheasants crowed in the distance.
The Bluestem Prairie Preserve showed it’s true colors as a testament to what can happen when you provide enough suitable habitat to sustain multiple wildlife populations.
Afterward I had a conversation with the biologist who had spent the morning in the opposite blind, learning more about prairie chickens, waterfowl and the prairie than I could imagine in a 3-hour time span. I plan on having him as one of my guests on next week’s show. You can see some of his photography here.
I wish I’d had the chance to see something like this when I was younger. In fact, most of the morning I kept running through the list of people I’d like to bring out there. It was a chance to see a game bird up close and personal and an opportunity to learn that it has been declining due to habitat loss. Pheasants and ducks get most of the attention when it comes to the destruction of habitat, but prairie chickens can teach us all a lesson. We’ll have more on that on the radio show.
I’ve heard that only 4 states offer hunting seasons on these unique birds. It’s by lottery and that means few hunters will get the chance to walk the prairies in seach of them. However, the fact remains that the opportunity IS there. This year marks the 10th year there has been a season in Minnesota. Read more about it’s history here.
If you’d like to visit a blind, do some research to find one in your area, there are more than you think. If you don’t have a prairie chicken lek nearby, you may have one for sharp-tail grouse. Their display might even be more spectacular than the chickens.
To learn more about Bluestem, visit their website here. Or call (218) 498-2679 to reserve a blind.