Adventuring to a Kansas prairie chicken fest

Mom and I fancy ourselves birdwatchers. But we don’t begin to qualify as birders,  those obsessed people in earth-toned outdoor apparel who travel the globe to see as many rare birds as possible.

So it was on a lark that we decided to drive from our Denver area homes to Hays, Kan., for the second annual Lek Treks Prairie Chicken Festival put on by Audubon of Kansas (AOK) in mid-April.

Yet we (and other birdwatchers we met) didn’t fully grasp what we were in for. We thought a Prairie Chicken Festival sounded amusing and novel. It was that, but also a physically challenging and politically troubling experience for the uninitiated.

Mom and I arrived without many useful things, including the wisdom of experience. For example, we had no spotting scope; no American Birding Association “life list” to track the birds we’ve seen in our lifetimes; no eBird or Merlin mobile apps loaded onto our phones; no pricey cameras with zoom lenses like portable Webb Space Telescopes slung across our shoulders. Our clothes were not nearly warm enough.

We started off by getting battered by wind during the five-hour drive from Denver on Interstate 70. Those we met who had traveled from Missouri, Texas, Arkansas, Massachusetts and New York reported the same astonishment over the intensity of Kansas wind. On the road, we passed countless towering white wind turbines churning above grassy fields. Kansas seems an obvious place for these energy generators, but their presence is a colossal source of concern for those worried about migrating and sensitive ground-dwelling birds.

In Hays, the Best Western was headquarters for the 130 people registered for the festival, 40 more than the inaugural year’s list, we discovered. Inside the lobby, it was immediately obvious who among us was serious and who didn’t know what the hell they were doing. True birders pegged us in a microsecond as being clueless schlubs. But they were once like us, so they were tolerant if not friendly. Besides, ornithologists were there to keep them honest.

A lesson in birding, geology

Over the next three days, we attended various outings, like a birdwatching walk with Dr. Medhavi Ambardar, a delightful professor from Fort Hays State University. Because Ambardar had a science class to teach at 8:30 a.m., we set out just before sunrise to spot as many avian species as we could in 90 minutes on a nature trail near the charming Sternberg Museum of Natural History.

With us was native son Dean Stramel — a former KSU science professor who now teaches classes at Fort Hays State University — whose family goes way back in Hays, including several named on impressively large tombstones in the city cemetery. Stramel provided a backstory about Hays and later led us to a residential park where dozens of turkey vultures perched in tall trees. He knows their routine, and all the great birdwatching spots in Hays as well.

This gentle beginning gave us the impression we would be enjoying mild excursions in pleasant temperatures mere minutes from the hotel. (As in, “Look! It’s a red-bellied woodpecker snickering in the treetops.”)

We were wrong.

“I tell my students it’s like they told a joke and they’re laughing at the joke and the laughter goes on far too long,”  Ambardar remarked.

That first day, we approached a spring-fed pond and heard the “tea kettle tea kettle tea kettle” call of a Carolina wren. James Swim, a birder from Arkansas, commented on how folks often confuse Carolina chickadees with black-capped chickadees. A conversation ensued about juvenile bald eagles looking like golden eagles, and birds identified as purple finches likely being just red house finches. (“Hey, look, there’s a cowbird! By the way, it’s tick season so check yourselves.”)

We also took a tour of the Kansas Badlands led by rugged geologist Rex Buchanan, director emeritus of the Kansas Geological Survey. With cold winds gusting, we explored outcrops of eroded Niobrara Chalk that have been the source of spectacular marine fossil finds from the Late Cretaceous. We also took a behind-the-scenes tour of the Sternberg Museum of Natural History, where a tray of dead prairie chickens was pulled out for our inspection.

A wake-up call

That evening, we attend Trivia Night featuring some silly birds-in-pop-culture questions along with scientific ones that were way out of our league. Lucky for us, our team included 15-year-old Molly Morford from Lenexa, Kan.

Morford has a large collection of illustrated bird books at home. She can tell a vesper sparrow from a fox sparrow, enjoys setting up wooden boxes for eastern bluebirds in her neighborhood park, and is one of about 100 students in the Olathe Public Schools who got into a special Animal Health Academy. She’s thinking of going to Kansas State or Cornell. “I’ve heard people say birdwatching is an old person thing, and that makes me sad.”

Her mother, Megan, stumbled across the event online and signed them up. “There are a lot of people not my age here,” Molly said, glancing at my 84-year-old mother. Certainly, we saw no one else wearing leopard print yoga pants or green-banded braces either. (Lots of silver hair at the welcome night gathering to be sure.)

That evening, we learned from Native American spirit dancer Dennis Rogers that Kansas Attorney General Kris Kobach had just joined Texas and Oklahoma in suing the federal government over the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service upgrading the lesser prairie chicken’s status from threatened to endangered. The lawsuit claims the designation violates property rights and seriously impacts plans for new oil wells, ranching operations and wind farms. Kobach wants the feds to stay out of it and allow states to decide how to manage the situation.

The federal government divides lesser prairie chickens into two distinct population segments (DPS); the Southern DPS is now listed as endangered and the Northern DPS is listed as threatened. Southeastern Colorado is home to the Northern DPS, where landowners and land managers have greater flexibility with land use than states where the Southern DPS prairie-chickens live.

But more than 95% of U.S. tall grass prairie has been developed, and because birds like prairie chickens don’t migrate, their shrinking habitat, exacerbated by ongoing drought, is causing their numbers to nosedive, according to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.

“There’s a lot of bad press about prairie chickens in Kansas and I want to be able to (provided) the opportunity of going to a lek and witnessing something that connects us to the grasslands, to our history, to our future,” said AOK executive director Jackie Augustine. With more than 5,000 hours logged studying greater and lesser prairie chickens on their native turf, Augustine has possibly spent more time at leks (places where male birds put on a display during courtship rituals) than anyone.

“A lot of my research is focused on what makes male prairie chickens sexy,” Augustine said. It was those elaborate displays that drew all of us to Hays for the chance to observe an ancient animal practice.

The birders

On the third and final morning of our odyssey into the declining world of the birds that once numbered in the millions, we rise at 3 a.m. (with the admonishment to not drink coffee because there are no bathrooms on the leks). Dozens of us climb into rented vans for the hour-long drive to secret locations on private plots where landowners have granted us access.

“I have observed that overall numbers of birds have dropped by half compared to last year,” Augustine said. “Two leks we used last year couldn’t be used this year because they only contain two or three birds. Of the six leks I studied last year, only one increased in size, and this is the one. There were 19 males and seven females here yesterday.”

Driving over dirt roads to our destination, I realize that our bleary-eyed flock has its own pecking order. Sitting shotgun is Alec Humann from Buffalo, N.Y., whose favorite bird is the whimbrel. “I like all the curlews but whimbrels have a fascinating migration route. I also band hawks in New Jersey in the fall. This is my first trip to Kansas to see the greater and lesser prairie chickens. It’s a trip I’ve wanted to go on for decades.”

Thomas Riley of Buffalo tagged along, “So I could get my prairie chicken ‘lifers.’ My favorite bird is the red-headed woodpecker.”

Tanya and Gary Spence traveled from West Texas, and have been birding for about 30 years. Her favorite bird is the chickadee; his, he says, is whatever he’s currently looking at. “Most of our vacations are around what birds can we see,” Spence said. “We’ve been taking more trips to see birds now that our kids are grown, having little expeditions and enjoying just the two of us.”

My mom, Mary, who lives in Lakewood, says the Western tanager is her favorite. They turn to me, expectantly. I say mine is the black-billed magpie, the first bird I ever recall noticing and thinking was a parrot. That gets a laugh. (Hey, I was 3 years old.)

Julia Givens from New Jersey now lives just outside Boston with Dan O’Brien. “I’m a fair-weather birder,” she said, adding that her favorite is the cedar waxwing. “Love summer birding and beach-combing.” O’Brien says the common grackle is what hooked him.

The big day

As we approach our destination, a pair of black-tailed jackrabbits scamper into the headlights, almost leading us to our stop. We park and clamber over a barbed wire fence into a pasture dotted with dry cow patties. Nearby, a pack of unseen coyotes yip and howl, perhaps at the crescent moon rising, blood orange, just above the flat horizon. Overhead constellations appear as fuzzy white blotches watercolored onto the inky black sky. The Milky Way is postured for admiration, but a biting, frigid wind urges us to hurry and erect the camouflaged blinds that we will huddle in for the next four hours.

Our group divides into three side-by-side blinds. We sit on camp chairs, wrapped in blankets, awaiting the show. The temperature isn’t cold enough to see our breaths, but high humidity and a windchill factor ensure it is punishing to remove a glove and aim a camera barehanded for longer than a minute. My nose and toes go numb. I worry about how my mom is doing as she hides all but her eyes behind a blanket.

At 6:50, Augustine orders us all to be quiet. Within minutes, a dreamlike noise starts up, growing in volume. It’s like a Hollywood movie sound effect: an echoey, bouncy bwopping chorus, cartoonish like rubbery bubbles popping. The sounds, punctuated by rooster-like cackles, come closer and closer in the dark. We strain to see shapes moving on the ground before us.

The sun rises slowly behind our blinds, casting long shadows across the lek where 18 males and 16 females have converged. In Swedish, the word “lek” is a verb that means “to dance or play.” It’s fitting, although there is also fighting. Males square off, leaping and running at each other.

“The males stomp their feet like 20 times a second,” Augustine had said while describing a lek. “While doing that, the wings spread out and the tails go up, the pinnae up, these are feathers behind the head. The whole thing culminates in a pop vocalization, and air sacs inflate at the same time, helping project that vocalization.

“The air sacs are bright reddish magenta because they are lesser prairie chickens. If they were greater, it would be orange. Lesser prairie chickens also have huge yellow combs above their eyes. They’re fleshy and they engorge with blood and get really big when they’re excited.”

The instinctual performance is comical and fascinating to view from our hidden perches. Almost robotic, like wind-up toys.

Heading home

Chickens are most closely related to dinosaurs, which went extinct about 66 million years ago following a catastrophic asteroid collision with the Earth. On Dinosaur Ridge in Morrison (and other ancient sites), paleontologists have studied marks in Cretaceous sandstone made by the three-toed claws of theropods scraping left and right on a prehistoric lek. Dinosaurs performed courtship rituals, too.

At that time, a vast inland sea covered what is now Colorado, Kansas, Utah, Texas and Wyoming. As the North American continent uplifted, the seaway drained, leaving what would eventually become fertile grasslands where the surviving descendants of dinosaurs and many mammals including bison thrived. The remains of marine animals buried below became people’s fossil fuels.

Before European settlers arrived, Native American tribes lived and hunted here. Business-savvy settlers commercialized the prairie chickens and shipped them east for food by the hundreds of thousands. “We have fewer than 30,000 lesser prairie chickens left” in the U.S., Augustine noted. “I feel (that by) coming and sitting on a prairie chicken lek, you still have a piece of that history left. And I’m just so worried that we’re going to lose it.”

During the COVID-19 pandemic, an Oklahoma festival that focused on lesser prairie chickens shut down. When organizers thought about restarting it, there weren’t enough birds left to guarantee people would see them.

At the time, Augustine was new in her role but didn’t hesitate to act. “I was like, ‘Well, OK, this is the time to start it here then.’ And the Oklahoma Audubon Council was so helpful. That first festival we got a lot of people who were planning to go to Oklahoma but then they came to Kansas because we had the opportunity and they didn’t.

“I felt so privileged being able to study these birds. My second date with my husband was at a prairie chicken lek.”

That evening, our drive home was less windy, and our minds less settled. At her door mom summed it up, “We probably won’t look at birds the same way anymore will we?” I don’t know how anyone who had this experience could. And now we too will worry that our photographs and memories might outlive this priceless species.

Kristen Kidd of Littleton is the communications director at Dinosaur Ridge, part of the Morrison-Golden National Natural Landmark. 

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