Kansas Prairie and the Dawn Dancers: Photographing Lesser Prairie Chickens
"But what's in Kansas?" they ask. "Prairie chickens," I respond. A blank expression on their face or the silence on the phone followed by a doubtful, "okay," was the typical response. Photographers and laymen alike, no one seemed to know what Kansas entailed and what photography opportunities it offered. To be fair, I really didn't either before that day when the Facebook/Google ad algorithms suggested I might want to know more about the Audubon of Kansas' (AOK) Lek Trek Festival. Yeah, Google knows me pretty well these days.
Now, I could digress into asking the how and why as I have done a lot of research for animals, birds, photography locations, things to do in various states, in various seasons, etc. (haven't we all?), I had never searched for Kansas or prairie chickens and yet Google had offered up this advertisement to me. Despite that desire, I won't because to me this was a very useful use of my data so good on them.
As it happened I had just returned from Yellowstone in January and I was trying to map out trip options that would allow me to photograph more species of special concern for the quarterly article I write in the Journal of Wildlife Photography. Scrolling through social media, I saw the ad for the AOK Lek Trek Festival and was intrigued. After a rabbit hole search through the internet over a few hours, I registered for the festival to include three sessions in ground blinds to observe and photograph lesser prairie chickens over the course of three days.
What I had found in my research, that I guess Google already knew, was that the lesser prairie chickens are a species of special concern. Beyond that they are actually an endangered species whose survival is currently being decided in Bailey's Crossroads, VA, where the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services (USFWS) is contemplating relisting the lesser prairie chicken as threatened and endangered (depending on the geographic population). And you read that right, RE-listing them. These little birds, about the size of a small chicken (go figure), and the shortgrass prairie ecosystem they call home have been under attack for decades. Currently there is only about 3 percent of the historic population of this bird alive today and they only have about seven percent of their home range remaining. The majority of that is in Kansas where more than 98% of the land is privately owned which complicates conservation efforts to say the least.
The lesser prairie chicken was indexed in 1998 by USFWS as a candidate for listing under the federal Endangered Species Act (ESA). In 2014, the population dropped enough that USFWS finally listed it as threated. However, in doing so, the listing put pressure on the energy production and agriculture industries that operate in the areas where this species is found, imposing roadblocks to what the industries consider "progress." In 2015, the listing was vacated after a lawsuit brought by some in the oil sector in Texas challenged the decision and USFWS did not fight it. That has left conservationists and government agencies to try to work with land owners to mitigate further habitat loss in order to protect this species. The efforts have had minimal success which is why USFWS is once again considering relisting the species and making geographic distinctions as the surviving population has been split into two ranges at this point - a small population in the southwestern panhandle of Texas and a small part of eastern New Mexico, and the main population that covers parts of eastern Colorado, western Kansas, and down into the panhandles of Oklahoma and Texas. The Texas/New Mexico population would be listed as endangered while the main population would once again be listed as threatened.
So, basically we will see what happens to this diminutive prairie dweller. Until then, I highly encourage you to find a way to observe these birds and their courtship rituals as it is unique, primitive, and engaging. Starting in mid to late March and running through April, the males gather each day before dawn at a lek. A lek is an area, usually on a rise within the landscape, with short grass and dirt surrounded by taller grasses. Male lesser prairie chickens battle each other for dominance and prime display space within the lek. The most dominant male takes center stage with the omegas left to squabble over the outlying territories.
Many lekking spots have been in use by generations of prairie chickens. Not all areas are suitable for a lek meaning when one is compromised through development, overgrazing, plowing, or other forms of human disturbance, the population of birds that have been using the now defunct lek may not be as successful in breeding as they then need to find a new lek and challenge the males already established in that area.
We had to be in the blinds well before sunrise because human disturbance, including photographers and observers, can flush a lek and repeatedly doing so will have the birds seeking other lekking grounds. The lek I was allowed to observe was on private property where the owner understands the importance of maintaining shortgrass prairie habitat for these birds. But, it was over an hour's drive from the festival's host town with no real services between the two (meaning no option to stay closer). All this adds up to waking up at 3AM each day in order to be in the field before the birds arrived. With no services it also meant no restroom facilities and, being a prairie, even bushes were hard to come by, so no morning caffeine until after the session.
Mornings in the blind, however, were so worth it! Before the sun has even risen, shortly after we have set up the blinds and settled in, the air and grasses around us fill with the chatter, clucks, and cackles of the males as they come to the lek to start practicing their performances while defending their dance turf from neighboring males. Their dances are made up of a series of popping sounds amplified by the colorful air sacs on their necks, fast foot stomping, and feather snapping. These movements are all aimed at impressing a female in hopes of breeding. The female prairie chickens choose their mate and often do not appear at the lek until after sunrise, where they "window shop" through the lek, eyeing the performers before disappearing back into the tall grass.
The second morning in the blind, the freezing air was perfectly still. Every sound rang out like a bell across the stillness of the prairie. It was this morning that I was able to hear the individual feathers snapping, follow the movements of birds I yet could see in the darkness by sound alone, and identify the single hybrid chicken that was part of this lek.
It is estimated that about 1 to 3 percent of the lesser prairie chicken population is a hybrid. This occurs when a greater prairie chicken and a lesser mate. Hybrid males, while technically viable, are doomed to a lonely life as they are never chosen by lesser prairie chicken females. These hybrids look very similar to a lesser prairie chicken but their voice sounds much raspier than the traditional lesser prairie chicken pop.
Both the first and third mornings had the wind howling across the open grasslands making the smaller sounds, like chickens running beside the blind or the feather snaps, harder to hear. But, the upside to the wind is that you don't have to worry as much about sounds inside the blind disturbing the birds outside. Regardless, this time of year on the Kansas prairies be prepared for high winds and cold temperatures.
Gear tip: Because it is a lot of sitting in a blind, unable to move around, with limited space for additional gear "just in case" be sure to bring a blanket if possible and I was very thankful for my electric socks. The portable blinds that were used do not have bottoms to them and so the wind cuts through right along the ground, easily making your feet the coldest part of your body in this situation.
While in the blind, there is not a whole lot of room to move around as you can be sharing it with up to four people potentially. Knowing that I would be using a long lens and that nothing (not even the lens hood) can stick out from the blind, I reserved two seats in each blind. This ensured I would have some space and that I would not have to rotate to the back of the blind half way through the viewing time.
Gear tip: Bring a tripod for this type of photography situation. While I handhold the majority of my images, especially wildlife, in a blind I love having the tripod so I can have the camera at the ready while having my hands in my pockets staying warm. Also, if working in cold weather it is a good idea to have "leg warmers" or wraps on your tripod so that you can handle it without freezing your hands as nothing zaps warmth from hands like metal.
Photographing these birds can take some practice as well and your camera and lens combo needs to be able to handle low light for optimal results. The males are most active as they arrive at the lek and reestablish their dance territories through the early morning just after sunrise. As the morning light increases, the males spar less and less unless there are females on the lek. By about 10:30 to 11:00AM the birds have dispersed to forage and rest before doing it all again the following morning.
Photography tips: As with any other type of bird or small, fast moving subject, shutter speed is the primary factor in the exposure triangle you want to control. A high shutter speed is needed to freeze the motion of the birds as they jump and fight. In low light that means using the fastest telephoto lens you have and a high ISO, especially if you're trying to capture action before the sun has fully risen.
On this trip I had the privilege of working with Sony and Tamron, both of whom let me field test a new kit. To me, this challenging photography opportunity was an ideal trial to see if I would be comfortable in transitioning to a new base platform. While I already knew that the Tamron lenses would provide amazing performance as usual, I was more skeptical about the Sony mirrorless (Sony Alpha1 in this case). My worries came from the downsides I had heard from others who had switched from Nikon to Sony mirrorless which included decreased battery life, especially in cold, a non-intuitive menu system, and some ergonomic issues.
I'm happy to say that after several cold mornings in the blind, shooting absolutely silently, and being able to control my settings based off a live histogram, the Sony Alpha1 handled things beautifully. The ergonomics of this particular camera body are only slightly different than the Nikon D500 but not enough that I think it will impact the ways I'm comfortable carrying or operating it. I did have the battery grip as well during the field trial and fully recommend it if the additional weight is not an issue for you. It increases the battery capacity and, for a photographer such as myself who sees very vertically, a battery grip allows me to create vertical images without having to raise my arm over 90° to reach the controls. Important to someone like me who has shoulder mobility issues.
I have annotated which images came from what camera in this article so you can see there is really little difference in the final product. The differences come in the number of usable keepers created by each, the ease of creating images, and the compact/weight of each system. Since Tamron has such an extensive line of lenses with native Sony mirrorless mounts available at this time, I do not see a reason in putting off the transition to mirrorless any longer. The industry is moving that way as it is and those of us working it it must follow the river to keep up. My hope is to have a Sony Alpha1 kit by the end of summer this year.
As purely an artist and/or hobbyist working with the medium of photography, I do not think that there is a reason to upgrade. If I was only shooting for myself, working solo, and not working in education within the photography realm, I would be staying with my Nikon D500. However, as more participants come into the field with mirrorless systems, it would be a disservice to them if I was not familiar with these systems. For me the best way to learn is by doing. To be able to know from muscle memory what is where and how to troubleshoot. The week in Kansas with the Sony Alpha1 already helped me become familiar enough with the system to help a student on my last photo adventure. I can only assume the more time I handle it and live with it, the more I will understand about mirrorless and the Sony OS.
Back to the subject at hand though, if you want to photograph lesser prairie chickens yourself, the best advice I would give is to join the AOK for their Lek Trek Festival. Even outside the blinds it was a great event with interesting speakers, tours of the Sternberg Museum of Natural History, and a chance to connect with birders and photographers from all over the country. Registration for the 2023 festival will open in December but if you visit their website here you can sign up to be notified when registration opens via email.
Your participation helps conservation efforts by showing these communities and land owners lucky enough to still have lesser prairie chickens that the birds are worth letting live, and that there is ecotourism money to be made by protecting them and the habitat they need to survive. The more people who show an interest in the continued survival of this species the better. If the lesser prairie chicken and, by proxy, their habitat is protected, we protect many other species that depend on shortgrass prairie ecosystems as well. So get out there, enjoy the magical dawn dancing of these birds, and share the experience with your friends and family, spreading the word and hopefully the conservation impact far and wide.
Want to read my article on lesser prairie chickens that will be released in the Journal of Wildlife Photography this fall? Subscribe and support the work of photographers and writers such as myself as we bring you comprehensive articles on all sorts of topics pertaining to wildlife photography from the technical to the ethical and everything in-between.
Don't want to deal with the cold but want to know more about prairie ecosystems and photograph high plains wildlife? Join me in July for my Wild Grasslands photo adventure in northern Texas. We work early and late while taking the heat of the day to rest and process images.