Saturday, April 24, 2010
High Plains Lesser Prairie Chicken Festival
Last weekend, our NHH class headed over to the Lesser Prairie Chicken Festival in Milnesand, NM. The trip from Lubbock was short, yet the surroundings changed greatly. New Mexico seemed to maintain much more of the native prairie habitat than Texas, and the change was more evident at the border between the states. Milnesand is a small town with about 5-6 buildings. We were to camp in the back yard of a house, and the celebrations where held at the town’s convention center, a small building located adjunct to the fire fighter department. The people surrounding us were depictions of the serious birders that Dr. Tomlinson had told us about at the beginning of the semester. There were individuals from Florida, California, and even Virginia. I felt a slight sense of intimidation, being that most of them knew much about birds and I was still young in the sport.
The biologists for the United States Fish and Wildlife Service seemed to have a great presence in the area. Being a threatened species, the lesser prairie chicken (LPC) has acquired great priority in this governmental agency. The LPC used to be “found across eastern New Mexico, southeastern Kansas, western Oklahoma, and west Texas,” according to the US Fish and Wildlife Service. Habitat destruction has been a major reason for the decrease in the size of the LPC’s existence. Human population has decreased the amount of prairies available for the bird to live in. This has mainly been due to the use of land for farming, grazing, oil and gas use, and also due to drought. The biologists made it known that a factor contributing LPC numbers are also due to the placement of fences to divide properties. Birds running away from predators can fly up to 60 mph, unable to see the fence at such speeds they may suffer from fatal collisions. Through studies done in the past, scientists for the US Fish and Wildlife determined that LPC deaths due to collisions are high. In order to decrease the collision frequencies, scientists for the US Fish and Wildlife have developed a method of marking the fences in a manner that the LPC can distinguish it and avoid it. Nancy D. Riley is the State Coordinator for the Partners for Fish and Wildlife Program. Along with the residents in the area of Milnesand, she has been in charged of the fence marking program. With the permission of the land owners, volunteers mark the fences with strips of vinyl placed four feet apart along the fence. I got the opportunity to help and this project. Together, my friend Will and I marked at least ¾ of a mile of fence. While it is an easy task to do, the marking provides a lot of benefits to the LPCs that we had met earlier that day.
Markings Will and I placed 3 miles south of Milnesand
Before I talk about the actual LPC mating dance, I would like to point out some specifics regarding the biological and ecological perspectives of such unique creature. According to a birder that accompanied us on the mating dance watching, not many birds behave are involved in mating rituals as the LPC. I asked her because she had mentioned that she was from California, and I was curious to see what attracted her to the festival. The LPC enjoy living in areas with Sand Sagebrush-bluestem and shinnery oak-bluestem vegetation. Their diet consists of mostly insects and seeds. Predators of the LPC include raptors and coyotes, and their eggs are usually consumed by ravens, badgers, skunks, ground squirrels and snakes. They mostly have one brood per year, so preventing nest destruction is crucial for the development of the population.
The males perform their mating rituals within a lek, which is a clear piece of land to where they return to every year. We arrived at the lek at five in the morning, early enough as to not disturb the arrival of the LPC. Our group stayed within the van, and we observed through the windows with our binoculars. Our conversation quickly ended with the noises that the males produced as they arrived to the site. I must admit that to me their dancing is a little robotic. Their calls sounded primate like, with the casual rooster call now and then. They stomped their feet, moved up and down their territories, faced each other now and then, and really put on a show for the mysterious human audience in the vans. I loved the manner in which they would suddenly stop at the sight of a bird flying over head, and then begin their dancing and calls in unison when they realized the passer by was of no danger. Towards the end of our stay in the lek, two females suddenly appeared. As the females picked their male, one could denote the differences between the two. While the males boasted brightly, the females ignored their requests and hid within the grasses. Finally, one of the females picked a male in the outer portion of the lek, and they copulated quickly.
Watching these creatures mate was fascinating, since the product of the union would shine a piece of hope towards the decrease in numbers of the species. The festival was a unique experience, and I find my presence there a great privilege. For those of you interested in attending one day, I must warn you that space is limited. You can find more information at: http://www.wildlife.state.nm.us/recreation/prairie_ckn/Festival.html