This year I attended the Lesser Prairie Chicken Festival. Although I grew up in southeastern NM, I had seen the Prairie Chickens on the lek only one other time when I was sixteen years old. The festival is held in Milnesand, NM, a small, unincorporated community in southeastern NM. Milnesand is on the Llano Estacado, a 37,500 square mile mesa in eastern NM and western TX. Milnesand is also on the edge of the Milnesand Prairie Preserve, an area purchased by the Nature Conservancy to preserve environment for the Lesser Prairie Chicken.
We arrived in Milnesand on Friday evening, parked the 5th wheel and signed up for activities. I was happy to meet Donna Tucker, a friend on Twitter, in person. Saturday morning we met at 4:30. It was cold and dark, and we went in vans out to blinds in the prairie preserve to watch the prairie chickens. It was pitch dark and very cold as we waited. Just as we thought we would expire from cold and boredom, we began to hear the birds calling in the darkness as they arrived at the lek. We could hear but not see them cackling and booming. We could hear their little feet pounding on the ground as they danced. We could hear their tail feathers snapping. This was my favorite part of the morning, and it was magical.
The sky finally began to lighten, but the day was very cold, cloudy and windy.
This particular lek was located in a Shinnery Oak forest. Shinnery Oak
grows only about 12-15 inches tall. The majority of the tree is located underground as a huge root ball. It is a true oak that makes catkins and acorns and has tiny oak leaves.
The combination of low light and oak forest did not make for ideal photography conditions, but conditions were apparently great for booming and dancing, as the Prairie Chickens were not at all deterred by the weather. They boomed and danced on the lek for about two hours, the strongest males getting closer to the center of the lek, and the weaker males being relegated to the perimeter or being driven from the lek. Juveniles and hens watched from the perimeter. After about two hours, the last males flew from the lek and we returned to Milnesand for an excellent breakfast prepared by local cooks.
Photography conditions improved dramatically the next day, as you will see.