Tag Archives: Lesser Prairie Chicken

A UFO Birding Festival in Roswell

Those of you who know me know that I am from Roswell, New Mexico. I grew up there, and it was a wonderful place in which to grow up. One of the best things about growing up in Roswell was that it is very close to Bitter Lake National Wildlife Refuge. I have previously written about the refuge here and here.

When I learned that the United Field Ornithologists (UFO’s) of Roswell were to hold their very first birding festival, of course I made immediate plans to attend. I was excited about the opportunity to visit birding friends in Roswell and to visit a Lesser Prairie Chicken lek.

If you have ever visited a lek, you know that it involves getting up very early so that birders can be on the lek and well hidden before the birds come out onto the lek. True to form, we arose at 3:00 a.m. and left for the lek at 4:00 a.m. We were too excited to be tired, although that would be subject to change later on in the day.

We sat quietly, listening to the birds arriving on the lek. We could hear them, booming and dancing, long before we could see them clearly.

We strained to see the birds in the pre-dawn light, and I struggled to adjust my camera so that I could photograph them.

United Field Ornithologists of Roswell birding festival

Lesser Prairie Chickens in the pre-dawn light

When the sun rose, we were able to get excellent looks at the prairie chickens.

United Field Ornitholgists of Roswell birding festival

Lesser Prairie Chicken at sunrise

We watched until the prairie chickens were finished with their display, and then we traveled to the Waldrop Park Rest Area, a birding oasis out in the very middle of nowhere. We had been there only a short time when we saw a Scissor-tailed Flycatcher. This beautiful bird posed for us and allowed us all good looks at it.

Waldrop Park Rest Area

Scissor-tailed Flycatcher

We saw a number of other flycatchers, among them an Ash-throated Flycatcher.

United Field Ornithologists of Roswell birding festival

Ash-throated Flycatcher

We saw many Swainson’s Hawks in the area.

United Field Ornithologists of Roswell

Swainson’s Hawk

It seemed that wherever we went, we saw pretty Wilson’s Warbler’s flitting through the trees. This one was in the small town of Caprock.

United Field Ornithologists of Roswell bird festival

Wilson’s Warbler

On our way back to Roswell, our sharp-eyed trip leader, Steve Smith, spotted a Barn Owl napping in a tree near the Pecos River. Of course we stopped to admire the beautiful bird.

United Field Ornithologists of Roswell Bird Festival

Barn Owl

After a short break, we left for an afternoon trip to Bitter Lake National Wildlife Refuge. We spent a pleasant afternoon viewing shorebirds at the refuge.

United Field Ornithologists of Roswell birding festival

Black-necked Stilt

United Field Ornithologists of New Mexico birding festival

American Avocet

United Field Ornithologists of Roswell Birding Festival

Flock of Western Sandpipers

That evening we were treated to a barbecue feast at Retreat at Enchanted Farms, the festival headquarters. Michael Richardson and Susan Alston-Richardson, Retreat owners, provided wonderful food in a beautiful atmosphere.

United Field Ornithologists of Roswell Bird Festival

Delicious food in a beautiful setting.

Laney Wilkins from the Spring River Zoo in Roswell brought Frodo the Great Horned Owl for us to admire.

United Field Ornithologists of Roswell Birding Festival

Laney Wilkins and Frodo

Finally it was time for the evening’s entertainment. Michael Richardson introduced Professor Avian Guano, Bir.D, one of the many aliases of wildlife educator Denny Olson, also known as Doc Wild.

United Field Ornithologists of Roswell Bird Festival

Michael Richardson introduces the evening’s entertainment

Denny Olson entertained us with Professor Guano’s antics, and we learned a great deal about bird behavior during the evening.

United Field Ornithologists of Roswell Bird Festival

Denny Olson as Professor Avian Guano, Bir.D.

Susan Alston-Richardson appears to be a bit dismayed at being labeled a Brown-headed Cowbird.

United Field Ornithologists of Roswell Birding Festival

Susan Alston-Richardson is not really a Brown-headed Cowbird.

After the evening’s entertainment came to a close, we headed off to get a few hours of sleep before the next day’s activities, which would be a trip to Rattlesnake Springs and Washington Ranch.

I was very excited to go to Rattlesnake Springs the next morning, as there had been reports of Vermilion Flycatchers in the area. Rattlesnake Springs, part of Carlsbad Caverns National Park, is an Important Bird Area and outstanding stopover site for land birds. The historic 80-acre New Mexico wetland features up-welling groundwater that draws Mexican vagrants as well as eastern and western birds, such as Painted Buntings, Vermilion Flycatchers, Summer Tanagers, and Yellow-billed Cuckoos.

We were led by Steve West, resident naturalist at Rattlesnake Springs, and surely enough, we saw a number of the little beauties. Although this image is backlit, I like the look of the sun shining through the bird’s wings.

United Field Ornithologists of Roswell Bird Festival

Backlit Vermilion Flycatcher

We continued to see flashes of red throughout the morning.

United Field Ornithologists of Roswell Bird Festival

Vermilion Flycatcher

We saw flycatchers, warblers and tanagers at Rattlesnake Springs, but most of them were too deep in the branches of thick trees for me to get decent photos.

After a beautiful morning at Rattlesnake Springs, we had a lovely picnic lunch at the pond there. Everyone was much happier about the delicious lunch than this photo might suggest.

United Field Ornithologists of Roswell Birding Festival

Delicious picnic lunch at Rattlesnake Springs

Our last stop of the day was at Washington Ranch, another site near Rattlesnake Springs, to look for a Lewis’s Woodpecker. We found the bird almost immediately, although unfortunately it was almost beyond the range of my lens. I did get a photo that was good enough to identify the bird.

United Field Ornithologists of Roswell Birding Festival

Lewis’s Woodpecker

The Roswell birders were friendly and welcoming, and the birding festival was outstanding. It was difficult to believe that it was an inaugural event. Everything was beautifully organized, and we saw great birds. I am already looking forward to next year’s festival!



Filed under Bitter Lake National Wildlife Refuge, New Mexico bird photography, New Mexico birds

The Short Grass Prairie

Milnesand, NM is on the Llano Estacado, one of the largest mesas on the North American continent. In the mid-1800’s the numbers of individuals of native mammal species—bison, prairie dogs, pronghorn, elk, grizzly bears, and gray wolves—rivaled or exceeded those now in the African Serengeti (Howe 1994). The land is remarkably flat and featureless; nevertheless, the short grass prairie ecosystem of the Llano Estacado provides important habitat for any number of species of birds and animals. Although it was a bit early in the season to see many of  the bird species that will be here later in the season,  here are a few of the ones that I saw:

Scissor-tailed Flycatcher

Eastern Kingbird

Lilian's Eastern Meadowlark

Cassin's Sparrow

Vesper Sparrow

Loggerhead Shrike

Say's Phoebe

Lesser Prairie Chickens

The birds seemed to enjoy old farm equipment on an abandoned farm.

Canyon Towhee

Curve-billed Thrasher

I was surprised to see Blue-winged Teal on a small pond at an abandoned farm . . .

Blue-winged Teal

. . . and even more surprised to see these birds walking across the prairie.

Long-billed Curlew

Of course there were animals too.


Mule deer

Although I saw a prairie dog town with Burrowing Owls, it was on private land, and I could not get close enough for good photos. They were out there though!

Burrowing Owl in a Black-tailed Prairie Dog colony

I grew up in the Pecos River Valley in the short grass prairie of Southeastern New Mexico. It is always a pleasure to return.

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Battle on the Lek–Escalation and Aftermath

When last we left our Lesser Prairie Chickens in Milnesand, NM they were engaged in a fierce struggle on on the lek. In this slide show, the battle escalates, one male dominates and another is chased from the lek.

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The dominant male gets to mate, briefly, with the female as the other males try to push him away.

There is a hen under there somewhere

As we bid a fond farewell to Milnesand, NM, the Milnesand Prairie Preserve and the Lesser Prairie Chicken Festival it is appropriate to thank the wonderful folks in Milnesand, who provided us with education, entertainment, transportation and excellent food and made us feel welcome. It was an excellent festival and a wonderful community. I will do as the prairie chickens do and melt into the landscape.

When they are not displaying they are really quite inconspicuous

Until next year!

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Battle on the Lek–The Battle

Photograpy conditions on the second day of the Lesser Prairie Chicken Festival in Milnesand, NM were much better than they were on the first day. I had a superb view of the lek from my blind, and I enjoyed watching the prairie chickens in their mating display. I was particularly happy to be able to see the hens clearly, which I had not been able to do at the Shinnery Oak lek. A highlight of day two was watching the males challenge each other for supremacy on the lek. I took quite a few photos. Here is a slide show of some of them.

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Here is a short video of Lesser Prairie Chickens displaying and challenging each other on the lek. Click 720p for HD video. Best watched in full screen mode.

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Filed under New Mexico birds

Battle on the Lek–a Prologue

A lovely hen

The behavior of the Lesser Prairie Chickens on the Lek is textbook lekking behavior, involving competing males and selecting females. It was fascinating to watch these birds, and I was fortunate to be able to do it.
She appears to be ignoring him

The process begins as competing males dance and display for selecting females.The males cackle and boom and stamp their feet on the ground. The females appear to be unimpressed. The males begin to challenge each other on the lek.

A photo slide show showing challenges on the lek:

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Next post: The challenges escalate into battles.

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Lesser Prairie Chicken Festival, Part Two

On Sunday, the second day of the Lesser Prairie Chicken Festival in Milnesand, NM, we again arose early and met at the community center to travel in vans to blinds on the lek.

A male Lesser Prairie Chicken drums his feet on the lek

Calling, booming and drumming on the lek

On this day we went to a short grass prairie lek, which together with the improved weather made us hopeful of improved photography conditions. I had a blind to myself, which gave me more room for my equipment, but which also made the time in the cold and dark waiting for the prairie chickens to show up seem interminable. Finally the sky began to lighten, and I heard first a meadowlark singing and then the cackling and booming of the prairie chickens.

As it became light enough to see details of the lekking behavior, I was delighted to see females present on the lek. Although they had been present on the Shinnery Oak lek the previous day, they blended so well into the surroundings that it was difficult to see and photograph them.

Even though these may look like rather plain, drab birds to us, they are the embodiment of feminine perfection to the male Lesser Prairie Chickens, and they try mightily to impress the hens who generally look rather indifferent to all the calling, booming and dancing.

Extremely attractive Lesser Prairie Chicken hen

The males challenge each other on the lek.

Male Lesser Prairie Chickens challenge each other on the lek

Another challenge

The challenges escalate into sparring.

Lesser Prairie Chickens spar on the lek

Two more male Lesser Prairie Chickens spar on the lek

The sparring continues

At last one Lesser Prairie Chicken submits.

There is a victor and a loser in ever sparring match

In the next post I will show details of the sparring matches on the lek as well as what happens afterwards.

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Wordless Wednesday

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