Most of you probably missed it, but last weekend marked the 8th annual High Plains Lesser Prairie-Chicken Festival in Milnesand, New Mexico (its hard to find, though I’ve put a picture above to help out!).
I’ve been a participant and field trip leader for the festival for many years and it’s one of the highlights of my year — you need to come out and check it out sometime. This portion of New Mexico is the heart of prairie-chicken range in the state and one of the last major strongholds of the species anywhere. The Conservancy and numerous partner organizations have protected thousands of acres in the area to conserve the shortgrass prairie ecosystem at the Milnesand Prairie Preserve and other sites.
The highlight of the festival, as you might guess, is the Lesser Prairie-Chicken. This species, like the several other species of prairie grouse found in North America, is characterized by the group displays of males in the early spring on what is called a “lek.”
Groups of from two to 40 males gather in a specific area and dance, fight and make strange noises, all in the hopes that they will be the one chosen by the female to mate — pretty crazy stuff. Its well worth the slight inconveniences of having to get up before daylight and sit in a van or tent for several hours in temperatures that may be at freezing! Trust me, you’ll never regret the experience. (Word to the wise from a veteran: don’t drink a lot of coffee before heading out to the lek).
A van makes an excellent viewing platform to see the action on the lek, as long as you get there before the action starts. Check out the photo above, which shows how close you are to the birds. Plus, since the windows are down, you can hear all the noises: cackling, “booming”, foot-stomping and wing slapping, just to name a few. Those who watch really closely can sometimes spot a few females wandering around on the lek, apparently totally uninterested in the goings-on. You also get to see and hear the prairie as it comes to life on a spring morning, with lots of other species of birds (like Eastern Meadowlark) and other wildlife around.
The festival itself is a great experience. Put on by the local community of Milnesand, it’s an opportunity for people to come in from all over New Mexico and other parts of the country to see an area most of us, frankly, would not otherwise get to. In addition to tours of the prairie-chicken leks, there are numerous other activities to explore the surrounding area and learn more about the cultural and natural history of the Llano Estacado or High Plains.
Unfortunately, due to the remote location and lack of facilities, space is limited at the festival and it fills up quickly. So start making your plans now to come out in April 2010! You can find out more information on the High Plains Lesser Prairie-Chicken Festival either from The Nature Conservancy or the New Mexico Game and Fish Department.
(Image credits: Dave Mehlman/TNC.)