Monday, April 8, 2019

Lesser Prairie Chickens west of Lubbock, 4/6/19

A couple of years ago I had made a reservation to see  Lesser Prairie Chickens display on a lek north of Canadian in the eastern Panhandle.  I had seen them once back in 1983 near Milnesand, New Mexico but never in Texas.  Unfortunately just before my trip, historically severe fires ravaged SW Kansas, the Oklahoma Panhandle and part of the eastern Texas Panhandle.  Homesteads over a hundred years old burned to the ground and the Lesser Prairie Chicken leking grounds were destroyed.  Maybe a few birds are left but no leks have been found since the fire.

However there is also a small population of Lesser Prairie Chickens in the shinnery grasslands west of Lubbock.  Drew Harvey, a biologist doing survey work in the area has searched the counties west of Lubbock and has managed to find a few leks on private land.  But due to drought and habitat fragmentation, numbers are dropping.  He told me that his largest lek of 19 birds two years ago had dropped to only four.  Fortunately, Drew has made arrangements with land owners and is guiding birders to see these last few chickens.  I made plans to see them before they are gone.

An early start and drive in the dark took our small group somewhere west of Lubbock.  The temperature was in the low fifties with a stiff breeze.  Clouds from last nights severe storms lingered and spit out a few rain drops.  I was hoping for a little sun.

We climbed into the back of Drew's pickup and waited behind a blind for the birds.  It was still dark but I could hear a few cackles and squawks.  One birder softly stated he could see a chicken but I couldn't.  But the sun can't be stopped so eventually it got light enough to see the small group of four Lesser Prairie Chickens.  The sun even popped out and illuminated these last dancers of the Texas prairie.  It was beautiful and sad as these two remnant males displayed to attract one of the two females.  The birds were about fifty yards away so the photos aren't great.

While these four birds displayed on the desert grassland stage in front of us, a more sobering view was present behind us.  A plowed field in front with giant windmills turning on the horizon.  Unfortunately the Lesser Prairie Chickens are not as adaptable as the Pronghorns who still roam these dying prairies.

At least the New Mexico population is hanging on.  Much of the land is under BLM control and healthy flocks of Lesser Prairie Chickens can still be found.

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