My 2 day trip to Wisconsin
to see the Greater Prairie Chickens!
In April, 2015, I decided in my little birdie mind that I needed a goal to work toward regarding the number of birds I've seen. I will be 59 this year and 60 on December 10, 2016, so I set my goal to get to 500 new birds by then. I was currently at 430. Because I am not likely to see any new birds where I bird locally in MI and OH, I have to travel to see new ones.
One that I have been talking about since we went to Texas in 2013 and visited the Attwater Prairie Chicken NWR is the Greater Prairie Chicken! I “Prairie Chicken Festival” to find out where the closest place I could go to see one and Wisconsin was it! The Buena Vista Wildlife Area even has a place through the whole month of April where they know the birds are (and their LEK, or dancing floor) and provide a blind that people can sit in! This particular blind is partnered by “Becoming an Outdoors Woman” and my contact was Peggy Farrell (firstname.lastname@example.org). Peggy emailed me lots of information after I paid the $10 fee and picked my date (April 7th, 2015). David would stay home and dog-sit. :) This would be life bird #11 for 2015!
I decided to stay in Wisconsin Rapids, WI, just west of the meeting place. I did not need to book a hotel ahead of time because the town has several listed. Peggy even told us what we needed to bring...April is COLD and we would be in the blind approximately 2 hours. You are not allowed to leave the blind if a HEN is present. The birds are wild and we do not want to disturb their mating behaviors.
And so my adventure began on Monday, April 6th. I wanted to get on the road by 8am since my map said it would take 7 hours to drive, but my iPhone 5C LOCKED UP and I could not fix it, turn it off, etc. I packed the Garmin just in case and hoped to stop at a Verizon store because I didn't want to be on the road without a phone. I stopped for gas on Alexis Road, then headed toward I-475 to get to 75 South. I passed a Verizon store and a young man hit 2 buttons at the same time and reset my phone, so I was good to go!
Let me just say that almost every road I took was a TOLL road! Pack lots of change! But the drive was nice except going through Chicago with all the construction downtown. I had never been to WISCONSIN, so I racked up another state on my list! I went straight to Wisconsin Rapids, drove by the meeting place around 4:30pm (and saw Sandhill Cranes) and in Wisconsin Rapids saw many motels, stopped at Perkins restaurant for dinner, then checked into the Sleep Inn ($87.11 per night). I watched the weather channel and there was a possibility of ice on the roads in the morning and Peggy said she would call if the date was off. I prayed for no ice and went to bed early since I had to be at the meeting place by 5AM!
I got up at 3:45am, no coffee of course, dressed in my 3 layers (thanks to my Honey for the warm Cabela's women's undergarments), 2 pair of socks, boots, gloves, and hat. It was a straight drive to the meeting place and there was NO ICE - just a little chilly. A nice man named Tom Young (who is also into photography) and an older couple from Indiana were the 4 people in the blind today. I asked for assistance in walking to the blind (in total darkness!) after Peggy said it was about a ¼ mile walk through a field with obstacles, and the 3 strangers said they would help me. I had my flashlight, and Tom and the Indiana couple got me to the blind, which was a well-made, sturdy box with 2 bench seats and little windows that the Greater Prairie Chickens are used to seeing. We sat quietly in the blind in the dark. We could see the sunrise off to our left and two female hens flew in on the right. It was too dark for a picture of them :(. No flash was allowed, so not to scare the birds.
A few minutes after the hen came, the males started flying in from everywhere! There were 6 males and 2 hens. The males started their low, strange “whooo-whooo” sounds, going in circles and puffing out their neck and body feathers. They stamped their feet and sometimes just stared at each other. It was still too dark for pictures, so Tom and I sat there in awe watching them. Tom and I exchanged business cards, discussed family and he said this was his 10th or 11th time coming here (he lives in WI). He has a website that he sells his pictures. I told him I have a website too, but just for pleasure and keeping track of my life birds.
My first picture of a male Greater Prairie Chicken was at 6:17am! I brought both my Canon SX-40 for videos and my Nikon D7100 with the 200mm lens. We watched the behaviors of the males, since the females didn't stay long. One male was on a small hill all by himself dancing, then he would run to the right and engage one of the other males in a dance, then run back to his hill. Tom said his name was Hector. I got a picture of one of them jumping in the air in order to intimidate his rival! I also got a picture of the 4 males dancing at the same time (while Hector was on his own hill).
We were watching the males and at 7:16am, a Rough-legged Hawk flew in and sat on the LEK! The males scattered and I thought they were gone for good, but Tom said they'd be back. I took several pictures of the Hawk and he flew off. We also saw a female Northern Harrier at 7:24am circling above the lek. The males returned and danced a little more, then took off for good. We left the blind at 7:50am, Tom took a picture of me outside the blind and I took a picture of him in the field, then he took a picture of both of us with his camera on a 10 second delay! It was much easier walking out of the field and Tom and I hugged and said goodbye.
I drove home a happy girl and hit the OH border at 2:04pm. I was home by 3:30pm and happy to have seen a Greater Prairie Chicken!