Grouse Conservation and Ecotourism Benefit Small Colorado Town
Most who travel to Colorado spend their time in the western portions of this majestic state. Denver is often the starting point. From there, they fan out westward to places like Pikes Peak, Aspen, Telluride, Black Canyon of the Gunnison, Colorado National Monument or Rocky Mountain National Park.
Few travelers venture to the eastern part of the state. Why would anyone go there, to the agricultural flat lands? In a word – grouse.
It turns out that Colorado is one of the best states in the U.S. in which to see multiple species of grouse dancing on their leks during the spring breeding season including: Greater and Lesser Prairie Chickens, Northern Sage, Sharp-tailed, Gunnison, Dusky, and White-tailed Ptarmigan. There are “chicken tours” that take people around the state to see them.
We decided to take our own modified chicken tour that featured Greater Prairie Chicken and Gunnison Sage Grouse: one in the eastern and one in the western part of the state. Doing so fit into our plans to visit our daughter Audrey in Denver. She gladly accompanied us since she had previously researched grouse conservation efforts as a part of her job at Conservation Colorado.
Wray, Colorado is the best place to see Greater Prairie Chickens dance. This small town is 3.5 hours east of Denver in the northeast corner of the state, close to the Nebraska border.
Driving east of Denver, you enter the realm of large scale industrial agriculture. This is the land of corn, sugar beets and cattle ranches. It is also the pungent home of several huge feed lots.
Much of the landscape is flat until you approach Wray. Here badlands appear with small rocky outcrops, along with a creek and the first large trees seen for miles. This town has a pulse, natural beauty and at this time of year, Greater Prairie Chicken tours. We are signed up for one at 4:30 AM the next morning.
On the eve before, there is a brief presentation by the Colorado Wildlife Department. Here we learn from a ranger named Wendy from Brush, Colorado, that Greater Prairie Chickens were once down in numbers to only 600 individuals in 1973. This led to their being listed as Endangered.
Since 1973, significant progress was made. Collaboration between agencies and private landowners (how refreshing!) led to an increase in Greater Prairie Chicken populations to 7,000 by 1990 and 10,000 by 1998. Now they are off the endangered list and limited hunting is allowed. Apparently 20 were harvested in the last hunting season.
We were in Wray to hunt these birds with cameras and binoculars. At 4 AM when we arose, the temperature was 34 degrees and it was pitch black outside. Our crew of 24 intrepid birders were heavily bundled to ward of the chill while sitting in an unheated, open-air blind for several hours.
Audrey at bus that transported us to and from lek
Following a ½-hour school bus ride over dirt roads, we arrived at the blind – a trailer with benches inside and two large pop-up windows. Our instructions were to be quiet, to avoid eating, and to sit still. The windows were opened, ushering in a blast of cold air, and revealing total darkness under starry skies. We sat in a silent, eerie meditation for the next ten minutes.
Inside the viewing blind at dawn
Then a series of two-note low hooting sounds resonated from the darkness. As the first bit of daylight, we could see forms of the grouse scurrying about, emitting their deep, other worldly vocalizations.
As dawn broke and more light filtered in, we saw increasing numbers of Greater Prairie Chickens. Many had their bright orange sacs inflated and eyebrows puffed up as if they had received Botox injections.
These were the males, who also frequently stamped their feet in a rapid, staccato burst, like a super-intense tap dance. Occasionally, they made short flights into the air, cackling as they went air-borne in part bird/part ape-like tones. It was an all-out, crazy display.
Mingling with the 52 Greater Prairie Chickens were four Burrowing Owls, two Prairie Dogs and a Pronghorn. Eastern Meadowlarks, Horned Larks and Northern Harriers made a cameo appearances too.
Just when we thought the show could not get any better, one of the Prairie Chickens hopped on top of our viewing blind trailer and proceeded to stamp and dance on top of us. This added a metallic, scratching shuffle to his other sounds and antics; a sort of heavy-metal dance to attract females and repel males.
After what seemed like endless displaying moves, dancing, leaping and calling, the males would finally receive female attention. When they did, the most common reaction we saw from the females was indifference. One, pictured here, has the female showing at least passing interest.
Males stand off at territorial boundary
We watched this spectacular show in silent awe for two hours before adjourning to a nearby ranch for a hearty farm breakfast. At this point it was only 9 AM, but we had already experienced a lot. The spectacular dance performance we witnessed gave new meaning to the old expression “strutting your stuff.”