Thursday, April 22, 2010

Departure For Chicken Country

April 11, 2010

It is not very often I get to have a getaway in April. That is just how things can be. So, when I was able to scoot away for a few days, I had some options. While a ton of places can be quite appealing in April, one place I wanted to see for sure was Colorado and Wyoming. While I have been to both places in the past, this trip was shaping up to be a bit different.

For one thing, life bird potential was pretty damned low. Two new birds were possible: Greater Sage-Grouse and Lesser Prairie-Chicken (Fortunately for me, I had some success in Colorado some years ago and did not need to worry about White-tailed Ptarmigan or Gunnison Sage Grouse. I had 'em both.) Both birds are easy to find in April.

Plus, I was also looking to turn this into a social trip. My buddy Joe lives in Denver now. But his schedule got so jammed up after his return from a month of birding in Mexico that the possibility of spending the week birding with him and his wife disappeared pretty quickly. A good friend from college lived (note past tense) in Fort Collins. As this trip was starting to materialize, her husband took a job in Houston. They beat it on down to Texas a few weeks before I got there. So, what was supposed to be birding, photography, history, and social stuff quickly became, for the most part, birding, photography, and history…solo.

Check in at the airport here in Detroit was a breeze. My luggage? 49 pounds. And at what weight do they start to charge you extra? Yeah, you guessed it – 50 pounds. Damn, I'm good.

After arrival in Denver and the rental was secured I hustled off to Holly, Colorado (which is practically Kansas). Reservoirs north of Lamar were a nice start with various dabbling ducks scrounging food. I was not expecting the Lapland Longspur at all. But it was the first few Swainson’s Hawks that really set the tone – yup, I’m out west!

A quick stop at the Amache National Historic Site scored one of the best bird views of the trip. A few feet outside my window? A covey of Scaled Quail. I was so hoping one would pose for me. As if on command, he jumped on a log and sat there like he owned the place. So cooperative. Apparently, a bad winter a few years back wiped many of them out in this area and they have been hard to find. They do seem to be making a slow comeback…

The Amache Camp (officially known as the Granada Relocation Center), by the way, is a site that holds a place in one of the darker chapters of American history. The United States was not a good place be for citizens of Japanese heritage in the days following December 7th, 1941 (I suspect it was a lot like being Muslim on September 12th, 2001). A few weeks after the attack at Pearl Harbor, the Japanese-Americans (thousands of them) were rounded up and sent off to camps throughout the western states. Camp Amache, is southeastern Colorado, was one of those sites. While the buildings are long gone, the foundations all remain.

Dinner in Holly was at Porky's Parlor. Perfect after a long drive. You can’t go wrong with Mexican food.

Oh, wait. I didn’t completely explain the grouse/chicken thing, did I?

First, you need to know what a lek is. It is a location where the males strut and make a bizarre calling sound (depending on the species) hoping the onlooking females, who are ready to breed, choose them. They (the males) get all rowdy while the females hang back and figure out who looks the best or has the best location on the lek. It is really a lot like a college bar. Seriously. The guys try their damndest to do everything right so they can impress the ladies and take 'em home. They try and look good or maybe flash a few bucks and buy them drinks. Burning up the dance floor is an option, too. Ultimately, it is the same thing: it's a chore for the guys while it is a choice for the chicks. In contrast, however, grouse don't have wingmen and certainly don't wear scummy looking baseball caps showing off letters from an ancient language. I'm also pretty sure grouse won't vomit on a date if they do too many Depthcharges...

One thing to keep in mind with grouse that use leks is this: the locations of the leks don't change. They are like death, taxes, and annoying people - they will always be there. Period. Every spring, year after year, you can visit the same chunk of real estate and see the show. Finding a lek, in many cases, is as easy as finding the local brewery. Just get the location from the locals or look it up on line. Go to the site on an April morning before sunrise and they will be there. At least they should be…

Unfortunately, not all is well in chicken land. The Lesser Prairie-Chicken (slightly smaller than the Greater Prairie-Chicken – really!) is in some trouble. In fact, there is talk about placing them on the Endangered Species List. It is all about habitat loss. You know the drill. Kansas, Colorado, Oklahoma and Texas are the only places to find them. As I understand it, the only public lek in Colorado has been closed off. Fewer and fewer birds were coming to the lek so the State shut down public access. The next closest public lek is in southwest Kansas.

The keyword here is “public”. In the grand tradition of eco-tourism, Fred and Norma Dorenkamp in eastern Colorado, a hop, skip and jump from Kansas, made arrangements with neighbors. Said neighbors have Lesser Prairie-Chicken leks on private property. One can spend the night at the Dorenkamp's house, head over to the lek early the next day with a guide, return back for a monster breakfast and be on their way. Awesome stuff, huh?

By sunset (after checking out the Burrowing Owls up the road), I found myself standing on the Dorenkamp’s driveway in awe of the Milky Way (not the candy bar). That said, there are little things that look like Milky Ways (yes, the candy bar) all over the place. Such is cow country. Venus and Mercury were in the western sky just like they had been a few night before back home. Funny how those things work out.

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