Some years back, I came across an article on the courtship ritual (called lek) of prairie-chickens and since then, I wanted to photograph this event. After more than an year’s planning and waiting, I finally got a chance this May. Late last spring I found a site with viewing blinds near Stevens Point in central Wisconsin, but it was too late. The lek is usually in spring in the middle of April and by the time I found the location and got everything ready for a photoshoot, it was already middle May. This year, I got on the job a little earlier and with the local DNR’s help, was able to get to the location in the beginning of May and capture the tail end of the lek.
The blind was located in the middle of a marsh and getting there took some effort. Early May in Wisconsin can be surprisingly cold, especially at dawn – it was snowing when I first got to the location! I was the only one in the blind – it was quite exciting to walk across the marsh in darkness. The blind itself was a small wooden box with a bench and room for about three people to sit, but not enough height to stand up.
Despite all difficulties, it was fascinating to watch the lek. The lek ground, where the birds gathered, was a small clearing. 7-8 birds arrived at the location within a few minutes of my being there, well before sunrise. The males all chose different spots, but every once in a while, one would challenge another that intruded into its space, mostly through posturing. The head feathers stand upright and the birds sway and leap in excitement.
Males also perform a courtship dance with their orange vocal sacs inflated. The sound – an odd series of hooting and booming – is somewhat eerie, especially if one can’t see the bird. There were also marsh harriers hunting the chickens every once in a while, making things more exciting. The harriers fly low over the grass and often show up without warning and very close by. The chickens then take flight and hide in the grass. They return after a few minutes when the coast is clear. Sitting in the blind, it required some tricky photography to capture the action through the small port. I ended up capturing all images hand-held.
It was quite thrilling to witness and photograph a species that has become very sparse. And as a bonus, I also got to photograph a very cooperative American bittern that ventured close to the blind. Late that evening, I got to see the winnowing courtship dance of snipes and territorial displays of meadowlarks. All in all, a great experience and one I hope to repeat several times.