Last week I travelled to Eastern Colorado to photograph greater prairie-chickens and to Western Nebraska to try to photograph plains sharp-tailed grouse. Having lived in Colorado for 23 years prior to moving to Wyoming I had photographed the prairie-chickens before but not with digital cameras. With fewer and fewer photo editors willing to work with transparencies I’m trying to get new digital coverage where lacking. When my good friend Darren invited me down to photograph the lek he photographs every year I gratefully accepted.
We arrived at the lek in the early morning darkness.. You must be in your blind before daylight as not to spook off the birds. Darren had been out to the lek a few days earlier to put a marker so we would know where to place our blind. Not long after we settled in to the blind birds began arriving. As the light came up we could see that things would not go well.. The lek is located atop a small ridge and we had placed our blind to far down the hill placing all kinds of grases and bushes between us and the praire chickens. When Darren visited the lek a few days earlier snow had laid down all the grasses misleading him. We like setting up a bit downhill from the birds to give us a nice low angle on the birds. About all I could do was photograph right through the grasses. When the birds would look up like in the image above I used the shallow depth of field and beautiful bokeh I get with my Canon EF800mm F5.6L IS to my advantage. I can blur everything but the bird giving me nice selective focus and a pleasing image. I came away with a few nice images but not really what I was looking for. After the birds left the lek we repositioned the blind to a better location giving us much clearer views of the lek.
I have found in the past that a few males will visit the lek in the afternoon so we came back that afternoon and had some birds to work with but unfortunately had overcast skies. I didn’t take any photos but we observed the birds until dark.
We arrived at the lek the next morning to partially overcast skies but it looked like we’d have periods of good early morning sun which really brings out the colors in the prairie-chickens. Just as the sun was coming up I was able to capture the image above of the males interesting courtship display. They rapidly stomp their feet inflate their gular sacs and boom which is the rather loud call they make. This is the classic prairie-chicken image.
The males seem to like to jump up on anything to give them a little bit of elevation. I’m not sure if they are looking for incoming hens or trying to show off. The bird above tried to get on top of this little bush but had some trouble.
Each male has a small territory on the lek that he has won and will defend against any intruder. The most dominant bird usually has the best territory in the center of the lek and does most of the breeding. Any other male that gets near his turf is challenged. Usually they just squawk at each other till one backs down but occasionally a fight breaks out and makes for some exciting photography. It’s much harder to photograph than you would think, you always seem to be focused on the wrong pair of birds. With 20-30 males in front of you it’s very difficult to figure out which pair will fight.
For the fighing photos I mostly used my EF 300mm F2.8L IS. The birds have a tendancy to jump high out of the top of the frame if you’re composed to tight. We had a very good morning of photography. I took nearly 800 photos coming away with some really fine images capturing most of the shots I had in mind.. Unfortunately things went downhill fast after this. The unpredictable early spring weather took a turn for the worse becoming rainy and very windy in both Colorado and Nebraska. I travelled north to Nebraska but things just did not work out. I was not able to capture any images of sharp-tail grouse on this trip. The trip home didn’t get any better since I had to fight may way through a snowstorm in Western Wyoming but hey that’s spring in the Rockies!