BY KELLY BOSTIAN World Outdoors Writer
Sunday, April 18, 2010
8/12/10 at 10:20 AM
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IN THE DARKNESS just before dawn, they call with cackles, like tiny witches laughing and zipping around on miniature hissing broomsticks. A mix of percussive thumping, cooing and more cackling soon ensues as male prairie grouse engage in courtship dominance and territorial battles old as the Cimarron River bluffs.
It's easy to see why waiting to watch lesser prairie chickens on their traditional courtship grounds (called leks) is a popular draw for birders and all sorts of nature lovers the world over. Inhabiting a limited range of high-plains prairie, the lesser prairie chicken — a slightly smaller grouse that is a relative of the greater prairie chicken of the tallgrass prairie — puts on a show unique to northwestern Oklahoma, Kansas, Texas, New Mexico and southern Colorado.
They arrive in the dark, surrounding a portable blind placed near their breeding grounds as if it were just another large lonely bush on the high prairie. And as dawn arrives, the birds — inflating orange sacs on the sides of their necks, feathers raised horn-like over their heads— stomp their feet and make a thumping sound. The dawn is quite literally glow-in-the-pink morning light as it bathes the land of salt flats, red bluffs, yucca, prickly pear cactus and sand plum thickets.
One of the places for prairie chicken viewing is the Selman Ranch, a 14,000-acre slice of the upper Cimarron River country about 25 miles north of Woodward, and this weekend more than 100 people from 15 states and Canada are enjoying the chickens and other wildlife as part of the Oklahoma Audubon Council's Leks Treks and More: The Woodward Lesser Prairie Chicken Festival.
The event, under way through Wednesday, was inspired by securing a future for the birds and an interest in introducing more people to western Oklahoma, according to ranch owner Sue Selman.
The upper Cimarron is a storied land in Oklahoma. It has chapters of settlers and sod huts and failed "dry land" farms. There are the few who made a go of it and bought groups of failed farms to build ranches, but then came the oil discoveries, and now there is a southern horizon lined by towering white windmills. The newest chapter will focus on wind power, but the diminutive character of growing importance in that story is the lesser prairie chicken.
Already weakened, the population is declining because of roads, fences, changing agricultural practices and habitat loss, Selman said. She fears the wind industry's towering transmission lines and windmills will be the last straw for the birds.
The Selman family established a huge ranch along Buffalo Creek at the turn of the 20th century. Selman now owns the ranch, spars with the wind power companies and has come to embrace the prairie grouse she gave little notice as a girl growing up on Oklahoma's high plains.
She heard about them back then. "Dad said they lived off prairie chickens and quail," she said. Now Selman is making some of her living off them in a different way. The ranch is home to at least two leks, but she also leases another lek on a neighbor's place, "just like you would a hunting lease," she said. People pay to watch and photograph the prairie chickens.
She only first experienced watching the birds at a lek about five years ago. "This is ranchland," she said of the country where people are outdoors working — not bird watching — most of the time.
"Life changing," is the most-expressed reaction people offer after their first morning at the lek, she said. "In our urbanized society, there are a lot of people who have never even heard of a prairie grouse," she said. "Even if you live here, unless you're out there, a lot of people have never seen it."
Three years ago Audubon recognized the Selman Ranch as a national Important Birding Area, the first such area in Oklahoma on private land. The group organized a weekend at the ranch to mark the event, people enjoyed the prairie chickens and other birds of the area and the idea for the festival was born. This is the second year for the event, which will host more than 100 birders and nature lovers from 15 states and Canada. Selman hopes it will grow. "Some of the birding festivals around the country are just a huge deal," she said. "It's something that would be good for Oklahoma."
Woodward lesser Prairie Chicken Festival
Continues through Wednesday
Lek viewing available Monday
Space still available on several field trips, including Hackberry Flat, Wichita Mountains
and Black Mesa
(918) 809-6325 or see tulsaworld.com/okaudubon
Two male lesser prairie chickens spar on a lek on the Selman ranch north of Woodward on april 8. KELLY BOSTIAN/Tulsa World