Monday, April 4, 2016

Buena Vista 'P Chickens

I should have known better, for this “spring” has been anything but predictable. We were teased with 50s and 60's a couple weeks ago and I'd even donned shorts a day or two, but Mother Nature is fickle this year. My feet were beginning to thaw as the truck heater poured out warming air through the floor vent. I busied myself in the meantime transferring hand written notes to a data recording sheet to be dropped off before I left these tall grasslands east of Wisconsin Rapids.

Hours earlier, I met my guide, Peggy Farrell, the Prairie Chicken Viewing Project Coordinator, at the Buena Vista Grasslands Wildlife Area. Peggy is also the Director of the North American/Wisconsin BOW (Becoming an Outdoors Woman) from UW Stevens Point. Although I'd have to hit the road at 3:15 a.m. to make our 4:30 meeting time, I was excited to experience my first greater prairie chicken (Tympanachus cupido) booming grounds.

As one of four grouse species here, prairie chicken range historically was in the native grasslands of the southern third of the Wisconsin. By the end of the logging boom in the late 1800s they inhabited every corner of the the state. Market hunting and land fragmentation eventually collapsed the population and relegated the birds to state and federally protected status in small habitat clusters in central Wisconsin.

Buena Vista Wildlife Area comprises several adjacent WDNR grassland Natural Areas, including the BV quarry prairie and the BV Prairie Chicken Meadow, where I'd hunker down with camera and clipboard for a few hours. This 12,700 acre property was once dominated by a tamarack and black spruce marsh, and at one time was drained for agriculture. Now it's managed as grassland habitat and is one of the biggest blocks east of the Mississippi and home to the largest population of native greater prairie chickens in the state. Rotational grazing, prescribed burns and control of woody vegetation and evasives constitute some of the management practices on the property. Besides prairie chickens, the area also is home to many grassland bird species and is designated an “Important Bird Area” (IBA), which provides essential habitat for breeding and non-breeding birds.

Several photographer friends have made the trek to Buena Vista and were rewarded with amazing images. The 'p chicken is one bird I've never observed, so an opportunity to reserve a spot in one of the blinds located there was something I didn't want to miss. Reservations can be made through UWSP and contacting Peggy at 715 -346-4681. Blinds are available from April 1st to the 30th and accommodate four people each. Participants are asked to observe and record activity at each lek (booming grounds) to aid in the annual population census.

Peggy guided me to a roadside trail which led into one of the leks-it was a straightforward short hike through the frost covered prairie, following the beam of the flashlight. At 20 degrees and clear brilliant star covered sky overhead, the pre-dawn darkness was (literally) breathtaking. Blinds are squat rectangular wood boxes, with benches inside and small covered viewing ports. I'd hauled a tripod and camera gear and extra clothes (very much needed) and tried to be as quiet as possible as I settled in. Every bump of the wood sidewalls or frame seemed magnified on this perfectly still morning. The hour and a half wait inside the blind passed fairly quickly. I'd checked each port to be sure they were not frozen shut (some were) so as not to spook birds later.

As sunrise approached, the grassland started to wake. Mallard wings whistled overhead and lit nearby in an unseen black pothole. A pair geese broke out from the frozen fog of the eastern horizon and settled in a short distance away. A few sandhill cranes far off sounded their double rattle calls. As the darkness relented, a squawking, chuckling sound commenced from the lek outside the blind. Carefully lowering the wood port cover, I was happy to see a cock prairie chicken dancing around searching and calling for an invisible hen. Soon, another male landed, which immediately set off a loud booming competition between the pair to vie for their piece of breeding territory. False charges, leaps into the air and stomping feet were all quite entertaining. About the same time, echoes of other booming birds at distant leks seem to surround the blind from every direction.

Trying to photograph at this time of day proved difficult, just not enough light to get sharp images. No worry, the sun would be up and illuminate the grounds soon enough...or so I hoped. With no hens to impress with their mock battles, the second male lost interest and flew off south in search of a mate. The remaining bird continued to boom and put on a good show for the non-existent hens he'd hoped to
attract, until he too, flew off. As quickly as the performances started, they ended. Although “my” lek remained silent with no additional visitors, the distinct and constant low pitched 'whoo whoo whoa' continued from all corners of the grassland. An impressive chorus to tune into for the remaining time on the grounds.

The breeding activity is relatively brief in the April mornings and by 7:30, the booming tapered off. Good thing, as my feet had started to become numb and the hot thermos of coffee sounded pretty appealing after such an early start to the day. Besides, my observation notes, although thin, needed to be transposed to a data sheet, and I may as well be start warming up while writing.

Although the PC activity had all but ended for the day, a hor frost morning in early light is not to be missed. Earlier, Peggy had suggested a drive around the grassland after leaving the blind and take in some of the other wildlife. I explored some of the frozen muddied dirt side roads within the property and managed to nab a few photographs of sandhill cranes, kestrels and waterfowl.

After circumnavigating much of the grassland acreage, I'd finally warmed up and put a decent dent in the hot coffee. I've grown to really appreciate and become fond of tall grass prairies, so the Buena Vista landscape is a place I'll be back to again. It'll be interesting to follow the transformation here throughout the year, so I'm sure my return trip will not be too far off.

For more information on Wisconsin's greater prairie chicken, checkout the DNRs page on the species here.

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