Saturday, December 5, 2015

Greater Prairie-Chicken and Dip

Up Close and Personal with a
Greater (Attwater's) Prairie-Chicken
Originally I hadn't planned on chasing either Apolmado Falcon or Greater Prairie-Chicken this year because I thought neither was countable in Texas. I did a some research and it turns out the ABA voted to count them in 2014 so they were on the list.

Aplomado Falcon was actually easy. Its a drive up bird basically in Cameron County so I was good to go on that bird. I think I have five sightings this year. I found out about the countability of Greater Prairie-Chicken after the Prairie-chicken Festival in Eagle Lake. That would have been the easiest way to get one. I heard about some county roads on the north end of the Attwater's Prairie-Chicken National Wildlife Refuge where some lucky birders had seen chickens. I made a dozen trips down that load every time I passed that way without luck, although its such beautiful habitat is was always a pleasure to make the trip.

Then in October I heard that the refuge has a once a month tour into the closed area of the refuge where the chickens were. Its by reservations only and limited numbers. I was busy for the November tour. Last week I finally remembered to call during business hours about the December tour. Full! but they put me and my wife Donna on the wait list and told me to call back Friday and see if a slot had opened up. I of course forgot (yes I have a job and I actually don't think about birding 24/7). I decided to show up anyway and see if I got lucky.

Was running a little later than I wanted to Saturday mourning but we made it on time. The staff decided to take a second vehicle driven by one of the refuge volunteers and we made it on to the tour! It is sometimes is better to be lucky than good!

We drove by some of the hacking cages with nothing around. There were plenty of the usual suspect, White-crowned Sparrow, Ibis, Northern Harriers, Crested Caracara. The tour is worth it because this IS the last really virgin coastal prairie left n Texas. The rains were good this year and the habitat is in short spectacular.

A Very Impressive Buck Wandered By
Then the lead van stopped next to a burn area. It was coming up nice and green, I was surprised to see liatris in bloom. Then some movement caught my eye. I got glass on it. Greater Prairie-Chicken was Year Bird 484! Kinda of a zoo bird moment though, seeing two birds in the grass far ahead.

Then the magic started. More and more birds started too come out of the tall grass. Someone said they counted eight, then the number was twelve, then twenty-four, then thirty-five, and more kept coming. And the birds just kept coming closer. 

A few birds flew in front of us. The guide mentioned that it was his first ever prairie-chicken in flight. A bird walked up to the van in front of us. Then one flew and landed what looked to be right in front of the van. I was wrong we later learned, it landed on the hood of the van! 

Still the birds kept coming closer. About ten were with in 100 feet. We could hear the cooing contact calls of the birds. Magic. Just amazing. We sat and watched for at least 45 minutes while about half of the wild population of Greater Prairie-Chickens left in Texas ignored us and well acted like Prairie-Chickens. Eventually birds came so close I could only take portraits of the birds with my Canon 300mm lens.

No rest rest for the weary though. By 10 am we were headed for the Granger Lake dam to look for the Black-legged Kittiwake that had been found last weekend. Trouble was the bird had not been seen in a couple of days. Still I thought mid-week few birders would be out looking for it. Might not have been reported because no one had been there to observe it.

We made it to the dam overlook a few minutes past noon, but decided to go find a rest room before settling in for the wait. There were 4-5 birders there when we drove by. When we got back there was no one there! That messes with your mind, did we just miss it? I set the scope up and scanned. There was not a gull in sight on the lake. 

I alternated scanning the lake and scanning eBird via Bird'seye on my phone. No reports via eBird. and no Kittiwake on the lake. I did eventually find about 10 Ring-billed Gulls and a Forster's Tern but no Kittiwake. After a couple of hours we decided to throw the towel in and head home. Tomorrow will be another day and another chase.


  1. Glad you got the chicken. No kittiwake, but maybe you can get the warbler in Refugio. What an amazing find.

  2. What an amazing day! So glad to hear that there are that many prairie chickens around.

    That reminds me of my hardest volunteer job. My Houston Master Naturalist class all volunteered to catch bugs for the baby prairie chickens at Attwater Prairie Chicken Refuge. We had an hour of class and refuge staff explained that the ration of small bugs to large bugs were too small there for the clutches to get enough food. So our job was to catch bugs in a net. Each clutch, inclosed in a pen, got 1 gallon of bugs every two hours for the first two weeks of their lives. Thy had 11 clutches that year.

    Then we went out in hip-dip grass and swished heave bug nets back and forth, stopping occasionally to transfer bugs to 1 gallon bags. I think I collected 2 or 3 gallons of bugs the rest of the morning and was totally exhausted.