Author Archives: Laura Erickson

April Morning in a Greater Prairie-Chicken Lek in Kansas

Greater Prairie-Chicken

On the last Sunday of April at 5:30 am, while it was quite dark, I drove into the parking lot of the Kansas Wetland Education Center in Great Bend, where I met up with Curtis Wolf, the manager of the Center. I hopped into his truck and he drove to a piece of private land where there’s a prairie chicken lek just a short hike from a dirt road. The landowner has allowed the Education Center to set up a blind so they can bring people in to see displaying Greater Prairie Chickens. The extended drought has taken a toll on these stunning birds, so the lek had far fewer birds than last year, and this is late in the displaying season. Only two were booming a few days before, and a coyote apparently dispatched one. But the remaining one was already there when we arrived, booming and cackling and dancing, all alone. There was something so achingly poignant, yet so endearingly plucky, about this bird putting his entire being into a performance directed to no one at all.

Greater Prairie-Chicken

The very first Greater Prairie-Chickens I ever saw, in 1976, were the dwindling remnants of the last population anywhere in Michigan—a population that died out entirely a few years after I saw them. Populations in most places continue to decline dangerously. Kansas is one of the few places where they’ve been increasing in recent years—they’re now at higher levels than they’d been at when the Breeding Bird Survey began in 1966.


Their numbers still are, of course, orders of magnitude less than before pioneer days, but some people are doing their best to ensure that prairie chicken populations have what they need to regain sustainable levels, and the Kansas Wetlands Education Center is at the forefront of efforts to raise public awareness of this splendid bird that has so much cultural and historical significance to Americans as well as being a splendid bird in its own right. There are more successful leks in The Nature Conservancy Preserve at Cheyenne Bottoms, but those are too far from roads to provide viewing options for the public.

Greater Prairie-Chicken

Prairie grouse—that is, the two species of prairie chickens, the two sage grouse, and the Sharp-tailed Grouse—have been declining dramatically since so much of the prairie habitat was destroyed for cultivation, cattle grazing, settlement, and energy and mineral exploitation. The Dust Bowl, which killed tragic numbers of humans whose lungs got clogged with powdery dust, killed untold numbers of wildlife, who had no houses to close themselves off from dust storms, and didn’t have hankies or neckerchiefs to cover their mouths during the worst of it. And the soil blowing away left nothing behind for the plants they needed for food or shelter. The government’s focus during and after that devastating decade was naturally on helping farmers find better ways of tilling the land without losing so much to erosion, but no one ever questioned the value of putting into cultivation as much land as people could buy up.

This lek, on private rangeland, has been declining ever since the drought began. The patch used for dancing is overgrazed, but prairie chickens don’t mind dancing on bare ground. The problem is that much of the surrounding habitat, where the grouse spend their lives, has also been overgrazed. The drought has killed so much of the remaining vegetation that a dangerous amount of the land’s surface is exposed soil. Without plentiful rain soon, much of this land may be getting back into Dust Bowl conditions.

Yet one prairie chicken continues to dance and boom on his old lek. People who grew up with trees don’t find prairies as intrinsically beautiful and valuable as forests, but to prairie chickens they’re everything.

Greater Prairie-Chicken


Scissor-tailed Flycatcher
Many people have described the movie The Wizard of Oz as perfect, but to me it has a glaring flaw. It starts out appropriately in black and white, because in Dorothy ‘s angst, she feels as if her life is utterly devoid of color. Oz isn’t just colorful—the wondrously brilliant palette makes it larger and brighter than real life, as a dream world should be. But through her adventures, Dorothy learns to appreciate her home, family, and friends. One would think that by movie’s end she’d be able to see them with clearer eyes, especially considering that the movie ends with the words, “There’s no place like home.” But at movie’s end, Dorothy is back in her black-and-white, diminished world. Kansas may mot be an over-the-top Technicolor state, but even in the midst of a drought of historic magnitude, the state glows in living color, and it’s easy to find wonderful people working hard to protect the best of Kansas’s natural heritage.

Wilson's Phalarope

One of those people is Rob Penner, avian programs manager of The Nature Conservancy’s property at Cheyenne Bottoms. This wetland in the heart of Kansas is a critical stopover for migrating shorebirds and waterfowl, and an important place for Whooping Cranes migrating between Aransas National Wildlife Refuge in Texas and Wood Buffalo National Park in Alberta. It also provides essential nesting habitat for the interior populations of Least Tern and Snowy Plover.

Greater Prairie-Chicken

During the 17 years he’s been here, Rob has been managing the grasslands above the wetlands as well. Little by little, he’s removed all the trees from the grassy plains and as much fencing as he can, restoring this tiny remnant of what was once the vast Great Plains and thus enhancing the landscape for prairie chickens and other native species. Some Nature Conservancy land is grazed, but in a rotation cycle so it doesn’t get overgrazed, somewhat mimicking the grazing patterns of American bison when they were an integral part of the system. Rob is little by little removing the non-native trees from along streamsides, too.

Western Kingbird

The last weekend in April, the Kansas Wetlands Education Center usually celebrates an annual Wings and Wetlands Festival, but the awful drought has been hard on birds and habitat, and far fewer migrants have been using the wetlands this year, so they had to cancel the festival. Rob deserved a day off, but he didn’t appear to mind in the least spending an entire Sunday morning taking me around Cheyenne Bottoms. I’ve never seen it at its best, so I have nothing with which to compare, but it was darned impressive, and it was especially fun seeing it with Rob, who didn’t mind stopping his truck for every photographable Upland Sandpiper or shorebird. Many birders get impatient with out-of-towners who get so focused on what are ordinary birds, but Rob fully appreciates the rich birdlife of his little corner of the world even after 17 years. He’s seen the Cheyenne Bottoms through one of the wettest years on record, 2007, and now through this historical drought. The landscape wasn’t as green as it would be in a good year, but was hardly the black-and-white barren countryside of Wizard of Oz lore.

Upland Sandpiper