Love among the Prairie

“Small campus. Big degree.” That’s the motto U of M Crookston uses when enticing new students, and for me it worked. Once starting UMC I quickly got to know the professors, and the ones in the natural resource department berate students in the spring to view the courtship of prairie chickens in the spring. “Do it before you graduate,” they say, so last year I went for the first time, and while it lasted I was mesmerized. However, this year, I was reluctant to take the time off my course work to plan a trip.

Here's a photo I took last year. One of my favorite parts was how amazing the sunrise was.

Here’s a photo I took last year. One of my favorite parts was how amazing the sunrise was.

PC tree

Another thing I enjoyed last year was when the prairie chickens would try to land in the shrubs.

 

Which is why when a professor offered to help get students organized for a trip, I jumped at the chance to go. Not only would I get to see prairie chickens again, someone else was planning it. How great was that?

With bleary eyes, we drove to the blind. Already I was noticing differences form last year. It was both warmer and clearer, and as we arrived, I marveled at how bright the stars and how clear the Milky Way was. Surprisingly, the area was still and we began the trek down the path.

As we walked, our shoes squelched slightly. The path varied from being damp to soaking, another thing different from last year. We piled into the blind. After some shuffling, we settled. Then we waited. Despite our excitement, we were still. The wind began to howl. We still had about an hour before sunrise.

As the sky slowly began to lighten, I heard murmurings from the other end of the blind. Behind us, away from the lek were deer. Slowly, they approached. It was if they sensed all was not right with the prairie. Perhaps noticed us in the blind, for the lead one stopped indecisively. A few of them looked over at the blind. Then, tails flagging, they turned and pranced away.

The group of deer as they pranced away.

The group of deer as they pranced away.

Not long after the deer disappeared, we heard the first faint booms of the prairie chickens. We exchanged eager looks, and opened the windows to the blind. We had kept them closed to keep the wind out, but now we didn’t care. It was still to dark to see much, but their booming was more awesome than I remembered.

Even in the low light, I could tell there were more chickens than last year. Not only that, but they seemed more active. We could hear the sound of feathers ruffling, and as the sun continued to rise, we could make out the shapes of the prairie chickens as they shot up above the grasses.

Finally, there was enough light to see details, and I realized why there was more activity. The hens had formed small groups, and were eying the males as if observing a dance off. As the males squared off, it wasn’t far from the truth. Feathers ruffling, the males chased and fought one another.

2 Male fly

One of them chased the other away.

 

Sometimes they approached a hen, but the females remained coy. They often watched the males approached, but walked away when the males got closer. Like puppies, they followed the females, but quickly got distracted. Another male would catch their eye and the cycle would continue.

This female wanted nothing to do with the male.

This female wanted nothing to do with the male.

As the prairie chickens danced, a Northern Flicker landed on another blind. The flicker looked around for a moment, seemingly confused. Then, after a few moments the flicker flew away. I’d seen flickers before and found them lovely, so I was excited to finally get some photos of one. I was quickly enjoying this blind more than the one from last year.

The Northern Flicker didn't stay long.

The Northern Flicker didn’t stay long.

The males continued to boom, oblivious to the hawk soaring on the horizon. As I noticed it circle, my heart jumped. A prairie chicken seemed too big for a hawk, but perhaps distracted by the season one might make an easy target. The raptor dipped, flushing some prairie chickens. Then, the impressive bird flew away.

Hawk

The hawk as it circled the prairie.

 

As the courtship continued, a meadowlark landed on the other blind. Its song was bright against the deep voices of the prairie chickens, and I wondered if it was harmonizing. The meadowlark called again, looking utterly pleased with itself. The booming continued and the meadowlark flew away. It was a brief song, but it made me smile.

Meadowlark

The meadowlark was my favorite part of the day.

 

At only my second time visiting a prairie chicken blind, I’m hooked. Before coming to UMC, I hadn’t heard of them, but they’ve enhanced my experience as a student. I don’t know if I’ll get the chance to visit a blind again, but I’m jumping on the bandwagon. I’m sure students are tired of hearing about it from their professors, but I do think people should visit a blind while they are at UMC. It’s well worth getting up early to visit the prairie.

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