Recording the spring-time ritual of Greater Prairie-Chickens on their breeding leks requires great care and a comfortable blind!
"Photographing prairie grouse on their leks is one of my favorite spring rituals. I don't get the opportunity to do it every year so I try to make the most of it with careful planning and proper equipment when I do. Last year I returned to a Greater Prairie-Chicken lek I hadn't visited for ten years with National Geographic photographer and filmmaker (and Tragopan Ambassador!) Tim Laman. With careful scouting and preparation we came back with some beautiful images while doing our absolute best to have no impact on the birds." ~ Gerrit Vyn
Observing From A Distance And Walking The Lek
The first step in preparation was to observe the displaying birds from a distance with binoculars when they were present on their lek in the morning. It's important to know the exact location of the lek and to get a feel for the boundaries of the area the birds are using.
Later in the day, after the birds had departed the lek, we walked to the area and examined it further to determine the lek boundaries by carefully examining the ground for trampled grass, abundant droppings, and feathers lost in fights. In this way you can also get a feel for where the greatest action will occur, most often near the center of the lek.
A Traopan V6 with Vestibule set up for ground level shooting and a Monal Photography Blind in the distance. Tim shot out of the side door of the Monal using the Screen Door Lens Sleeve.
Setting Up Blinds
After determining the boundaries of the lek and the location of sunrise, the next job was to look for spots to erect blinds. By getting on hands and knees and surveying the area at ground level we identified good vantage points where displaying birds would be slightly elevated and standing against distant backgrounds. We also made sure to have the blinds off of the area we identified as the lek. This was of critical concern so as not to disturb the activity or displace birds off of their territories on the lek.
These would be our starting blind locations, knowing that we'd fine tune our blind locations after each day of shooting and observing the birds behavior. I used a Tragopan V6 and Tim used a Monal Photography Blind.
After setting up the blinds, we staked them securely and added additional guy lines to withstand the heavy prairie winds that were present most days. We also left our Koklass Chairs, ground pads, and a few other accessories in the blinds so we didn't have to carry them in the morning.
Entering And Departing The Blind
We entered the blinds about an hour before sunrise each morning. I used the red light option of a Pocket Light to get setup inside, get my cameras ready, and had a sleeping bag handy to stay warm. We stayed in the blinds until late-morning when the last males typically left the lek.
Maximizing The OpportunityIn order to get the most of the situation we also used a Hokki Ground Blind for dedicated ground level photography. The Hokki can be re-positioned rapidly so we varied it's location daily, focusing on different parts of the lek.
Prairie grouse are remarkably unfazed by blinds - so long as movements and sounds are kept to a minimum, they go about their business of displaying, fighting, and mating as if you aren't even there. Observing this spring ritual from an intimate position in a blind is one of the great wildlife experiences in North America. There is nothing like being surrounded by the sights and sounds of these wonderful birds at dawn.