Searching for Lesser Prairie Chickens-Day 1

This year I decided to volunteer to do a survey to find Lesser Prairie Chickens during mating season.  I’ve always wanted to see these birds.  They are endangered and difficult to see at any time of year.  Your best chance of seeing them is during mating season when the birds congregate in clearings to do their mating dance.

They have a very small territory.  You can only find them in limited areas along the Texas/New Mexico border.  Their habitat is the wide open areas of prairie grasses.  They only do their mating ritual at sunrise (literally).  So you have to get up well before sunrise to get to the viewing areas if you want a remote chance of seeing them.

To do my survey, I was given two specific 8-mile routes.  These routes were located outside of Portales, New Mexico.  There was no guarantee I would hear or even see any Lesser Prairie Chickens.  Since my routes were on obscure county roads in the countryside, I left the day before to drive to Portales and find my routes in the daylight.

When I left last Tuesday, it was cold and rainy.  The weather was supposed to clear up Wednesday and Thursday.  Evidently these birds are very particular about weather conditions for their mating dance.  The wind can’t be blowing more than 12 mph, it can’t be rainy or misty, no fog…basically conditions have to be ideal.

I decided to do a circular route for my trip to maximize birding locations.  It’s mid-April so I thought I might have a chance to see some early migratory birds.  So Tuesday morning Scarlett and I headed to Roswell, NM, to stop in at Bitter Lake National Wildlife Refuge (BLNWR) and Bottomless Lakes State Park (BLSP).  Both locations had been reporting some good sightings recently.

When I arrived at BLNWR it was very overcast and misting rain.  Scarlett was in desperate need of a potty break.  So I walked her along the butterfly path next to the visitor’s center.  I immediately saw a bright yellow bird fly away to a tree further down the path.  I just had to get a photo of this warbler.  When I finally saw it again, I was able to get a pretty decent photo in these terrible conditions.  (I hate cloudy, misty days!)


Orange-Crowned Warbler

Then I heard a tiny little bird voice to my left.  I was happy to see a Blue-Gray Gnatcatcher busily feeding in the trees along the path.  I was fortunate in that he was willing to stop for about 10 seconds.  I was able to get a pretty cute photo of him.


Blue-Gray Gnatcatcher

As I was heading back to the car, a flycatcher caught my eye.  I got several photos of this bird from different angles.  I have a hard time identifying flycatchers.  But with all the data I had to go by, I am fairly certain this is a Willow Flycatcher.  A new bird for me! They were endangered for many years.  But a recent article I read said their numbers have come back nicely.


Willow Flycatcher

I drove down to the lake to see what might be about.  It was pretty quiet there that day.  The only thing of note I saw was a pack of Ruddy Ducks and Eared Grebes.  As soon as they saw my car coming towards them, they started scurrying away.  Very difficult to get a photograph.  Which was a shame.  Because this was the first time I had ever seen the Eared Grebes in breeding plumage.


Ruddy Duck females and both male and female Eared Grebes

The weather was deteriorating quickly.  The forecast had said it would be clearing as the day progressed…riiiggghhhttt…….

When I arrived at BLSP it was pouring down rain.  I had to sit in the car for about an hour.  I was hoping it would let up so I could walk the marsh trail.  Wilson’s and Red-Necked Phalarope had been spotted here recently.

At one point the rain got light enough for me to don a raincoat and head out.  Of course, Scarlett could care less that it was raining.  That dog just loves water!  No Phalaropes, but I did see several waterfowl and a Black-Necked Stilt grooming in the rain.


Blue-Winged Teal


Black-Necked Stilt

As I was leaving the park, the rain stopped long enough to get out and see one of the pools at the park.  It’s a very pretty place.  I wish the weather had been nicer.  I would have loved to go exploring with Scarlett on the many trails I saw.

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One of the several lakes at Bottomless Lakes State Park

Their is a large shallow pond near the entrance of BLSP.  It doesn’t have any roads around it to park and view the birds.  It probably has some hiking trails, but the weather was too bad to explore that option.  The main road that drives past it is well above the pond as you climb to the top of the mesa.  What makes it even more difficult is the fact that the edges of the pond are very overgrown with trees and scrub.

There is one pullout on the climb up the mesa that offers a good view of the pond (aka the Lazy Lagoon).  I took several long-distance photos and will have to study them further to see if I got a pic of the Red-Necked Phalarope.  That will be a new bird for me.  As I was leaving the far end of the pond, I saw a whole pack of Great Egrets.  Almost monochromatic in the rainy conditions.


Back on the road to Portales.  I passed lots of soggy Swainson’s Hawks.


Swainson’s Hawk

My first town I drove through after leaving BLSP was Elida.  As I approached the town, I saw a great photo op of an old home.


Elida is very small and quaint.  I drove through the neighborhoods looking for sparrows.  The houses all have very large lots with large grassy lawns.  There was a lot of bird activity since the rain had let up considerably.


Vesper Sparrow


Brewer’s Sparrow


Brewer’s Sparrow

Next stop was finding my two survey routes.  They are located between Portales and Clovis, NM.  They were tough to find so I’m glad I had plenty of daylight left to locate them.  Next stop, Clovis.  I decided to stay in Clovis because there seemed to be a lot of good birding locations around town.  Since my survey duties would be over for the day by 8:30 am, I wanted to check out some other birding spots nearby during the day.

Poor Scarlett had a boring day in the car due to the rainy weather.  She would have happily played all day outside, but I wasn’t willing to join her.  Poor baby….

I made it into Clovis just before dark.  I had just enough light to get a pic of a pheasant.  What a nice way to end the day.  I headed to bed early since I would have to be up at 4 am to head out for my surveys.


Ring-Necked Pheasant – too bad the lighting was almost nonexistent.  He was pretty close to me!










8 thoughts on “Searching for Lesser Prairie Chickens-Day 1

  1. Great photos. The flycatcher was probably not Willow. It is too early for them. It is hard to say what it might be from the photo – definitely an empid. Come to the Audubon meeting on Thursday night to learn more about Willow Flycatcher.

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