Dancing Chickens and Skulking Rails

Attwater Prairie Chicken NWR

I woke up extra early on Saturday, and drove for 50 miles along a nearly abandoned two-lane road through the dark Texas night to the only national wildlife refuge named for a chicken.  I know, right?  A chicken?!  It’s a pretty special chicken, though.

Attwater’s Prairie Chicken is a genetically unique subspecies (or race) of the Greater Prairie Chicken.  While most Greater PC’s live up in Kansas, Nebraska, and the Dakotas, a small population of them has evolved to live here on the Texas coastal plain.  Hunting and cattle grazing have caused their numbers here to plummet, and there are currently only about 50 Attwater’s Prairie Chickens left in the wild (plus a few more in a small captive breeding program).  And every wild Attwater’s PC lives here on this modest refuge.

Normally, it’s almost impossible to see a Prairie Chicken here (I tried back in February and didn’t see one).  While part of the refuge is open to the public, the Prairie Chickens live in the northern sector which is normally closed to everyone except for researchers and refuge staff.  But for two mornings a year, for 1-2 hours each morning, the park rangers at Attwater allow limited access to view some incredibly endangered dancing chickens.

Prairie Chickens and some of their grouse relatives engage in a behavior known as lekking or lek mating.  In the spring, male Prairie Chickens gather in a communal area (known as a lek) and perform a complex display which involves inflating large air sacs on their neck, raising feathers (known as pinnae) on their head, and dancing and jumping into the air.  Females gather at the lek as well, and use the performances to select a worthy mate.

If I got up early enough, I might get a chance to see Attwater’s Prairie Chickens dancing on their lek.  I arrived to the refuge at 6:25 am.  The tours were supposed to start at 7:00 am.  There were already 30 people in line ahead of me to catch a van.  I got in line, and watched the eastern sky brighten.

Pre Dawn at Attwater

I made it into the third van for the 10 minute trip to the northern part of the refuge.  Once there, I joined a group of eager birders and nature enthusiasts on a small raised platform, about 200 yards from the lek area.  The lek was a small flat area where the chickens had trampled the vegetation a bit.  You can almost see it just the to the right of the base of the windmill in the picture below.  We waited.

Lek Site

Soon, a male Attwater’s Praire Chicken appeared, and began to strut, “boom”, and dance.  A little while later, two rivals joined him.  While it was too far away for me to get photos, I got great looks through my telescope.  So did everyone else.

Chicken watchers

I did take a few pictures of some photos hanging in the refuge office to give you an idea of what I saw:

Chicken photo

Chicken photo2

My favorite picture is an amazing color drawing by local 4th grader, Diamond Flores.

Festival Poster Winner

You can also find some amazing lekking behavior on YouTube – here’s a very cool video showing Lesser Prairie Chickens at a lek (it’s only 47 seconds).

No one knows what’s in store for the future of Attwater’s PC.  The wildlife biologists and other staff at the refuge are working hard to sustain and grow the tiny population here, but there are many challenges.  The adult birds have a mortality rate of about 50% per year, mostly due to hawks and other predators. The chicks are also vulnerable to predators, and may be competing (not very successfully) with introduced fire ants for ground insects in the weeks and months after hatching.  New releases from the captive breeding flock bolster the wild population, but right even with these additions the numbers of PC’s at Attwater are barely holding stable.  Hopefully the dedication and hard work of the refuge staff will eventually pay off with a healthy and expanding population in the years to come.

After a successful morning at Attwater NWR, I decided to try my luck at another almost-impossible-to-see species: Yellow Rail.  While Attwater’s Prairie Chickens are critically endangered and found only in a restricted area, they practically scream for your addition during the lekking season.  Rails are exactly the opposite.  They are relatively common, and are widespread in many marshes along the Texas coast.  But Yellow and Black Rails in particular are extremely secretive.  They are small wetland birds who always stay hidden in dense marsh grass, and never willingly allow themselves to be seen.  Yellow and Black Rails are the hardest common, dirual (active during the day) birds to actually see in North America.  But there’s one way to see them.  And it’s at Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge, about 90 minutes drive from Attwater.

Anahuac NWR

Anahuac has a very healthy population of Yellow Rails that spend the winter here in Texas, and summer up in Minnesota (where I heard one last June).  A couple of times each spring, the refuge holds “Yellow Rail Walks.”  Basically you get a couple of dozen people to walk around in the rails’ habitat and wait for a rail to pop up out of the grass and fly a short distance before it disappears back into the grass.  The only problem is that the rail’s habitat is thigh-high marsh grass growing in deep sucking mud covered in up to a foot of brackish water.  Yep, rail seekers get seriously messy.

The rail walk organizer had also brought some milk jugs filled with rocks that he tied together with a rope.  The milk jugs help to “beat the bushes” and encourage the rails to flush instead of just running through the legs of the participants.  Rails have incredibly skinny bodies, and can squeeze through very narrow openings in the rushes – hence the expression, “thin as a rail.”

We headed out into the marsh.  It was wet.  And muddy.  And a real workout walking through that mud.

Rail Walk

We saw our first Yellow Rail within 10 minutes.  They have very distinctive white wing patches that can be seen as they flutter away to safety.  We continued to slog through the mud and grass for another half an hour or so.  Final tally: seven Yellow Rails and one Black Rail.  And I was only wet and muddy from the chest down!

Before leaving Anahuac, I toured another part of the refuge.  Here I saw a third rail species, King Rail.  King Rails are often pretty shy, but compared to Yellow and Black Rails this fellow was practically an exhibitionist.  I even managed a photo:

King Rail

I also came across some baby alligators in a small pool, probably just out of the nest.  Too cute!

Baby Alligators

I rewarded myself with dinner at the local BBQ joint, which was very satisfying.

BBQ dinner

And as the sun set, I drove back to my hotel for a hot shower and 90 minutes of trying to use the hair dryer to get my only pair of shoes back to a wearable state.

Anahuac Sunset

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One response to “Dancing Chickens and Skulking Rails

  1. Pingback: Migration Miracle | Periodic Wanderings

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