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A displaying prairie chicken in the tall grass.
A displaying prairie chicken in the tall grass.
Divine Infant Catholic Church with the Milky Way. The faint haze made the brighter stars and planets appear large in the sky. The red giant star Antares is the bright one in the middle and the bright object above and to the right is Saturn.
Divine Infant Catholic Church with the Milky Way. The faint haze made the brighter stars and planets appear large in the sky. The red giant star Antares is the bright one in the middle and the bright object above and to the right is Saturn.
The prairie chicken’s bright orange and red air sacks are filled and then make humming or wooing sounds as air is forced out.
The prairie chicken’s bright orange and red air sacks are filled and then make humming or wooing sounds as air is forced out.
A prairie chicken hen watching the boys from a safe distance.
A prairie chicken hen watching the boys from a safe distance.
Two pheasants on the Bad River Road. I broke up their fight by arriving when I did.
Two pheasants on the Bad River Road. I broke up their fight by arriving when I did.
A large golden eagle leaving a fencepost along the Bad River Road.
A large golden eagle leaving a fencepost along the Bad River Road.
Sunset on the prairies of Jones County southwest of the Fort Pierre National Grasslands.
Sunset on the prairies of Jones County southwest of the Fort Pierre National Grasslands.
Holy Name Church taken in the first few minutes of the blue hour, when sunlight in the east just begins to warm the horizon and the southern sky is still dark enough to see the Milky Way.
Holy Name Church taken in the first few minutes of the blue hour, when sunlight in the east just begins to warm the horizon and the southern sky is still dark enough to see the Milky Way.
This dapper dancer used the blind I was in as a perch and also got so close to me I had trouble getting a good focus with my telephoto lens.
This dapper dancer used the blind I was in as a perch and also got so close to me I had trouble getting a good focus with my telephoto lens.
A great horned owl nest with occupant found along Highway 1806.
A great horned owl nest with occupant found along Highway 1806.
A sharp-tailed grouse displaying on the same lek as some prairie chickens.
A sharp-tailed grouse displaying on the same lek as some prairie chickens.
A happy Northern Pin-tailed duck couple just after dawn. The last blind I visited had prairie chickens displaying along the sides of a stock dam.
A happy Northern Pin-tailed duck couple just after dawn. The last blind I visited had prairie chickens displaying along the sides of a stock dam.
The song and sight of meadowlarks are always a welcome addition to the prairies in spring.
The song and sight of meadowlarks are always a welcome addition to the prairies in spring.
Prairie chickens carve little territories on the lek and if another rooster gets too close, feathers can fly.
Prairie chickens carve little territories on the lek and if another rooster gets too close, feathers can fly.
After all the drama, the chickens get right back to business.
After all the drama, the chickens get right back to business.
Another sunset in Jones County.
Another sunset in Jones County.

The Chicken Dance

May 13, 2014

Typically early April is not a great time to trudge outside an hour before dawn in South Dakota’s great wide open. At least that’s what I might have told you before I started going to Fort Pierre National Grassland’s prairie chicken blinds. This is the second year I’ve visited the blinds with camera in hand. It was, however, the first time I sat in all three blinds in the same season. That also meant that I had three afternoons and evenings to wander the grasslands and surrounding area. Besides prairie chickens and grouse, the land is thick with pheasants on the ground and raptors in the air. The countryside along the Bad River is breathtaking. The drive from Fort Pierre to Lower Brule on Highway 1806 is also a favorite. From little churches on the prairie to owl and eagle nests among the tall trees, this time away from the hustle and bustle of big city life was good for the soul.

It’s ironic to think I would have missed all this area’s scenic goodness this time of year if it weren’t for the dance moves of some wild chickens. The mating dance of Greater Prairie Chicken and Sharp-tailed Grouse is one of our state’s treasures, but you have to get up ultra early to watch these shows. The entertainment begins about a half hour before dawn and can last until mid-morning depending on the weather and absence of threats like coyotes, eagles and humans.

It is recommended to be inside the blind a full hour before sunrise. The designated areas to park are also at least a quarter mile away from the blinds, so a walk under the stars in complete darkness is part of the deal. I actually don’t mind that part. Once I get to the 5-by-8-foot heavy plywood blind, however, I get edgy. First, my mind always tells me a rabid skunk or something worse is waiting inside. After opening the door and seeing all is well, the next uneasy thing is going inside and closing out the world. It is completely dark with only the wind whispering.

I suppose this is why some folks bring friends along (which makes them wiser than me as usual).  I have gone alone each time, and I will tell you that the half hour before you hear the first wing flaps of the chickens flying in and the first hum or “boom” of their routine is unique. Being quiet and alone in the dark is daunting. It is times like these that all the ghost stories you’ve ever heard try to push their way into your memory. Somewhere along the way I decided that I was too old to be scared of the dark and turned my attention to appreciating the quiet. But I still arm myself with at least two flashlights.

Since I’m being honest, I’m going to confess another thing about being alone in the dark while waiting for the world to wake. I’m thankful for what I’m about to witness. In this spirit of thankful prayer, my mind recounts my other blessings and thoughts linger over my family and friends. I guess sometimes God needs to get me out and away on the prairie to remind me of all the greatness that surrounds me. To think it took wild chickens for me to fully experience this quiet time. God does truly work in mysterious ways.

Christian Begeman grew up in Isabel and now lives in Sioux Falls. When he's not working at Midcontinent Communications he is often on the road photographing South Dakota’s prettiest spots. Follow Begeman on his blog.

Comments

10:33 am - Mon, May 19 2014
Laura said:
It'd be really neat to see prairie chickens doing their thing..but getting up an hour before sunrise? Yikes! I'm glad you're willing to do the hard, cold work and share your pictures, Christian.

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