The 11th Annual High Plains Lesser Prairie Chicken Festival!

Better late than never!

The small ranching town of Milnesand in eastern New Mexico passes as a blur of a few buildings as one drives past on NM route 206. All the residents live scattered around the crossroads on countless acres of ranch lands and the unique landscape of sand dunes covered with stunted bushes. This apparently featureless area, a place where early explorers and settlers got disoriented without any visible landmarks on the horizon, supports a unique ecosystem home to a species sought after by many birders: the Lesser Prairie-Chicken. Each year, Milnesand welcomes birders, photographers, and nature enthusiasts to its little crossroads to learn about the landscape, explore the natural history of the eastern New Mexico plains, and, of course, see prairie-chickens.

The Lesser Prairie-Chicken, Near Milnesand,  17 Apr 2011. Photo by J. N. Stuart, from Flickr. (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Most grouse-like birds are known for bizzare mating rituals and displays by males. Prairie-chickens, sage-grouse, and the Sharp-tailed Grouse congregate on leks, open areas that are used solely for these displays. Males inflate air sacs in their necks with which they make hooting or popping noises, puff up their body and some head feathers, and stamp around alternatively trying to intimidate other males or impress the females that wander by. The chickens start displaying before first light and stop within an hour or so of sunrise, so birders who want to see the fascinating display must wake up early enough to get to a lek before the birds do.

Male Lesser Prairie-Chicken in full display, near Milnesand,  12 Apr 2012. Photo by J. N. Stuart, from Flickr. (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Here is a video by YouTube user LM1313 of a Lesser Prairie-Chicken displaying:

This past spring, I was invited to attend the festival as a trip leader and guide birders on short excursions around Milnesand during the day. Although the prairie-chickens are the stars of the festival, Scissor-tailed Flycatchers and migrant songbirds make for nice distractions later in the day. In fact, I guaranteed all my trips that we would see Scissor-tails and I was right!

I rode down to Milnesand with Christopher Rustay who has been birding in New Mexico for many years. We stopped at a few spots along the way including Santa Rosa where we found a singing Eastern Phoebe and the always-popular Melrose Trap which was fairly active with birds. Two Northern Parulas and White-eyed and Yellow-throated Vireos stole the show, but the most unusual bird was a Worm-eating Warbler that took a bit of time to track down.

The center of operations for the Milnesand festival is the community center next to the fire house. Here all 100 official participants plus trip leaders were fed and entertained by community members. Local residents went all out on the meals!

Inside the community hall.

Buffet lunch. Those are real cowboy hats!

The first night there, I stayed in a guest house on the Weaver ranch east of town. The trees and small pond acted as a small migrant trap and the next morning we found a few birds in the area including Spotted Sandpiper and Field Sparrow. I also heard, for the first time, Lesser Prairie-Chickens off in the distance.

The guest house.

The pond at the ranch house with Spotted Sandpiper on the floating tire.

The denser trees around the Milnesand Crossroads are famous for drawing in migrating songbirds. The star of the show this year was a bright male Hooded Warbler that almost everyone got to see. A Summer TanagerBullock’s Oriole, and an Indigo Bunting rounded out the color show. Great Horned Owl nestlings just outside the community hall were a big attraction for the many photographers.

My tiny camera just couldn’t compete. Look hard in the middle of the picture and you might see a fluffy owl.

The field trips I led were fairly uneventful in terms of rare birds, but those who came with me on the Saturday afternoon trip enjoyed seeing Long-billed Curlews and a Ferruginous Hawk on a long drive west of town. My other officially led trip went to a private area known as Baker Playa near the Texas border. We were hoping for some shorebird migrants or Cassin’s Sparrows, but came up empty. We even missed the nesting Barn Owl in a dry water tank that I had seen the previous day on a scouting trip.

The road to Baker Playa.

Those small bushes in the photo above are shin oak, a tree that rarely grows more than shin high. The bulk of the tree is underground and the small bushes are actually the branch tips of trees mostly covered by sand. Shin oaks play a large role in stabilizing the sand dunes on the plains. Fires are common and without the oaks, sand spreads across the landscape.

Baker Playa, a small pond of water.

Mesquite around the playa.

The smoke trail on the horizon was from a small fire over the Texas border. It didn’t burn long, but was a reminder how susceptible the area is to wildfires. Although wildfires are beneficial to healthy ecosystems in many cases, the situation is complicated by people’s towns and houses as well as threatened and endangered species.

A cool barrel cactus by the playa.

The cactus had a nearby companion.

The remains of an old wagon.

After visiting the playa, we drove to a small corral with some trees in the hopes of some migrants. We didn’t find much, but the van driver got the van stuck for a bit. With some boards and a little luck, we got the van out of the sand trap without too much trouble.

Birders at the corral.

The stuck van. Many local churches donated the use of their vans for the weekend. The Milnesand area loves having birders visit each year and they know how much ecotourism can help a community.

The highlight of the whole weekend, however, is getting up around 3:30 to go see the prairie-chicken displays! Most people at the festival go out in the vans and watch the birds from the relative warmth of an enclosed vehicle. For a little extra money, those who want an open-air experience can sit in a re-purposed horse trailer for better photography. One of the participants on my Saturday trip graciously offered me his spot in the trailer on Sunday morning. He had hoped to go with his brother, but they couldn’t get a spot together on the same day. Also, he had been in the trailer other years and insisted that I go. Thanks Charles! Although I only had my little point-and-shoot, it was a great chance to sit comfortably in chairs and experience the displays with some great photographers and videographers.

In the trailer after sunrise.



Two males facing off on the lek.

One male crouched down. Was this submission or some other signal?

I enjoyed watching the various behaviors of the males and the one female that wandered by. 

Colin Adams, a birder from Albuquerque, and his father offered to drive me back to Albuquerque Sunday evening. We birded along the way home including a detour south to Tatum and its lovely sewage ponds and wetland habitat where some rare birds had been seen earlier in the day. We didn’t find much.

The wetland habitat downstream of the sewage ponds. It doesn’t smell much until you get around the back.

We also stopped at Boone’s Draw, a large stand of cottonwoods west of Portales that has held some very rare birds over the years. We were not lucky and a coming thunderstorm encouraged us to move on. Melrose trap was similarly slow and the wind and rain sprinkles didn’t help. We did find a large young Great Horned Owl sitting out in the open in an aspen.

This owl is easier to find!

Here are some video clips I took with my small camera.

Booming in the dark:

Male running past female:

Male face-off:

I’m very grateful to Tish McDaniel, who organizes the festival each year, for running such a great event and to Chrisropher Rustay, who asked me to help lead trips.

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4 Responses to The 11th Annual High Plains Lesser Prairie Chicken Festival!

  1. joeschelling says:

    Great post, Matt. I need to get it together one of these days and brave those early mornings to check this thing out. Thanks!

  2. Rebecca Helianthus says:

    Matt, amazing footage and photos of Milnesand and the peope who live there. They are very proud of their heritage and their chickens.

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