To see the prairie-chickens dance, you have to get up very early in the morning. Lisa Boice heads into the dawn to see the bird; the bird is up at sunrise to find a mate and outpace extinction. It’s a big deal for both of them.
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The black sky was a drop cloth over the prairie grass, and bugs darted in and out of the light from our headlights. We were only 60 miles west from Houston in Eagle Lake, Texas, but the big city felt a lifetime away. I looked behind us; the headlight beams from another car made me wince. My husband, Steve, yawned, which made me yawn. It was early but we worried we were already too late.
We were in a hurry to catch one of the shuttles at the Attwater Prairie Chicken National Wildlife Refuge where we would witness the namesake bird’s courting ritual. During March and April, the males go out to a lek, an area where animals — or in this case, birds — gather in courtship behavior. In the human world our leks include parties and bars and smartphone apps where singles attempt to impress and be impressed. But at this lek, all the hope male Attwater’s prairie-chickens can muster is on display in the middle of an expansive prairie as they perform their elaborate dance just after sunrise, which is why we were up early in the black of night.
Steve drove with one hand on the wheel. I took his free hand and held it, grateful I no longer needed to visit the human equivalent of leks.
The Attwater’s prairie-chicken — a subspecies of the greater prairie-chicken — is one of the most endangered birds in North America and its future is hanging by a thread.
Seeing the Attwater’s prairie-chicken would be a “lifer” for me — birding lingo for a new species I had never seen. Twelve years earlier, Steve pulled me into his hobby of birding by gifting me bird feeders for our first Christmas together. I was hoping for jewelry; feeders seemed to signal the relationship was going nowhere. But his gift introduced me to the birds in my own backyard. I had the gold of American goldfinches, the sapphire of blue jays, and the jewel-toned crimson of northern cardinals—my own backyard gems.
Steve began keeping a list of my lifers in a bird field guide,marking which ones I would see, where I saw them and when. If I were a real birder, I would be tracking this myself, but Steve, who already had a life list of over 1,500 species before we met, would relive the joy of seeing birds for the first time vicariously through me. It didn’t take long to catch the excitement of seeing a new bird, whether it was brightly-colored or drab brown. There are many drab birds in the world, but each species is different and identifying them is like putting together the pieces of a puzzle. It takes practice, skill, memory, a field guide to give you clues, and a cooperative bird to complete the puzzle. It helps to have an experienced birder by your side.
I don’t count birds or lifers just to get numbers. Adding birds to my life list carries urgency. Bird populations in North America have declined by a third, which is a decrease of nearly three billion birds. And birds that rely on grasslands and prairies have suffered the most. I’ll never have the chance to see some of the birds my great grandparents or even grandparents may have seen.
I grew up in a lumber mill town in Oregon surrounded by towering Douglas fir trees. My father worked for a homebuilder and the availability of lumber was critical to his job. Turns out, old growth forests are also important to the northern spotted owl. During the mid 1980s, the Pacific Northwest became the backdrop for the “Jobs versus The Environment” debate, with pictures of people chaining themselves to trees and loggers protesting and rallying against the owl. One day, I returned home from college and found my father not at work, but in his recliner with his eyes closed.
“He lost his job today,” my mother whispered to me. I quietly went to my room as my father sat in his chair, trying to figure out how to pay bills without a paycheck. I spent the next twenty years resenting the owl, rolling my eyes any time it was mentioned.
When I met Steve I wasn’t just falling in love with him, I was also learning to love birds — all of them, even that complicated owl. That lumber mill isn’t running any more in my hometown, and that wasn’t the last time my father got laid off in his industry. Finding myself with feet planted on both sides of the issue is an odd place for a birder to find herself. It’s okay to care about both industry and the environment, and recognize that it’s a challenge.
“It’s like there’s a whole other world going on right beside us,” Steve explained when birds started coming to those feeders in my backyard. “They have to find their food, build their nests, court one another, and stay out of danger. They live their lives like we do.”
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“You’ll want to get here early,” the ranger instructed us when we stopped by the refuge the previous day to get details on how to see the Attwater’s prairie-chicken. It was the second weekend in April — the annual Booming-N-Blooming Festival, when the refuge was conducting tours to the normally-restricted lek.
“The vans leave for the lek at 7 o’clock in the morning,” the ranger continued, “but you’ll see people lining up at 6:30 or even earlier, so don’t be late.”
It’s not just the act of courtship that draws people to these leks to observe. Greater and lesser prairie-chickens continue to decline in numbers. The Attwater’s prairie-chicken, a small grouse at around one and a half pounds, can only be found here in this part of Texas on the 10,541 acres of the refuge, with fewer than 100 of them remaining in the wild. The Attwater’s prairie-chicken—a subspecies of the greater prairie-chicken—is one of the most endangered birds in North America and its future is hanging by a thread.
Subspecies are a result of genetic diversity. Localized populations of birds adapt to specific ecological conditions and may be different from their species in size and plumage coloration. The prairies of South Dakota, Kansas and Colorado where the greater prairie-chicken is found are different from the Texas coastal prairies where the Attwater’s prairie-chicken has evolved over thousands of years.
This is it, I thought. This is the last of the coastal prairie.
Like most subspecies, the Attwater’s prairie-chicken doesn’t have its own listing in North American bird field guides, and in my field guide is only a mere mention in italics in the paragraph describing the greater prairie-chicken, which almost feels like a blow for a bird at risk of disappearing.
We arrived at the reserve headquarters at 6:40 a.m.; we were late. A long line of people were silhouetted against the indigo sky. A stripe of orange and yellow near the horizon signaled the coming sunrise.
We took our place at the end of a line to wait for shuttles that would take us to the lek. Others followed behind us. First two, then four more, then in just five minutes, ten more people took their places at the end of the line.
“Do you know how far of a drive it is to the lek?” the man behind me asked.
He said lek so I figured he was a birder. I yanked on Steve’s jacket.
“My husband probably knows,” I told him. I know better than to get into deep conversations about birds. The man was from Alabama and came just to see the bird.
It was surprisingly chilly for Texas. I zipped up my fleece jacket closer to my neck and was happy I brought my gloves. Others were not bothered by the brisk air, and showed up in shorts and short-sleeved shirts, but head-to-toe khaki was the most common uniform. Most everyone had binoculars hanging from their necks, and there were cameras of all sizes — long lenses, short lenses, some people with their cameras and tripods propped on their shoulders, some with pocket-sized point-and-shoots.
Right at 7:00 a.m., shuttles filled with birders and left for the lek. The smell of coffee on everyone’s breath filled our van. We rode on a dirt road for about 15 minutes to the restricted area while the driver—a refuge worker—told us of the invasive red fire ants that are aggressively feeding on everything in these prairies, most of which are food sources for young prairie-chickens. He explained how development has been encroaching on Texas prairies where the habitat is growing smaller and everyone in our shuttle nodded their head in agreement or disgust or both. “And the weather,” he said, “It’s been the cruelest. With flooding in 2015 and 2016 we had no surviving nests those years. That was hard.”
We arrived at the lek and I unfolded my body out of the van. The sun painted a stroke of glowing orange across the prairie grass. This is not how I envision Texas — cinema has long portrayed the state as dusty, flat, brown and barren of any life, save some cattle and a few tumbleweeds that roll by as if on cue. What I was looking at was not dry and dusty, but grasses that were lush, feathery and green — grasses that waved to the sky gently as if to say thank you for the moisture from the humid air. “They used to refer to the coastal prairie as the Texas Serengeti,” our driver had told us during the short drive to this spot. “It once covered 6 million acres over Texas and Louisiana, but now only one percent of that remains, and this particular prairie-chicken relies on it.” This is it, I thought. This is the last of the coastal prairie.
Birders who had been on earlier shuttles were already standing on the back of a flatbed truck parked in front of the lek for viewing. Little patches of dirt, like pitcher’s mounds, were scattered in several spots about 100 feet away on the green prairie grass in an area about an acre. It was on top of these mounds where the males were to display and dance.
“How are we going to even hear the booming?” I asked Steve.
“It’s quiet. We should be able to hear it.”
A young girl with a green and orange knitted dinosaur cap looked through her mom’s scope atop the tripod set at just the right height for the girl. Every person held binoculars up to their eyes, scanning the area. There were 30 of us looking, which meant we were bound to see something.
“There’s one!” the man next to us said in a loudish whisper. He brought his binoculars down and pointed to the field so we all could see. “By the fence, just to the right of that tree.” The crowd bustled with excitement as hushed tones of “He saw one!” and “Where?” made its way down the crowd.
I followed the man’s finger out to the field and raised my binoculars. It was far out in the prairie, but I could see it clear in my binoculars. I was looking at my very first Attwater’s prairie-chicken — a lifer.
As if on cue, everyone in the group fell silent and watched. The male prairie-chicken lifted its fanned-out tail and began his dance by stomping in a circle. It stood atop its little mound of dirt, drumming its feet as though he was stamping out a fire, kicking up the dust from the mound.
It paused and looked around. I imagined it was looking for a hen. It began drumming its feet again. The bright yellow air sac on his neck inflated and looked as though it would burst.
“Listen,” Steve whispered. “Can you hear it?”
I heard the airy, deep booming call, which sounded like the low bass note you get when you blow into a large empty two-liter Coke plastic bottle. I had read about this sound and heard people describe it. But now I was experiencing it myself. I barely had been able to take it all in when Steve announced, “Two hens to the right,”
A couple of Attwater’s hens appeared on the scene and looked on, and one looked like it was going to get close, but she changed her mind. It was not a triumph for him, but it was a triumph for me.
The male prairie-chicken deflated his sac and as if everyone in our group had been holding their breath, you could hear an audible exhale.
“There’s another!” someone else said.
I lowered my binoculars and scanned the field. I didn’t have to say anything to Steve. He had spotted it and pointed to the new arrival, instructing me on how to find it.
“See that tree way in the back with the dead branches? Down from that, to the left, right at that third mound.”
Found it. But it was further out. I wanted to get closer looks at the prairie-chickens, but it just wasn’t possible. I kept my eyes on the prairie chicken through my binoculars because I did not know if I would ever see this bird again. All it would take is a few more storms to wipe them out. I focused on the bird that comes out every spring to dance for a mate, with the hope of survival.
“Hey, there’s an upland sandpiper,” Steve said.
“What? Where?” I asked, lowering my binoculars to get a broad view of the field.
This is the life of a birder: there’s always another bird to distract you.
“Got it!” I exclaimed in an excited whisper. I was looking at a small bird, a little bit bigger than a pigeon, with a long neck. It had a white chin and white underbelly that I could barely make out under its dappled brown and tan body.
“Aren’t sandpipers shorebirds?” I asked. “Shouldn’t it be on the beach?” I was beaming as I shared this bird fact, feeling a bit less like a birder imposter and like someone who could actually carry on an intelligent conversation about birds.
“Yes, he’s a shorebird, but it’s why they call it the upland sandpiper. He hangs out in fields, feeding on grasshoppers,” he told me.
“Have I seen him before?” That’s the question I often ask Steve, since he’s the curator of my bird lists — still, over these past 12 years.
“This is another lifer for you,” he said proudly, as though he had made the bird magically appear for me.
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It was time to make room for others to see the earnest male Attwater’s prairie-chickens, so we took one of the shuttles back to the reserve headquarters and headed back to our car.
We drove out of the refuge just as slowly as we did in the dark earlier that morning, hoping to see what else we could find in the prairie. The clouds had dissolved into the sky, leaving a canvas of blue above the green prairie. A crested caracara stood unconcerned as we drove by. I was familiar with caracaras when I had seen them in the tropics, but Texas is the northernmost area of its range, so we were both excited to see it here. It stood out boldly with its orange face, long white neck atop its brown body and yellow legs gleaming against the green prairie grass. I got this lifer years ago, but it felt like running into an old friend.
Steve slowed the car to a crawl. A western willet, another shorebird, was standing on a fence post right next to the road. He was unbothered by our presence as I snapped a few photos. The willet was about 15 inches in length, with a grayish-brown head, back and wings. His belly was white and had a long-straight black bill. I knew this bird and usually could identify it when we visited the beach, but he was here in this refuge to enjoy the bounty the Texas prairie offers.
A bird called in the distance. “Northern bobwhite,” Steve said, always calling the bird by its official name. Surprisingly, even I knew that call, as its name was mnemonic, resembling the sweeping pitch of its whistle, “bob-bob-white!” But I had never seen one — only heard it.
“Over there!” Steve exclaimed, pointing way out in the field. “On top of the post!”
And there it was, a lone male quail — the northern bobwhite — singing away, caught up in his own courtship song to find a mate. Another lifer I could add to my list.
To have a fleeting encounter with a bird sparks optimism and hope. The coastal prairie is still a vibrant habitat even if it is small. I was thankful we at least have this. The more people who come to the prairie to witness these endangered birds, the more they will care. To see a bird drum its feet, fill up its air sac with a booming sound in order to mate, to hear a bird sing “bob-bob-white!” or find birds that come to the prairies to feed…it becomes magical. Hopefully that magic inspires us to save this landscape.
I kept the window down while Steve drove on and I stretched out my arm to feel the air against my hand. Suddenly Steve slammed on the breaks and we skidded a few feet on the gravel. “Prairie-chicken!” Steve yelled. I saw it at the same time he said it.
A male Attwater’s prairie-chicken was walking on the opposite side of the road toward us and then he slipped into the tall grass and disappeared. It happened too fast to grab the camera. In an instant it was there and then gone.
We looked at each other, eyes big with disbelief. I grabbed the field guide from the dashboard and found the page I had dogeared the day before when I was doing my homework to prepare for the day. I found Attwater’s prairie-chicken in italics buried in the greater prairie-chicken listing, put a check mark next to it, and wrote my name, our location, date and “Lifer.”
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An earlier version of this story won a Solas Best Travel Writing Award from Traveler’s Tales. Congratulations, Lisa!