The sun is rising over the Katy prairie, and a slightly chilly breeze greets the couple of dozen nature enthusiasts huddled in a group at the front of the parking lot for the visitor’s center. The group is waiting for vans to come pick them up, vans that are driven by wildlife biologists who know where to take the groups to have the best chance of seeing the Attwater’s prairie chickens.
This time of the year is exciting because it is when the prairie chickens are engaging in their ritual courtship behaviors. From February to May, the males try to attract a mate by “booming”, which is a process in which they inflate their air sacs and then deflate them (making the sound) while doing a little dance, sometimes charging at other males. This courtship peaks in April, which is why the NWR hosts their “BoomingNBloomin” Festival annually around this time.
We were in attendance this year, getting up early on a Saturday morning to get out there within the one-to-two hour time period that the birds are the most active. At the booming grounds, a viewing platform is temporarily placed to allow the groups to get up higher to see. Many birders have brought their long lens to shoot the birds with, while the biologists and other “guides” have set up scopes for people to get a better view. There are two trucks with antennas on top that are picking up signals from the radio collars that the female birds are wearing. This helps biologists track their breeding habits to help guide decisions on how to best help these birds.
Jason tried his hand at “digiscoping” in this picture below. Digiscoping means to combine a scope with a digital camera/phone camera to enhance the digital image. It takes a little bit of practice to make it work best.
We did get to see about a dozen of these endangered birds in the group that could be observed from the viewing platform, and then one lone chicken later, perched on a McCartney Rosebush, that was being quite the ham as we rode back in the van to the visitor center. He seemed to be showing off for our group. It was quite exciting to see so many birds considering that there are only about 90 or so of the birds left in the wild. It is one of the most endangered bird species in North America.
Just around a hundred years ago, the Attwater’s prairie chicken census was around a million birds in a habitat that ranged from Louisiana to all of coastal Texas. Their habitat shrank significantly due to land use changes, such as development and urban sprawl, conversion of fields to rice and bermuda grass productions instead of grassland, overgrazing by cattle, and invasion of non-native species of plants. From what I read on a poster at the festival, the population then further declined as a result of the movement of fire ants into their habitat. Fire ants eat insects that the prairie chicken’s chicks need for subsistence.
During our van tour, we saw several wire enclosures with dark netting across the top. These were acclimation pens to house captive-bred prairie chickens in before releasing them into the wild. Several zoos are participating in conservation efforts through breeding programs to help bring these birds back, including the Houston Zoo. We actually had one of the keepers in the van with us, who wanted to come out and see the end outcome. The biologists have done some experimenting to find out the ideal amount of time to house the captive bred birds in these acclimation pens to let them get used to the prairie before releasing them, and the time period that results in the lowest mortality turns out to be fourteen days. At the refuge, they also help the birds out by growing a rotation of crops that are helpful to the birds and allowing limited cattle grazing to help the land. They also do controlled burns to get rid of invasive plants.
As part of the annual festival’s activities, we also participated in a bird walk after viewing these birds. We had seen some huge white tailed hawks and little Northern Bobwhites from the van as we drove back, and during the walk we also saw Lincoln’s Sparrows, Barn Swallows, Purple Martins, and Upland Sandpipers (in addition to common birds that I don’t even record, like cardinals and mockingbirds). One interesting fact that the biologist who conducted our walk pointed out is that the Upland Sandpiper is also an endangered bird. He pointed out that more people go to a Texans football game than there are Upland Sandpipers left in the wild. Most of the population was wiped out by hunters after the passenger pigeons were disappearing, and the species has never been able to recover.We also saw some Black Necked Stilts and Scissor Tailed Flycatchers on the drive back. This brings our species count for the year up to 92.
The walk was not all that “birdy”, but it was really nice to be outside walking about the prairie. Many flowers were in bloom (which probably explains the “Bloomin” part of the festival name) and one of the men in our group kept pointing out the names of them as we went. It was interesting but my mind did not keep track of the information enough to recall it now.
The middle of our walk brought us to a horseshoe lake, and it was very peaceful out there. The breeze was gentle and it was quiet. I sat for a bit inside the bird blind, watching coots and grebes out on the water. For a short time, I visited with my friend Allison that I know from geocaching, who was also at the festival and participating in the same timeline of activities as we were. I got her phone number in hopes that we can plan an activity together, now that I know she also enjoys things like this.
Sebastian mostly slept in the stroller during this part, although he had been active earlier in the trip (practicing walking up and down the observation platform incline, and mooing at the cows in the nearby fields with me). He woke up when the walk ended, as we reached the open bay of a maintenance building where the Friends of Attwater Prairie Chickens group had information displays and fund raising sales set up, as well as free refreshments. We enjoyed talking to some older men that were a part of the group, after asking them about how to get to the Texas-Monthly famous Austin’s BBQ joint in Eagle Lake.
We stopped there on the way home and got enough BBQ for lunch and to have for dinner, and also found a geocache on the way home. It was a very enjoyable morning out at the preserve, located about a 45 minute drive west of Katy.
Normally, the van tours to see the prairie chickens run once a month, and people can do a car tour route to look themselves. The best time to view the chickens is around sunrise or in the hour after, like we did on our trip out there. I would recommend planning to stay for a half-day and taking a walk out there as well, or planning trip around the festival, which is usually the second weekend in April.
Here is more information on the National Wildlife Refuge:
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We had planned on going to the chicken tour this month but we didn’t think the toddler would be very considerate to the birder and would jabber or be upset so we opted to wait until next year. I’m glad Sebastian was good for y’all! And you spotted some chickens…cool!