Whenever you are working with an extremely rare species, it is hard to build any expectations about the possibility of actually finding, much less photographing an individual. Fortunately, for the Attwater’s Prairie Chicken, there is a substantial population living in captivity, including a few individuals that were only about 10 minutes from where I lived, so that is where I started.
After meeting with Dr. Nova Silvy at Texas A&M University, I was given access to the Small Upland-bird Research Facility (SURF) where several Attwater’s were held in addition to a few Greater Prairie Chickens. This facility was instrumental in developing the captive breeding program now used by a half dozen zoos and other wildlife facilities in the state, but it is no longer conducting active research with the Attwater’s. In fact, Dr. Silvy described it as a retirement facility for Attwater’s that were no longer effective in the breeding programs.
On my first visit, I arrived just before dawn not really sure what to expect. I very rarely photograph captive species and had never even seen a prairie chicken before. The facility is set up around a common area with the pens radiating outwards, like the spokes on a bicycle wheel. For the first few minutes, I just stood at the hub watching the males perform their displays. After a few minutes, I selected one of the most active birds, set up my camera and entered the pen.
To my absolute surprise, the male charged me! For the next few hours, as I worked in the pen, the bird alternated between displaying on the other side of the pen and charging and attacking me. The attacks were clearly not motivated by fear, but as if he saw me as a rival. He would display right at my feet and then attack my legs, grabbing my pants and beating my legs with his wings, and then return to his dance. The attack was very similar to those I later witnessed with the Lesser Prairie Chickens in New Mexico and had seen here in the facility with males attempting to get at each other through the fences.
After that first visit, I returned on several different mornings to continue to capture and document these extremely rare birds. I walked away with a few nice images but photographing captive birds just doesn’t do much for me. I wanted to see them in the wild!
It took some work, but about a month later, I found myself sitting on a prairie with Terry Rosignol, the refuge manager at Attwater Prairie Chicken National Wildlife Refuge (APCNWR), as the sun set. We were setting up my blind near a lek so that I could return in the morning to try and photograph these magnificent birds in the wild. That night, I could barely sleep which was fine because I had to get up at about 3:00 anyway. I was installed in the blind by about 5:00 and by sunrise, I was witnessing my first Attwater’s Prairie Chicken in the wild. Unfortunately, the bird was about 150 yards away, making it rather hopeless to capture the photographs I wanted. Despite the distance, I spent the next few hours watching three different birds displaying. When they left the lek, Terry and I drove around to a few different leks and were fortunate to see several other birds, including a female who visited a male on one lek. While we sat and watched, we were amazed to see the two copulate, a rather rare event to witness.
While driving around the prairies and talking with Terry, I was amazed by his optimism. He, and nearly every other researcher I met, is extremely optimistic about the outlook for the Attwater’s. Their numbers are growing, slowly, but there are still some major concerns regarding the species survival. If it wasn’t for the captive breeding program, which we will examine tomorrow, the species would have already long vanished, but for now, they keep a tenuous hold on existence.