Mullen, Nebraska: A grassland courtship

I had no idea what I was hearing the first time the hollow booming of ready-to-mate prairie chickens reached my ears. I was on a houseboat on South Dakota’s Lake Francis Case when I heard those awesome sounds before daybreak.

At first, it sounded like wind moaning through the trees. But the wind that morning was still. And there were no trees. I grabbed my binoculars and finally located the source of the sound. We had unwittingly moored the houseboat near a lek — the gathering place for prairie chickens that had woo on their minds.

I was mesmerized as I watched the dance of male prairie chickens. Orange air sacs — the source of those hollow moans — filled like helium balloons on each side of the neck. Neck feathers were extended and appeared to be horns. Orange eyebrows glowed in the early-morning light.

Males furiously stamped their feet and made short, little runs, displaying their beauty to any appreciative female watching. Their wings were extended a bit and curved downward, much like a tom turkey holds his wings when he struts. There were occasional squabbles, punctuated by fluttering leaps into the air.

I was completely blown away by the grassland courtship dance.

I have since watched prairie chickens on their leks — or booming grounds — in Kansas, Nebraska and South Dakota. I have taken photos at several locations. But I never got the images I wanted until Ruth and I were guests of Mitch and Patty Glidden at their Sandhills Motel in Mullen, Nebraska.