By Karl Terry: PNT Managing Editor
They’ll be up at sunrise, inflamed with passion and consumed with one purpose: Getting a glimpse of the mating dance of the lesser prairie chicken.
Approximately 100 people — some avid birders and others just lovers of nature —will descend on the village of Milnesand for the sixth annual High Plains Prairie Chicken Festival this weekend. The event is sponsored by the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish in cooperation with the Nature Conservancy of New Mexico, Grasslans Charitable Foundation and the community of Milnesand.
Activities abound for those registered for the festival, held in the tiny village south of Portales, but the main event will be the opportunity to be shuttled to the prairie chicken’s traditional booming grounds called leks.
According to Tish McDaniel, Southern Shortgrass Prairie Project coordinator for The Nature Conservancy, the number of registrants is limited to avoid impacting the birds during the crucial mating season.
Festival-goers are shuttled to 10 leks in large passenger vans to cut down on the number of vehicles on the sensitive sand dune country in which the chickens live.
McDaniel says shortly before sunrise the action gets hot and heavy with male prairie chickens strutting and booming by inflating the brightly colored sacs on each cheek.
“They get so close sometimes they’re even on the top of the van,” McDaniel said.
McDaniel said the typical festival attendee is 50 to 60 years old and is either a bird watcher or has an interest in nature.
“People come here because this is a life list (once in a lifetime) bird,” McDaniel said.
She said a lot of people travel in from Albuquerque or Santa Fe, but people from across the country and even around the world have shown up.
“They’re wonderful people,” McDaniel said. “It’s remote, and we bump them around on rough roads and we never get any complaints.”
McDaniel said the festival has never advertised, other than on the Game and Fish Department Web site, yet they’ve never had a problem filling up the available slots.
She says word-of-mouth praises about the hospitality the people of the area supply has spread through the birding community. The meals are home cooked and served in the community center, and many festival-goers stay with local residents.
According to a Game and Fish Department press release, this year the keynote speaker at the festival’s Saturday luncheon will be Pete Dunne, considered by many to be one of the nation’s top birding experts. He is the author of numerous books on bird watching and is vice president of the New Jersey Audubon Society and director of its Cape May Bird Observatory.
Each year the Game and Fish Department sponsors a poster contest for the festival.
This year’s winner was 11-year-old Mariah Ibuado of Glenwood, according to the release.
At a glance
Lesser Prairie Chicken Identification
• Length: 13 inches
• Sexes similar
• Medium-sized, stocky, round-winged, chicken-like bird
• Short, rounded, dark tail
• Buff plumage barred extensively about breast, back, wings and belly with darker bars
• Yellow-orange comb over eye
• Dark, elongated head feathers can be raised or lain along neck
• Circular, pinkish unfeathered neck patch inflated when displaying
• Shorter head feathers and lacks yellow comb and pink neck patch
Source: USGS Web site