Ever since we saw the photo gallery and talk ‘Save the Last Dance’ by Noppadol Paothong at the Flint Hills Discovery Center, we were pretty stoked to see some prairies chickens in person. Highly endangered species aren’t the easiest animals to come across in the wild, even when you do spend a significant amount of your time in the prairie. But luckily the Friends of the Konza Prairie hosts a limited number of viewings each spring to its members. As soon as my parents booked their trip to Kansas, I booked a viewing for the four of us to witness with our own eyes the mating dances and booming of the Greater Sage Grouse (otherwise known as the prairie chicken).
We woke up early to get to Konza at 5 AM. There, we met one of the volunteer docents and several other viewers. We followed them onto the prairie to a bird blind in the dark and waited as our docent gave us some bird fun facts. The prairie chicken of course is not actually a chicken, it’s a sage grouse. The greater sage grouse (the one we saw) has a range that extends across sections of Kansas, Nebraska, South Dakota, and North Dakota. While their numbers are improving, the bird is still endangered mostly due to loss of prairie habitat.
We heard them before we saw them. It was still dark when the males began moving around and booming. By the time the sun came up, through the small square opening in the blind, there were 8-10 birds (mostly males but at least two females) scattered along the firebreak and very easily visible. The closest was no more than 20 meters away. We hung out in the bird blind for about 2.5 hours, with camera shutters snapping continuously. This is worth the FOTKP membership fee and the money helps out Konza Prairie anyways. Contact them very early in the season because spots fill up.
In the afternoon we returned to Konza to meet up with Prairie Fire and hike the 6-mile loop. This trip had my largest showing thus far with 19 people – a true sign of the community’s love of Konza. When we arrived, one of the neighboring prairies on a high hill was burning their grass which made for a good pre-hike show. The prairie this time of year is an interesting patchwork of colors (including solid black, brown, and green speckled with white stones) due to the different burning treatments and early grass starting to grow on some sections. Konza is split into watersheds, each watershed having a particular frequency of burning and type of grazing on it. From the long-term data they are collecting, we can learn much about how conservationists, ranchers, and other landowners can best manage their grasslands.
The weather was great for a hike and we covered the loop in about 2.5 hours. Unfortunately, on this same day, this story was published in the Collegian. To summarize it, many people accessing Konza from the hiking trail are not following the rules. It’s important to know that dogs are not allowed on this trail, you should not be going off trail, and you should not be harassing wildlife. If these incidents continue to occur, we may all lose access to the best hiking trail within a hundred miles of here! So please speak up when you see others on the trail that might have missed the signs.