Bird #343 — Greater Prairie-Chicken

tympanuchus (from tympanon, kettle drum, and echein, to have) cupido (the “blind bow boy,” son of Venus because the feathers on the bird’s neck were likened to Cupid’s wings)

Tuesday, July 16, 1991 — 6:35 am

Mahnomen County, Minnesota — Route 59, south of Waubun

I got up at 4:00 a.m. and drove north in search of birds, Moose and adventure.  I found all three, but not to the extent I’d hoped.  It was already 70 when I left Gull Lake in the dark.  I was still a long way from my destination; Agassiz National Wildlife Refuge.  Morning had dawned, cloudy and warm.  I was driving north on a two-lane highway through endless miles of cropland (including many fields of sunflowers) and prairie.

I noticed a grouse-like bird trot across the road in front of an oncoming semi-truck about 40 yards in front of me.  It reached the west shoulder of the road and stopped.  I got enough of a look as I zipped past to get interested.  I pulled over on the east shoulder and grabbed my Peterson’s (like a fool — I should have looked at the bird first).  I knew it was a female prairie-chicken or a Sharp-tailed Grouse, but I wanted to find the distinctive marks.

Twenty seconds later I jumped out of the car and looked back through my binoculars.  The bird was still standing in the same place, looking about nervously and dipping its head up and down.  I started walking back toward it and waited for a car to pass before crossing the road.  Just as the car passed, I saw a half-grown chick sprint across the road and join the female.  The two of them disappeared down the embankment.  In the time it took me to cover the last twenty yards, they had vanished into the tall grass along the edge of a field.

I saw the female well enough to spot the barred undersides, rounded tail and stripe-like neck feathers, but not as well as I would have liked.  My impulse was to kick around in the grass to flush it, but knowing it was a declining species, I resisted.

I continued north, suddenly very aware that I was in completely new birding territory. It wasn’t until that night, when I finally returned to the cabin, that I discovered A Birder’s Guide to Minnesota said, “… most often seen in Waubun Marsh on the Mahnomen/Becker County line.” That’s exactly where I had seen them.

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