I bundled up in my warm layers and set out from my car with my 600mm lens resting firmly over my shoulder. The snow from the day before had melted and frozen into a hard crust which my feet broke through. It was only ankle deep today but somehow the addition of breaking through a crusty surface made the hike to the blind more difficult than the knee high snow had the day before. I kept my pace slow and steady - a friends voice in my mind saying "the Sherpa shuffle". One step at a time, slowly and surely, just keep moving forward. Even though it was an hour before civil twilight would begin, there was plenty of moonlight to guide me along the path, no artificial light was needed to see the way. By the time I reached the blind I was beginning to sweat and needed to strip off a few layers to avoid getting too warm only to have the warmth drained as I sat still in the blind for the next three hours. I regreted not bringing my snow boots as my toes began to feel as if someone had filled my hiking boots with hundreds of tiny pins.
Now that I was installed in my blind, the camera set up, the flaps open and the prairie spread out before me I had nothing to do but wait. The cold began to seep into me and I added my layers back on. My wicking shirt did it's job and kept me nice and dry. My thermal held in my body heat and my amazing Nomar Polar Fleece from Homer, Alaska did the rest. I wrapped my down jacket around my lap like a blanket and was almost comfortable... except my feet. With nothing in the viewfinder I had nothing to do but focus on how uncomfortable I was GOING to be when my feet got REALLY cold.
As twilight began I became aware of a heavy, deep buzzing noise, growing in intesity... I heard wing flaps and suddenly from every direction chickens began to gather and strut their stuff. I was set up on iso 1600 again at f/5.6, as wide as I could get with the 1.4 teleconvertor attached. It wasn't wide enough. I watched helpless to capture as the chickens began to inflate their bright orange neck patches. My 8 second exposure was just too slow. Seconds dragged by into minutes. I fired a few test shots to see just how much speed I needed to capture just a sliver of the scene that was unfolding in front of my eyes. FINALLY I was able to get my shutter speed up to 1/80th s and drop my iso to 1000. My camera rattled frame after frame of images as the light steadily increased, I focused on increasing the shutter speed and decreasing the iso until finally I hit a respectable combination. Of course at that precise moment the entire lek exploded into the air and flew away. My heart lurched and I felt crushed. What had spooked them? I'd seen no movement from the blind opposite me and I hadn't moved at all. A northern harrier hawk glided over the snow crust in the distance... perhaps that was the cause... luckily for me they all came back and I breathed a silent sigh of relief. The light got better and better and more and more chickens arrived, playing their games of "made you flinch".
With the grey overcast sky I never got quite enough light to capture the amazingly fast wing flaps of these birds but I came away with many beautiful portraits of these colorful birds. Now that I am completely hooked on these comical birds I know where to come next year and I know I'll need at least four days just in case the weather decides not to coorporate. The there will be the lesser prairie chickens, the Attwater... not to mention the grouse.... every discovery opens the door to ten more things to be discovered. For now I am satisfied and ready to move on to some warm weather shooting. Next week: Arizona's Hummingbirds.