Photos of the Week – April 7, 2023

I didn’t realized how much I needed it until I got it. It’d been a really busy month or so and I hadn’t had a lot of time outdoors. I needed a break. I also needed to get up to the Niobrara Valley Preserve to scout some potential research sites. Trying to accomplish both objectives, I drove up to NVP on Wednesday afternoon.

When I arrived, I first headed to a grouse viewing blind the staff had set up. I was looking forward to photographing sharp-tailed grouse on their lek (courtship display area) the following morning and wanted to be sure I’d be able to find the blind in the dark.

Then, I wandered around the east bison pasture a little before dark. I found and photographed my first burrowing owl of the season and then went looking for the first bison calf of the year. I came upon (and photographed) a small group of bison, but didn’t see any calves. I could feel the stress draining away. (I’ll share some of the owl and bison photos next week.)

Early the next morning, I drove into the hills and found the viewing blind, arriving just as the sky was starting to show some color on the horizon. Freezing rain on Tuesday had coated much of the vegetation with ice and it hadn’t melted much on Wednesday. As a result, my view of the eastern sky was accented by glittering prairie in the foreground.

Tamron 100-400 lens @140mm. ISO 800, f/13, 1/3 sec.

At 6:32am, the first sharp-tailed grouse announced its presence outside the blind and was very quickly joined by five more males. I was counting on the birds sticking around long enough for me to photograph them in good light so I didn’t take many photos during the next half hour. I just enjoyed watching the males posture and dance. At about 7am, I played around with some slow exposure photos to see if I could get any ‘artsy’ blurry shots that showed the movement of the birds. I got a couple that I liked.

I was panning the camera to track the bird as it ran, creating this blurry, but (I think) captivating image. Tamron 100-400 lens @400mm. ISO 800, f/14, 1/10 sec.
Another version of the same technique used in the above photo. Tamron 100-400 lens @400mm. ISO 800, f/14, 1/10 sec.

I’d gotten to the blind a little extra early because the full moon was illuminating the prairie and I was worried the grouse might start their dancing ahead of schedule. As the sun started to come up, the moon was setting.

The moon was setting over the hills to the west just as the sun was rising in the east. Tamron 100-400 lens @400mm. ISO 800, f/6.3, 1/500 sec.

When the first sunlight hit the birds, I started photographing them more in earnest.

First light. Tamron 100-400 lens @400mm. ISO 1000, f/6.3, 1/1250 sec.
Tamron 100-400 lens @300mm. ISO 1000, f/6.3, 1/1250 sec.
Tamron 100-400 lens @400mm. ISO 1000, f/6.3, 1/1250 sec.
Tamron 100-400 lens @400mm. ISO 1000, f/6.3, 1/1250 sec.
Tamron 100-400 lens @380mm. ISO 800, f/6.3, 1/1250 sec.
Preening. Tamron 100-400 lens @400mm. ISO 800, f/6.3, 1/1250 sec.
Picking ice off plants and eating it. Tamron 100-400 lens @300mm. ISO 800, f/6.3, 1/1250 sec.

As the sun rose, the activity actually slowed. There was a sweet spot of about half an hour when the light was still a beautiful golden color and the males were really active. After that, the sun’s intensity let me use faster shutter speeds, but the color was less interesting and the birds weren’t as into it as they’d been. There were still flurries of activity, but there were a lot of staring contests, rather than energetic dances. Two males would just sit nose to nose and look at each other for several minutes at a time.

I’m not great with video and don’t have the equipment to handle autofocusing of moving birds very well, but I got a little video footage of the grouse in case you’ve never seen them before. The first bit of the short video shows two males nose to nose and then some fairly muted dancing (they stayed pretty still, which made it easier to film, but was less exciting than some of the more wide-ranging dancing I saw). The second half shows a male standing around, looking cool, and making attractive (apparently) noises. If you don’t see the video link, click on the title of this blog post (top of the page) to open it online and make links active.


Back to still photos…

Tamron 100-400 lens @200mm. ISO 800, f/6.3, 1/1600 sec.
Tamron 100-400 lens @400mm. ISO 800, f/6.3, 1/2500 sec.
Tamron 100-400 lens @400mm. ISO 800, f/6.3, 1/3200 sec.
Tamron 100-400 lens @400mm. ISO 800, f/6.3, 1/3200 sec.

At almost exactly the two hour mark, four of the males suddenly flew off to the west, joined by a couple females (I assume) I hadn’t previously seen. The other birds had apparently been hiding just over the hill to the west of me. I’m not sure if they were watching the action on the lek from that perspective or not. A few minutes later, the last two males left, letting me pack up my gear and head out myself.

My list of tasks didn’t grow any shorter while I was gone, but it somehow feels a lot less intimidating after my time in the prairie. Two long and peaceful drives through the Nebraska Sandhills, an evening with bison and a burrowing owl, and a morning with sharp-tailed grouse (and later turkeys and prairie dogs!) did wonders for my stress levels. Once I finish banging out this blog post, I’ll start chipping away at that list with renewed energy. Thanks prairie!

This entry was posted in Uncategorized by Chris Helzer. Bookmark the permalink.

About Chris Helzer

Chris Helzer is the Director of Science for The Nature Conservancy in Nebraska. His main role is to evaluate and capture lessons from the Conservancy’s land management and restoration work and then share those lessons with other landowners – both private and public. In addition, Chris works to raise awareness about the importance of prairies and their conservation through his writing, photography, and presentations to various groups. Chris is also the author of "The Ecology and Management of Prairies in the Central United States", published by the University of Iowa Press. He lives in Aurora, Nebraska with his wife Kim and their children.

8 thoughts on “Photos of the Week – April 7, 2023

  1. Ahhhh, I always marvel at the quality particularly of your close up photos. Thanks!!!! I tell my friends up here near the Namekagon Barrens of northwestern Wisconsin to watch one of mother nature’s Best Sex Scenes, the Sharptail mating dances. It sounds like there weren’t many females and that usually creates some ‘Boring Times’ for the males who pause more often and then leave earlier in the morning! Much like a Rural Northwestern Wisconsin Sat. Night, ‘Bar Scene’! No Women, then they leave earlier, HAH!

    Thanks mark nupen

  2. Nature viewing is always the best way to recharge your energy batteries! Prairie chickens also remund me of the old WWIIaircraft when they dance and circle on a lek. Thanks for sharing!!!

  3. Pingback: Why Are All These Animals Being So Cooperative? | The Prairie Ecologist


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