Greater Prairie Chicken captured by D6 / 800f5.6

Only the light from the stars streaks through the window when the alarm rings. By the time I slip into the blind, you can make out the faint outline of the NE Sandhills off in the distance. Everything is covered with frost, the snow the day before loaded that air with moisture and the sixteen degrees stuck it to every surface. You get tucked into the blind which is pitch black, just the tripod is standing at this point. It’s about then you hear the flutter of wings beats. A heartbeat after they stop, the doooo doot doooo doot floats into the blind. The Greater Prairie Chickens have come to the lek, an annual event each spring that brings me to this gorgeous country.

I have more then forty thousands images of these charismatic birds, each one unique as each individual bird is a character. I tend to find the one that just can’t say no to contesting any male and who loves rejection from every female that comes by. That’s him, on the right just after he’s picked his latest sparring partner. There are lots of aspects of their biology I love to photograph. The sparring I find the most challenging and the one photo I have a preconceived idea of what I want before I even get into the blind. The first criteria is the background, I don’t want much at all. Next, I want just a touch of the rising sun. I want the slightest influence of it which lights up their airsacks and comb but not the rest of them. I want one male in the air and one on the ground, both with intense looks down the bill at each other. Lastly, I want the two males facing off parallel to the film plane so I can get them both in focus. In years past I have had this and that piece of the puzzle teasing me that it’s available but never had them all in one click. Thousands upon thousands of attempts, but not that one image. I have no illusion that I would get the shot but I keep looking for it as I photograph the greatest show in the animal kingdom.

Then the elements started to line up this day in the blind, the background, the light, two males but I know better than to get excited, get my hopes up. I just watch through the viewfinder, one finger on the back button focus, the other on the shutter release. The two males lay on the ground, making their call at each other, just lying there. Then …. EXPLOSION! In a heartbeat they are in the air sparring and then back on the ground. The D6 has cranked off seven frames. I keep on shooting figuring I missed the shot again. That’s OK, I saw it, I know it’s still possible and because of the great folks at The Switzer Ranch, they will be here for years to come.

Then I get back into the lodge, ingest my images and start to go through them. That’s when my heart stopped for a moment. The image above appeared and I started to admire my luck. Is it “the” shot I’ve dreamed of all these years? I keep asking that myself because dreams often have no real foundation. I really love it, if it’s not it, it’s darn close. I guess I will never really know until I am fortunate to take the next one with my list of elements I love more. That’s what keeps me getting up with the chickens!


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