This one’s for the birds

By Leslie Radford: CNJ Staff writer

Jim Weaver has a ranch in Roosevelt County where a somewhat rare bird can be found this time of year. It is mating season for the lesser prairie-chicken, an event that has turned into a unique celebration for the residents of Milnesand.

The fourth annual High Plains Prairie-Chicken Festival is a weekend of bird watching, camping and raising awareness for the grouse.

For the last few years, several ranchers in the area in collaboration with the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish have hosted the event to raise funds to reverse the decline of the prairie bird.

“This is the only place in New Mexico that you can experience this bird,” said Weaver. “They require expansive open grassland — that’s something you can get in New Mexico’s high-plains.”

Avid bird watcher Lois Herrmann of Santa Fe will attend the festival this year. A member of the Audubon Society, she has been bird watching for 25 years.

“I travel all over to go bird watching,” she said. “But it’s definitely a different experience in Milnesand. You get up very early in the morning and it seems like just about the time you can see them clearly, they leave.”

The birds mate just before dawn and at dusk, according to supervising biologist Bill Dunn with Predator and Game Bird Management, who said the breeding grounds are an attraction that he hopes puts Milnesand on the map.

“I want this event to be one of those things people put on their ‘list of things to do before they die,’” said Dunn. “This is something people should get to experience. I want to hear people say, ‘Have you been to Milnesand?’”

But it’s not just about the marketing aspect, Dunn said the numbers of prairie-chicken has plummeted over the years and he is dedicated himself to increasing those numbers. He said the grouse used to be a gamebird and would like to see the sport active again.

Ed Rau of Santa Fe travels to Milnesand a few times a year to hunt quail and dove. He attended the festival last year for sheer atmosphere.

“The early morning session is really neat because you get to sit there and watch the sun rise and see the birds as the prairie awakens,” he said. “For someone into wildlife, this is quite the opportunity. The people o Milnesand have this spirit about them. I think the program’s attempt to repopulate the prairie-chicken is great.”

Other activities include presentations on archaeology and history of eastern New Mexico, learning build a “life raft” to save the birds and other guided birding tours.

Festival information

• What: The fourth annual High Plains Prairie-Chicken Festival
• When: Friday through Sunday
• Where: Milnesand
• Festival Fees: $60 per person; $25 per photographic blind
• Information: Department of Game and Fish 476-8000 or 376-8034. RSVP is required.
Source: Eastern New Mexico University

Fast Facts

• Is an upland, grassland-nesting bird present in regions of Kansas, Colorado, Oklahoma, New Mexico, and Texas
• Is best known for its unique courtship displays and “gobbling” grounds
• Diet consists of insects, seeds, and leaves, and buds of forbs (broad-leaved plants) and cultivated crops.
• Their population and original distribution have declined significantly since 1800; impacted by human influences such as the conversion of native rangelands to cropland, herbicide use, petroleum and mineral extraction activities, excessive grazing of rangelands by livestock, severe drought
• Most easily observed in spring when males gather to display for females
Source: Wildlife Habitat Council