My series of dreams included seeing a grizzly bear in the wild, watching a whooping crane, and photographing prairie chickens booming. Two years ago, I scratched ursus horribilis off after spotting a humped silvertip following a young buffalo in Yellowstone. The next year I observed a distant whooper visiting Quivira Wildlife Refuge.
Now I can say I spent an hour watching prairie chickens perform their spring ritual. Though I wasn’t risking life and limb to shorten my checklist, adrenaline flowed and my heart rate raced when I first noted two sharply pointed crests and bright orange inflated skin patches on football-sized feathered creatures.
Over the past decade, I’ve joined several outings to different leks or booming grounds in Ellis County. Each time, I saw birds, but they didn’t show the least interest in performing the dance that brought them fame. Once I spotted a hen flying near my home in eastern Trego County, but she must have been passing through because it was a one-time incident. A few years later, I spied two hens flying near an old barn in Phillips County as I drove to art class. Again, just airborne birds—no fast footwork with eye-popping special effects.
On my bucket list check off day, I rose with the sun to observe some herons as they made early morning forays from their nests. I hoped to get photos of these elegant blue-gray birds silhouetted against a prairie sunrise. Once in place, I realized I couldn’t get the shots I desired so I opted to visit a nearby waterhole, hoping to see these long legged shied pokes breakfasting in the shallows.
Before I arrived, I got distracted. Instead of seeing ripples in a pond, three elliptically-shaped bodies strutting around a fourth hunkered down bird caught my attention. Focusing more closely, I recognized unique spiked headdresses any native dancer would be proud to showcase in a ceremonial presentation.
By then, I’d rooted myself in place to enjoy this magical spring rite. From that vantage, I saw orange orbs poofing in and out of the neck areas of these energetic performers. Once I rolled the window down, I heard the didgeridoo-like hum of booming prairie chickens interrupted by cackles, clucks, and chuckles. The sounds accompanied fancy footwork, ecstatic leaps into the air, and aggressive feints.
The prairie carries sound well as anyone who’s ever listened to morning meadow larks trill can tell you. Full throated notes ride air waves from the emitter to the receiver the same way that red tail hawks ride thermals. That morning’s full sensory effects that included sight and sound washing over me and into my camera was better than anything I expected when I inked my dream onto a blank page years ago.
Humans are interesting. Some need death defying stunts to define their lives. Others enjoy thrills with far less threat to life and limb. What I learned from my students’ and my bucket lists is that everyone benefits by recording hard to achieve goals. Create your list and then start marking off accomplishments.