Photographing Greater Prairie Chickens
About three hours slightly northeast of Denver is the small town of Wray, Colorado. The local Chamber of Commerce has joined with Colorado Parks and Wildlife, the local Museum and Kitzmiller Grazing Association to offer photographers and birders a chance to see and photograph Greater Prairie Chickens on a lek, during spring courtship. The Chamber has been doing this for nearly 30 years, so they do have it down. Each year they offer eight tours over four weekends, starting in mid-March. The tours are on the weekends with viewing on Saturday and Sunday (two tours per weekend). Prior to the morning tour, a mandatory evening session is held the day before at the Wray Museum to establish the times and ground rules, plus to learn a bit of history and bird biology.
On the morning of the tour, folks gather at the Museum well before sunrise and take a bus to the Lek. On our trip, the tour was guided by the local CPW Area Wildlife Manager, a knowledgeable and personable guy. The viewing blind (a trailer actually) was quite comfortable with stadium style benches all covered with cushions. The entire side facing the lek is opened after the people settle in. The birds (mostly the males) start to arrive about 30 minutes before sunrise and begin their strutting, booming and occasional challenges. Females drift in a bit latter. Once the sun comes up, if the weather cooperates, the light is quite nice for photography so you’ll have a half hour of good light and plenty of activity to shoot.
After the allotted time, the Wildlife Officer will close the blind door and ask people to re-board the bus. This reduces any stress on the birds. The group is then transported to the Grazing Association headquarters for a very nice breakfast of eggs, bacon, pancakes, coffee, juice, and toast. After a leisurely meal, the bus returns the adventurers to Wray. Total time at the lek is between 1 ½ and 2 hours.
Some logistical and planning notes for the tour:
The tours occur rain, shine, snow, cold or whatever mother nature provides, unless driving is too hazardous. Only one tour in 29 years has been cancelled. Nothing stops the birds. On our recent trip, the weather was beautiful (sunny, temperatures in the 30s and 40s), but we did hear of an earlier tour where the temperature was in the low teens and the sky overcast. Wind can be a factor as well.
The tours are booked online through the Wray CoC ( https://www.wraychamber.net/greater-prairie-chicken-tours#BookATour ). The booking start dates are a bit fluid but start in the fall or winter. Cost has recently gone up from $100 per person to $150.
Camera equipment is allowed of course but the folks there ask that all equipment (cameras, cell phones, etc. be silenced – shutter clicks are OK). No flash is allowed and cameras with red lights for focus assist should have that feature turned off. Tripods are allowed but you will be asked not to fully extend them. I was fortunate enough to get a seat on the front bench and could extend mine enough to provide a comfortable, stable platform. It is also possible to stand in the back and extend one a bit more.
Clothing should be based on the weather but, if possible, it should not make noise when you move!
Tour timing is a bit tricky. We figured and were proven correct that around the first weekend in April would be a good time for weather and bird activity.
Wray is only a three-hour drive but since you have both an evening and very early next morning commitment, staying over in Wray is necessary. We decided that three nights would be fun, so we arrived on Thursday afternoon to check out the area. We came home on Sunday after our Saturday tour. We figured we might be a bit too tired to drive back after getting up around 4 AM.
We chose to stay at a local B&B that we had checked out the prior year (long story). The place is called Doc’s B&B and it’s in the residential area of Wray, a couple of blocks and within easy walking distance of downtown. The young couple who owns it purchased it from her mom, who ran it for several years. They are in the process of doing some upgrades, but it is very clean and comfortable.
There are two motels in town as well, one is the Butte Motel, advertised as “Rustic and Charming.” The second, much larger is the Cobblestone Inn and Suites, a chain company with several on the eastern plains. If you look on the Internet, you may see other places, but our research shows these three as the only ones still operating.
Restaurants are not a problem. Wray has several nice restaurants both in the downtown area and nearby. Some good ones we found include:
Number one on TripAdvisor is 4th and Main Downtown Grille. We ate two dinners there and thoroughly enjoyed both. They are open for both lunch and dinner and their offerings are “American, Steaks, Bar and Pub.” Not surprisingly they are located at 4th and Main downtown. Be advised, they are on the second floor and the entrance is not well marked. We noticed that most of the customers were local folks, so I guess they figure they don’t need to mark it better.
West of town on Highway 34 is El Vaquero, a really good Mexican Restaurant. You can go west from downtown on 7th street which turns into Sunset Lane or drive west on U.S. 34 and turn left on to Sunset Lane. El Vaquero is right there.
Canyon Coffee and Café on Main Street is also a good lunch place.
We had lunch one day at the Creekside Tavern north of U.S. 34 on Main. It was OK.
While in Wray, we took time to check out some of the local sites.
Wray Museum. This very nice museum has a lot of local history, a small gift shop with some nice books and tee shirts, and lots of information on local places. The evening meeting prior to the Prairie Chicken tour is held at the Museum. There is time before and after the meeting to check out the displays.
CPW has a large warm water fish hatchery just west of town on County Rd FF, north of U.S. 34. The hatchery is interesting at any time, but activity and pond condition varies with the time of the year.
The Beecher Island Battlefield is south of town. Drive south on U.S. 385 until the highway makes a right turn. Instead of staying on 385, turn left there on to County Rd 30. Follow the paved road, which makes a couple of turns on to different County roads, until you reach Beecher Island on the Arikaree River. There is a monument there commemorating the battle in 1868. There is not much information there. The site is on both the National and Colorado Historical registry and is maintained by the local memorial association. You can get a lot of information on the battle on Wikipedia or at the Wray Museum.
Should you venture east, a few miles beyond Wray is the border with Nebraska. The first town is Haigler. South of Haigler is the Kansas border and the town of St Francis. Near St Francis is the Arikaree Breaks that can provide interesting photo ops. Most of the land is private but there are several county roads that allow viewing. Early April is before this area greens up, so we found photo ops a bit sparse.
Websites and Contact Information:
Wray Museum: https://www.colorado.com/history-museums/wray-museum
443 Blake St, Wray, CO, United States, Colorado +1 970-215-2085