We drove down a long gravel road parting a sea of grass. I looked up and saw the moon – a fingernail crescent. We parked the truck in front of an old cottonwood tree and cut the lights. To the west, the night sky is still dark and star-filled; to the east, dawn is a faint blue on the horizon.
“Make sure not to slam your door,” Forsberg whispers.
We grab our gear. Tripod? Check. Camera? Check. Hat, gloves, blanket? Check. I slid out of the car and clicked the door shut. We snuck quietly toward our blinds, two dark shadows in the morning twilight.
“Watch your backpack,” Forsberg said as I shimmied between the barbed-wire fence. As we approached, our blinds came into focus. I unzipped, un-clicked, unsnapped my blind, and slid into the darkness. I was left with only a sliver of light from a small window that opened onto a vast prairie. Inside, space was tight. I knelt and set up my gear: Tripod, Sony FS 7000, gloves, blanket, and a chocolate chip cookie. Once everything was in place, we sat and waited.
I’ve never been in a blind like this one. I’ve been in a large, wooden, permanent blind to watch the mighty sandhill crane migration on the Platte River, but never a blind as small as this one, nor one this close to the action.
It was dark and cold, and I had no idea when they were coming. Moments later, we heard them. The first faint sounds were deep, calming, and enchanting. I couldn’t see them, but I knew they were there. When the prairie chickens finally arrived, I suddenly found myself in the middle of a dance floor.
In early April 2016, Platte Basin Timelapse (PBT) members went to the Switzer Ranch in the heart of the Nebraska Sandhills to film the annual Prairie Chicken Festival for our forthcoming documentary. The Switzers created this ecotourism event so Nebraskans and state visitors can learn about and experience the prairie chicken’s charismatic mating ritual.
Before leaving for the trip, Mike Forsberg and Mike Farrell briefed us on what to expect, what to bring, and the potential photos we needed to get. The shot list included, but was not limited to, people eating breakfast, people getting on the bus, people getting off the bus into the blind, people watching the birds, and most importantly, the birds. “You’ll hear them before you see them,” said Forsberg. Once all of the males find their territory on the dancing ground to form what is called a “lek,” the show begins. I tried to imagine the chaotic choreography of what we would see: prairie chickens jumping into the air, attacking each other to show dominance and to prove their strength to the females. I was told the ritual would happen within seconds, but I wondered, “What if we could slow it down? What if we could see this ferocious sparring match in slow motion?” So I researched and found a camera to capture these birds in high-quality slow motion. The Sony FS 7000 can shoot 240fps with 1920 x 1080/60p AVCHD video quality. We rented the camera, and I had only a few days to learn how to use it. No pressure, right? After several days of trial and error in the office, it was time to pack it up and head to the Sandhills.
Seeing these birds spar in real time is comparable to watching popcorn pop. It’s fast and hard to see the details of what is going on. When the motion is slowed down, the real intensity of these sparring matches is much more visible. We can see biting, scratching, feathers flying, and the whites of the birds’ eyes.