March Science Update: Greater-Prairie Chicken Lek Monitoring

One of Snapshot Wisconsin’s major goals is to alleviate some of the burden associated with time-consuming in-person survey techniques. This is possible because trail cameras can serve as round-the-clock observers in all weather conditions. Annual Greater Prairie-Chicken lekking (breeding) surveys were identified as having good potential to be supplemented by Snapshot Wisconsin cameras, and a pilot study was conducted in spring 2018.

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The Greater Prairie-Chicken (GPC) is a large grouse species native to grassland regions of central Wisconsin. During the breeding season each spring, males compete for female attention by creating a booming noise and displaying their specialized feathers and air sacks.  This ritual occurs on patches of land known as leks, as seen in the photo above. Wisconsin DNR Wildlife Management staff identify leks in the early spring and return to each site twice in the season to count the number of booming males. The number of males present on the leks is used as an index to population size. Three Snapshot Wisconsin cameras were deployed on each of five leks – one camera facing each direction except for east to reduce the number of photos triggered by the rising sun. The cameras were deployed from late March through mid-May, and all in-person surveying was conducted within the same period.

GPC_Method_Comparison

As seen in the graph above, Snapshot Wisconsin trail cameras recorded male GPC at all five of the study sites. This is significant because GPC were only detected on three of the five leks according to the in-person surveys. On leks A, B, and D, where both in-person and camera surveying detected GPC, the in-person maximum of male GPC was higher. However, when the trail camera maximum is averaged across all survey days, the maximum is nearly the same for both survey methods (8.5 in-person, 8.3 trail camera).

GPC_Hourly

In-person surveying requires the observers to arrive before dawn and remain in the blind until after the early morning booming has finished. Snapshot Wisconsin cameras record the hourly activity on the lek while minimizing the risk of disturbance due to human presence. The graph above displays the total number of male GPC photos captured by hour and shows a small uptick in photos around 7 p.m. Because the in-person surveys do not include evening observations, Snapshot Wisconsin data offer a way to examine the lek activity at all hours.

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Additionally, continuous data collection is not only useful in capturing the activity of GPC, but offers insight into the dynamics of Wisconsin’s grassland ecosystems. In total, Snapshot Wisconsin cameras collected over 3,000 animal images including badger, coyote, deer, other bird species, and more.  Some photos were even a little surprising.  Pictured above is a coyote just feet away from prairie chicken. We might expect the GPC to flee in the presence of a predator, but this one appears to be standing its ground. In the upcoming pilot year two, we hope to gather even more information about the interactions within and among species found on these leks.

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