THE KING OF THE PRAIRIE

Words & Photography by EDGAR CASTILLO

 

I had been hunting for less than an hour, and already the sun’s rays had altered the landscape. I had trekked up and over the hill and crested a ridge which overlooked a breathtaking view of the Flint Hills. Nature's canvas, a kaleidoscope of early autumn colours mixed in with remnants of summer green prairie grasses was stretched out in front of me. Shades of red and purple blended with brown hues were swirled around with the grasslands - it was a spectacle to behold. Closer, the exquisite details of the wildflowers and splatters of red-leafed sumac - a favourite place for prairie chickens to shade themselves from the sun and heat - could be picked out. 

 

I took some time to reflect on this vista of upland wonder. A place for me to look back upon in my old age when only photos and memories will transport me back. As the sun was rising, I could see the green summer prairie grasses clinging on and not wanting to give in to the late September change. Staley had sensed that I had stopped hunting and turned to give me look that said, “Let’s go!” Staley’s rust-coloured vizsla coat complimented the grasses she was moving in. As I stepped forward, I could see a broad swath of green prairie ahead of me over the next hill. 

 

In a matter of minutes, the upland prairie had again shifted its colours with the sun climbing up ever higher overhead. In place of the red and brown hues was a sea of green and yellow forbs with a hint of tan. Staley was working the terrain, nose in the air waiting for a faint waft or inkling of a bird scent. She disappeared over a small hill. I hastily scampered after her, only to crest the hilltop to find Staley rock solid on point like a statue. Prairie chickens are typically found on elevated ground. Their primary defence is sight and flight. Any sentinels that had been posted would be able to look across the folds of land and see a tiny speck of orange approaching from a distant hillside. I quickly approached from her left, inching my way closer anticipating a flush. I could see her muscles quivering as she remained fixed on point. I haphazardly snapped a photo while giving commands to “Whoa. Whoa”. Her tail canted at a perfect 45-degree angle ever so lightly shaking with excitement. Staley’s muzzle and intense gaze told the story. Birds were in our proximity, probably about 30 yards out. Her motionless stature full of intensity had caused her to froth at the mouth. I could see a small clear bubble of saliva forming on the left side of her mouth.

 

I knew our prairie quarry would not sit idly by for very much longer. I took to walking out in a half-crescent pattern for a better a shot, knowing if it was a covey of prairie chickens, they might be spread out loafing amongst the grass. Suddenly a series of clucks filled the air as a dozen or so chickens magically appeared from the knee-high grass. I picked one bird and placed the end of the barrels from my over-and-under just out in front of it and squeezed the trigger. Boom! The string of lead pellets had interrupted the prairie grouse’s flight path. It sailed to the ground and was swallowed by the prairie grasses. 

Staley bound over to retrieve the bird. I glanced westward, to where the other chickens had flown. I immediately recognised the prairie chickens swift flight pattern which consists of a series of rapidly beating wings coupled with a fast wing flap and glide. They sailed off deeper into the landscape. I lost sight of them as they approached the horizon and disappeared into the sun. I looked down at Staley who was waiting patiently with the bird in her mouth. I gently took the bird and laid the stocky body onto the ground to admire it. Plumes from the chicken’s head formed a regal crown. What a majestic looking specimen. I began to examine the exquisite bird carefully. The prairie chickens plumage is brown, almost with a hint of burnt orange with the way the sunlight was reflecting of the feathers. One of its most unique features is its feathered feet, plainly adapted for surviving in cold, harsh environments. I placed the bird into my vest and reloaded a shell into the empty bottom chamber of my shotgun. I walked over to where the spent cartridge had ejected and placed the red plastic case into my pocket. 

 

We quenched our thirst as the day began to warm; weather and temperatures typical of an early Indian summer. Staley cast out with a jolt of energy, she was in bird heaven. We continued hunting, heading out west on the rectangular shaped public land tract. A sea of grass rippled in the breeze before us. I estimated three miles to the truck.

 

Our journey back took us to a field of large rocks called Granite Erratics. Boulders that were carried by glaciers and deposited in the Flint Hills. Made up of quartzite, a substance harder than sandstone, it is almost impossible to be scratched by a knife. Staley frolicked around the stone garden. Several rocks were as big as a small vehicle, and many were tinged in green as algae had slowly enveloped them. I have always connected hunting with exploring. To hunt is to explore. I enjoy the discovery of new things. I continued my path towards the truck. Each step closer to ending this Sunday's outing. Upon arriving, I peered back into the distance to see the route we had taken, walking over the horizon and back for a single bird. The shotgun was stowed, and Staley jumped into the cab with her tongue out, as if displaying her approval for the day’s hunt. I took a glance at my GPS. It showed we had covered just over six miles. Not a very good bird to miles ratio, but the numbers of birds is not what’s important, it's how one spends time in the field. Driving off down the dirt road, I vowed to return again in search of the bird so iconic to the American Central Plains - the King of the Prairie. 

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