CHASE COUNTY — It often doesn't bode well for a species when Timothy Barksdale comes with his cameras.
In recent years, he has shot video of some of a species' last breeding displays in the wild.
He's also shot others shortly before their extinction.
Capturing video of greater prairie chickens has had him in the Flint Hills much of this year. Barksdale is hoping this project leads to a happy ending.
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"I'm wanting to do something that will grab people's attention to what's happened to these birds," said Barksdale, who has worked for National Geographic, Animal Planet and the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. "This is clearly a recoverable species, but we have to get people involved."
Barksdale is making an hour-long documentary on the species for PBS. Most of his work is in Kansas and Nebraska.
"They still have a lot of greater prairie chickens. They're about the only two states left," Barksdale said as he ate lunch in Cottonwood Falls.
The project comes from a fascination he's had with the birds for more than 30 years.
Their downturn in many areas, including his native Missouri, has him worried.
"When I was a kid you could see (big) flocks in southwest Missouri," he said. "The state's finally admitted we had about 48 males displaying this spring."
Barksdale's research shows some dramatic declines through history across the entire Midwest.
"I guarantee you that when Abraham Lincoln was walking across Illinois he was kicking up prairie chickens left and right," Barksdale said. "Now they have about 186 birds and Iowa has about 35 in the entire state."
Historically, he thinks Illinois and Iowa once had several million prairie chickens. By the late 1800s, populations were tumbling in Illinois and Iowa, which used to be at the center of greater prairie chicken range.
The huge population drops are directly related to loss of habitat.
"Illinois once had about 21 million acres of prairie," Barksdale said. "Now they're down to one tract of 3-4,000 acres. You guys have it good in Kansas."
Shooting video of greater prairie chickens has been easy compared to some of Barksdale's past assignments.
Once he spent 14 months in an Arkansas swamp, trying to capture footage of an ivory-billed woodpecker.
He got one probable sighting and heard some probable sounds, but didn't capture an image.
Though not in numbers he'd hoped, Barksdale found numerous springtime leks this year with a dozen or so displaying greater prairie chickens.
Barksdale spent many early mornings on the prairie with displaying birds, collecting the kind of video and audio that can be projected to an audience on high-tech equipment.
That means being able to see the creases in the orange air sack of a displaying male and hear every foot-fall of their ancient dance.
"It's an amazing courtship ritual and I wanted to capture it all," Barksdale said. "There's nothing else like it. I've never talked with anyone who's seen it in the spring who didn't come back pretty excited."
But Barksdale's making sure the production contains more than just dancing birds.
He's used small helicopters and hot-air balloons for scenic aerial views of tall grass prairie and planned prairie fires — an important part in the positives and negatives facing greater prairie chickens.
A trip to Texas allowed him to shoot video of prairie chicken chicks. Another to Minnesota gathered footage of displaying males amid deep snow and severe cold.
A Lakota actor has been hired for a scene explaining the importance of prairie chickens and demonstrating a tribal dance that replicates the bird's mating displays.
He spent a recent afternoon and night in Chase County shooting time-lapse scenes of moving cumulous clouds and stars.
The real work will come when he is back at his Montana studio.
Barksdale wants to produce a work that appeals to all aspects of society, not just avid outdoors lovers.
"It's a challenge to have something interesting for a lot of people because of the increased urbanization of society," he said. "And I have to have parts that really grab the attention of kids. They're our future.
"I've got to have something that gets people to draw a line in the sand, saying they won't let these birds go (downhill) any farther. These birds deserve that."