Attwater's Prairie Chicken. Photo: Noppadol Paothong

Behind the Shot

A Rare Encounter With an Even Rarer Bird

How Noppadol Paothong captured the one-and-only prairie chicken “Sampson” up close.

As a professional wildlife photographer, Noppadol Paothong has had several close calls. Once with a moose. Another time with a grizzly bear. And yet again with a snapping turtle. But nothing came as close as his encounter with an Attwater’s Prairie Chicken named Sampson.

Paothong has been photographing these highly endangered birds for nearly a decade at the Attwater Prairie Chicken National Wildlife Refuge near Houston. Like the iconic Greater Sage-Grouse, these chickens are famous for their elaborate mating dances, which concupiscent males perform each spring at gathering spots called leks, also known as “booming grounds” for the distinct sounds the males make. When Paothong visited the refuge to capture this behavior in 2014, the park manager at the time, Terry Rossignol, had a specific male in mind that he thought Paothong might want to meet.

“He asked if I wanted to meet Sampson,” Paothong says. “And I said, ‘who’s Sampson?’”

Sampson had a reputation at the refuge. Unlike most other birds in the grouse and pheasant family, which tend to be shy or docile, Sampson was bold—aggressive, even. “You can see him at your own risk,” Paothong recalls Rossignol saying. Sure enough, when Sampson spotted Paothong eyeing him from afar, the bird darted over. And then he began pecking. “He kept coming right at me,” Paothong says. “He was pecking my head, pecking my hand.”

To photograph Attwater’s Prairie Chickens, photographers typically use a zoom lens from inside a photo blind. But Sampson is “not a typical Attwater’s Prairie Chicken,” Paothong says. Indeed, when a bird is literally pecking at your camera lens, you probably don’t need a telephoto (although you might want a blind). So instead, Paothong just got down on the ground and began clicking the shutter. When he left the scene he had scratches on his leg, forehead, and lens—and, of course, a great shot.

Most photographers won’t be lucky enough to see an Attwater’s Prairie Chicken up close. Nor should they approach a threatened species (or, for that matter, a threatening one). But for the rare photographers who do meet aggressive birds like Sampson, which are more common during breeding season, it’s recommended to limit the encounter to a few minutes, as Paothong did. If you want more time, set up a blind. Aggressive behavior is exhausting and often dangerous for these birds.

Sampson was last seen performing a dance in the spring of 2014, and refuge officials say he’s likely passed away. But he’s one bird that certainly went out with a boom.

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