The conversation on the bus was soft, interrupted by moments of silence as the occupants sat together, braced against the pre-dawn late April chill.
As the sun turned the clouds behind them red, it revealed the contours of the prairie rolling up to rock bluffs in the distance.
In the periods of silence they listened, then resumed conversation as the wind picked up and rain began to patter on the roof.
Then, at about 6:20 a.m., more than an hour and a half since the group had set out from Scott City for this Gove County ranch — "There they are. Hear them?" Michael Pearce said softly.
The group fell silent, and among the calls of the meadowlarks could be heard a high-pitched cackle.
The group moved forward to their scopes or raised their binoculars. This is what they had traveled hundreds of miles for: the mating dance of the lesser prairie chicken.
The birdwatchers from Michigan, Wisconsin and Iowa had traveled by van to Scott City the day before from Colorado as part of a tour to view grouse such as the lesser prairie chicken, the Gunnison sage grouse and white-tailed ptarmigan.
Lesser prairie chicken numbers in Colorado have dwindled to fewer than 50, while Gove County alone has close to 400 — more than three other states combined.
This spring, Pearce, outdoor content manager with the Division of Tourism in the Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism, worked with ranch owner Stacy Hoeme to bring several tour groups to the area to view prairie chickens as the males attempt to attract mates.
Much of the top research on lesser prairie chickens has been conducted on the Hoeme ranch, and biologists have trapped them here to bolster its numbers in other parts of the bird's range.
"We're trying to put the ranch in a conservation program," Hoeme said. "We're thinking about making it permanent so it can never be developed."
Prairie chickens will avoid tall structures such as wind turbines or oil rigs, where raptors might perch to prey on them.
That kind of development has contributed to the population decline, but so has the environment.
"If you look at where the Dust Bowl was the worst, that's the range of the lesser prairie chicken. It's very arid climate. They thought they were probably going to be extinct after the Dust Bowl," Pearce said.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service listed the lesser prairie chicken as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act in 2014, but a lawsuit by the Permian Basin Petroleum Association and several New Mexico counties resulted in the listing being vacated the following year. U.S. Fish and Wildlife was to reconsider that by the end of summer 2017, but no decision has been announced.
The service's 2017 population survey estimated the species' numbers at just over 33,000 in Kansas, Colorado, Oklahoma, Texas and New Mexico, an increase from just over 25,000 in 2016, with the largest increase in northwest Kansas.
Numbers are shrinking in Colorado, however.
Carl Bendorf, owner of Colorado Birding Adventures, said about a dozen Colorado companies organize "chicken tours."
"They all normally went to southeast Colorado because there were a few birds there. But the tour groups are now coming over into Kansas," he said.
"We've got lots. What we're hoping to do is bring them in and see that, and then get them to keep coming back," Pearce, a former outdoors writer for the Wichita Eagle, said.
Hunting and fishing bring in more than $400 million to the state economy, Pearce said, and with its parks and other natural areas, the state can take advantage of growing interest in activities like bird watching, hiking and kayaking.
Pearce hopes next year to expand the tours to include other sites in Kansas and already has booked a group from Europe for 2019. By then, he hopes to have a single source — perhaps in Oakley or Scott City — where people can make reservations.
"There's 15 million birders in the United States, and it's growing rapidly. On the tourism website, birding is one of the most popular things people link into. We just need to be able to give them more information and provide them more opportunity. The birds are here," he said, adding more than 470 species have been documented in Kansas.
Cheyenne Bottoms in Barton County and Quivera Wildlife Refuge in Stafford County have been ranked in the top 10 important marshlands in the world, he said, and other areas such Scott Lake State Park, and Kanopolis and Wilson lakes are also highly ranked.
"The Switchgrass Trail at Wilson is literally world-renowned," he said of the mountain bike path.
"Kansas has 3,000 miles of hiking trails. That's from Hays to Miami and back," he said.
He's also hopeful the Legislature will pass Senate Bill 331, which would designate an area of chalk formations in Logan County known as Little Jerusalem and a trail through six counties in the Flint Hills as state parks.
The 9,000-acre Hoeme Ranch and Cattle is not far from Little Jerusalem and the adjacent Smoky Valley Ranch, both owned by the Nature Conservancy, and Monument Rocks. The working cattle ranch is home to several leks — the flat patch of shortgrass prairie that serves as an arena for the males to face off in their attempts at attracting females.
The night before, Hoeme had parked a converted school bus about 60 yards from one of the largest and most accessible leks to give the birders a much closer view than they said they could get elsewhere.
"So many places where you go, you're so far away from the birds. This was really nice," said Jim Kiehne, Minneapolis, Minn.
The birders watched as males jumped into the air, stamped their feet, lifted their tail and pinnae feathers and inflated the red sacks on their necks, which make the "booming" sound to attract the females. Mixed in among the lesser prairie chicken, a few of the slightly larger greater prairie chicken males perform the dance, their orangish sacks making a lower-pitched whoo-ooo-ooo.
Rain and wind didn't seem to deter them from their ritual, but at one point all the birds stopped and lay low. One of the birders spotted the reason why.
"A ferruginous hawk!" he exclaimed, and scopes and binoculars swung to the right to view the large bird of prey.
Pearce told the group a large golden eagle has been spotted in the nearby chalk formations and prairie falcons have also been seen around the lek. The ranch is also home to swift fox. One woman spotted an antelope on the bluff.
"The early ornithologists, all their birding was with a shotgun," Bendorf said. "With the advance of modern optics, binoculars, it's a way to enjoy, a way to capture a trophy, so to speak.
"It's a great shared experience, getting up early, and it's one of nature's spectacles," he said.
Pearce said he hopes as the birding tourism grows in Kansas, people will see the value in preserving the lesser prairie chicken.
"If the birds are to survive, they need public support," he said.
"I think we like to see the birds protected and this sort of (tour) organized so that it's not disturbing the birds," said Carolyn Polaris, Grand Haven, Mich. "We appreciate that the ranchers will open up and let us in."
Sharon Stilwell, Des Moines, Iowa, said birders often will signal to locals who they are to show their contribution to the economy.
"We're encouraged to, when we're out birding, to take our binoculars and put them on the table when we eat, so people know what we're bringing in," she said.
"We have to preserve the habitat, so you want locals to understand it's very important," she said.
"One of the main things we just need is for Kansas residents to realize what we have," Pearce said. "Some of our biggest problems in promoting Kansas is the mindset that Kansans have of what we have here."