A trip to a small prairie in southeastern Barton County was the inspiration that led a photographer with local roots to embark on an 11-year project that culminated in July with the release of a new book.
Noppadol Paothong’s inspiring photos can be seen frequently gracing the cover of the Missouri Conservationist, a magazine distributed free to Missouri residents by the Missouri Department of Conservation.
In July, Paothong took delivery of the first copies of his new book, “Save the Last Dance: The Story of North American Grassland Grouse.”
“The grassland grouse is probably one of the most overlooked species in North America, Paothong said. “People think about all the things around nature, forests and other places, but grassland is probably valued the least. People don’t understand them. People don’t know they exist. What inspired me the most about this project is because I want people to be aware of it; that it’s there and it is part of our American heritage.”
The 204-page hard-bound book features Paothong’s award-winning photography, and stories by Joel Vance, a writer for the Missouri Department of Conservation’s magazine.
Paothong attended college at Missouri Southern State University and was a freelance photographer for The Carthage Press in the 1990s before joining The Joplin Globe’s staff for several years.
It was a trip to the Golden Prairie near Golden City that inspired Paothong to start working on his book.
“I was introduced by a man named Lowell Pugh, he’s a local guy and also an emeritus member of the Prairie Foundation,” Paothong said. “He introduced me to the prairie chicken. I was told about the bird by so many people, they said ‘Oh, you’ve got to see this bird, it’s so neat the way they dance.’ I didn’t understand that until I started photographing them and watching them.”
Paothong said the grouse, or prairie chicken, is an endangered bird on Missouri prairies, primarily because of the loss of the habitats they need to eat, mate and raise their young.
“They are a very, very fast animal to photograph,” Paothong said. “Only two or three months of the year they will come out and gather in what’s called a Lek, which means the gathering place or the mating ground. Usually they’ve been using a Lek for many years so the male will come and do some dancing so the female can select a mate. They will do that every morning, 30 minutes before sunrise and will stay a few hours.
Page 2 of 2 - “Think about how much energy they put into it and what kind of risk is involved for them to be out in the open. It’s very fascinating to watch and I just want people to appreciate this part of the book.”
Paothong said he traveled across the country and photographed different grouse species ranging Wyoming to the East Coast.
One of the most poignant challenges he faced was photographing a species of grouse that had already disappeared.
The last Heath Hen was seen on the dunes of Martha’s Vinyard in massachusetts in the 1930s.
Paothong said he included a chapter on that bird and illustrated it by taking an archival photo of the last known Heath Hen, a male named Booming Ben, who was seen for several years returning to the Lek to search for mates that had already died off.
The grouse has also disappeared from the Golden Prairie, the place that inspired Paothong to create this book, but there is hope for Missouri grouse.
“We put a lot of effort into the reintroduction of species at the Department of Conservation,” Paothong said. “We brought some prairie chicken from Kansas and we released them in the Wakonta Prairie, which is near Nevada. We released quite a few there and they are doing okay.”
People can get more information about Save the Last Dance and order copies at Paothong’s website http://www.savethelastdancebook.com/