Dancing grouse


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I got to spend the morning of May 19 surrounded by dancing Sharp-tailed Grouse.

I woke to clear skies and no wind on Tuesday morning, but it was cold. The thermostat in the car said 26F when I started out in the dark at 4:30am. I slept pretty close to the grouse blind so I was at the parking spot within a few minutes and then made the short walk to the blind, which sat on top of a hill surrounded by short grass. I brought my little Jetboil camp stove with me, which is great for heating water to make coffee. As I prepared my coffee in the dark blind within 5 minutes of settling down, I could start to hear birds very close to the blind. I opened all of the windows, and was treated to the first jackhammer-like foot stomps of displaying Sharp-tailed Grouse, dancing around in almost total darkness. This sound would fill the hilltop for the next 3 hours. As the rising sun pulled back the curtain of dim light I could see that the stage was full of displaying male grouse.

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The grouse blind at Arrowwood NWR was on the top of a hill surounded by short grass. The refuge staff placed the blind perfectly to put human observers right in the middle of the action.

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Displaying male Sharp-tailed Grouse tried to strut in front of the female (rightmost bird in the photo) but also faced off with other males.

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Unlike some other grouse species, Sharp-tailed Grouse do not greatly inflate the pouches on the side of their necks and I could discern any sort of "booming" like you get with Prairie-chickens. Their display was spectacular nonetheless.

I got to watch Greater Prairie-chickens dance in a blind in Illinois in 1981 (sadly not the day before this Sharp-tailed Grouse show). On a trip to Utah in March 2008, I also got the chance to watch Sage Grouse display on a snowfield. But nothing prepared me for what the Sharp-tailed Grouse were doing. The dance was not much different than I expected. The males swaggered in front of females stopping their feet, raising their wings and tail, and puffing out their feathers so the bare purple patches on the side of their throats were visible. These grouse don't inflate the bare patch like sage grouse and prairie-chickens. No, what was a total surprise and totally bizarre was the that males would intensely display for 15, 20, 30 seconds and then freeze. The lek went from grouse bedlum to grouse silence instantaneously, and it was like the game "statues" that I used to play as a kid. When someone called "FREEZE" (and I never figured out the grouse signal for FREEZE) the birds stopped in whatever pose they happened to be in. It was clearly unconfortable for the males--sometimges their wings were stopped mid raiase. I used the video feature on my Cannon 7D to video the lek:

One of my first attempts to use the video feature on my Cannon 7D was to vidotape the Sharp-tailed Grouse blind that I visited at Arrowwood NWR.

The refuge staff did a fantastic job of placing the bind. Birds were displaying within 10 feet of the blind. Unfortunately, there were viewing windows on only two sides of the blind. The door side, obviously, was not for viewing, and the wall across from the door had windows that would not open. Naturally, the side of the blind with the best view of the lek was the side where the windows could not be opened. I'm not complaining because the chance to sit in the middle of a Sharp-tailed Grouse lek on a perfect calm and sunny morning was sensational. For photography, though, having access to the straight-on view of the lek would have been fun. There were, however, two males in perfect light displaying right next to the lek all moring. These were certainly low-ranking males, pushed way off to the edge of the lek with no females nearby, but they sill looked very nice to me and I photographed them a lot.

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Two males staid on the side of the lek away from the sun (and hence in nice light for photography) through the whole morning. I probably took more photos of those two birds than I have ever photographed any object (including my wife, my kids, and my study birds).