Friday, March 13, 2009

No hen could resist this


Grouse leks are traditional breeding grounds that are fairly large open areas surrounded by sagebrush. Generation after generation of grouse use these traditional sites.

This morning, I went to what is usually a very large sage grouse lek to find only about 60 birds on the vast breeding ground. Last year there were a few hundred birds, and about two weeks ago, we flushed about 400 birds from the area. But since then, there was a snowstorm that dumped a lot of snow, and the lek is back under snow. I’m a few weeks early for peak lek activity, and breeding will take place through April.

It was cold this morning (just below zero) when I arrived, and parked away from the lek. I planned to walk in to photo range, but the snow was too deep, and when I tried, the snow crunched, making my tip-toeing sound like elephant stomps. Fearing I would disturb the birds in already energy-draining situation, I gave up and went back to the truck to watch and listen to the birds from afar. As the sun started to rise, I could see that as the grouse puffed the air sacks in their chests, they also released little clouds of steam from their beaks. First time I’ve seen that, so I really started to pay attention.

As I turned to leave, I noticed there were more grouse out in the thermal cover provided by thick stands of sagebrush. I was driving the noisy flatbed GMC feed truck, which emits a low rumble while it idles (teenagers love it), but was trying to be quiet. I saw two male grouse next to the road, and one wandered away into the brush, but the other stayed close.

I shut off the truck to watch, and the second bird started to leave. I turned the truck back on, and the noise attracted the bird, as he spun around to challenge the truck. He strutted and puffed out his air sack on his chest numerous times, making a drumming noise, tail feathers fanned out behind him. When I shut the truck off, he would calm back down and start to walk away, but if I revved the truck back up, he pranced again. Apparently the noise of the truck must be at the correct decibel level to be of interest to the bird – at least this individual bird.

I watched this male sage grouse for about an hour before leaving. The bird remained, obviously winning the battle against the GMC for breeding rights to that territory. What hen could resist something that adorable?

Here's the handsome male grouse before he starts strutting and puffing:

The air sacks are starting to inflate:

If you click on this next one for a closer view, you'll see the grouse's beak is open:

Deflating:

9 comments:

Matt Mullenix said...

Down here the, um, house sparrows have returned to their lek beneath the carport.

Anonymous said...

I too observed birds in courtship behavior this morning. I went out to the farm that I hunt and watched about 100 turkeys in the field doing there thing. At any given time there were 10-20 gobblers in full strut. I took pictures also, but after viewing the photos on this post they will never see the light of day.

Matthew in Missouri

Isaac said...

Caption contest on the one where his beak is open...?

My contribution:

"Ha Jomo, I live to breed another year!"

(Too obscure for all but the hardcore longwingers??)

Cat Urbigkit said...

Matthew in Missouri:
Hey! That's not fair! I'd love to see turkey photos - we don't have turkeys, but I remember them from my childhood. A strutting turkey is a beautiful beast.
You know I sweet talk the birds into letting me get such close-ups. Care to try my strategy?
Best to all,
Cat

NorCal Cazadora said...

That is fantastic. What hen could resist indeed!

Love your strategy too, but my Rav4 does not emit such a masculine sound. Doesn't look so studly either. Oh well.

Anonymous said...

Cat,

How long do the grouse lek in your area? I am coming up to Wyoming (southeastern) next weekend.

Zac

Anonymous said...

Cat,
Thanks for the challenge. I'll go back out Sunday and see if I can get some better photos.

Caption: Oh what a beautiful morning!

For Reid: Also found a early archaic Sedalia point on the bluff above the gobblers.

Matthew in Missouri

Cat Urbigkit said...

Zac,
The sage grouse will be on the leks through most of April, so now is early in the season. I really don't know anything about southeastern Wyoming and grouse, but it seems to me that you might want to consider Greater Prairie Chickens if you're in that area. (Wray, Colorado is famous for them also).
Call the Wyoming Game and Fish Department information officer Eric Kezler in Cheyenne, tell him I sent you. After he finishes cursing me, ask him nicely for where to go to see some activity.
Good luck,
Cat

Steve Bodio said...

You might also try my friend Matt Miller at the Nature Consevancy in Idaho, who showed them to me: m_miller@tnc.org

Re Jomo: Rachel Dickinson, Tim Gallagher's wife, ahd a new book coming this summer on him and his friends, Falconer on the EDge.