In the last blog post, I shared images from a spring trip to the small town of Walden, CO. Though we saw a variety of wildlife as well as a variety of birds, it wasn’t actually the purpose of our trip. See, we had a date with some greater sage grouse. I was quite excited and totally willing to get up at 4 AM, gather up my gear, layer up for the coldness of the early spring morning, and head out to meet our group.
The Chamber of Commerce of North Park and Colorado Parks & Wildlife offer spectators and photographers an opportunity to observe these amazing grouse from a viewing trailer. One must arrive in the darkness, well before the earliest of light, as to not disturb the upcoming activities.
Greater sage grouse (centrocercus urophasianus) are the largest species of grouse. They reside in the sagebrush environment and during the spring, they congregate – males and females – on ceremonial mating grounds called leks, which they return to year after year.
Once we arrived at the trailer, we were put ushered quickly and quietly into the trailer and remained there in the dark. After some time, we could hear the sounds of the grouse gathering outside, but our trailer blinds were down. It was quite cool to listen to, as our minds curiously wondered how many were out there … and how close. Eventually, our awning was lifted. In the beginning we couldn’t see anything … but a quick glance through my binoculars proved that they in fact had arrived.
Males would sometimes confront each other almost seemingly sizing each other up.The females would gather in the center of the action, as if to judge the displays of the males.It’s incredible to witness this display, as the males transform themselves into a semblance that one wouldn’t recognize just hours earlier. Basically, the males perform mating rituals on the lek through strutting displays. The more dominant males gather on the inside of the lek “circle”, where the females are hanging out.
The strutting starts by a male who fans its spiked tail first ….….. then its yellow eyecombs follow, along with its “ponytail” filoplumes.As the male begins to strut, he inflates a pair of yellowish throat sacs, which are underneath its white breast feathers. An incredible popping noise is audible … which we became very attune to in knowing when the press the shutter. Then the courtship dance ritual is repeated over … and … over … as many as 6-10 times per minute for an incredible 3-4 hours daily.
On this particular day, there were about 47 males on the lek, courting approximately 11 females. The more dominant males would enter the center of the lek, where the females were congregated, while the younger and thus less dominant males would strut their stuff further outside the inner circle, unlikely to get noticed.
They say that 80% of the females mate with the dominant or alpha male, while the next male in line mates with the remaining 20%.
Then, with no warning it seems, the party is over and they revert to their pre-mating ritual selves … and fly away!Once they have all vacated the lek area, it’s safe for us to emerge.As I gather up my belongings, I can’t help but think back to the privilege I had just experienced in watching the Greater Sage Grouse. Their numbers have been declining overall due to loss of habitat (secondary to a number of reasons) and efforts to get their protections that they desperately need via the Endangered Species Act have been unsuccessful. I sure hope that one day everyone can have the privilege to witness their amazing courtship/mating dance for themselves and appreciate their instinct in returning to the lek year after year. Please read up on these amazing creatures and assist in protecting them for generations to come. Thanks.
Next Up: Local birding near Fruita, CO
© 2018 TNWA Photography / Debbie Tubridy