The Mating Dance Ritual of the Greater Sage Grouse

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.
IMG_6880Greater 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.
500_1521Males would sometimes confront each other almost seemingly sizing each other up.500_1735The females would gather in the center of the action, as if to judge the displays of the males.500_1725It’s incredible to witness this display, as the males transform themselves into a semblance that one wouldn’t recognize just hours earlier.  500_2288Basically, 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 ….500_2409….. then its yellow eyecombs follow, along with its “ponytail” filoplumes.500_2531As the male begins to strut, he inflates a pair of yellowish throat sacs, which are underneath its white breast feathers. 500_1790500_2576500_2533-Edit500_2558An incredible popping noise is audible … which we became very attune to in knowing when the press the shutter.  500_2563Then the courtship dance ritual is repeated over … and … over … as many as 6-10 times per minute for an incredible 3-4 hours daily.500_2464500_2471

500_2415On 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.500_2473



500_2577They say that 80% of the females mate with the dominant or alpha male, while the next male in line mates with the remaining 20%.
500_2293Then, with no warning it seems, the party is over and they revert to their pre-mating ritual selves … and fly away!500_2611Once they have all vacated the lek area, it’s safe for us to emerge.IMG_6881As 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.  IMG_6883Their 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.500_2474

Next Up:  Local birding near Fruita, CO

© 2018  TNWA Photography / Debbie Tubridy       



The Dance

As I have self-proclaimed on earlier posts, I’m a total CRANIAC!  I just absolutely adore sandhill cranes – from the baby colts to the full grown … they never cease to intrigue me and make me want to photograph them.  So you can imagine when Tom told me that he had just spotted a sandhill crane and its young out in the Beluga Lake Slough in Homer, Alaska.

With this adult feeding low in the grasses, I can see why Tom thought it was a colt

With this adult feeding low in the grasses, I can see why Tom thought it was a colt

Of course, I begged Tom to stop so that I could run out and take a peek for myself and hopefully capture an image or two.  He obliged and I ran out, but when I got there I noticed no colt, but in fact two fully grown cranes, probably mates.


Even so, the scenery with them against the lush green grasses and the deep blue sky was enough for me to begin shooting.  Then, as some nearby joggers past by and I feared that they would scare away my crane subjects, something was beginning to happen …



They began to get excited to their surroundings and to each other.  See, sandhill cranes do this type of dance to and with each other, that simply expresses their closeness and affection towards each other and celebrates their union together.



From their calling out, to their posturing and presenting themselves to each other, they looked more like ballerinas of the tundra and they unfolded their story to me.  I struggled with whether I should continue to shoot images, or switch over to video, to capture best the experience … even thought about simply putting down my toys and simply watching them … well, dance.


While watching and photographing (it won out over the video), I couldn’t help but hear the song “I Hope You Dance” by Lee Ann Womack playing over and over in my mind.  What a beautiful moment it was and I can’t tell you how privileged I felt to be able to witness it.


Every so often they would appear that the dance was over, but alas, they would re-unite in their passion to sing and dance together.


Eventually though, they did ultimately fly off into the distance together, but not before they literally had me with tears in my eyes.  What a lucky couple they were and in a weird way, I envied what they were displaying.  I mean, isn’t that we all want?  🙂


Poor Tom, when I returned had to figure out what happened to me and why I had tears in eyes and rolling down my face.  I shared with him what I saw and tried the best that I could to explain what it meant and how it moved me.   I think he understood … and I wished that he would have come out to see it too.  I wanted to get his attention to join me, but I didn’t want to risk missing the show.  🙂


Homer has a lot more than sandhill cranes to offer.  Stay tuned for more from Homer, AK.