Bird #560 — Greater Sage-Grouse

centrocercus (from kentron, spur, and kerko, point) urophasianus (from oura, tail, and phasianos, pheasant)

Carbon County, Wyoming — County Road 406

Friday, April 9, 2021 — 6:00 am

I drove up to Saratoga, Wyoming for the express purpose of seeing this lek? Why this one? I’m not sure except that there was a hotel relatively close—15 miles to the south. On Thursday afternoon when I hit town, I drove up to the lek area to see if I could find out exactly where it was. I had the map on eBird, which I compared with my phone map. Even then it was a challenge. The road cut through about three miles of sage flat with zero distinguishing features. There was a silver pipe that ran under the road for drainage that I knew I could find in the morning darkness. Fifty yards east of that, I saw some tire tracks along the side of the road that I figured could only be from other birders.

I woke up on Friday at 5:00 am to snow. It had been forecasted, but I was hoping I’d miss it. As I turned onto 406, this was my view.

I drove until I passed over the pipe, then managed to find the tire tracks even though the road was becoming increasingly snow-covered. I could see the parking lights of another vehicle 100 yards further down. It crossed my mind that it may be another birder who knew more than I did,  but I decided to go with my instincts and stayed where I was. I turned off my lights and sat alone in the pitch dark.

Within minutes, I became aware of an odd gurgling noise. I opened my window and realized the grouse were already arriving. At least two males were already doing their dance. A few minutes later, I could barely make out their silhouettes in the dark. I had my lifer—and I was no more than 20 yards from the closest birds.  A car passed me and drove down by the previous vehicle, but before long both of them came back and parked near me. Three other vehicles arrived during the next few minutes. As the light slowly increased, I saw that there were more grouse arriving all the time. One female walked across the road about 10 feet in front of my car.

There were males displaying right next to me, and even a few further to the east, but the main action was a bit behind me where the females all gathered around one displaying male. I backed my car at an angle so I could watch the entire lek without straining my neck.

For the next 2 hours and 15 minutes, I watched, fascinated. It snowed to one degree or another the entire time, and the wind out of the north was blowing right in through my open window. I was cold, but I didn’t care. The whole scene was surreal.

For the first half hour or so, more birds arrived. Some would fly in, others could be seen walking across the sage flats. The most I counted at any one time was 34 although they blended in with the clumps of sage to a remarkable degree and I could never be sure I was counting them all. They also kept arriving and leaving.

The grouse were big birds—about as long as a pheasant, but much bulkier. The females were patterned with gray to match sage exactly, but with a black belly patch.

The males had black throats with a white chin strap, white breasts, and black bellies. This is the only photo I got of a male  (on the right) that wasn’t in “dance” mode.

When they were doing their dance, yellow patches above their eyes were obvious.

How to describe the dance … The males strutted around with their tail feathers spread in a spiked fan. Their chests were distended in a white sack that looked like a fur collar. The winges were held forward and away from the body. They would then rise up and push their chest, which made two yellow patches that looked like egg yolks would push through the feathers and expand like balloons. While all this was going on, the birds were rocking and making that odd gurgling sound.

I’m not sure why a few of my pictures came out yellow, but this was the only time I was able to catch the split second when the chest patches were fully extended.

The males did this over and over—maybe every 15 seconds—which is a lot of dancing over the course of two hours. They kept changing directions, rarely performing twice in the same direction. As I said, all the females seemed to gather around one male. I read that the females posture to let the males know they are ready to mate, but I didn’t see that happen this morning. Other males were off doing their dances by themselves. Some were close enough to the center of action that an occasional female at least wandered through their vicinity, but a few males were so far off to the side that I was tempted to feel sorry for them.

I’m assuming—with no supporting information—that there’s a heirarchy with a dominant male and then ranking order beneath him. Some other males were allowed to dance quite close to him, others maybe 15-20 yards away, and some a lot further off. The males occasionally fought. I saw the dominant male going at it with another one a few times. Two males right in front of where I parked went at it quite often and got quite violent, with a flurry of beating wings and biting. When they weren’t actually fighting, these two would stare at each other from inches away and clack their bills.

Male in threat posture

Facing off

Fighting

While the main action was taking place in a space about 10 yards wide and 40 yards long right along the road, there were grouse off in the prairie behind the lek too. I saw a few quite a ways off perched on top of clumps of sage. Others could be seen walking slowly through the sage. A few times, males chased each other off in the distance. There was always something going on.

The females either picked at the ground or just huddled. They seemed rather bored by the whole thing but resigned to be there. After about an hour and a half, the females wandered off one by one. At one point, for reasons I don’t know, six or eight of them suddenly took off from scattered places in the distance and flew further away. Some of the males wandered off too. For a long time, there were eight males and one female in the vicinity. As long as she was in the area, the males seemed compelled to stay. The dancing wound down, with the males seemingly exhausted by their efforts, and I couldn’t blame them. But if the one remaining females wandered anywhere nearby, they seemed compelled to begin dancing again. When I left, all the females were gone and seven or eight males remained, plumped on the ground with their eyes closed.

At the end of the dance

As I drove away, I took this photo looking back at the vehicles that still remained parked by the lek.

I drove five miles or so north and then turned east on I-80. I hadn’t gone more than a mile when I saw a sage grouse fly over the highway. I knew what it was because I’d been watching them all morning, but I’m glad I didn’t have to decide whether to count it as my lifer.

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