Wednesday, March 24, 2010
Sharp-tailed Grouse, Oh My!
This morning began at 5 AM since we had about an hour drive to reach our 1st grouse location north of Hayden, CO. The snow predicted for overnight never materialized which we figured was a good thing for finding grouse. But there was plenty of snow around as evidenced by the photo above. We have never been to any of the leks (mating sites selected by the grouse to do their dance routine) we were trying to see, so we were not sure of what to expect. Our first target area was supposed to have both dusky and greater sage grouse leks. We headed up a forest road in the semi-dark which was covered with snow. We bumped up a long hill without much effort in the 4 wheel mode of the tacoma.
At the top we questioned the wisdom of driving on a snowy road that we knew nothing about, but the grouse were calling to us, so we proceeded. After another mile we started up another less steep hill when the truck began to bog down. We looked at each other and said, uh oh! We tried to back down out of this deeper snow but got stuck. After 30 minutes of digging away snow and trying to jam cardboard under the 1 spinning wheel, my sis said, "time to call AAA." We got them on the phone 1st in North Carolina, and then they called us back from Steamboat Springs. They were not sure about how to get us out, or when they might be able to do so.
The sun was now up at 7:30 and I was thinking this was one of the more stupid things I had done during this birding adventure. And getting stuck in the middle of nowhere in Colorado no matter how beautiful was not my idea of an adventure. I remembered that my father-in-law had loaned me a throw rug for use in the sleeping area in the back of the truck. I grabbed the rug and stuffed it under the 1 spinning tire hoping that once it had traction, the other 3 tires would kick in.
My sis was behind the wheel, and sure enough the rug did its job. The truck was unstuck, but we still had to get it turned around and back up a steep hill. After carefully turning it around (7 mini k turns later), we started up the hill only to bog down again. Our elation quickly evaporated thinking that we might still be out there for some time, but we were able to back down to a flatter point. We carefully studied the road up the hill and opted for a new route. My sis took off by herself and when the truck began to labor she floored it, shooting her past the bad point and up to the top. I trudged up the hill remembering that I was at 7000 ft.
We negotiated the road back to the bottom, and once off the snow, phoned the tow truck driver to tell him he was no longer needed. It was only 8:30, so we decided, ever the intrepid birders, to drive over to a different lek site on what we found to be a busy paved road. We figured there was no way with all the snow the sharp-tailed grouse would be dancing, but lo and behold there they were right where they were supposed to be. Nine sharp-tails were on the lek not far off the road.
We got out the scope, and joyously spent the next 30 minutes studying the mating ritual of this bird. It is not easy to explain their routine but I will try. A single bird will suddenly lean way over, almost touching its breast on the ground. Its tail is straight up in the air, and its wings are spread like it is about to fly. It will then scurry forward making a call while puffing out the light purple air sacs on each side of its neck. This grouse also has 2 orange stripes on its head. Another bird will then come after it and they will face off, crouched low, heads almost touching, chattering at each other. This face-off may last for even a couple of minutes before one will rush the other, forcing it to fly up in the air.
We watched this routine many times, but slowly the birds began to disappear over the hill. The experience of seeing this mating dance right after the frustration and depression of getting the truck stuck was the veritable climb from the pits of despair to the mountain top of elation. It will stick with me for a very long time, if not forever.
The rest of our birding day was a bit anti-climatic in comparison. We also did not see all that many birds overall. We did find a pair of cassin's finches at a feeder in Hayden, which with the grouse raised the YTD total to 409. The week total moved up only 6 notches to 93. Tomorrow we will be up at 5 AM again to try for greater sage grouse at a different lek. Stay tuned!