The male sage-grouse did what most male grouse do this time of year at the crack of dawn: he strutted his stuff. He stood tall with his head held high, and tail feathers splayed in a magnificent display. He paused, swiveled around, likely showing off to the other nearby male grouse. Then the bright white neck ruff rose up, nearly engulfing the grouse’s head. Two baseball-sized yellow sacs inflated and poked through his chest of white feathers. At the same time, the grouse arched his back, as if getting ready to let out a cock-a-doodle-doo. Instead, the sacs deflated, emitting a distinct bloop-bloop sound.
I watched the seven grouse for more than a half hour as I waited for them to move off the lek or breeding ground. They strutted; they pranced. They blooped-blooped and they pivoted around, doing their best Bad Boy imitation. It was comical; proof that Mother Nature has a sense of humor.
Once they left, I walked the area to get a GPS location while also checking for sage-grouse sign. There was plenty of it, indicating the birds hung around there for a while.
Watching a lek until they ended for the morning was new for me. Typically I lacked the luxury of spending so much time ogling grouse antics. Usually I had to dash off to look for more grouse since the survey window each morning was so narrow.
These seven grouse strutted about 45 minutes longer than expected, going up to about 8:30 in the morning. I figured the grouse would fan out as they left. Interestingly, that’s not what happened.
After showing such animosity on the lek, it never occurred to me that the grouse would leave as a group, amicably acting like best pals instead of worst enemies. But that’s just what they did. All seven grouse moseyed into the prairie, disappearing like ghosts as their mottled brown backs blended with the similarly-colored sagebrush. They were a sage-grouse fraternity, all leaving together when the party ended.
Sage-grouse return to the same lek year after year. Biologists rush across the sagebrush seas of Wyoming every April to count strutting males. Such counts – three counts per lek spaced out through the month – provide population data to compare year after year.
In addition to counting grouse on known leks, I spend a good chunk of my April looking for new leks. It’s not nearly as satisfying since finding one is very rare. My reward is watching lovely sunrises and being serenaded by meadowlarks rather than watching grouse.
I was looking for new leks on this clear and chilly morning, beginning when it was just light enough to see. I was nearly out of time since the leks typically are abandoned starting an hour after sunrise. Unexpectedly, I spotted the bright white of a male’s chest amidst the sagebrush, a mere 50 yards in front of me.
“What are you doing here?” I asked the grouse. He was not where I expected. Instead of performing in an opening in the sagebrush, as is typical, this guy was right in the sagebrush. I scanned the area and discovered he was not alone with six additional male grouse joining in the morning antics.
I was both excited and puzzled. Finding a new lek is a wonderful prize in the wildlife biology world. Or, I should say, it is a wonderful prize to this biologist. The habitat was off, though, with the grouse strutting in the sagebrush instead of opting for a clearing where hens (and biologists) might spot them. On this morning, no hens were in sight.
The location could just be a lark; a one-time deal due to the grouse’s hormones flowing and them not knowing quite where else to go. I’ve seen lone grouse strutting away, far from any known lek, but rarely did they appear at that spot again. With seven showing up, though, it was hard to know what was up.
I checked the location bright and early the next morning and was tickled to find them out again. It was the same number, and likely the same individuals – the frat guys returned.
Truth is, it may or may not be a lek. I’ll check it a couple more times this strutting season and see if they return. I’ll keep my fingers crossed.
The thing about wildlife, though, is to never say never about them. I have learned they often do the unexpected or are found in unusual places.
I’m reminded of a site I was on a year ago. It was early May and a herd of 25 pronghorn antelope grazed on the sagebrush prairie. Then I spotted the oddball. It was an elk. A lone cow elk grazed with the pronghorn. When the pronghorn spooked at my presence and ran off, the elk went with them, as if a part of the herd. I smiled at the special treat. It was proof that wildlife often do the unexpected, and to never say never.