Spring, when grouse canít help but strut
By Bert Raynes, Jackson Hole, Wyo.
Date: March 6, 2013
Let us think of daffodils and of sage grouse.
Pleasant, hey? There’s no direct connection between this bird and that bulb except in my grasshopper mind: Some locals note daffodil shoots emerging — even back in February — and are thinking about spring. Talk of spring and I think of the sage grouse strut.
For a few weeks in spring, sage grouse have mating on their must-do bucket lists for hours every morning, early. Male and female grouse arrive on traditional dance grounds (leks) before dawn. Males battle to establish one or two physically dominant studs. Hen grouse watch and present themselves to the male they admire the most. Turns out the male victor gets not only the girl; he may get three-quarters of all the available girls. The ceremony is quite a sight, and many humans delight in witnessing it. For many reasons, I suppose.
As for me ... I’m still a romantic. Guys dress up, go to the dance hall, have a couple of drinks, challenge other guys to a fight, win and go off briefly with a willing girl. What bigger turn-on?
Greater sage grouse and a few subspecies once flourished in the western states. As its name implies, the sage grouse depends on sagebrush and associated forbs and grasses, a habitat formerly widespread. Sagebrush steppes of the West are being altered by land-use change, energy development and shifting wildlife patterns. As their habitat changes or is lost sage grouse populations plummet.
Estimates of how many sage grouse once populated North America are so disparate as to be worthless. They range from 2 million to 16 million birds. A better estimate of the sage grouse population today in the U.S. is around 200,000 birds and still declining. The U.S. Fish ad Wildlife Service has proposed sage grouse be listed as a threatened species under the Environmental Protection Act. (The listing process is backlogged, one might say; there are more than 250 species waiting to be listed.)
Energy, developers, ranches and other powerful interests don’t want to see sage grouse listed for fear some of their activities might be affected.
For years now, in newspaper articles about sage grouse, the bird has been described as a “football-size gray-brown bird.” I’d probably edit that to a “turkey-size grayish-brown fowl-like bird of open sage country.” Must admit, though, that the football analogy has much going for it: The sage grouse gets kicked around by industry, agriculture, business and political operatives, biologists and conservationists.
The grouse simply want to survive.
There is a sage grouse population in Jackson Hole. It’s small: several hundred to perhaps 500 individuals. It may be a population genetically isolated from sage grouse elsewhere in the surrounding states. That’s under study.
There are leks scattered around the valley. Almost all are small, attracting a few to maybe 10 males. In Grand Teton National Park one substantially large dancing ground is observable almost from vehicles, and park personnel provide limited access to a good viewpoint and give information. Registration is recommended. This lek is known as the Moulton Lek.
Remember, wild creatures see humans as potential enemies — for good reason. View from binocular distance and be silent.
I feel obligated to remark that in spring 2013, the Moulton Sage grouse walks are the kind of park activity that will be canceled as a victim of sequestration exercises. Don’t get me started.
Jackson Hole birds should start showing up at their leks around the end of March.
Field Notes: Seventy-five citizens turned out Feb. 23 to census moose in Jackson Hole. Unfortunately, only 60 moose were found in the mostly suburban areas surveyed, a new population low. The previous year’s count, 94, was already a low. The population decline for local moose continues.
Surveying a large area by air earlier, Doug Brimeyer could account for 239 moose, down from last year’s 298. That was also a continuing low.
The weather feels more like late March than early March. I say that with full knowledge that one big storm — or sustained warm days — can be dramatic. Missy Falcey welcomed a pygmy owl on the hunt Saturday evening along Flat Creek in Jackson. Pine grosbeaks began to show up on the valley floor (Ernie Hirsch, Bruce Hayse) along with goldfinches. Hunter Marrow and Tracy Blue continue to harbor hundreds of rosy-finches. They also had two Townsend’s solitaires. Frances Clark and Mary Lohuis saw two more in Game Creek on Saturday.
Solitaires migrate through Jackson Hole in spring and fall as revealed by numerous sightings of this reclusive thrush. Starlings are ganging up, redpolls are still around, and a general array of fresh plumage is showing up on wintering birds — all signs of March.
The Jackson Hole Bird and Nature Club will meet at 6 p.m. Tuesday at Teton County Library to share natural history notes, socialize and hear Dustin Reichard, a doctoral candidate at Indiana University in Bloomington, on “Whispers, Deception and Promiscuity: Decoding the Hidden Vocal Repertoire of a Songbird, the Dark-eyed Junco.”
Songbirds are noted for loud, melodious songs that herald spring and a readiness to mate and defend territory. In addition to those conspicuous songs, many songbirds sing a separate repertoire at low volume, similar to a whisper. These short-range songs are difficult to hear, but they can be extraordinary complex and paired with bouts of aggression or courtship. Using videos, audios, radio telemetry and experiments in Grand Teton National Park and around the country, Reichard is studying these hidden vocalizations in the dark-eyed Junco. In his talk he will focus on the question, “Why sing softly?”
© Bert Raynes 2013
Bert Raynes writes weekly on whatever suits his fancy with a dash of news on nature and its many ways.