Greater sage grouse dancing on the desert

The meteorologist predicted a beautiful sunrise for Monday morning on his Sunday evening news forecast. No – not in so many words; but with “partly cloudy with high winds later in the day” meant the likelihood of a beautiful sunrise for me and I knew where I wanted to be.

At a small lek, a sage grouse breeding and dancing ground, I positioned my truck under a ridge where the males showed up and fought for the right to raise the hens. As the sky to the east became painted a brilliant orange by the still sleeping sun, two males began to fight for the center of the lek. Their wing speed was far too fast for my camera to stop their movements as they bumped against the colorful sky.

The sun hadn’t even risen when seven grouse took off. “Damn that!” I muttered to myself as I could barely see two golden eagles chasing each other. in Dubois, the county seat of Clark County.

Three females blend into their surroundings as they pick up frost crystals for an early morning drink. | Bill Schiess,

The A-2 Clark County Road from Dubois to Kilgore was a busy route; I only saw one other human, but just outside the city metropolis. I had to stop twice because two herds of elk thought they had the right of way, and I wasn’t going to argue with them. They were a bunch of scroungy, losing their neck mane probably rubbing it off to remove some of the wood ticks that are already gorging on fresh blood wherever it can be found.

I encountered my next herd of grouse where the A-2 road and the Jacoby road meet. It was a small group, so I continued. A few miles away in a cattle pen with the small building inside was a large herd of about 35 males showing off with about 30 hens wandering through them. A few pronghorns were also in the enclosure, probably wondering why all the fuss. With the temperature in the teens there was very little fighting between the males as the hens didn’t stop long enough to flirt with one of the boys.

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A group of male and female sage grouse gather in a cattle pen for display and breeding. | Bill Schiess,

The most dominant rooster in the lek will occupy the center of it and when the hens are in a “good mood”, will gravitate towards him. Once the hens are ready to start nesting, about 80% of them will connect with the dominant male of that lek. But the females are not bound to a certain lek and travel from lek to lek according to their whim.

The birds on the big lek were too far away for me to take good pictures and knowing that lots of hens should have another big lek nearby, I continued east along the road. As I approached two large blue water tanks on the south side of the road, I saw about 30 males displaying near the road. I slowly moved my truck along the side of the tanks while the bucks were busy showing off. It was a beautiful sight as they inflated their air pockets on their chests before deflating them. It wasn’t long before the hens outnumbered the males.

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The male sage grouse will take four gulps of air to fill his air sacs in his chest. | Bill Schiess,

My goal for the day was achieved and the predicted winds started blowing strong enough to drive all the birds to the heaviest sage about half a mile away.

The Red Route roads will be closed until May 1, when traditionally there have been several large herds of sage grouse on the leks. If you want to see these nearly endangered birds doing their mating rituals, the birds should keep dancing and showing off near the A-2 road between Dubois and Kilgore. If you’ve never seen them, it’s well worth the time and effort to visit them.

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The male will force his head into his chest to expose air sacs containing up to a gallon of air before releasing him to make the “flop” sound that attracts females. | Bill Schiess,
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