After shooting the star filled sky (previous post) I sat in the blind for an hour waiting for the grouse to come to the lek. Setting in the chair I began to doze off when I was wakened by the call of a Sanhill Crane. Unusual I thought, it was still pitch black yet a crane squawked a couple of times, and the call came from above. Something must have frightened the crane from its roost. There was a southerly breeze, but if a flock of cranes were heading north there would have surely been many cranes making their rattling calls as they flew overhead.
Sitting in the darkness I leaned back in my chair and fell back into my slumber. Suddenly I thought, “how will I know when the grouse arrive!” About that time I heard a meadowlark, then, moments later the soft cooing of a grouse, then another, and another, the birds were on the lek. I had my camera at the ready, but there was no light. It would be another thirty-minutes or more before the sun would break the horizon.
Looking through a portal of the blind I could barely discern the vegetation on the lek, nothing had detail. Eventually, as I stood staring into the nothingness I caught a glimpse of movement. A Sharp-tailed Grouse was there, but it was like a ghost. I could barely make out the shape of the bird. As I stared into the dimly lit landscape the bird became easier to see, and then I began to see others, many others. As the light grew in intensity so did the activity of grouse. They were like synchronize swimmers. They all ran across the lek with outstretched quivering wings, produced a thumping sound that only a grouse can create. Then, in unison males would pair up, sit on the ground and face each other. It was a stand off, each staring at each other with great intensity just waiting for the other to flinch. One bird would make a slight lunge toward the other, then, the other would lunge forward.
Sharp-tailed Grouse facing-offThe act continued until each would take flight toward the other, pounding their chests into each other creating a loud thump. This was usually followed with the two birds flying upward a few feet pecking and scratching each other with beaks and talons. As the birds came back to earth the stare down resumed and the ritual was repeated. All this so the females could pick the strongest and healthiest males to mate with.
Often during the stare down, one bird would callout sending all the males into a running frenzy across the lek. Their outstretched wings quivered, their heads held low to the ground, as all the males began to vocalize the display call at the same time. It was a cacophony of audible madness. As I watched the birds, I picked up on the call that caused the frenzy. As I listened to their vocalizations I put words to the call to help me remember the sound. Clearly the birds were saying…. “Cock-a-Waffle.” The sound was being repeated over and over again. If you say the phrase really fast, you will sound just like a Sharped-tailed Grouse.
As each of the wing quivering, “Cock-a-Waffle” calling frenzies took place I snapped images as fast as possible trying to capture the movement. I soon realized that capturing a moment of the dance did not to it justice. I could show the high points, but still photography would never do justice to this ancient ritual. This snippet of video gives the reader an idea of what occurred, but you must see this event live, and in person to really appreciate the dance.
(If video does not show up below click this link to see the video on youtube:)