Dawn on the Sagebrush Plain
Greater Sage-Grouse dancing on lek near Malheur National Wildlife Refuge
They gather in darkness, males on a mission. Elaborately costumed, they begin to dance to an ancient inner song in a place that has remained a tradition for countless generations. Spread out among the sagebrush, the males strut and puff out their chests in a show of virility and athletic prowess. Their tail feathers fan out like those of a wild turkey. These native Americans are the Greater Sage-Grouse, and this is their lek.
Karen and I shimmied out of our sleeping bags at 4:30 a.m., leaving our tent while stars still glowed in the endless high desert sky. It was 22°F on this clear morning and there was no time to make coffee, so I substituted a Diet Coke to get my caffeine fix, hoping that adrenaline would also kick in upon seeing the Sage-Grouse. We drove the 20 or so miles up to the lek, arriving at 5:30 a.m. as the sky was brightening. We turned off the car engine, and began watching.
The Sage-Grouse wait for no human, so the display was well underway. We counted 13 males, many strutting at once. After an intense session of dancing, the tail feathers would fold and a male would take a break. Then, if a nearby male started strutting, others in its vicinity would resume.
We have been to this lek perhaps seven times through the years, beginning about 15 years ago. The numbers of birds and birders vary from time to time, but it is always unforgettable. On our first morning this year we were the only humans at
Directly across the road from the lek
the lek. We decided to go a second morning, and we were one of five cars. Every birder was on their good behavior; nobody got out of their cars to try to get a closer look (unlike one year, when a loud trip leader gathered the birders around him outside the vehicles). Grouse on a lek are sensitive to human disturbance, so it is important to minimize the threat to the birds. Sometimes other creatures will show up; this year a lone Pronghorn walked nearby. We have also seen Mule Deer and a Badger.
Some mornings we have seen a lot of chasing and jousting of aggressive males (you have to love that testosterone!). One time we saw a female go from male to male, observing its display with a critical eye, then go on to the next, and so on–as if she was on a shopping trip. Which, in a sense, she was. From our readings, we understand that there are one or two males in a lek who occupy the most important location, and they are the ones who will most likely attract the female (it’s kind of like high school, with the football star and the prom queen likely to match up). After the mating is done, the male is abandoned by the female; she goes to make a nest and he just keeps dancing.
The Sage-Grouse display is a blend of visual and auditory cues for the female; if you listen carefully you can hear strange pumping and flapping sounds that are part of the ritual. Since the experience is so sensory, I will stop trying to describe it here and let the photographs speak for those wonderful mornings we spent in the sage.
A sequence, facilitated by the camera’s motor drive, of the Greater Sage-Grouse mating dance
On our first morning this year, at about 8:30 a.m., the males collectively decided that the dawn dance was done. One flew a beeline over the road toward a low ridge; one after another all the others quickly followed, leaving the lek quiet and lonely. The next morning, we left before the grouse did. On our way down, we saw a pair of Wild Horses.
High desert sky above the sagebrush on the road to the Greater Sage-Grouse lek
If you go, stop at Malheur National Wildlife Headquarters for directions to the lek, which is on BLM land about ten miles up a sometimes rough gravel road to the west of the refuge. The grouse are on the lek each morning from sometime in March until sometime in May.
NOTE: I have heard that this Greater Sage Grouse lek is no longer active, perhaps due to the disturbance of people getting out of their cars and approaching too closely. For current lek information for that area, call the BLM office in Burns, Oregon.
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