Male sharp-tailed grouse displaying on lek. (photo by Al Sander)

The next day we headed for Hayden and two key species: dusky grouse and sharp-tailed. The birds were on private mining land, but Allan had been in contact with two biologists who oversee reclamation and thus we had easy access to the areas of interest. The company even maintains two blinds, with comfortable chairs,  to facilitate observation of the sharp-tails.

Dusky grouse don’t display on open leks, so to see them you have to hike up and down hills densely covered with oaks. They do display, and the flapping of their wings is a distinctive sound. Al and I had separated, and as I plodded along, I heard what may have been the wing flap of a grouse. But looking down, I concluded that I was fooled by the noise made by a branch scraping my jeans. (Al had the same experience). I heard it again though, and a moment later a large dusky grouse, with tail spread, paraded in front of me. A short while later I saw another bird, this time a hen. Allen wound up with good views and photos too.

Arriving at the blind 5 the next morning, we did not have long to wait for the sharp-tailed. A total of about 20 males performed the most intricate dances of any of the grouse. They were but a few feet from us for the two and a half hours we watched from the shelter of the blind. Cocks stamp and move their feet with such rapidity they seem almost cartoon-like: all that mincing foot motion with little actual movement of the bodies creates the impression that they are floating. (There must be a choreographic term for that.) Birds confront one another and then pivot in tight circles. The pointed tails stand erect while the body is horizontal and the reverberating wings are out stretched at the sides.

Most unexpected, almost eerie, there would be occasional periods when all the birds would appear frozen, neither moving nor vocalizing. The one bird would utter a chuck (or the sound of a poorly tuned string instrument being plucked) and the proceedings would commence again. These lulls increased in both frequency and duration as the morning progressed, leaving us thinking this was a way for the birds to rest during what must be a physically arduous exercise.

Of all the species we were seeking, I probably most wanted to see theGunnison’s sage grouse. The bird currently exists in seven distinct populations inUtahandColorado. It has a total population of 5,000, 4,000 of which inhabit theGunnisonBasin. It’s range and numbers are steadily declining and the US Fish and Wildlife Service is in the process of listing it as an endangered species.

The easiest place to see it is nearGunnison,Colorado. The birds display on private land a good distance away, but a small portion is under a public easement which hosts a viewing trailer, pull off, and display signs. We were late in the season and when we arrived at 4:20 we were the only car. As we waited for light, a second car pulled up. Eventually, we could see about eight white breasted grouse assembling. We could discern little about them except they were obviously sage grouse. Dawn proceeded and the birds started some low key displaying. Just another 15 minutes and the light would be good enough to see some of the details. But, alas, just then a coyote appeared and all the birds flew off, never to return. Allan later learned that due to date, the birds routinely left the lek that early, whether there was a coyote or not. Knowing that the place were at is only inhabited byGunnison’s eliminates any doubt as to species, but as a lifer it was far from satisfying.

We spent the last couple of days driving around easternColoradobefore heading back  to Devner. The Nature and Raptor Center of Pueblo is a remarkable facility along theArkansas Riverthat was packed with a Mother’s Day crowd. This is obviously a place that draws a wide variety of visitors and not just those with an interest in natural history. As we drove on, we stopped at the Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site located near Chivington. This is the only national historic site that marks a massacre perpetrated by US forces. And the closest town is named after the officer who led those troops. Our final morning was at the Rocky Mountain Arsenal, almost next to theDenverairport. I had been there decades ago to get my lifer chukar, a species no longer present on the property. But there a fine array of other species, including burrowing owls and numerous and tame prairie dogs..

 

Dusky grouse displaying (Al Sander).

Sharp-tailed grouse face-off: may the best grouse win. (Al Sander)

 

White-tailed prairie dog at Arapaho NWR.

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