Chasin’ Chickens

Two male Greater Sage-grouse face off in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert.

My last two waterfowl photography trips didn’t result in as many duck images that I had hoped for. Instead, I had some opportunities to photograph several grouse species. This spring was the first time I’ve seen Greater Sage-grouse and Greater Prairie-chicken. My first view of a sage was in the spotlight of a researcher as he scanned for the eye shine of grouse as we made a midnight hike through the sagebrush. Once a grouse was located we closed in, the white noise of a cb radio at full blast, masking the sounds of our footsteps. The dazed grouse usually stayed still, not sure what to do in the barrage of alien light and sound. Then a long-handled net was used to capture the bird. Males received a standard USFWS band along with a 3 digit colored plastic band. Females were also radio collared. Feather samples were taken for DNA analysis and birds were weighed and measured.

A male sage-grouse is fitted with a plastic tarsal band which can be read through a spotting scope during lek surveys.

There are two species of these grouse, Greater and the smaller Gunnison which was recently described as a separate species in 2000. Both are in serious decline due to disappearing habitat. Introduced plant species are a major factor along with overgrazing, habitat fragmentation and renewable energy infrastructure. Cheatgrass, Bromus tectorum, is probably the biggest threat to the sage-steppe ecosystem. This grass, native to Europe, southwestern Asia and northern Africa is invasive and causes fires that wipe out many native species. Both of these desert grouse are being considered for listing under the Endangered Species Act. Populations are being closely monitored and scientists are trying to learn what can be done before it’s too late.

A female receives a radio collar.

After a night of stumbling around the desert I crawled into my blind long before sunrise and waited for the big show to start. Male sage-grouse perform strange courtship displays in hopes of attracting females. These performances take place every spring at traditional locations known as leks. The males inflate yellowish air sacs on their necks creating bizarre popping and burping sounds. There are sometimes dozens of males on a lek but only one or two will be chosen by females for mating.

My first morning in the blind didn’t go too well with all of the birds far behind me. After birds dispersed from the lek in the late morning I marked a better spot to set up for the next morning. A surprise winter storm overnight made things interesting! There’s still plenty of room for improvement on my sage-grouse photography but I was happy to get a few images in the snow.

A female is dwarfed by two strutting males.




Camp was in rough shape! 

Two weeks later I was in South Dakota for the spring migration of waterfowl. Duck photography was fair but the image making on a Sharp-tailed Grouse lek was far more rewarding. A friend and I set up a pop-up blind just east of the trampled down area where a dozen male sharp-tails performed their strange dances every morning.

Prairie rattler – a male Sharp-tailed grouse inflates air sacs, erects combs, arches wings and rattles his tail as he stamps his feet.

Females watch the show.

Sharp-tail populations are in better shape than that of the sage-grouse, but they need native grasslands which are increasingly threatened by agriculture, overgrazing and energy industries.

The displaying starts while it’s still dark out so a 4:00 a.m. wake-up was in order. After a bumpy ATV ride we got set up in the blind and waited, one morning at a chilly 9 degrees. Birds could be heard flying in and it wasn’t long before the dancing started. It stopped and started suddenly with birds dozing off in between performances. Occasionally they would be startled, possibly by raptors or other predators that we couldn’t see from the blinds.

One morning a Greater Prairie-chicken tried to join in. The sharp-tails had other ideas about that.

Unexpected visitor – a male Greater Prairie-chicken.

Cock fight! A sharp-tail evicts the prairie-chicken.

Some of the fights between male sharp-tails were brutal. One pair of males faced off and fought periodically for over 2 hours. As you can see, it got pretty bloody with one bird narrowly escaping a serious eye injury.






After that bit of ultra-violence you may need something to calm your nerves. This beautiful video from Dawson Dunning should do the trick.
Sharp-tailed Grouse Lek in Snow




~ by David Stimac on May 15, 2014.

6 Responses to “Chasin’ Chickens”

  1. Well-written, informative and beautifully illustrated with excellent photos

  2. Awesome Work David!!! “As Usual!!”

  3. Amazing photos…as usual.

  4. Thanks everyone!

  5. Well done David!

  6. Thanks Tom!

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