The Sage Grouse strut: a lesson in love
If you go
Conservation Colorado hosts 15 to 20 sage grouse viewing trips per year. Trips include transportation to and from Craig, coffee (Starbucks) and pastries, and cost $35 for locals, $60 for out-of-towners and $85 to become a Supporter of Conservation Colorado. For more information, visit http://www.conservationc...
I might be a little better at that “I don’t wanna be a chicken, I don’t wanna be a duck” dance the next time I flap my elbows with the kids.
The reason: I just rose at 3:30 a.m. — after spending my birthday night in a Craig hotel — to witness the mating dance of the greater sage grouse. And you can bet that any gyration tips I glean will make their way to the dance floor.
The trip was put together by Conservation Colorado, which organizes as many as 20 of the outings for the general public every year. This one is a special lek tour for members of the outdoor industry; they hope to educate the public and politicians that grouse habitat kicks in $1 billion annually, on federal lands alone, from outdoor recreation.
The term lek is Norwegian for “dance hall.” And that’s exactly what it is: A place the birds return to every spring for three to five weeks to puff up their chests, shake their tail feathers and woo mates. The one we’re heading to is the largest in Colorado.
Not sure what we were getting into, the night before at La Fiesta my buddies Johnny, Pete and I YouTubed the mating dance over enchiladas. Johnny then tried to explain in Spanish to our waitress what we’d be watching the next morning.
“Baila de amor!” he said, sticking his head out and flexing his chest. To which, not catching the grouse gist, she simply replied, “Otro margarita?”
As proud as peacocks, we told the hotel clerk at the Elk Run Inn that we were bird watchers and then settled in for our early morning departure. As if matching our personas with our quarters, Pete’s room, #203, had a sheep motif; mine a cowboy theme; and Johnny’s had Jurassic Park ornamentation, complete with Stegosaurus wallpaper and a toothy T-Rex bedspread. The next morning, another ornithologist shows us a FaceBook photo of his bedspread featuring a giant fox head.
Catching z’s in such a zoo setting is a good precursor to the Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom we soon witness. With stars still shimmering above the City Market parking lot, we pile into several different cars provided by Conservation Colorado and drive north, passing herds of deer, elk and antelope.
But since we’re here for birds, they don’t evoke many oohs and aahs. Next to me in the back is John, a hobby ornithologist freshly off a prairie chicken outing the week before. Today will bring his total to 498 bird species sighted.
“Birding’s a big deal,” he explains. “People come from all over the world to see this sort of thing. Birders like to notch different species off their list.”
Conservation Colorado is hoping to keep the sage grouse off a more important list — the federal government’s Endangered Species Act. While Colorado sage grouse numbers rebounded 30 percent from 2013 to 2014, across the West, their population has declined by half over the past century.
In 2010, U.S. Fish and Wildlife deemed them worthy of protection under the Endangered Species Act, and it has until Sept. 30 to decide. But groups like Conservation Colorado and the Western Governors Association, which represents the governors of 19 sage grouse states, feel voluntary efforts will be more effective. Hence, my bleary-eyed ride into the boonies of northwest Colorado, home of two-thirds of the state’s sage grouse population.
“Everyone at the table wants to avoid the listing,” explains Conservation Colorado wilderness advocate Scott Braden from the front seat, interrupting the radio’s oddly fitting Pink Floyd song for this ungodly hour. “We want what’s best for the bird.”
On this trip they’ll also create a video highlighting the value of sage grouse habitat for outdoor recreation — all in an effort to encourage state and federal officials to protect sagebrush lands.
A typical issue of concern, Braden adds, is a new TransWest Express transmission line that will move electricity from a Wyoming wind-power installation through northwest Colorado to Las Vegas.
“As planned, it would devastate sage grouse habitat,” says Braden. “We’d rather have it closer to Highway 13.”
A half hour later, we turn off said highway west onto a gravel road, then another and another, before stopping at a bumpy two-track. Headlamps pointed to the ground, from here we quietly walk (no rubbing pant legs) a quarter-mile to a special viewing trailer built by the Department of Parks and Wildlife.
We’re now at the biggest lek in Colorado. It’s on private land, but Conservation Colorado has worked out a deal with the rancher to allow viewings. Quietly bundling up under blankets in the trailer, which feels oddly like sitting inside a Disney simulation ride, we grab our binos and settle in. When we’re all set, Braden unlatches two wide metal windows and pivots them open.
Outside it’s still pitch black, but the noise hits us like the Road Runner whacking Wile E Coyote over the head. It sounds like a field of popcorn popping, interspersed with high-pitched coos and clucks. It’s weirder, even, than the Dark Side of the Moon CD we listened to on the way in.
While we can’t see them yet, we know they’re there. Soon, it lightens and we catch our first glimpse, tiny dots maybe 30 yards away. Then more appear until the whole field is littered with them. And then the show begins.
They strut their stuff, puffing up white fluffy chests, fanning out spiky tail feathers and hopping around like they’re on pogo sticks. The field is oozing testosterone, and you can tell they’re feeling studly. “You lookin’ at me?” I imagine them saying in grouse Guido. It’s like the Charles Atlas pectoral flex on the beach, only there are hundreds of them
In all, the organizers count 161 birds today — 123 males and 38 females.
“It sounds like a ski town,” whispers Johnny from the bench next to me. “The Old Town Pub on a Saturday night.”
Only the birds’ odds, while not stellar, are better than those of the typical barfly. Only 25 to 30 percent of the males will get the job done at any given rendezvous. And us Peeping Toms are hard pressed to see any action; woe of woes, copulation takes only three or four seconds, after which the females promptly leave.
Within three weeks they’ll lay six to 12 eggs. If grouse smoked cigarettes, this is when the successful males would light up. Cartoonist Gary Larson would have a field day with this species.
In two hours of courtship, we see conga lines, the two-step, line dancing and even a mosh pit when males scurry after other suitors. They flex, swagger, chase and lure, using every trick in the book besides deodorant to consummate a tryst.
At 7:20 a.m., a falcon sends a gaggle flurrying away. Others soon follow suit, leaving only a few wallflowers remaining like late night dancers at Schmiggity’s. Like the last ones picked for a dodgeball team, a few continue to puff up and look cool before realizing there are no more lasses around to impress.
Soon, we pile out of the trailer into the early morning sunshine. We had been sitting in the cold for over two hours and welcome the sun’s warmth. Shaking the kinks out of my legs and arms, I can’t help but stick out my chest and do a little jig. Even without their plumage, as a veteran sage grouser, I can commiserate with their plight.
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