In April 2001 I visited Oregon's Malheur Wildlife Refuge, timing the trip to coincide with the sage grouse mating season. Seeing the courtship display of these birds is one of the most moving events I've ever witnessed. I stayed at the Frenchglen Hotel, a historic inn close to the strutting grounds. John Ross, the innkeeper, has extensive knowledge of the birds in the area. He gave me excellent directions, which included getting up at 4 am in order to arrive at the location for the best viewing.
When I arrived at the strutting ground, called a "lek", the sun was still below the horizon and the grouse were visible about 30 feet from the car. I quietly rolled down the window and got my camera in position. There were around ten grouse in the area and the males were beginning their display. It's tough to describe everything that happens with words and photos. The male grouse stand several feet away from the hens, unfold their tails into a spiky fan, and breathe in huge gulps of air to inflate their yellow chest pouches. The white breast feathers expand as well and the grouse tips head and wings back, pushing out the pouches in several quick thrusts. While doing this they produce a booming call, then rest for a short time and repeat the display.
In the time I spent there I saw all kinds of interesting behavior. Some of the males would threaten each other when they got too close with a ritual attack of hissing and ruffled feathers. There was a poignant moment where, I believe, a hen chose a male as her mate. Another hilarious scene was a group of males displaying with much vigor while the hens sat close by, obliviously sleeping with eyes closed. It reminded me of many a man's experience in a bar, trying everything to get a woman's attention but having nothing work. Several times they all crouched low and hid in the brush when a hawk flew overhead. Suddenly, after about an hour and a half of strutting, the whole group flew off.
I got many great photos of the action. I chose the one above because it shows the best overall view of the bird's pouches, neck hackles, and tail during its display along with some wonderful backlighting. Be sure to check the full detail view because there is much more on the film than can be easily shown.
If you plan to visit the sage grouse, drive to the lek the previous afternoon as finding it in the early morning darkness may be difficult. Also respect the birds by staying inside your car, keeping a good distance away, moving slowly, and being quiet. Bring binoculars and a telephoto lens with at least 600mm focal length to get photos like you see above.
Sage grouse (Centrocercus urophasianus) populations are rapidly declining due to human activities in the Western US and Canada. They have disappeared from five states and British Columbia and are struggling to survive in eleven states and two provinces. Both Oregon State University and Colorado State University have conducted research into understanding the grouse's habitat requirements. The birds require large open areas of treeless sagebrush steppe free from roads and other forms of development such as fences, telephone poles, power lines, irresponsible grazing, and conversion of rangeland to cropland. Poles and towers provide perches for birds of prey, causing the grouse to be unable to live near them. This is just one example of how the simplest of human acts can impact another species in unexpected ways. At least two separate studies of sage grouse habitat (1, 2) indicate that the largest threat to the species is the expansion of human population into the West. A growing threat is the push for wind power development in grouse habitat.
If all these problems weren't enough of a challenge to the survival of this magnificent bird, I've saved the best for last. Oregon has a hunting season for sage grouse, and each year an average of 900 birds are needlessly shot.