Wednesday, 1 May 2013

Grousing in the USA

A tour of Colorado with Rob, my number two son to see the Grouse and Chickens made a great break from the non happening migration season here. Mind you, if you thought that it was cold here, at Loveland Pass (11994ft) it was Zero degrees Fahrenheit  ( -17.8 deg C) with winds around 40 mph. Not only did I find it hard to walk at the altitude, it was also the coldest conditions I've ever been in!

We started at a Lesser Prairie Chicken lek. These are rare birds and the lek is at a fair distance. Great through a telescope and I'm sure an expert digi-scoper like Pete (no.1 son) could have got some decent pictures. I contented myself with some fantastic scope views. These American Grouse all know how to dance, but this species didn't get the first prize.

Next were the Greater Prairie Chickens. In this case we were much closer and the owner of the ranch they were on had placed a couple of cars in strategic positions to be used as hides. They start their dancing before it's light and we were lucky, in that they continued well into the dawn when the light was better.

No Grouse in this picture, the lek was just beyond the distant fence, not a photo opportunity but good scope views from a hide. The birds in question here were the fairly recently split Gunnison Sage Grouse. This lek has a hide and is closely supervised by volunteers they only occur in the Gunnison Basin and the species was only recognised as recently as the year 2000. The current population is around 750 birds and it is critically endangered due the habitat loss. We were very fortunate and watch about 12 birds lekking (eight males and four females) for around 90 minutes. Previous days they been disturbed by a coyote on one day and a Golden Eagle on another.

 This one proved tricky. The group were in two small "buses" and we cruised suitable habitat in the Black Canyon of the Gunnison NP looking for them. I was lucky enough to see one through the trees and the driver managed to back the van up for several people to see it. Unfortunately it wandered into the trees before the second group got on to it. Next came a brilliant spot by a group member, Alison (an American male with an unusual name!). He saw one on a hillside a long way off and by magic it flew over to the road we were on and started to feed on the new shoots of a nearby busk. By an act of contortion I managed to get my camera to the right angle for a couple of pictures out of the open front side window of the bus.

Another very distant photo, taken from one of Rob's videos of two Sharp-tailed Grouse in the snow. These guys won first prize for dancing, and although they were distant they were absolutely fantastic, looking like clockwork toys rushing across the ground. It is hard to believe that the Native American tribes weren't influenced by these birds in the development of their music and dances. The full video can be seen on Rob's face-book page here. These guys won the prize for best dancing and choreography.

The last, but by no means the least of the grouse was a fantastic lek of Greater Sage Grouse. Around 42 individuals came to the party in the snow and the females seemed to have eyes only for the boss who held the central territory of the arena. He demonstrated his superiority by inflating his air sacs and strutting his stuff. Eat you heart out Jordan, these are the real thing, OK they're masculine but no silicon is involved!. I have a lot of pictures of the trip, most to throw away but hopefully a few to post here or on my Flicker site.

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