May 13, 2023
The bird display begins as the sun is nothing but a faint bluish glow on the eastern prairie horizon. Upland sandpipers give their raucous whistles over the short grasses. The musical tinkling of horned larks fills the air. As we walk across the native prairie towards the sharp-tailed grouse blind at Benton Lake National Wildlife Refuge, long-billed curlews and chestnut-collared longspurs join the morning chorus. And then we arrive at the grouse lek and all of that is forgotten. Speechless, we watch the age-old spectacle before us: 28 male sharp-tailed grouse gulping, burbling, and dancing in the faint light of early morning.
As the sky gradually lightens towards sunrise, the lek is framed by indigo clouds. We can hear the distant groans of yellow-headed blackbirds from the marsh. We’re in the midst of a lull in the dancing now. The grouse crouch down, quiet. A few peck at the ground among the western wheatgrass (Agropyron smithii) and desert biscuitroot (Lomatium foeniculaceum), like unusual wild chickens.
But these “chickens” are behaving oddly. In this quiet period—a feature of sharp-tailed grouse displays called “the freeze”—the males crouch patiently, many in facing pairs, some solitary. The pairs show us the positions of the invisible boundaries between territories within the lek—territories that many of these males show up each morning to defend. For all of this effort, a lucky handful will attract the attention of the sharptail hens, getting the chance to mate and pass on their genes.
Sharp-tailed grouse on the lek
There’s a subtle change now in their behavior. A few of them have begun to hoot again, thrusting their heads forward as they gulp air and inflate their pale purple throat sacs. Some of the pairs of dancers adjust their positions, squaring off more intently.
Are they going to dance again?
False alarm. The grouse go back to crouching and pecking at the ground. A few Franklin’s gulls fly over, making their plaintive wails. The bank of cumulus clouds to the west is showing rosy highlights.
This morning I’m with Corie and Mason Bowditch. We’re watching the grouse at Benton Lake NWR (just north of Great Falls, Montana) from the structure known as the “Grouse House.” It’s a viewing blind that allows an up-close look at this sharp-tailed grouse lek, the largest such dancing ground on the refuge. Grouse have been dancing here since 1988; late April to early May is the peak time to watch them. And from late March through mid-May each year, anyone can enter a free lottery to reserve the grouse blind for a morning. For all three of us, this is the first time we’ve had this special opportunity to get up-close with a sharp-tailed grouse lek.
Suddenly, everything changes. A few males fly up with short, thunderous takeoffs, then drop back down onto the lek. The rest respond in kind, and the dancing starts in earnest. Their pointy white tails are stuck straight up, their wings held out paralleling the ground. They zoom back and forth across the dancing ground, lavender air sacs puffed out, stamping their feet in a rapid drumming. We watch as two of them get into a disagreement over a territorial boundary. They get physical, rushing and pecking at each other, and one loses a feather in the skirmish. Later, we watch a tree swallow swooping down, trying to pick up the feather for nesting material.
But the dancing is over as quickly as it began. Once again, the sharp-tailed grouse have gone back to crouching and feeding. There are minor skirmishes from time to time, but quiet has fallen over the lek. We sip coffee and wait.
On sharp-tailed grouse time
“Stop freezing and start dancing!” Corie tells the grouse jokingly. “Don’t you know we’re here for a watchable wildlife experience?”
But this morning we’re on sharp-tailed grouse time—and evidently the grouse are a lot more patient than we are. It’s a slow ceremony: hours of quiet crouching mixed with quick flurries of drumming and hooting. But to these males, it’s as serious as life itself. This morning dance is their only chance to contribute to the next generation.
As the sun rises behind us, the atmosphere on the lek changes. The grouse aren’t dancing again, but the face-offs and skirmishes seem more intense. The air is charged with testosterone.
“You could cut the tension with a knife,” Mason says.
Then the sun emerges from behind the blue-gray clouds, illuminating the lek with golden light. The tension breaks into action: the most intense episode of dancing we’ve witnessed yet.
The facing-off males look like feathered helicopters ready for takeoff. Their wings are spread, their tails are up, and their feet are stamping with a drumbeat throb. They’re calling almost constantly now, giving soft coos and strange gulps. Their yellow eyebrows are raised, purple-pink throat sacs bulging.
The dancing continues for perhaps half an hour, an ebb and flow of intense performances and brief rests. But this morning, as far as we can tell, we’re the only spectators. No female grouse have arrived to join the display.
One morning in an ancient dance
An hour and a half after sunrise, we leave the blind, inadvertently flushing the grouse as we do so. This is the reason for the Grouse House, the lottery system, and the requirement that observers arrive at least an hour before sunrise and stay for an hour afterwards. Excessive lek disturbance has been implicated in sharp-tailed grouse declines in some areas.
But as we drive off towards Benton Lake itself, where over a thousand Franklin’s gulls are building their nests among the bulrushes, we can see that the grouse have regrouped. It’s been one morning in a dance that has been going on for thousands of years, a glimpse of springtime magic on the prairie.
If we can take good care of these grouse and our other animal neighbors, this dance will keep going. And when spring comes to the prairie a thousand years from now, people will still be able to come and marvel, watching grouse dancing on the lek at sunrise.
Cornell Lab of Ornithology. (2023). Sharp-tailed grouse. All About Birds. Retrieved from https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Sharp-tailed_Grouse/overview
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