Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Grouse Comparison

Below are three photos to compare the appearance of the hybrid Sharp-tailed Grouse/Greater Sage-Grouse with both of it's parent species.

Sharp-tailed Grouse

Hybrid Grouse

Greater Sage-Grouse

Monday, April 27, 2009

April is nearly gone?

Between early morning lek counts, my own early morning lek photography, family, and an ugly work schedule including being gone to Wyoming for a week instructing a class, I have not had much time for anything else lately. Oh yeah, and my computer is finally back from being repaired too.

I have had a good time watching the Sharp-tailed Grouse on the lek this spring. Here are some more photos from a morning a couple of weeks ago. It was another refreshing morning at the lek although this time something flushed the birds from the lek just as the light was getting good enough to begin taking photos. The small hill where the lek is located was quiet for about 3 minutes and then the birds began flying back to the lek from all directions and they started again, right where they left off.

It was apparent that much of the breeding activities have already happened and there were fewer females coming to the lek. The males would often display for only a short while and then they would wind up paired off staring at each other, occasionally jockeying for position. Most often a neighbor pair would break off the challenge and begin displaying in opposite directions, prompting many the males to break off their own stare-down to hustle over to the other side of their spot on the lek and engage in another face off.

Occasionally a fight would break out and feathers would fly until they figured out where the line between their respective areas were.

About 8:00 the birds slowly started moving off the lek. The last few birds hung around and stared at each other for a while.

Then they too took off.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Where To Find Grassland BIrds

I have received requests for locations for a number of our "specialty" birds in Valley County so I have decided I would provide a Google Maps link so that people can find some of our birding hot spots in the area.

The first location is in the mixed grass prairie region of northern Valley County. This is an excellent location to find good numbers of a suite of species often considered rare in other areas. In previous years I have stood in one spot and listened to Sprague's Pipits, Baird's Sparrows, Chestnut-collared Longspurs, McCown's Longspurs, and Long-billed Curlews. And not just one individual of each species either. This location is on a large block of state land and requires a state lands recreation permit to bird there. It is labeled "grassland bird road" at Google Maps -see below.

Long-billed Curlew

Baird's Sparrow

The second site is in south Valley County. The route is an excellent spot to locate Mountain Plovers and McCown's Longspurs. Other species often found along this route include Brewer's Sparrows, Lark Buntings, Greater Sage-Grouse, Ferruginous Hawks, and Golden Eagles. Most of this route is on Bureau of Land Management land but it does pass through a few areas of private land. Land ownership (Federal, state, and private) maps can be purchased at the local BLM office in Glasgow. To get to this area go to "Bentonite Road Turnoff - south" location at Google Maps and head south on Bentonite Road to the "start of habitat" marker on Google Maps (again - see below)

McCown's Longspur

Mountain Plover

Here is a link to a Google Map that provides landmarks for the places I am talking about. Remember, both sites are on roads that are generally impassable when wet and quite a distance from any facilities. The area in north Valley County is near a paved highway however and can be accessed from the highway.

A couple of other points on this map are "Wards Reservoir" and Kerr Road Turnoff - West". Kerr Road leads into Wards Reservoir. This is another area that is good for the grassland birds with the addition of a BLM/Duck Unlimited reservoir project that is maintained for wildlife.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Montana Birding Weekend on the Prairie

If you would really like to get an experience birding on some of the best remaining prairie in North America here is your opportunity. This is a fund raising event for the Nature Conservancy of Montana and promises to be a great weekend (Click on the image below to enlarge).

More Grouse

A few more grouse photos until I get my computer back from the repair shop and can have a bit more time to actually compose a decent post. First I had the Sharptail Grouse, then the hybrid grouse, now it is time for the big guys - the Greater Sage-Grouse.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009


This morning I surveyed a lek and saw this.

Front view

Back view

This hybrid Greater Sage-Grouse/Sharptail Grouse had been found at this lek last year and I made sure I got out to see it this year. It was very interesting watching the behavior of this bird compared to the sage-grouse he was hanging out with.
I could hear him in the dark before I could see him although the strange garbled sound was merely something different at that point. As the light got better I was able to watch him roam around the lek unchallenged by the sage-grouse as he chased around to where the female grouse were arriving. He was ignored by both the male and female sage-grouse as he strutted around until he stepped over some invisible line and was promptly thumped by one of the male sage-grouse.
His plumage was an interesting mix of both species. The breast feathers of his upper breast had the dark arrowhead pattern of a sharptail, but puffed out and looking spiked like the worn feathers on the breast of a sage-grouse without the yellow cervical apteria. There was no really apparent purple apteria on his neck but the neck feathers were dark and appeared splayed to where the apteria should be. The overall plumage was much like that described for two hybrid specimens previously described in Montana (Eng 1971).
His display was an interesting mix of behaviors to match his plumage. He began his display with a half-hearted foot stomping while leaning forward like a Sharp-tailed Grouse but then he stood up and leaned back to pull his wings along his side like a sage-grouse. His vocalizations were a short choking gurgle. He also tried to chuckle like a sharptail but that sounded off too.
He certainly tried hard. He displayed in earnest all around the lek, but no one seemed interested. He was at least able to bully some of the younger sage-grouse and I watched in drive off at least one individual a few times.

My friend Krissy thought the Frankengrouse label was a bit harsh and suggested I should call it "Pat" but that reference implies gender confusion and this bird was certainly all male - a mish-mash of parts and misunderstood so I am sticking with Frankengrouse.

Eng, R. L. 1971. Two hybrid Sage Grouse x Sharp-tailed Grouse from central Montana. Condor. 43: 491–493.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Ah, April!

As much as Julie hates April, I really like it. It is the month when the grouse really start dancing and I get a good excuse to get out of office and actually be a biologist again. The early morning stuff is a bit of a drag but watching the sunrise more than makes up for it. And getting to watch the grouse.
This morning I headed out to do some Greater Sage-Grouse lek surveys. It was another gorgeous morning and one lek I surveys was full of birds, so much that they had spilled out into a new area. It looks like from our early surveys that the number of displaying males are up quite a bit from last year.

This female grouse was hiding out in the grass near the lek. I think I observed more female grouse on the leks this morning than I have in all my previous years. This is usually about the week of peak female attendance at the leks and it certainly seemed like I caught it about right this year.

On the way home I found a Short-eared owl was hanging out in a CRP field.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

More Sharptails

Last night I set my pop-up blind near the Sharptail Grouse lek I had scouted that morning. Then I hoped the wind wouldn't come up during the night and send it off to points unknown. As I made my way across the prairie this morning in the early pre-dawn light, I could tell that hadn't happened and my blind was just as I had left it the night before. I had to hurry up the low hill to beat the fast approaching dawn and the eastern horizon was already showing the pale bruised colors signaling the approaching sunrise. No birds flushed from the lek when I unzipped the blind and settled in but within a few minutes I could hear birds displaying on the lek in front of me and within a few minutes more they were displaying all around me.

I settled in and waited for the sun to break the horizon and provide me with enough light to take some photos. The wait gave me lots of time to just watch the birds displaying. I could hear the chuckles, growls, and grouse gobbles in the areas around the blind I couldn't see and I knew the males were facing off with each other because the birds in front of me were doing the same thing.

After settling the stare down one of the two would notice another male approaching his particular chunk of turf and he would dash over to settle the dispute.

Occasionally I could here the flash of wings and the feathery thwacks as a scuffle broke out. Then I would hear the sound of approaching flight from the incoming females and then the dancing would begin in earnest. It sounded like an unorganized drum roll of padded drumsticks on tiny snare drums, and when they were close, I could hear the purple air sacs popping as they displayed.

The first photos were bluish before the sun cleared the horizon and then the gold sunrise lit the birds up. But only for a few minutes before the sun slid into the scattered clouds overhead.

There was a lot of dancing early on but then as the females stopped coming to the lek and the day got longer, the males spent more time staring at each other rather than dancing. Occasional fights would break out but for the most part they were done dancing. Some even appeared tired and would stop and settle in for a quick shut eye.

Or a scratch.

Or a stretch.

About 8:00 am they were all done and they quickly departed as a group over the hill.