Desert on a Wing
By any measure, the sage grouse is an impressive bird. About the size of a small turkey, North America's largest grouse has a very noticeable black belly and long, pointy tail feathers. The male also has a ruffed, almost flabby-looking white breast, which, when he is"lekking," puffs up enormously to reveal two yellowish sacs. It is the quick inflating and deflating of these air sacs that produces the distinctive bubbly popping that fills the air as cocks gather to strut.
The noise, a sort of drawn-out burbling that sounds uncannily like someone gulping underwater, is the first thing one notices in the predawn darkness. Morning light is still at least half an hour away, but sage grouse cocks, as many as fifty of them, have left their night roosts to begin their loud and beautiful mating ritual. And if you know where to locate their lek, or strutting ground, before sun-up, if the wind isn't too fierce and if cold weather and the prospect of sitting still for hours don't dissuade you, it is possible to witness what is surely one of nature's oddest procreative efforts.
By about the middle of March in most locations, male grouse begin establishing their territories on strutting grounds, generally low, open clearings in the surrounding sagebrush, often on a ridge or knoll. It is believed that many of these courtship grounds have been used for centuries, hence the appropriateness of the strange but often-used term"ancestral lek" to describe these sites. The battles that ensue are, like most such contests in the wild, a means of establishing rank, the dominant male or males earning breeding rights. The wing fights the grouse engage in, however, can be fierce and, particularly during the earlier parts of the season, common. The dominant cocks generally take their places at the center of the lek, with weaker ones farther from the center a means, it is thought, of ensuring that the most precious genes will not be snared by an opportunistic coyote. Morning after morning the males will return to the same site where, with territory staked out, they can go about the more pressing business of attracting hens. In groups ranging from a half-dozen to well over fifty, males will raise their tail feathers into spiky fans, ruffle their wings, strut and bob and then, with chest puffed up beyond what would seem to be the bursting point, begin a quick series of pops. Hens, clearly impressed, descend on the lek, allowing the male into whose territory they enter to breed them; they almost invariably move to the most dominant male. It is estimated, in fact, that this central male will mate with about three-fourths of the hens that enter the lek.
While establishing territory and on into the peak of the mating season, cocks will strut well past sunup. Snow and cold seem to do little to keep them from their dawn dancing, though hens, with perhaps a more practical outlook, may not respond until the weather turns warmer and their nesting prospects appear less chilly. Nests are hidden in thick stands of sage, leaving a hen's clutch of eight or so eggs vulnerable to predators. Thus cocks gather and strut for several weeks in spring, hoping some hen who was bred in late March but lost her eggs will return again in early May. As the odds of attracting females drop with the passing of weeks, fewer males show up at the lek and their time there shortens to little more than an hour. Elevation also plays a role in the timing of breeding season, the numerous leks of northern Colorado's North Park area seeing courting activity a few weeks earlier than some leks at higher elevations.
As abundant and boring as sagebrush land seems to the traveler in, say, western Colorado, it is in decline. Of little use to ranchers and their livestock, much sage range has been "rehabilitated," with native sage species cut, burned or poisoned, then replaced with grasses that livestock find more palatable. While such practices have both advocates and critics, there is little question that the decrease in sage habitat has led to a decrease in wildlife species dependent on it. While sage grouse remain common locally, like most birds, their numbers were far, far greater just a few decades ago. To see dozens of sage grouse stomping about at dawn on the same open fields their ancestors have danced on for generations is to witness what is persistent and timeless about the natural world, not what has been altered.
Two related species, the greater prairie chicken and the lesser prairie chicken, have also seen their habitat, plains grassland, diminish. Both species, though smaller than the sage grouse, perform mating rituals similar to it. The greater prairie chicken has golden neck sacs, the lesser prairie chicken has reddish sacs and both make a "booming" sound while displaying. Both are also in serious decline, the former's range extending into northeastern Colorado, the latter's into southeastern Colo-rado and eastern New Mexico.
Sage grouse viewers must respect the habits of the birds they are watching. When visiting a lek, arrive before dawn, stay until the birds have departed and remain in your vehicle while they are on display. Grouse, skittish and wary, will flush if you either drive up or leave while they are on their leks. Your vehicle acts as a blind; as long as you are in place before the sun comes up, and as long as you stay in your vehicle and don't leave while the birds are out, your presence will not disturb them. In sum, stay in your car! It is a bit of advice that all wildlife personnel will echo. Also, scout out the lek before making your morning visit. It is nearly impossible to locate a lek in the dark if you haven't been to it before. The directions below will get you to good sites, but it is always advisable to check with the appropriate local office, for example, the Forest Service or the Bureau of Land Management, to get specific details. Furthermore, some leks are on private land. View from the shoulder of roads and respect landowners' rights.
Colorado is the best of the four southwestern states for finding sage grouse and prairie chickens. Utah has some small leks in the eastern part of the state and even a rare sharp-tailed grouse lek near the Golden Spike National Historic Site; and New Mexico has sage grouse in remote areas of the Santa Fe ski basin and lesser prairie chickens on Bureau of Land Management lands near Roswell. Colorado, though, has the most abundant and most accessible leks for all of the listed birds. The best area of all is known as North Park in the north central part of the state. A high, open basin region, source of the North Platte River, North Park is an outstanding and untrammeled wildlife paradise, with everything from abundant waterfowl and raptors to moose and elk. Forests, meadows, streams and lakes are plentiful here, as are the sage flats that attract grouse.
While there are many leks in the vast North Park area, the best is known as the Coalmont Sage Grouse Viewing Area. Classic sagebrush flats here see gatherings of several dozen birds at peak season. To reach it, follow State Road 14 just south of Walden for 14.7 miles southwest, then turn west on County Road 26, travel 1.6 miles and take the road to the right. A sign indicating the viewing area lies 0.2 mile ahead. Be in place well before sunup and watch the best of all the accessible sage grouse shows the Southwest has to offer. Also nearby is a site north of Lake John, about 12 miles north of the Coalmont area. To reach it, take County Road 12W west out of Walden for 5.2 miles, turn north at the sign for Lake John and at a fork in the road 2.7 miles ahead, stay right on County Road 7. Stay on this road, bypassing the turnoff to Lake John 5.4 miles ahead. Keep going straight here, and 2.2 miles ahead look for a low hill immediately to the east of the road. This can be a very active lek throughout the spring. For more information about these spots and North Park in general, call the Walden Chamber of Commerce at (303) 723-4600, or the Arapaho National Wildlife Refuge.
In southwestern Colorado, an isolated but fine sage grouse lek lies just south of the tiny community of Parlin. To reach it, drive 10 miles east of Gunnison on US 50 to Parlin, which is basically one store and a gas pump. Turn south on County Road 43, and at 0.3 mile cross a cattle guard (with a gate that, if closed, may be opened and reclosed) and another gate 0.2 mile past it and continue on. Go under the power lines, and at a fork in the road 2 miles from Parlin, go left. Sage grouse gather immediately to both the right and left of this road and at a spot 0.2 mile down the road on the left, directly in front of a horseshoe-shaped parking area. As in most sage areas, look for pronghorn that may be out and about.
Greater prairie chickens are best found in the northeastern part of Colorado. These birds prefer the prairie grasslands for their leks, seeking food and shelter in the tall, clumpy grass of this dry region. The best leks are along County Road 45 near the small town of Wray. Drive north from Wray on US 385 11.5 miles to County Road 45, turn right and travel for 4 or 5 miles, listening and driving slowly. Stop immediately on hearing sounds and stay in your vehicle. There are at least seven leks on either side of the road, and while they are all fairly reliable, prairie chickens, just like grouse, tend to favor certain grounds in their area over others in any given year. The popping or boom sound that the prairie chickens make is very strange. Call the Colorado Division of Wildlife for more details. This office offers guided trips to the leks during peak season and is well worth contacting.
Finally, the only place in Colorado to find lesser prairie chickens is in the southeastern short-grass prairie land of Comanche National Grassland. This is dry, lonely country, where sage and grasses dominate; the land is barren; and Kansas and Oklahoma lie not far off to the east and south. The prairie chickens are found by taking County Road J out of the small town of Campo on US 287 and following it due east for 8 miles. Here take Road 36 south for 2 miles to Road G, then head east for 4 miles. Just before crossing a culvert, turn south and go through a fence-gate and proceed 1.3 miles on a poor road to a parking area. You will know you're there when you see the old railroad ties facing the lek.
It is difficult, though rewarding, to see these birds. Keep in mind that you need to be settled before the birds arrive. Also, leks are invariably along remote dirt roads in uninhabited regions. Always call the responsible office or facility in the area and get specific, up-to-date information concerning leks. If you're lucky, some knowledgeable researcher or area manager might be happy to accompany you to a lek before dawn.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication