Mystery dance of the sharp-tailed grouse
Summit Daily News
As we bear-crawled toward the crest of the low ridge, a buzzing and clicking moved through the early morning air.
“When’s the last time you bear-crawled?” Summit Daily photographer Mark Fox asked, as he crept through the dewy grass, camera in hand.
I shrugged and continued slopping through the damp ground, eager to see what these unique birds were up to in the early morning light. We pulled our hoods up and peeked into the lek, overlooking a kind of dance, performed by the sharp-tailed grouse living on their chosen ground in 25,000 private acres of the Blue Valley Ranch, north of Silverthorne on the Summit and Grand county lines.
“These leks are very important to both sage grouse and sharp-tailed grouse,” Colorado Division of Wildlife biologist Kirk Oldham said. “In springtime, it’s where they breed … year after year after year.”
The males held their wings outward and turned up their white tails, stomping their feet and moving rapidly toward nearby females, who would trot in the other direction. The choreographed, display-oriented breeding behavior fascinated the foursome gathered to quietly watch. Perched above the lek on the mountain slope, we overlooked the Blue River valley to the north, which was filled with peaks poking out of the mist. To the south, the rising sun shone on the eastern faces of the jagged Gore Range.
The birds seemed to be tuned into each other, as occasionally they would pause – everything would freeze for just a few seconds – and then the dance would continue.
“It’s synchronized across the lek,” Oldham said, commenting on the colors of the birds, the sounds and the unique behavior. “That’s what’s so fascinating about these birds.”
Sharp-tailed grouse populations sit at about 10 percent of historic numbers across their entire range, which runs from British Columbia through the Rocky Mountains to northern Colorado. Because of their spot in the food chain, they’re a “critical animal in the sage brush ecosystem,” Oldham said.
Though sharp-tailed grouse have been petitioned several times for endangered species listing, the ruling has been that they’re not warranted for protection. However, in Summit County and Middle Park, it’s illegal to hunt or harvest them.
Because of the dwindling population and ecological importance, the division has put an emphasis on management and reintroduction. The Blue Valley Ranch sharp-tailed grouse came from Routt and Moffat counties during transplants that started in 2006 with males and continued with females introduced in the springs of 2007 through 2009.
With the help of the ranch’s wildlife biologist, Josh Richert, the division has monitored progress at the site, and everything indicates it’s doing “very well,” Oldham said. They do counts during the spring mating season at lek sites in the Lower Blue river basin and near Muddy Creek near Kremmling to keep an eye on nearby populations.
With the reintroduced birds doing well, Oldham said, the next step is to look for new leks. As the population expands and old leks become too crowded, sharp-tailed grouse disperse to other breeding areas that will need to be identified.
“Blue Valley Ranch has been a great partner with the Division of Wildlife on this sharp-tailed area,” Oldham said, adding that they do a lot of the monitoring and were the providers of a large expanse of ground to introduce the birds. “They were very excited about having sharp-tailed grouse on the property,” Oldham added.
Beyond keeping an eye on the birds, ranch staff also help with vegetation monitoring, looking at types in the area and wildlife impacts on them. Division staff can then apply the models they create to other research, such as identifying new sites to release grouse.
When the mating dances are complete in mid- to late-May, the females duck into nests in the sage brush, where they and their clutches of a dozen or so eggs are well-hidden from predators, such as ravens, raptors, coyotes, foxes – even bobcats.
“Predation is a big component of mortality of sharp-tailed grouse on nests and the birds themselves,” Oldham said. It’s when they’re on the leks and nesting that they’re most vulnerable, he added. But when the young birds hatch, they’re able to fend for themselves almost immediately, largely because the mother bird has few ways to protect them once they’re wandering across the sagebrush fields.
The sharp-tailed grouse on Blue Valley Ranch are one of six subspecies of the bird and are specified as Columbian sharp-tailed grouse. There are two other, related grouse species found in the area – the greater sage grouse and the dusky grouse.
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