In the pre-predawn haze on a northwest Colorado prairie, every dark spot, smudge or blot you see is a greater sage-grouse — until the gathering light proves they’re not. As sunrise approaches, the “sage-grouse” become the rocks, sagebrush and clumps of dirt they actually are. But you know the birds are there because you hear them — everywhere. It’s not the distinct call of a western meadowlark (also heard in the mix) or other prairie bird, but much more otherworldly. It’s like the sounds the exotic-cute indigenous critters would make as they surround the Zachary Quinto version of Spock on some far-off planet in a Star Trek movie. Whether we know it or not, the occupants of Mick and Nancy Sommer’s 4Runner are in a contest to see the first real greater sage-grouse. I end up taking bronze.
This scene is repeated in the other three vehicles in our caravan of mobile photo blinds, each containing a mix of bird nerds, photographers, biologists and zookeepers. It’s an eclectic group of 14 brought together by Dave Johnson and the Katie Adamson Conservation Fund (KACF). Johnson attracts wildlife lovers like black pants attract dog hair, and once they meet him, like dog hair, “Dave’s Disciples” tend to stick around. Johnson is a zookeeper, author and conservation activist. He founded the Katie Adamson Conservation Fund in Colorado with local families and zookeepers. “We wanted to make a difference on this planet for wildlife and the people who live in their midst. It has been a great way to connect communities and merge passions,” said Johnson.
Johnson enlisted the aid of Norm Lewis, who is on staff at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science as a birding educator/field trip and tour guide. Lewis has a B.S. in geology from Indiana University and an M.S. in geology from Northern Arizona University. “I have been birding for 34 years and am a past president of Denver Field Ornithologists and Colorado Field Ornithologists. I also volunteer at the Audubon Society of Greater Denver,” said Lewis. “That’s probably everything that’s applicable,” he added, dryly.
Lewis chose the greater sage-grouse dancing ground, or lek, we visited in the area between Craig and Maybell. “I like this site because it is remote and little visited. The sagebrush in the area is in much better shape than that in North Park in general, though there are good leks there, too,” said Lewis. “And, this lek hosts between 50 and 100 grouse, giving a good viewing experience for participants.”
A dirt road roughly bisects the lek and, on the morning we visit, approximately 30 birds are on the north side and 70 are on the south. But by the time the light is decent enough for some photography, the majority of birds on the north — my side — have shifted to the south, so most of my photos are shot over the shoulder of Anton Morrison. Morrison is a zookeeper who spends his work days with pink flamingos, gray-crowned cranes and other critters. You may have seen Morrison on the news, as he is one of the keepers that tend to Baby Ruth, the Denver Zoo’s new two-toed sloth baby.
Male greater sage-grouse begin to concentrate on the lek in early March with the females arriving 1–2 weeks later. Males strut in a complex and ritualistic breeding display to attract females. There are frequent sparring matches between males, though these rarely result in any injury to the birds. Breeding occurs on the leks and in the adjacent sagebrush (perhaps repeatedly), and then females retreat to nest. Grouse are “promiscuous,” in that both sexes mate with multiple partners, and, according to Lewis, there are definite genetic benefits to this. The males have little role in rearing the young. As the females begin to nest, activity on the lek subsides, finally ceasing around the first weeks of May. Successfully bred females nest in the sagebrush, laying a clutch of 7–9 eggs. After a period of approximately 26 days, the chicks hatch.
Greater sage-grouse are the largest grouse in North America. Males often weigh in excess of 4–5 pounds and hens weigh in at 2–3 pounds. On the ground and in flight, greater sage-grouse appears almost black, and their long pointed tail is approximately half the length of their body. Both sexes have narrow, pointed tail feathers, feathering to the base of the toes, and a variegated pattern of grayish brown, buff and black on the upper parts, with paler flanks and a diffuse black pattern on the abdomen.
Adult males have blackish-brown throat feathers which, are separated by a narrow band of white from a dark V-shaped pattern on the neck. White breast feathers conceal two large skin sacs (used in courtship displays), which are yellow-green in color. On the lek, the males inflate the sacs and deflate them to produce an array of strange gulping and hooting noises, “which apparently are quite appealing to the female grouse,” said Lewis. This prodigious display of noise-making is accompanied by flaring of the bird’s impressive tail with its fan of pointed feathers. Males also have yellow eyecombs and black filoplumes (fine hair-like feathers) from their lower crown along the nape of their neck, both of which are visible during a male’s courtship display. All in all, in their full display mode, they not only sound like Spock’s intergalactic avian critters, they look like them, too.
Female sage-grouse are a much less dramatic-looking bird and lack the specialized features that males have for courtship displays, but generally resemble males in coloration. However, in comparison to males, their throats are buffy with blackish markings and the lower throat and breast are barred, which presents a blackish-brown appearance. Immature birds (less than 1 year of age) can be distinguished from adults by their light yellowish-green toes (adults have dark green toes).
Sage-grouse have been known to eat leaves (mainly sagebrush), buds, flowers, insects and a variety of forbs. Young chicks remain largely dependent on forbs and insects for food well into early fall. As winter approaches, the variety of food sources becomes unavailable; therefore, throughout the autumn months, sage-grouse become increasingly dependent on sagebrush for nutrients. In winter, sagebrush accounts for 100 percent of the diet for these birds. In addition, it provides important escape cover and protection from the elements.
Sage-grouse, as the name implies, are found only in areas where sagebrush is abundant. Sagebrush is a critical component for sage-grouse, providing both food and cover. Although these birds are found at altitudes of 6,000–8,500 feet, they are not forest grouse and prefer open sagebrush flats or rolling sagebrush hills. Greater sage-grouse are found in 11 states and two Canadian provinces but currently occupy only about 56 percent of their historic range. Colorado is on the southeastern edge of the rangewide distribution and the state plays an important role in maintaining the distribution of the species. In Colorado, greater sage-grouse occur in six separate populations, and although the state has only about 4 percent of the population it includes some of the highest breeding densities known.
“The grouse are the iconic symbol of the sagebrush steppes of the West, and overgrazing, energy development and power line construction are among the factors contributing to a dramatic decline in grouse populations,” said Lewis. “Grouse numbers are in serious decline, due to habitat degradation. From an estimated 16 million during the presettlement era, perhaps four hundred thousand remain today.”
Within Colorado, 44 percent of the greater sage-grouse range occurs on federal lands, another 48 percent is located on private lands and CPW manages 1 percent of the total. The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) is the primary federal landowner involved, managing about 43 percent of all greater sage-grouse range. The complex landownership pattern in Colorado dictates the need for extensive collaboration between federal and state agencies and private landowners.
“The State of Colorado has been working on the conservation and management of sage-grouse for more than 20 years,” said Kathleen Griffin, Colorado Parks and Wildlife’s (CPW) statewide grouse conservation coordinator. “In 2008, Colorado Parks and Wildlife completed a comprehensive greater sage-grouse plan specific to Colorado. We continue to work with our partners in the development of other agencies’ plans such as BLM’s Northwest Colorado Greater Sage-Grouse Resource Management Plan Amendment,” she added.
“We actively count over 500 leks each spring to monitor changes and long-term trends of the population,” said Griffin. “In addition, CPW conducts original research on the ecology and management of sage-grouse. Current projects including using GPS satellite transmitters to determine habitat use by male grouse, and improving population-monitoring strategies.” This research is done often in relation to development projects such as transmission lines and energy-development projects in order to assess potential impacts to the grouse.
Since 2003, CPW has protected more than 120,000 acres greater sage-grouse habitat, primarily through conservation easements. Additional acres are managed by other conservation interests such as The Nature Conservancy, Cattleman’s Land Trust and local land trusts. CPW has implemented more than 42,000 acres of treatments to restore and enhance habitat since 2000. Researchers are assessing pinyon-juniper removal treatments to see if grouse are now using the restored areas. CPW also implemented an outreach program to private landowners called Ranching for Wildlife. This project helps ranchers better understand the relationship between range and sage-grouse.
Although the sun did rise, we never actually saw it, and the light took forever to highlight the grouse well enough for decent photographs. On this trip, I noticed a conflict between wildlife photographers and bird nerds. The photographers (i.e. Morrison and I) would take photos as long as there were birds and light and available room on our memory cards. However, the bird nerds had crossed species and behaviors off their life lists and were wanting breakfast. The Sommers were caught in the middle and reluctantly hauled us away from the lek to a cafe in Maybell. “Support the local economy,” as Lewis said. The cafe’s owner/cook/waitress had a happy look of horror on her face as our group entered, most likely doubling the crowd she would normally see on a Wednesday morning. As she scrambled to make the eggs and pancakes, the group chatted about the morning.
Johnson put it best: “This grouse trip to Craig with the KACF was wonderful because we have spent so much time and energy connecting people to global conservation initiatives that we sometimes easily forget how amazing our own backyards can be. Going out with 14 great animal enthusiasts to watch grouse dance an eternal spring ritual was very humbling. The birds have done this at dawn for eons, and us getting to sit and soak it all in together is a memory I will always have with me from Colorado.”
“OK, all you Dave Disciples can start harassing him about our next joint venture,” added Lewis.
Wayne D. Lewis is the editor and art director of Colorado Outdoors magazine.