The boys are showing off
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Before daylight, the pummeling began as two sage grouse cocks started beating on each other. Wings smacking heads from the two was almost drowned out by the puffing and plopping of the air sacks coming from 20 other males as they advertised their availability to the hens that had snuck onto the lek.
On April 1 at sun-up, the area between Highway 33 and the Egin/Hamer Road opened up for human activity, so on April 2 at 5 a.m. I was on a lek, an area where sage grouse meet to show off, puff out their chests and chase the willing girls, waiting for the birds to show up. At 5:38 I heard the first male fly in and began doing his best to call in the girls.
Over the next hour, I heard 17 grouse fly in with at least four of them being females that announced their arrival by cackling as they landed. It is odd that females may cackle when flying onto a lek, but if they walk in they are very quiet, rarely making any sound except quiet clucking with other hens.
By the time it got light enough for me to see the birds plainly, I was able to count 21 males and nine females within a hundred yards of me. All of the hens were clustered around two males on a low ridge about 50 yards from me and the girls continued to display a willingness to be bred by one of the two males. Meanwhile the satellite males continued to display and fight with each other. Two of the males were missing tail feathers due to their frequent battles.
The battles intensified when a female not yet willing to entertain one of the two dominate males, would strut past the less desirable boys before flying off. It is believed that one or two dominate males will breed 80 per cent of the females that visit the lek; but females will visit different leks or a different area of a large lek on different days.
One of the problems with the hens visiting different leks is that in the area where eight years ago there were nine leks, there are only two that I am aware of. Another problem is the number of males one each lek has diminished from 60 to 70 to under 30 on the two display grounds.
Recent wildfires in this area have destroyed a lot of cover used by the females to nest and hide their young.
The area north of the St. Anthony sand dunes and the Junipers are still closed to human activity until May 1 and a year ago there were more leks and birds than in the area now open. It will be interesting to travel through that area to see if there are any active leks west of the Red Road that was hit by those wildfires. We are lucky that the desert from east of the Red Road to the Sand Creek road was not a victim of fires last summer.
Want to watch the displaying, fighting and flirting of the largest grouse in North America? You can wait until the Red Road opens around May 1 and drive slowly along as they will be on the pavement showing off.
If you cannot wait, you can drive to Dubois and take the road toward Kilgore as there are several active leks along the road on private ground that you can watch. You would need to get there by 7 a.m. as these are early birds and are usually done with their activities by 8 to 9.
I would strongly suggest that you obey all signs – do not go around closed road signs or travel across the desert that is closed to all human activities until May 1. Those signs are there to protect the wintering wildlife and if you are caught where you shouldn’t be; your pocketbook may be much lighter.
Enjoy the great wilds of Idaho but do it responsibly.
The Burrowing owls have arrived but construction around Sage Junction have displaced several nests that were there in the past. I also saw some Short-eared owls and Long-billed curlews at Camas National Wildlife Refuge this week. Most of the Tundra swans and many of the snow geese have already moved north. It will be interesting to see how many snows will still visit Market Lake and fields around it.
Peregrine falcons have arrived and are harassing the ducks on the filling ponds at Camas early in the day. Brian Wehausen told me they will soon have the cameras working in the nesting box for you to watch at home.
The duck numbers should peak this week and most of the gulls and Swainson’s hawks should replace the wintering Rough-legged.
Around April 20 the early spring warblers and most of the shorebirds should show up at Market Lake, Mud Lake and Camas as well as in the flooded fields near them. By the end of April, many of the songbirds should be here.
If you have mature evergreens in your yard and find a pile of bird poop on your driveway, sidewalk or lawn under it, look very close above it as there may be a Saw-whet owl, about the size of a robin, roosting above it. They are very cute.