Friday, April 8, 2011

Grasslands Music

A trace of light steals across the broad prairie sky, emanating from a slight amber radiance growing slowly over the eastern horizon. The mantle of darkness lifts. Vague outlines of familiar forms - a distant tree against the eastern sky, the line of a far ridge - emerge from the dark's obscurity. Most things still remain enshrouded to the eye.

Laying my head back against the wall of my plywood blind I close my eyes and shut down my visual senses for the moment, drifting into the ongoing production.

The prairie is awake - and alive with a symphony of sound that is stereophonic as it broadcasts from the waning night. The song of a meadowlark here answers a chorus of howls from a coyote pack over there. The gobbling of a tom turkey mixes with the occasional bray of a wild burro in nearby Custer State Park. It is a time for the ears.

Muffled drumbeat-like sounds merged with others begin to dominate the predawn chorale, reverberating from the darkness just outside my wooden walls on this remote prairie ridge at the edge of South Dakota's southern Black Hills. "Fuh-duh-duh-duh-duh-dit. Fuh-duh-duh-duh-duh-dit. Chuk-chuk-chuk. Chuk-chuk-chuk. Chuk-chuk-chuk. Coo-oo. Coo-oo. Coo-oo." The music seems to be growing.

Suddenly the piercing howl of a single coyote knifes through the darkness - this one much closer. Panic ensues. I hear the furious beat of many wings mixing with a more urgent version of "chuk-chuk-chuk, chuk-chuk-chuk, chuk-chuk-chuk" - all quickly fading into the night. Then.... Silence. Not even a meadowlark.

Knowing that the music will return, I shift my cramped feet out in front of me and go on sipping coffee from my plastic car cup. To get here I dragged myself out of bed at 3:30 am and then hiked half a mile through the dark of a moonless night so I could be in this blind about an hour before sunrise. Why? - to watch and photograph the mating displays of the sharptail grouse.

One of the real treats of early spring across the grasslands of Nebraska, Wyoming and the Dakotas is the opportunity to observe these very striking birds as they put on one of nature's most spectacular displays of courtship behavior, usually beginning in mid March and running through mid May.

During the first hours of the day, the cocks and hens gather on a prairie ground called a lek - typically the top of a knoll or hill with good visibility in all directions. Here the males perform a spring dance in which they extend their white-spotted wings and six inch tail feathers, inflate purplish neck sacks and stamp their feet at a speed of about 200 repetitions per minute. Their foot motion becomes a complete blur, causing the "fuh-duh-duh-duh-duh-dit" automatic firearm sound, as they shoot back and forth across the ground like little powered toy cars - all to impress and gain favor with the hens. In other words - "pick me, pick me, I'm cooler than him." At times this competition becomes more than just display as the cocks go into fits of jealous rage, engaging in pitched battles as they jump on and even peck each other, sometimes even drawing blood.

In early May the hens begin nest building in areas with taller grass than what is generally found on the lek and, after a 24 day incubation period, hatch a brood in early June of 4-6 chicks. Soon after hatching the hen will move her brood back into areas of shorter grass where the youngsters will quickly grow and fledge on a diet of grasses, seeds and insects. As is with most ground nesting birds, the males play no role in raising the chicks.

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The silence that had fallen around the blind is cut once again by the familiar beat of wings as the birds return to the lek in resumption of their business. Once more the music grows. I hear the meadowlarks and of course...."Fuh-duh-duh-duh-duh-dit. Fuh-duh-duh-duh-duh-dit. Chuk-chuk-chuk. Chuk-chuk-chuk. Coo-oo. Coo-oo."

I can see color now in the eastern sky as well as silhouetted figures scurrying about in the grass before the front of the blind. There is the usual chill of a mid April dawn on the northern prairies and a slight breeze, but none of the heavy gusting spring winds that tend to cut down on the birds' activities. A good photo day is coming.

"Fuh-duh-duh-duh-duh-dit. Fuh-duh-duh-duh-duh-dit. Chuk-chuk-chuk. Chuk-chuk-chuk." Even if I fail to get a single usable image this morning, the time is well spent just listening to the music.

(above) As the dawn light spreads across the prairie, a sharptail grouse male puts on his best show for the hens during the annual courtship display of one of North America's most striking birds.

(right) As is typical with most ground nesting birds, the sharptail male possesses a much brighter colored and more ornate plumage than the hens with these features becoming very pronounced during courtship displays.

(left) The hen's plumage is much more drab, giving her a natural camouflage that allows her to blend into her prairie surroundings. This advantage helps her escape the notice of ever persistent predators like eagles, badgers & coyotes while she is nesting and raising chicks.

(above) With their tall & sharply pointed tails fully extended, hence their name, these two cocks strut about each other with "mad dogging" stares like a couple of junior high school kids egging each other on for a fight.

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(above, right & below)
At times these rites become much more intense than just display and showing off with the birds fighting, pecking each other and even drawing blood.

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(above, right & below)
Spring snows are common on the great plains where winter does not easily relinquish its grip. But as long as the cold is not extreme or bitter, the grouse will show up at the lek and even display in the snow.

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(left) As spring moves on into May, grouse activity on the lek begins to wane as fewer birds show up there or stay as long.

(right) The appearance of a hen now on the lek is rare as most of them are busy building nests for the eggs that will soon be coming.

(above) A cock walks among fresh spring grass that is already tall enough on the lek to nearly hide this bird from the dawn light creeping across the prairie. The spring dances are almost at an end.

~ 30 ~

1 comment:

  1. Hmmm for some reason only half the post can be seen. I tried reloading but still same.