Before sunrise on any given day from late March to early May, birdwatchers and photographers in more than 15 states and provinces will be hunkered down inside observation blinds, eyes and ears fully alert to any movement outside.
While the sky is still pitch black and the Milky Way remains visible overhead, the observers will wait to witness one of the most amazing events in the birder’s world: the courtship of North American grassland and sagebrush grouse.
The Greater Prairie-Chicken’s boom, the gobbling or yodeling of Lesser Prairie-Chickens, the hooting and dancing of Sharp-tailed Grouse, and the strutting of Greater and Gunnison Sage-Grouse are known to be among the most captivating and unforgettable displays in nature.
I made my first observation of grouse in 2001. Since then I’ve been chasing the ground-dwelling birds all over the country. I’ve traveled 78,000 miles in 14 states and have spent countless hours inside a tiny photo blind. It provided many extraordinary — even harrowing — moments. But the most memorable experiences were witnessing the birds themselves.
I still remember the morning when a male prairie-chicken used my photo blind to get a higher perspective on his lek, or breeding ground. I pressed my hand against the top of my blind and felt his feet stamping rapidly in a semi-circular motion. You can have a similar experience this spring. This guide to our five grassland and sagebrush grouse will tell you where and when to look.
Description: Spotted wings, a purplish air sac on males, and a pointed tail distinguish Sharp-tailed Grouse. In breeding season, the birds advance toward each other and stamp their feet like mechanical toys. Males stretch out their wings and run erratically while shaking their tails.
Range: From Alaska to Wyoming to Ontario and Quebec. The subspecies known as Columbian Sharp-tailed Grouse is of highest conservation concern. You can find it in Wyoming, Colorado, Idaho, Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia.
Where it dances:
OR: Zumwalt Prairie, Wallowa Co.
ID: Curlew National Grassland
CO: Twenty Mile Road, Routt Co.
WHEN: Activities peak in late April.
Description: About a third smaller than Greater Sage-Grouse. Males have larger crests and more distinct white bands in their tail feathers.
Range: Seven separate populations in southwestern Colorado and southeastern Utah. Most occur near Gunnison, Colorado.
Where it dances:
CO: The only lek available to public viewing is located at the Waunita Watchable Wildlife Site, 19 miles east of Gunnison just off Hwy. 50. Open April 1 through May 15. For more details, visit www.siskadee.org.
WHEN: Booming activities peak around the first week of April, when the number of birds visible may reach as high as 100.
Information, tips, and suggestions for viewing the Gunnison Sage-Grouse
Bureau of Land Management
Update, March 2018: Previously posted information in this article about tours in Utah to see Gunnison Sage-Grouse has been removed because it was outdated.
Description: Our largest grouse; speckled gray above with a long spiky tail. Males have black throat and belly, white breast. In breeding display, males fan their tail, expand their breast, and briefly expose two yellow patches of bare skin on the lower throat. Their strut is marked by a rapid wing-swish and a vertical upward jerk of the head.
Range: Western Dakotas to northeastern California, central Washington, and southern Alberta and Saskatchewan.
Where it dances:
WA: Waterville Plateau; Yakima Training Center
OR: Malheur NWR
NV: Great Basin National Park
ID: Dubois; Camas Prairie Centennial Marsh
UT: Henefer Lek, Morgan Co.
WY: Grand Teton National Park
MT: Saco Hills
CO: Arapaho NWR
WHEN: Breeding displays begin in late March, peak in early April, and continue into late April.
Out in front
Conservation efforts on behalf of Greater Sage-Grouse have picked up steam in 10 western states due to a 2015 federal deadline to decide whether the species will be listed under the Endangered Species Act. Learn more at www.blm.gov/sagegrouse.
Description: Slightly smaller and paler than Greater Prairie-Chicken. Air sac is reddish. Calls are higher pitched and shorter than Greater Prairie-Chicken’s. Dances are a fast-forward version of the dance of the Greater.
Range: Southwestern Kansas, southeastern Colorado, western Oklahoma, northeastern and western Texas, and eastern New Mexico.
Where it dances:
KS: Cimarron National Grassland; leks south of Greensburg
CO: Witcher Ranch, Campo
OK: Selman Ranch, Buffalo, and Ellis Co.
TX: Anderson Ranch, Canadian; Yoakum Co.
NM: Milnesand; Weaver Ranch, Roosevelt
WHEN: Booming peaks from late March to mid-April and continues into early May.
Description: A stocky grouse with brown bars across its body and a rounded tail. Displaying males have yellow-orange air sacs. Groups of 8-20 males gather on leks. During the display, they rapidly stamp their feet and boom by expanding their air sacs. Their booming calls can be heard for more than a mile.
Range: Extends from northwestern Minnesota to northeastern Oklahoma and southwestern Missouri. Isolated populations are in central Wisconsin, southern Iowa, northern Missouri, and southeastern Illinois.
Where it dances:
MN: Felton Prairie
WI: Buena Vista Grasslands Wildlife Area
SD: Fort Pierre National Grassland
NE: Muskrat Run WMA
IL: Prairie Ridge State Natural Area
KS: Konza Prairie
WHEN: Booming peaks from late March to mid-April and continues into early May. The best viewing is typically in mid-April, when females start to check out males.
Attwater’s hanging on
Attwater’s Prairie-Chicken is an endangered subspecies of Greater Prairie-Chicken. It numbers about 110 birds and is found only in southeastern Texas. You can see it during a festival April 14-15 at Attwater Prairie Chicken National Wildlife Refuge west of Houston.
49 grouse-viewing locations
The grouse hotspots listed above and many others are plotted on this Google map (right). In all, we’ve highlighted 49 places in North America to see Sharp-tailed Grouse, Greater Sage-Grouse, Gunnison Sage-Grouse, Greater Prairie-Chicken, and Lesser Prairie-Chicken. Use the map to find a location near you to watch grouse!
Noppadol Paothong is an award-winning photographer with the Missouri Department of Conservation. His book, Save the Last Dance: A Story of North American Grassland Grouse, will be published in August.
More grouse resources
SAGEMAP (Sagebrush And Grassland Ecosystem Map Assessment Project)
USGS Forest and Rangeland Ecosystem Science Center
Features lots of information about Greater and Gunnison Sage-Grouse
Sage-grouse team works on new connectivity map and genetics
USGS Fort Collins Science Center
IBAs and the Sagebrush Initiative
National Audubon Society
Southern Great Plains Crucial Habitat Assessment Tool
Hosted by the Kansas Biological Survey
Features a detailed map of the Lesser Prairie-Chicken’s range