Date at 8000 Feet
A decade long love affair started with an amazing first meeting. We got away from home late so I drove up the highway trying to make up time. We were an hour from our destination and still in the high desert. It was late at night and kangaroo rats darted across the highway at every turn. Above a steep grade that we still had to traverse no stars were to be seen; the full moon's light lost in black clouds.
We started up the grade knowing we had to arrive at the site before the sun was up or miss our opportunity. Near the top snow began to fall. Before long a small, fierce snowstorm was making travel difficult, dashing our hopes of shooting. We continued until finally reaching the dirt road where we needed to turn off. We had twenty minutes before sun up.
In the predawn silence we could barely make out our way on the dirt roads. We had to make a series of left and right turns, go through gates, each change in direction bringing us closer to our destination. Literally within minutes of sun coming up, we arrived at the clearing. We'd been driving for six hours. I donned my down jacket and left the warmth of my car to challenge the blowing snow.
As if I had a switch the snow stopped as soon as I closed the car door. The clouds were still overhead as the sun started to cast its glow on their dark forms. This was my first time at this spot, my first time to photograph this species. Despite all the research and information the biologist working with this species had provided me, I wasn't prepared for what I was about to witness.
I no sooner had my camera and lens set up when I heard the faint "billie-up, billie-up" come from the sage. The Greater Sage Grouse were here! My heart lit up as I slowly walked to the edge of the lek (large clearing surrounded by shrubs used for courtship, you never walk onto the lek itself!), which was void of birds. I was no more than twenty yards from my car when a group of male Sage Grouse flew onto the lek, landing with a grace I didn't expect from these large birds. This was the first of many surprises the grouse would present me this morning.
"How will they react to me standing on there?" Prior to going up, I asked the biologists if I should wear or do anything to hide myself. He replied I could wear bright red and it wouldn't bother them, just be there on time. No sooner had I played that conversation through my head to answer my own question than I noticed a male grouse starting to walk straight towards me. Armed with only my 400f2.8 and F4 mounted to a tripod, I didn't know if I was about to be attacked. The grouse kept coming straight towards me, I figured this was it, my only chance to photograph a grouse. Standing out in the open, the sun yet to shed any light on the lek, I started to photograph a grouse I assumed was going to throw me off the lek.
Watching him through my viewfinder, he kept coming, striding pridefully with his funny short gate-shuffle. As I watched him through my lens, it dawned on me that he was now at my right and only thirty feet away. Before long he was behind me and then on my left. He was circling me! This was the craziest thing I'd seen in my life in the wild and all I could think of was, "fire the camera!"
I was frozen with curiosity as I watched the rear of this grouse in my finder, walk his funny walk away from me. "What was that all about, what do I do now?" It was not too long before the grouse that had circled me had reached a group of six other males. I watched as they inflated their air sacs, "billie-up" as the air was expelled and performed their little courtship dance. Since nothing had stopped because of my presence, I moved in slightly closer.
Walking very slowly, picking up my tripod and moving it forward a couple of feet and inching up behind it, I was only thirty feet from the grouse even though I was still in the sage. They didn't even look at me once! The males, now numbering one hundred and twenty-six, were in many small groups dotting most of the lek. They danced and called their hearts out to get the attention of the females that were present. This was happening all around me, the grouse treating me as just part of the scenery.
It wasn't too long before some of the males had attracted a mate and the individual dance ceremonies were taking place.
One pair decided that the little clearing just ten feet in front of me was the perfect spot to do their dance. Well, they were so close I couldn't focus on them! If I moved back would they stop and flush?
I decided to just wait it out and see what they would do. I was able to document the entire ritual including copulation; they never even gave me a glance.
The sun was well up by now but the clouds blocked its rays. Time seemed to be flying by and I noticed that the grouse were slowly leaving the lek. Within minutes I was the only one left, the lek completely bare of grouse. As quickly as they came they left, leaving me with a thousand questions and in awe.
The next day I was photographing a different lek, much smaller and in an enclosed bowl. I stayed in my car since the grouse were all around it. Even though excellent photographs came from it, the magic of the day before wasn't present. Wanting to capture that again, we left that lek and went back to the original site. We got there much later than the day before but the birds were still present. But no sooner than I opened my car than did they started to move away. It quickly dawned on me that I was late and that meant they wouldn't accept my presence.
The grouse's courtship on the lek peaks during a five-day period. I had come during one of those five days, being very fortunate to witness one of nature's grand spectacles. The grouse would still visit the lek each morning for the next week, the number of females that a male could mate with getting fewer and fewer. Finally the lek is empty, the males back roaming the sage, the females off to lay eggs.
I had to leave that day to journey to the project that had brought me to this locale. We were all sad to leave, feeling we had been let in on a marvelous secret. Driving out on those dirt roads just before to coming to the highway a grouse appeared out of the sage. We stopped for a second; I even started to grab my camera. We quickly saw it was a male as he hopped up on a small rock. He stared at me for a moment as if he knew me, maybe he did. Even today, I still like to think that he was the same grouse that first encircled me, inviting me out on the lek, now saying goodbye.
That was in 1988, I've learned a lot more about the Greater Sage Grouse since then. One of the sad facts is that their numbers are slipping away and one group is already listed as endangered (the Gunnison Sage Grouse in CO).
They are a spectacular subject to photograph. At one lek this year, I captured over 3000 images during the 90-minute show! Photographing sage grouse can be accomplished but great care must be observed. Do some research and find one of the many tours local state biologists lead. Always stay in your car; do not leave your car like I did my first time visiting a lek! Get to the lek very early, don't make any noise and only leave after all the grouse have left.
This is one of the grandest spectacles Mother Nature has designed. You owe it to yourself to see it, photograph it and protect it for future generations!