100 Birds in 2018 – #15 Sharptail

I worked in the Nebraska Sandhills on the Nebraska National Forest near Halsey for about two and a half years.  It was working there that really piqued my interest in birds and their relation to the prairie.  Often people, myself included, drive through these open spaces without seeing what’s really there.  These are big landscapes where you can see for miles and miles.  It’s something I value…being able to see the whole landscape.  However, it’s when you slow down and focus on the small things where you find the true wonders.

Sharptail

Sharptail Grouse (1/2000, f/6.3, ISO 500, Canon 7D Mark II, Sigma 150-600 C)

I grew up in the shortgrass prairie in northwest Nebraska and somehow, didn’t witness the Sharptail Grouse’s spring mating ritual until just a couple of years ago.  Last year I finally took the time to get out early in a blind and photograph it in better detail.  I haven’t done it yet this year, but plan to in a few weeks.  I took this photo a couple of weeks ago from a county road.  The birds were so busy doing their thing, they didn’t even seem to notice my truck parked a hundred yards away.

Sharptails live throughout the northern Great Plains from Nebraska on up into Canada.  According to the Cornell Lab, their populations have been relatively stable since the 1960s, however the biggest threat to them is the loss of grassland habitat to farming or energy development.  They need a variety of grass “structure” to survive.  They like very short grass for their spring leking, and taller grass for nesting and protection from the harsh winters that are common in their range.

If you’re driving through the Great Plains, I hope you take the time to slow down and see some of the creatures that make up the whole of the prairie (like the Sharptail).  Many public land agencies offer free grouse viewing blinds, allowing people the opportunity to see the spring ritual up close and for free!  It’s worth the early morning!

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A Morning on the Lek

I have worked in the Nebraska Sandhills and now in the Pine Ridge as a natural resources manager for six years now.  I’ve heard all about the experience of sitting in a blind and watching the spring displays of our native prairie grouse.  I’ve always come up with excuses not to experience it myself…too early in the morning, sunlight not good enough, too far to drive, something going on at work etc.  Yesterday, I finally did it.

A while back, I found a lek just a couple of miles from my house.

Sharptail Grouse-1

Canon T1i, Sigma 150-600 C, 600mm, f/7.1, 1/1250, ISO 800

I was a little concerned about disturbing the dance setting up my blind early in the morning, so the evening prior, i went out to the area and set up a pop-up hunting blind. That night, I set my alarm for 0500. I had all of my gear (tripod, camera, etc) packed up in the truck, so all I had to do was make some coffee and head out before first light.

 

I got to the blind around 0545 and got settled in.  It wasn’t 10 minutes later that I started hearing the guttural clucks and rapid foot stomping that I’d read about and only heard from a distance.

Sharptail Grouse-20

Canon T1i, Sigma 150-600 C, f/7.1, 600 mm, 1/1000, ISO 800

As the sun came up, i started taking photos.  I didn’t have great light throughout the morning, but I’m pretty happy with several of the photos.  It was hard to really capture the dance that the Sharptails do because of the poor light and the fact that my blind was actually a little bit lower than where they were dancing.

Sharptail Grouse-43

Canon T1i, Sigma 150-600 C, f/7.1, 600 mm, 1/1250, ISO 800

It was a great experience.  There was probably 15 or 20 birds in the group.  I’d say 3/4 of them were actively dancing. I noticed a few of the birds acted as “sentinels” for the larger group.  I also saw several of the female stopping by to watch and try to pick a mate.

Sharptail Grouse-31

Canon T1i, Sigma 150-600 C, f/7.1, 600 mm, 1/1000, ISO 800

I encourage all that work in tourism or natural resources to get out and see some of the wonders that go on in their area.  I know my experience will help me to tell the story of the plains and has given me a new respect for the things that you don’t always see from the highway.