By Bryan Flaig
I stood on a small berm along the side of a deeply rutted jeep road and turned off my headlamp. The world went dark. Sunrise was still half an hour away and a waxing moon was absorbed by thick black clouds. It was cold. Quiet. Down the east slope of Shaffer Mountain, tiny headlights of semis hauling goods north and south on Highway 395 crisscrossed the long open valley. As my eyes adjusted, I could make out a swale of knee high sagebrush giving way to jagged rocks. It didn’t look like a sage-grouse lek, or what I had imagined in my head to be a sage-grouse lek. It was supposed to be a smooth, flat clearing of bare dirt. A dozen male Sage-Grouse were supposed to be displaying to females in a flat, open, dusty patch of high desert. That’s how I’d pictured it. Instead, I was looking at a dark, pumpkin patch of volcanic rock surrounded by scrubby vegetation. Everything tilted east, towards a dark valley, devoid of birds. But it was still early.
As the light moved towards a semblance of sunrise, the sky looked like a deep bruise. Steel blue poked out between black clouds. The air felt like rain, or even snow. I’d been provided this location by an experienced bird watcher, someone who had led outings to this spot many times for people eager to see Greater Sage-Grouse. “At 5 am, start driving out of Susanville”, he wrote. “You need to be on the lek before sunrise. After 25 miles, turn left onto the dirt road where the power lines cross Hwy 395. Stop at the cattle guard where another dirt road turns off to the left. Leave your car because the road can get muddy and rutted. Walk about a mile and turn left onto a steep jeep road that leads up the mountain. Walk another half mile and look for a pile of rocks. Turn off your headlamp, set up a spotting scope and wait for dawn. The birds will be directly in front of you”.
In California’s eastern Sierra, Sage-Grouse generally breed from late March to May, depending on the weather, and only display on the lek from first light until just after sunrise. Inconspicuous, male and female Sage-Grouse blend in well with their environment, with mottled brown and white feathers and a short, plump body. They spend most of their time huddled under pale green and brown sagebrush bushes, eating green shoots and insects during the wet season, and switching to toxic sagebrush leaves and buds when conditions dry out. Sagebrush is highly nutritious, and grouse are able to combat the plant’s natural oils that can wipe out the digestive microbiome of most other animals.
Breeding season pushes the Sage-Grouse out of hiding and into the open. It makes the male birds particularly vulnerable on the lek, with their bright white chest feathers and expressive movements. They become easy targets for predators like eagles, owls and coyotes. If you’re a bird dancing across the open ground, best to do it in the faint light of early morning.
Greater Sage-Grouse populations have plummeted from historic numbers, according to eBird, down over 98% from estimates of tens of millions of birds in the pre-settlement west to maybe a couple hundred thousand today. Predators aren’t the main problem. Shrinking, suitable habitat is. This issue is evident on Shaffer Mountain, which is managed for cattle grazing by the Bureau of Land Management. I could see cows scattered sparsely along the ridge higher up on the mountain and every pocket looked picked over and trampled. Cow pies and hoof scars were littered between the rocks. It seemed strange to manage this land for cows when it provided so little.
I scanned the slope, west to east, but saw nothing. Western meadowlarks started calling from the sagebrush, but they too remained hidden. Up the slope, I heard a faint, low-frequency chucking. Then a whooping sound. Sage-Grouse? I couldn’t see any birds. Then, there was a different call, similarly subtle and low frequency, in the same direction. Another male chucking sound traveled from across the lek. I kept scanning back and forth but couldn’t see any birds.
In bird watching, there are two common methods for locating birds. The first is possibly the easiest. You listen. It could be a call, a song or a chirp. It could be scraping in the dirt beneath a shrub, or pecking or drumming on a tree. When you detect a sound, you stop and stand quietly, facing in the sound’s direction. You swivel your head from side to side, trying to triangulate the source, zeroing in on the exact location. The second technique is similar to a lesson taught by Sesame Street – one of these things is not like the other. You scan the landscape for bird-like, or bird-shaped objects that don’t match the background. You look for something that stands out. Think of a flicker clinging to the spindly tip of a tall pine tree – it looks like an odd bump on an otherwise smooth branch. Consider a bluebird perched on a high voltage wire – a small mass on a clean line. Or, imagine a Say’s phoebe resting on a fence post, or a Mallard bobbing in a shallow bay. Birds will often contrast the patterned world of smooth surfaces and familiar shapes. Often, the odd thing turns out to simply be a knot on a tree, a broken branch, a twisted piece of metal, or trash floating on the water. But, if you investigate what stands out against the background, you’ll find more birds.
I used a mixture of both techniques when I heard a faint sound coming from far down the slope and turned in that direction. It was outside the boundary of what I thought was the lek, along a rugged ridge of rocks. With binoculars, I could see a white patch against a dark background. The patch seemed to be moving upslope. I looked through my spotting scope, and there in the dim light, a lone male Sage-Grouse was strutting. He threw back his small dark head and pushed his white chest forward. Air sacs bobbed from behind the feathers, like two pillowy, pale water balloons. He fanned out his pointed tail feathers like a starry crown behind him. He paused, leaning forward, deflating the air sacs and stood still. Surely there would be another bird nearby. Who was he trying to impress? I looked west and east across the rocks and back up the lek. Nothing. Wump, wump, he called. I turned back and the lone male was strutting again. Same direction. Same display. All alone.
Certain that I would find another bird nearby, I looked west, upslope. I could still hear the faint chuck, chuck of another male, but I saw nothing. I picked up my spotting scope and walked up the jeep road, tracking the sound. It seemed to remain the same distance away from me, no matter how far I walked. I paused and scanned the area. Nothing. I repeated the pattern for another few hundred yards. Nothing. Then, it got quiet. The sound stopped.
I walked back downhill. There were no birds on display in the immediate area. I looked down the slope for the lone male, but he was gone. At the very base of the slope, a herd of 20 mule deer walked slowly north, in a single file, along the dirt road.
The same birder who shared the lek’s location told stories of failed attempts to see Sage-Grouse. One time, a herd of pronghorn antelope ran through the lek just as the sun came up, flushing all the birds. They didn’t return. Another time, he walked a group of bird watchers right up to the lek in the dark, and after they set up their spotting scopes, the light improved to reveal shadows of birds just in time to see them all fly away. Maybe, this morning, something had driven off the birds before I arrived. Maybe it was the cows baying in the sagebrush up the hill, maybe it was the herd of deer, or maybe it was the weather. The darkness never lifted, and the air was cold and damp.
I was aware of how cold my fingers were. I pulled off my gloves and my fingers were pale and aching. I zipped up the hood of my rain shell and walked down the hill. Near the bottom, something leaped from the sagebrush a few feet from the road. A Sage-Grouse rose into the air and wobbled in flight like a frozen turkey with rapid wing beats, wheeling in a heavy arc across the horizon. I watched it turn south and disappear over a ridge. The average lifespan of a Sage-Grouse is about a year. That’s one season on the lek. I kept walking and reached the car just as snow started to fall.
Looking to catch a glimpse of the Sage-Grouse for yourself? Golden Gate Audubon is offering two Birdathon trips led by Bruce Mast this weekend March 19-20 and next weekend March 26-27. For more information visit our Birdathon trip page here.