April24, 2015 Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, Oregon

Sage Grouse Display
Sage Grouse Display

Near Perfect Morning at the Sage Grouse Lek

Today was the day ! I left home around 5:15 and headed down Route 205 and out Foster Flats Road to the Sage Grouse Lek. I arrived while it was still all but dark, but I could just barely see some stationary white neck collars out on the lek. The darkness slowly faded to a nice subdued light as the clouds were doing a nice job of keeping a lid on the harsh light. But the five heads out there on the lek remained dead still, no movement whatsoever. This was different.

I had been thinking that all the stars had aligned for me, birds on the lek, clouds softening the light, and I had the place all to myself, no one else here, so I had maneuverability and could move around if I had to to get the best angle on the birds. They were there, but they just weren’t doing anything … what’s going on ? All the previous mornings, they were dancing before the sun came up. Six thirty, seven o’clock, seven thirty … no movement, dead perfect shooting conditions and they choose today to cancel their performance ?

As always, click on any image for a larger, sharper version.

Sage Grouse Display
Sage Grouse Display

Finally, about eight fifteen, more than two hours after arriving, one, then another, popped up and the mating ritual finally began. For the next hour and a half, I had the opportunity of a lifetime to grab shot after shot after shot of this bizarre performance, still under as close to perfect conditions as one could possibly hope for ( only nit, it was cold, my hands went numb early on ).

Sage Grouse Display
Sage Grouse Display
Sage Grouse Display
Sage Grouse Display
Sage Grouse Display
Sage Grouse Display

Over the next hour and a half, I shot well over a thousand action shots, with the birds at times approaching within forty feet of my position. Where on my other days here, I was having to crop my shots as much as seventy percent, today’s shots were often full frame images, they came that close ( perhaps because no one else was here ? ).

Sage Grouse Display
Sage Grouse Display
Sage Grouse Display
Sage Grouse Display
Sage Grouse Display
Sage Grouse Display

Absolutely fascinating to watch, and listen, as they all went through the weird sequence of moves, that though quite strange to me, apparently does the trick for the female sage grouse.

Sage Grouse Display
Sage Grouse Display
Sage Grouse Display
Sage Grouse Display

By nine I had finally had enough shots to last me a lifetime and called it quits, though the dance continued on. Every other morning I had been out here, the grouse stopped dancing and flew off by eight thirty or so. Today, I was the one that flew off while the show was still going on.

Sage Grouse
Sage Grouse

This is the somewhat normal appearance of a sage grouse before they start all the contortions shown above.

Where Sage Grouse Live
Where Sage Grouse Live

And this is what sage grouse country looks like. Just try finding a landmark in that landscape to pinpoint a lek location. Good luck with that !

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April 23, 2015 Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, Oregon

Pintail
Pintail

Grouse Lek in the Morning, Meadows Near Burns in the Afternoon

Once again I got out really early to get to the Sage Grouse Lek before sunrise.

Sage Grouse Display
Sage Grouse Display

As always, click on any image for a larger, sharper version.

Sage Grouse Display
Sage Grouse Display

Thankfully, the birds were there and doing their dance, unfortunately, the harsh lighting conditions were very similar to my last visit.

Sage Grouse Display
Sage Grouse Display
Sage Grouse Display
Sage Grouse Display
Sage Grouse Display
Sage Grouse Display

The forecast calls for rain in the next few days, so I shall return when there is a little better light, and will hope the grouse are still into doing this bizarre dance.

Pintail
Pintail
Pintail
Pintail
Pintail
Pintail

After leaving the lek, I drove north on Route 205 to explore the farm roads around the town of Burns. Managed to catch a Pintail Duck taking off from a portion of a small roadside wet area.

Greater Yellowlegs
Greater Yellowlegs

These fields or meadows around Burns are usually flooded in the spring and attract all kinds of birds. This year, a flooded field is hard to find, but Jim Palmer had given me some suggestions for areas to check on, and I did find some productive spots.

A Willet in a Hurry
A Willet in a Hurry

The water I did find off Double Zero Road yielded the above shots of pintail duck, greater yellowlegs, and willet, but the drought has left precious little standing water in the area and there simply weren’t that many birds around.

Burrowing Owl
Burrowing Owl
Burrowing Owl
Burrowing Owl

Acting on another tip from Jim, I drove out Ruh Red Road to pole #132 to check on some burrowing owls, and they were actually there. One of the pair actually was kind enough to almost completely show himself instead of remaining below ground, with just the top of his head showing, as is usually the case with these tiny birds.

Male Northern Harrier
Male Northern Harrier

I have driven the northern portion of the main refuge road pretty much every morning since I have been here, trying to get a good shot of one of the many male Northern Harriers here.

Male Northern Harrier
Male Northern Harrier
Male Northern Harrier
Male Northern Harrier
Male Northern Harrier
Male Northern Harrier

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Unfortunately, i just can’t sneak up on them as the road is made with fairly large crushed rock and therefore produces quite a loud crunching sound as you drive over it. As a result, by the time I am close enough to get off a shot, I am usually shooting at a bird’s butt, or they drop down in the bunch grass or cat tails and are hidden from view. I’m starting to think I’m just not going to get that one great ” Gray Ghost ” shot I initially really thought I would get here.

Tree Swallows
Tree Swallows

These tree swallows aren’t put off by the road noise though.

Short-eared Owl
Short-eared Owl
Short-eared Owl
Short-eared Owl

And speaking of bird butts and frustration, there is this guy, a beautiful Short-eared Owl who I meet up with every day at the same place on the refuge road, yet just can’t get a shot of him. This is one of the few owls who hunt by day, but he too, always hears me coming and heads off before I can get close enough for a good shot.

Short-eared Owl
Short-eared Owl
Short-eared Owl
Short-eared Owl

 

 

 

 

 

Short-eared Owl
Short-eared Owl
Short-eared Owl
Short-eared Owl

Every morning, and some afternoons, he is sitting on the same bush, just taunting me, and I now must admit, I believe he has gotten the better of me. At least I have some painting reference shots.

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April 19, 2015 Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, Oregon

Sage Grouse Mating Display
Sage Grouse Mating Display

A Visit to the Sage Grouse Lek

Up really early and left at 5 AM with Jim Palmer and drove out Foster Flat Road to the Sage Grouse lek and waited in the cold morning temperatures for enough light to shoot the birds that you could hear and just barely see in the dim light when we arrived. Five males were there dancing and stayed until about 8:30, when they abruptly stopped displaying and all flew off in unison. Took over 1100 shots !

As always, click on any image for a larger, sharper version.

Note: I am really getting behind in my posts because of all the time I am spending shooting here at Malhuer, not to mention all the time required to then edit all the shots. Hopefully I will start catching up soon.

Sage Grouse Mating Display
Sage Grouse Mating Display

All these shots were taken in really difficult lighting conditions and did require some serious post processing to render them as you see them here. The lek is on the side of a remote dirt road and, unfortunately you are forced to shoot into the sun once it rises over the hillside behind the birds. The protocol is for all people to stay in their vehicles while the birds are on the lek so as not to influence or interfere with their activity.

Sage Grouse Mating Display
Sage Grouse Mating Display

Be sure to view the larger version of the above shot and check out the wild specialty feathers perfectly arched above his head, as well as the perfect heart shape he has inflated on his chest, just great form, the judges certainly would have give him a 10.0 ! The ladies have to have been suitably impressed, if there actually were any in attendance.

The bird’s starkly contrasting plumage makes shooting them in any light difficult, being able to adequately expose the dark body without completely blowing out the highlights of the white chest and neck is pretty much impossible to do. Also, being forced to shoot at high ISO’s before the sun rises introduces the element of noise ( in the days of film, this was called grain ).

Sage Grouse Mating Display
Sage Grouse Mating Display

The birds display anywhere from 60 to 200 feet from the edge of the road and anywhere in a 100 yard wide stretch of that same road, meaning as long a lens as you have still usually isn’t enough. These images are all substantial crops of the full frame image ( thankfully, I shoot with Nikon’s D810 and it’s 36 megapixal sensor, so I have the ability to crop to a quarter of the full image, sometimes more, and still have a respectably sized shot ).

Sage Grouse Mating Display
Sage Grouse Mating Display

This display is probably the most interesting, bizarre event I have ever encountered in my many years of doing wildlife photography. I have seen this mating display in nature films, but never dreamed I would actually witness it in person, much less be able to capture some of the action for my files, as well as hear all the strange sounds coming from these birds..

Sage Grouse Mating Display
Sage Grouse Mating Display

OK, this is just wrong ! That’s some kind of cleavage this guy is showing. As I said, this performance is bizarre, I really have a hard time figuring how this became the standard for proving Sage Grouse vitality. I think Mother Nature just needs to have a good laugh every now and then.

Sage Grouse Mating Display
Sage Grouse Mating Display
Sage Grouse Mating Display
Sage Grouse Mating Display

Even before they all flew off, I had made up my mind to return on another morning when clouds or rain are forecast and sunrise would bring some even, diffused light, instead of this brilliant harsh light. I really want to get some great images of this action. They say that the Grouse often also display in the evening, so that is another possibility, as then the light would be coming from behind the photographer and eliminate much of the difficulties of the morning shoot.

Sage Grouse Mating Display
Sage Grouse Mating Display
Sage Grouse Mating Display
Sage Grouse Mating Display
Sage Grouse Mating Display
Sage Grouse Mating Display

The males only occasionally interacted, they mostly just claimed their own little piece of ground and did their thing. What we assumed were two female grouse did eventually appear on the lek, but they didn’t seem too impressed and just went about feeding, and eventually lay down and rested. They never approached the males or seemed at all interested in what they were doing.

All in all, a very interesting morning. My thanks to Jim Palmer for revealing the location of the lek, as well as providing a ride and a comfortable vehicle to shoot from. Stay tuned, hopefully I will get some better shots here sometime later this week.

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