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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2 thoughts on “April 19, 2015 Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, Oregon”

    1. Good meeting you, also. I did have some good luck at the lek the morning you left, check my blog sometime in the next week for some grouse shots done with good light when they got very close. I have so many shots to process, my blog posts are falling way behind … but I will catch up eventually.

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