A few weeks ago, the Wyoming Game and Fish Department issued a press release with pointers on how one should behave in the presence of sage grouse during the bird’s mating season.
Department officials likely want to err on the side of caution, because after reading the agency’s lek-viewing recommendations, you’d think sage grouse are a timid and frail bird rather than the determined and often goofy creatures I’ve come to know.
A lek is the area where sage grouse — both roosters and hens — congregate in the spring to pair up and mate. Drumming is the term given for the males’ semi-ridiculous (if you’re not a sage grouse rooster) technique to attract females and, if the male is lucky, to have the female stick around long enough for the two of them to mate and produce more grouse. Sometimes, the hens will stand in groups of two or three and check out the boys for a while, then wander away.
The Game and Fish Department suggests you:
- Arrive at the lek one hour before sunrise (assuming you can find the lek in the dark).
- Do not park on or near the lek.
- Stay in your vehicle with the lights and engine off and the doors shut (be sure to open the windows so you can see and hear better).
- Do not to make sudden or loud noises.
- Do not leave the lek until the birds leave.
- Keep your pets in your vehicle (possibly violating the sudden or loud noise rule) or leave them at home.
- Do not trespass on private land.
And finally, wildlife officials suggest, “Late April is the best time to visit because most breeding is complete by then but the males are still actively strutting.”
The females are already in the ho-hum stage, watching and walking away when a male blows up the water balloon-type bags on his chest and slaps those big balloons together. There must be something about the sage grouse males which only the sage grouse females understand — otherwise, one would wonder how any breeding would occur, instead of paroxysms of laughter.
These all sound like sensible rules, but let me tell you my experience.
My husband and I hit the road a little late, as per usual. We haven’t taken any dogs with us because they were still sleeping, and would no doubt insist on getting out of their crates the moment we parked.
Driving south from Gillette, we spy the sign for the turnoff about the time we’ve come to the conclusion that we’ve missed the turnoff. We use coal-bed methane buildings as our guide posts, but since it’s a year since the last lek trip, we’re never quite sure where the lek is until we’re in the middle of it.
The grouse couldn’t care less that we are there. Just think — you’re a young, virile guy, ready to show the ladies your stuff, and all these beautiful girls are hanging around, and a truck drives up in the middle of your action. You may wave the truck on, but more likely, you’re just going to flat-out ignore it.
The first time I went to a particular lek, however, we were not ignored. One grouse apparently felt some attraction to our bumper. He got closer and closer, strutting the whole time, until we could no longer see him because he was too close to us; we had no idea where he ended up. We were the ones laughing then. And since the birds had appeared all around us, binoculars and scopes were not necessary, especially as the sky began to brighten to the east.
We have generally waited for the birds to leave the lek, but if you are visiting the site on an overcast day, the strutting may go on a good long time, in which case we start the car and drive slowly, slowly over the hill, only to find a few more grouse there.
We have never hit a grouse, nor seem to annoy them in any way — they just pretend we’re not there. And as the sky becomes full light, they vanish as if in a mist.
Find a lek and try to follow the rules, even though I’ve poked fun at them. A strutting sage grouse is quite the thing to see.
Kate Missett has lived in Wyoming since 1961. She has been a writer/editor since high school.