Male Gunnison Sage-grouse perform an elaborate display… with a tail shimmy at the end.
It’s dark-thirty and I’m sitting in a blind waiting for birds again. It feels familiar, the early spring chill that seeps into my bones, sounds of coyotes, cows, a ranch dog barking, wood smoke wafting across the valley floor, a mountain valley waking up. I’ve been here before, but the feeling is different, the anticipation building. And I’m not alone – circumstances led to a blind-sharing arrangement, so I find myself spending the wait for birds and light with Noppadol Paothong, a top-notch conservation and wildlife photographer who’s working on a book about the lekking birds of North America. Nop and I are here to photograph Gunnison Sage-grouse, one of the most endangered creatures in North America, yet only listed as a candidate species – “warranted but precluded” from protection under the Endangered Species Act. Whatever their status, there are roughly 2,500 birds in eight counties, most in the Gunnison Basin, and people come from the world over for a glimpse of the bird and their elaborate display. They spend their life in sagebrush; and because of their secretive nature and low numbers, spring lekking season is the only realistic time of year to see Gunnison Sage-grouse.
Our blind is placed in a cow pasture that’s maybe a half mile deep and a mile wide, but it’s hard to judge the size in big country like this. Grass stubble and cow pies make it tough to detect signature pellets and the occasional feather clue that tell us where the grouse will strut well before first light. I’m a Gunnison Sage-grouse Photography Program photographer, a guest of a consortium that chooses a few photographers per year to photograph on private lands. My guide is Dr. Patrick Magee, biologist from Western State College here in Gunnison. Pat heads up Sisk-a-dee, a working group of stakeholders dedicated to implementing the Gunnison Sage-grouse Conservation Plan and reversing the decline of the namesake grouse. Sisk-a-dee coordinates the Watchable Widlife Program for Gunnison Sage-grouse. Private land owners, Western State College, the Colorado Division of Wildlife, National Park Service, USDA, sportsmen, the Colorado Cattlemen’s Association, and community leaders have come together to find solutions for the welfare of grouse and associated species that depend on large areas of healthy sage to thrive. The grouse return to the same lekking grounds in late March every year to display and mate each morning until around early May. That’s why Nop and I are sitting in a cow pasture in the dark, just on the edge of sage hills at 8,000 feet. In a changing West, conservationist ranchers like our host play a critical role in habitat and species protection. I think a lot about Western culture, the communities I visit, and their unique qualities and challenges. Gunnison doesn’t have world class wind or gas reserves to make room for; but they have this bird, and the community has galvanized to save their grouse.
Dr. Patrick Magee with Noppadol Paothong. Pat is pointing to an area in the large lek complex that holds more birds.
Biologists knew in the early ’70’s that the Gunnison Sage-grouse was distinctly different from their cousins, the Greater Sage-grouse. The smaller size, prominent head plumes, tail shimmy at the end of display, broad tail bars, and markedly different vocalizations are among the characteristics that set “GuSG’s” apart from “GSG’s”. In 1995, Drs. Clait Braun and Jessica Young proposed the Gunnison sage grouse as a distinct species, which set off a firestorm of political wrangling before the species designation Centroccercus minimus in 2000. As Nop and I whispered in the dark waiting for birds, we weren’t talking about when Julia McDonald cooked the science, how the bird became endangered, or the steady population decline. We both agreed that the vocalizations are so different that anyone could hear the difference between the GuSG coffee percolator sound and the GSG tennis ball rebound. And we swapped stories about opportunities missed due to golden eagles, coyotes, snowstorms, wind…. fill in the blank, these birds are just more sensitive than other grouse species. Nop has dedicated nine years of his life to grouse; so I’d take his word for it.
We were too far away the first morning and the birds flushed early, which left me with one day to make a few good images of what has become my grail bird. The second day was unusually warm for early April – it was in the 40’s, and a gusty western wind made us all wonder if the grouse would come to the lek at all. We found my blind half-collapsed in the dark and worked to get it back in shape for the morning shoot. Pat left me and Nop and retreated to his truck to count the birds. We whispered and waited until a flap of wings on wind and the signature coffee pot sound announced their arrival. In total darkness, sandhill crane music blended with lekking grouse made for a symphony. With dawn breaking, thick, lead-bellied clouds blocked sunrise and we could barely make out grouse in the distance. There were just two females, with males spread out and displaying. Our prospects looked as dim as the morning light when the grouse started moving in our general direction. Nop tapped my shoulder and said he knew they’d come our way. And they did. The grouse hunkered into the pasture when sandhill cranes, then a coyote, and a harrier passed; camouflaged as cow pies, then returning to their strut. Eventually we had a dozen birds in front of us, close enough to make images with big lenses and teleconverters. A pair of males sidled up next to each other for a fight, then bumped chests, before fighting in a tangled blur. These seemingly timid birds are tough as nails and a thrill to watch.
I’ll keep coming back to Gunnison to make images of grouse and wildlife diversity, the landscape that comes to life with migrating songbirds in May. And I’ll come back to make a photographic essay of a community dedicated to saving their namesake bird. Thanks to Pat, Jessica, our conservationist rancher, and the Gunnison working group for providing the opportunity to photograph Gunnison sage grouse. It’s important that conservation photographers make, and share images so the world can see so much more than an endangered species. Conservation photographers are witness to great events in nature and those that come together to save a species. Thanks to my friends in Gunnison for supporting conservation photography as part of the solution.
Gunnison Sage-grouse males fighting, or “grousing”.