You can hear the “pa-loop” sound from a long distance away. In the cold, pre-dawn air, it carries further than you’d think. It’s also curiously directionless. But if you are lucky, and WC was very lucky, you can find the lek where the male Greater Sage-Grouse are doing their ancient, timeless dance.
The dance is for the females, of course. The best 2-3 dancers, out of a crowd of 20-30 males, all displaying, get to mate. The dance itself is complex. It goes beyond the extravagantly extended tail and the bristly yellow eyebrows.
If you’re a displaying Greater Sage-Grouse, you erect your retrices – those stiff tail feathers – into a magnificent fan, erect your head plumes, and take a huge breath.
You bring your wings forward and in, and then start to inflate those enormous esophageal pouches.
Big, yellow bare patches appear and distend to the size of chicken eggs. The esophogeal pouches expand further and nearly hide the head.
That effort produces that “pa-loop” sound,” and then the whole thing just collapses.
After a second of rest, the sequence repeats, with the bird marching around between “pa-loops”. Apparently, female Greater Sage Grouse find this whole business attractive. The cryptically colored female, at the right center, is choosing among about 20 birds around her, spread out over perhaps an acre, including the four displaying males in this shot. In the event, she didn’t find any of them that alluring, and flew off.
The whole business is over an hour and a half after dawn. The males are plainly exhausted, and some simply sit down to rest, building up energy to go through the whole thing the next morning.
These photos only begin to capture the courtship rituals of the Greater Sage-Grouse. It’s one of the astonishing natural history events in WC’s experience. On a par with the flight of the long-lost Passenger Pigeon, perhaps. Humankind has so altered the sagebrush steppe that these birds depend upon that the species is endangered.
We really, seriously need to work to make sure that doesn’t happen.
(WC wants to thanks Aaron Ulz for the tips on where the leks might be found.)