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Two of Utah's Most Wanted

posted by Kenny Frisch at
on Tuesday, April 30, 2013 

In the past month, I had the chance to see two of Utah's most unique and and amazing sights: the leks of the Greater and Gunnison Sage-Grouse.  Leks are a mating behavior found mostly in birds where males of the species gather together to do elaborate displays and show themselves off to prospective females who show up looking for a mate.  These two species are together only found in two states (in all the GRSG is found in 11 states and 2 Canada provinces), Utah and Colorado, owing to the range restrictions of the Gunnison Sage-Grouse which is only found in those two states.  It is one of only a handful of birds endemic to the United States.

 The Greater Sage-Grouse is the most common of the sage-grouse

Gunnison Sage-Grouse are only found in Utah and Colorado

In late March I visited the Henefer lek to see displaying Greater Sage Grouse.  In the middle of April, as a part of a Utah Birder's field trip, I got to see Gunnison Sage-Grouse on lek near Monticello, Utah.  Finally this past weekend, I returned to the Henefer lek and got to compare the workings of the lek a month later.  The displays of the two sage-grouse species are similar, with both involving the careful choreograph of inflating air sacs, whipping their head forward, showing off their tails and wings and making sounds by both calling and inflating their air sacs.  Other bird species of game bird in North American may inflate air sacs and dance around, both nothing can beat sage-grouse for the magnificence of their display.

Greater Sage-Grouse are found in 26 out of 29 counties, only not found in Davis, Salt Lake, and Washington counties.  The closest lek to Salt Lake City and one of the easiest ones to view is the lek in Henefer on Route 65.  It is about an hour drive away from Salt Lake City, so in order to get optimum viewing at sunrise, I had to leave my house at 6:30 am in March and 5:30 in April.  Although I had to get up at very early times, getting to see the sage-grouse display at sunrise wass well worth it.  When I visited in March, I counted at least 41 Greater Sage-Grouse on lek with about equal numbers of males and females.  Most of the sage-grouse were out in the field to the west of the parking spot, a few brave (or crazy) males picked a spot where there were fewer males- the middle of route 65.  Luckily cars driving on the road slowed down and no grouse were hurt.

This male Greater Sage-Grouse decided that the best spot to display was the road.

 The display of the Greater Sage-Grouse

Another male was displaying on the road for almost an hour straight.  He had both his good moments when many females were around him and others when he was dancing solo.

Another male had quite the audience

This male put on a show when many females were around...

And when there were very few

This past weekend when I returned to the Henefer lek, things were much different.  This time there were no Greater Sage-Grouse in the middle of the road.  All of them were in the field west of the road which gave amazing views once the sun started rising.  Also the ratio of males to females was different- out of a total of 22 birds, 20 were males and only 2 were females.  By this time of year, most females have already mated with the males with the best displays and are nesting.  The birds remaining were those who weren't as lucky, hoping that they could still get a chance to mate this year.  The remaining males looked smaller and often their tail feathers didn't look as good as their counterparts had the month before.

 It was mostly males at the Henefer lek a month later

Tensions were higher as time was running out to mate

In addition to getting to view Greater Sage-Grouse this spring, I made a trip down to Monicello with the Utah Birders to view Gunnison Sage-Grouse on lek.  In order to view Gunnison Sage-Grouse in Utah, you need to head down to San Juan County in the southeastern portion of the state.  It is there that the 100 Gunnison Sage-Grouse remaining in Utah reside with are only a few leks remaining that are active.  Despite the very low numbers, the birds remain listed only a species of special concern in Utah, but soon the US Government will rule whether the 3500 total birds living in the wild deserve to go onto the Endangered Species Act.  With 95% of the land these birds are found on in Utah privately owned and the threat of wind turbines and a cell phone tower being built near their leks, I personally feel that these birds should be listed as endangered in order to get the full protection they need.

You are looking at 1% of the remaining Gunnison Sage-Grouse in Utah

Gunnison Sage-Grouse is a relatively "new" species, only being split from Greater Sage-Grouse in 2000.  Compared to Greater Sage-Grouse, Gunnison are smaller in size, have a bolder white-striped tail and have denser filoplumes on the back of their head giving them the appearance of having a ponytail.  The sounds produced during their display sound less like the bubbling and popping of a Greater Sage-Grouse and more like the noise a long saw makes when being wiggled up and down.  

The "ponytail" of the Gunnison Sage-Grouse is prominent during their display

A male Gunnison Sage-Grouse struts his stuff

We had our first Gunnison Sage-Grouse while scouting for field trips later on in the weekend.  We were treated with great views of this rare bird as seen above.  However, the next day we made the real trip to the lek, led by Guy Wallace of the Utah DNR who has been studying Gunnison Sage-Grouse for the last 31 years- even longer than they have been a full species!  The night before our trip, Guy gave all the field trip participants a great presentation on the Gunnison Sage-Grouse and their history and future in Utah.  Without him, the Utah population would be even worse off than as it is today.  

We headed to the lek before sunrise and got in position to view the birds.  Viewing the Monticello Gunnison Sage-Grouse lek greatly contrasted with Henefer Greater Sage-Grouse lek.  We were 300 yards away from the Gunnison lek whereas the Greater lek was about 30 yards away, but the biggest difference was in the number of birds at the leks.  The Greater lek had anywhere between 22 and 41 birds present but there were only 6 Gunnison Sage-Grouse at the Monticello lek- 5 males and a female.  Hopefully these numbers will increase over time as it was sad seeing so few of these birds at lek.  The males still put on an impressive show and showed their competition for mates as there was wing fighting between two of the males.

The Monticello Gunnison Sage-Grouse lek

Two Gunnison Sage-Grouse on lek

Both species of Sage-Grouse are a hidden treasure in Utah that can only be fully enjoyed during the right time of year and in the right locations.  Hopefully they can be adequately protected so that future Utahns can enjoy their leks and displays for years to come

On a bonus note, later in the day when I first visited the Henefer lek this year, I encountered an amazing moment in nature at Rockport reservoir.  With the temperatures finally warming up, the ice sheet on the reservoir was melting and as it did it started producing sounds as the ice cracked over long distances.  There were low pitch sounds like you would hear from a whale as well as higher pitched popping like a gun going off.  I have never heard anything like it before and tried to get some recordings of the sounds to share with others.  Here are two recordings of the ice sheet making sounds as it melted.  I hope you enjoy it.

Note the sounds about 6 seconds in

More sounds about 30 seconds in

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Blogger Tim Avery said...

Great videos Kenny!

May 3, 2013 at 7:10 AM  
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