Would You Lek to See Some Grouse Photos?

If you’ve followed this blog for very long, you’re familiar with my lack of patience, skill, and luck when it comes to photographing largish wildlife species. My failed attempts to see and/or photograph river otters have become so well-known that upon meeting people for the first time, I’m sometimes greeted with, “Hi Chris. Seen any otters lately?? (snigger)” I’ve also had ‘mixed success’ with photographing prairie dogs, Sandhill cranes, and many other large mammals and birds.

Some of my failure stems from my own impatience. I don’t usually take the time to scout locations, set up blinds, and then sit in those blinds hoping an animal will approach and pose for a photo. On the rare occasions when I’ve carried out the first two steps, I’ve ended up sitting for long hours in a cramped blind while the creatures I hoped to photograph sit elsewhere drinking tea (I imagine) and telling stories about me. As a result, I prefer macro photography because there are small creatures everywhere and all I have to do is find one that doesn’t immediately fly, hop, or crawl away.

Well, I think I’ve figured out the secret to my own success with larger wildlife. I just need others to do the hard work for me! This week, I spent a fantastic morning in a blind on a sharp-tailed grouse lek in the Nebraska Sandhills. Our staff at The Nature Conservancy’s Niobrara Valley Preserve scouted the site, set up the blind, tested it out, and then called to invite me to come try it out. Even then, I was pretty sure something would scupper the whole thing.

Nope! I had a terrific morning and got some very fine photos, if I do say so myself.

Two male sharp-tailed grouse show off the bright white underside of their tails while ‘dancing’ on the lek in early morning light. Sigma 100-400mm lens @400mm. ISO 800, f/6.3, 1/500 sec.

You may not be familiar with the term ‘lek’. A lek is a congregation of male grouse performing courtship displays for females and/or the site where those performances occur. There are more than thirty leks at the Niobrara Valley Preserve that our staff visit each spring during annual survey efforts. Earlier this year, long before the grouse started feeling frisky, my colleagues erected a blind in the middle of one of those leks and hoped the grouse would ignore it when it was courtship time. It worked.

A brief aside: While double checking some information on sharp-tailed grouse online, I found a description of them at allaboutbirds.org that seemed a little more disparaging than was necessary. Their description was “A tubby, chickenlike bird with small head, small bill, short legs, and medium-long, graduated (pointed) tail.” None of that is inaccurate, I guess, but it seems like we could do better than essentially calling these majestic birds “fat chickens with small heads and legs”.

Females like this tend to hang around the margins of leks, observing the males as they dance. Sigma 100-400mm lens @400mm. ISO 800, f/6.3, 1/500 sec.

One of the great things about photographing grouse on a lek is that they are so focused on intimidating each other and showing off for females that they could care less about pretty much everything else. They came close enough to the blind that even my cheap telephoto lens was more than enough to make full frame portraits of them. They also spent a lot of time striking macho poses, holding still for more than long enough for me to get them in focus and get multiple sharp photos.

During the spring, males show off bright orange ‘eyebrows’ that give them a particularly stern appearance. Sigma 100-400mm lens @400mm. ISO 400, f/6.3, 1/1000 sec.
Here are three males dancing near each other, wings held to the side, and tails pointed straight up. Sigma 100-400mm lens @300mm. ISO 640, f/6.3, 1/2500 sec.

The courtship display of a male sharpie combines very rapid foot stamping (up to 20 times per second, apparently) with tail feather rattling, a distinct posture, and cooing/squawking sounds produced with the help of an inflated/deflated air sac on the side of its neck. While stamping its feet, it spins and darts around frenetically. It’s all very charming. By which I mean, it’s all very deadly serious – as you can see from the expressions on the faces of the grouse.

That’s a completely anthropomorphic statement from me, of course. I have no idea if grouse read expressions like humans do. But check out the deadly serious look on the face of this grouse (below).

This male looked right at the blind a couple times, but I really don’t think he recognized me or what I was doing. If he did, it sure didn’t seem to slow him down. Sigma 100-400mm lens @400mm. ISO 400, f/6.3, 1/1000 sec.

It’s really hard to describe the movement and sound of these birds and still photos don’t help much. I’m not a great videographer, but I did manage to get a couple mediocre video clips that show some of what I’m trying to describe (see below).

As the morning wore on, dancing activity diminished and males spend a lot of time paired up and just staring each other down. Eventually, one would make a half-hearted jump at the other and one of them would wander off. Sigma 100-400mm lens @100mm. ISO 640, f/10, 1/1000 sec.
Two male grouse with a beautiful Sandhills prairie backdrop. Sigma 100-400mm lens @250mm. ISO 640, f/6, 1/3200 sec.
The wind picked up later in the morning and started fluffing up the feathers of birds when their back was to the breeze. Sigma 100-400mm lens @400mm. ISO 400, f/6.3, 1/1000 sec.
This male is showing off its pink air sacs, as well as its bright orange ‘eyebrows’. Sigma 100-400mm lens @300mm. ISO 640, f/6, 1/2000 sec.
The dance of a sharp-tailed grouse combines both sound and posturing, both of which are impressive. Sigma 100-400mm lens @400mm. ISO 640, f/6.3, 1/3200 sec.
This photo was taken shortly before the entire group simultaneously flew off over the hill, signaling the end of the morning performance. Sigma 100-400mm lens @400mm. ISO 640, f/6.3, 1/3200 sec.

I can’t thank our NVP staff enough for getting all this set up and allowing me to take advantage of their hard work. I’ve watched sharp-tailed grouse displays before, but always at a distance. This was my first time observing them up close and with opportunities to photograph them. It was an extraordinary experience and I’m very grateful.

If you want your own sharp-tailed grouse lek experience, there are public access blinds available in multiple places in the Sandhills, including at the Valentine National Wildlife Refuge and the Bessey District of the U.S. Forest Service.

This entry was posted in Uncategorized by Chris Helzer. Bookmark the permalink.

About Chris Helzer

Chris Helzer is the Director of Science for The Nature Conservancy in Nebraska. His main role is to evaluate and capture lessons from the Conservancy’s land management and restoration work and then share those lessons with other landowners – both private and public. In addition, Chris works to raise awareness about the importance of prairies and their conservation through his writing, photography, and presentations to various groups. Chris is also the author of "The Ecology and Management of Prairies in the Central United States", published by the University of Iowa Press. He lives in Aurora, Nebraska with his wife Kim and their children.

12 thoughts on “Would You Lek to See Some Grouse Photos?

  1. Great pictures! I got to sit on a lek while I worked as a seasonal last year at Lacreek NWR! I’m pretty sure they also have a lek blind this year, for anyone in western South Dakota that’s looking for a spot. It’s a pretty surreal experience, no matter where it’s at!

  2. When i was a young boy my Neighbor women was a nature lover, poet and amateur botanist. She was born in 1884 and lived to 104. She was a great story teller. One of her stories was of living on a farm in western Iowa in Crawford County. At the age of five her job was to scare away prairie chicken from the feed that was on the ground met for her parents domestic chickens. Prairie chicken can only be found in one place in southern Iowa.

  3. Lek is the collective term for courtship area of prairie grouse species, which in my opinion, it is a rather snooty term. Each species of grouse has its much more descriptive term. Greater prairie chickens (which included the extinct heath hen and endanger Attwater’s) it is booming ground; for lesser prairie chickens it’s gobbling ground; for sharptail it’s dancing ground; and for sage grouse it’s drumming ground). There is nothing like the courtship ritual of prairie grouse.

  4. I so appreciate all the tiny details you open our eyes to! Even though NB is tall grass and Colorado’s Western Slope is shortgrass, each post is an invitation to look ever more! Than for your efforts 🐛

  5. Love this article! I sat in blinds twice at Namekagon Barrens Wildlife Area in northern Wisconsin watching 20 or so sharp-tails on the lek. It was well worth getting up at o’dark thirty and sitting in the freezing cold (did I mention it was northern Wisconsin?) to see them dance at sunrise. It was also amazing when they would all freeze in motion at the same time for 20 seconds if they sensed danger and then start up again right where they left off. Thanks for sharing your photo/video shoot.

  6. Pingback: Photos of the Week – April 22, 2022 | The Prairie Ecologist

  7. Pingback: Photos of the Week – May 6, 2022 | The Prairie Ecologist


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