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.
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”.
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.
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).
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).
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.