I didn’t realized how much I needed it until I got it. It’d been a really busy month or so and I hadn’t had a lot of time outdoors. I needed a break. I also needed to get up to the Niobrara Valley Preserve to scout some potential research sites. Trying to accomplish both objectives, I drove up to NVP on Wednesday afternoon.
When I arrived, I first headed to a grouse viewing blind the staff had set up. I was looking forward to photographing sharp-tailed grouse on their lek (courtship display area) the following morning and wanted to be sure I’d be able to find the blind in the dark.
Then, I wandered around the east bison pasture a little before dark. I found and photographed my first burrowing owl of the season and then went looking for the first bison calf of the year. I came upon (and photographed) a small group of bison, but didn’t see any calves. I could feel the stress draining away. (I’ll share some of the owl and bison photos next week.)
Early the next morning, I drove into the hills and found the viewing blind, arriving just as the sky was starting to show some color on the horizon. Freezing rain on Tuesday had coated much of the vegetation with ice and it hadn’t melted much on Wednesday. As a result, my view of the eastern sky was accented by glittering prairie in the foreground.
At 6:32am, the first sharp-tailed grouse announced its presence outside the blind and was very quickly joined by five more males. I was counting on the birds sticking around long enough for me to photograph them in good light so I didn’t take many photos during the next half hour. I just enjoyed watching the males posture and dance. At about 7am, I played around with some slow exposure photos to see if I could get any ‘artsy’ blurry shots that showed the movement of the birds. I got a couple that I liked.
I’d gotten to the blind a little extra early because the full moon was illuminating the prairie and I was worried the grouse might start their dancing ahead of schedule. As the sun started to come up, the moon was setting.
When the first sunlight hit the birds, I started photographing them more in earnest.
As the sun rose, the activity actually slowed. There was a sweet spot of about half an hour when the light was still a beautiful golden color and the males were really active. After that, the sun’s intensity let me use faster shutter speeds, but the color was less interesting and the birds weren’t as into it as they’d been. There were still flurries of activity, but there were a lot of staring contests, rather than energetic dances. Two males would just sit nose to nose and look at each other for several minutes at a time.
I’m not great with video and don’t have the equipment to handle autofocusing of moving birds very well, but I got a little video footage of the grouse in case you’ve never seen them before. The first bit of the short video shows two males nose to nose and then some fairly muted dancing (they stayed pretty still, which made it easier to film, but was less exciting than some of the more wide-ranging dancing I saw). The second half shows a male standing around, looking cool, and making attractive (apparently) noises. If you don’t see the video link, click on the title of this blog post (top of the page) to open it online and make links active.
Back to still photos…
At almost exactly the two hour mark, four of the males suddenly flew off to the west, joined by a couple females (I assume) I hadn’t previously seen. The other birds had apparently been hiding just over the hill to the west of me. I’m not sure if they were watching the action on the lek from that perspective or not. A few minutes later, the last two males left, letting me pack up my gear and head out myself.
My list of tasks didn’t grow any shorter while I was gone, but it somehow feels a lot less intimidating after my time in the prairie. Two long and peaceful drives through the Nebraska Sandhills, an evening with bison and a burrowing owl, and a morning with sharp-tailed grouse (and later turkeys and prairie dogs!) did wonders for my stress levels. Once I finish banging out this blog post, I’ll start chipping away at that list with renewed energy. Thanks prairie!
Ahhhh, I always marvel at the quality particularly of your close up photos. Thanks!!!! I tell my friends up here near the Namekagon Barrens of northwestern Wisconsin to watch one of mother nature’s Best Sex Scenes, the Sharptail mating dances. It sounds like there weren’t many females and that usually creates some ‘Boring Times’ for the males who pause more often and then leave earlier in the morning! Much like a Rural Northwestern Wisconsin Sat. Night, ‘Bar Scene’! No Women, then they leave earlier, HAH!
Thanks mark nupen
Nature viewing is always the best way to recharge your energy batteries! Prairie chickens also remund me of the old WWIIaircraft when they dance and circle on a lek. Thanks for sharing!!!
Great photos; really liked the variety and the early sunlight effect.
Thanks for the lovely stills and videos of the Sharp-tailed Grouse on the lek.
Great images of the grouse.
Beautiful photos and a great video! I absolutely find time outdoors helps clear my mind. For a period of time, I totally let everything else go. Outdoor therapy! 😊
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