Thursday, May 29, 2014

The long-awaited Ruffed Grouse at Bell Creek

For the past year and a half, our nemesis bird has been the Ruffed Grouse. To me, a true nemesis bird isn’t a rarity, instead it’s a bird that occurs in your area with some regularity, but can be frustratingly difficult to find. They can truly get under your skin, because it feels like you should be able to find it, and you’ve been doing everything right, but for some reason a quality encounter just hasn’t ever materialized.

Ruffed Grouse are a fairly common resident of Idaho forests all over the state. They’re widespread, present year-round, spend the majority of their lives within a few hundred meters of their favorite drumming log, and even loudly broadcast their location through the forest as they drum on logs in the spring to impress the ladies. Last year they were far and away the most common Idaho bird that we did not see. We could find really rare birds (for Idaho) like a Harlequin Duck (we have the southernmost Idaho record for this species in eBird outside the Greater Yellowstone area) , or a Brambling (an ABA code 3 rarity), but Ruffed Grouse were being seen left and right all over the state and we couldn’t find one.

Ruffed Grouse Map

eBird map of Ruffed Grouse sightings in Idaho in 2013.

Our failure to find them wasn’t due to a lack of effort:

Last fall as we got closer to Nora’s due date, our efforts waned a bit as it seemed wise to quit wandering as far from home for a little while, but we vowed this spring to finally get our Ruffed Grouse. On April 12, our new favorite little forest hotspot on Bell Creek north of Crouch yielded several drumming Ruffed Grouse, which we were thrilled to hear. At least these were definitely live birds, and their drumming sound is diagnostic, definitely good enough to add them to our list. However, after all the trouble we had looking for them last year, we weren’t quite satisfied to hear them only. Just a week later, we returned to Bell Creek to see if we could finally see one, and not just hear them.

We started our day enjoying the bounty of bluebirds at Round Valley, and then headed over to Bell Creek in the afternoon. As soon as we got out of the car, we started hearing drumming, which surprised us since it was the middle of the afternoon, rather than early in the morning when they typically focus their drumming efforts. We took some time to just listen and see what other birds we could see/hear while feeding Nora before we started hiking around. The area was loaded with Spotted Towhees, though there was enough ground cover that it was hard to get a clear photo.

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Spotted Towhee at Bell Creek, Boise County. April 19, 2014.

We could hardly wait to get on our feet and start chasing them down after listening to them drum all around us for half an hour. Even Nora was getting in on the excitement!

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Nora can hardly believe what she’s seeing! Bell Creek area, Boise County. April 19, 2014.

We hiked an old ATV trail that follows Bell Creek, and to our amazement we laid eyes on our first Ruffed Grouse in just a tenth of a mile up the trail! We were thrilled to find it, lay eyes on it, and finally get a soul-satisfying-view. We watched the bird, and it watched us, until it slowly sauntered across the creek and up the opposite hillside, disappearing into understory. It was amazing to see just how well it’s camouflage worked. There were times when we knew we were looking directly at the bird, and couldn’t make out a single feather until it twitched, or started walking again. Quite effective plumage!

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Ruffed Grouse on Bell Creek, Boise County. April 19, 2014.

We continued a little further up the stream, and heard a Pacific Wren singing its heart out further up the trail. We’ve had a couple of Pacific Wrens before, but hadn’t had a chance to photograph them in Idaho before, so we took advantage of the opportunity to chase it down and try to get some pictures.

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Pacific Wren on Bell Creek, Boise County. April 19, 2014.

These feisty little birds have one of the most impressive songs in the bird world. They deliver their song with incredible speed and energy, and the complexity is incredible.

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Pacific Wren on Bell Creek, Boise County. April 19, 2014.

We had a truly wonderful day in the field, and were thrilled that Bell Creek produced a couple more excellent experiences for us. We’ll definitely be returning to this area often.

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