Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Greater Sage-Grouse leks on the Red Road

Ellen and I visit our parents in Rexburg about once a month throughout the year, and though we usually spend most of our time with family while we’re there, we usually try to sneak in a bit of birding while we’re there. It’s hard to take a round-trip drive across the state without at least one or two birding stops, and eastern Idaho has lots of great birds that are harder to find close to Boise.

Our main target bird on our trip to Rexburg at the beginning of May was Greater Sage-grouse. We’d seen them in Colorado before, but hadn’t found them in Idaho yet. Although we both grew up just 15 minutes away from some of the best sage-grouse viewing opportunities in the state, we weren’t into birding yet until we moved to Boise. Idaho has nice sage habitat all over the state, but sage-grouse prefer a little higher elevations, away from human disturbance, which rules out most of the sage-covered areas close to Boise.

The best opportunity to find these birds abandoning their otherwise discreet habits is when they’re lekking, usually from late March through early May, and only for the first hour and a half after sunrise. The closest leks to Boise are near Midvale, or out in the Owyhees. Either way it’s a good two hour drive from Boise, so getting out early enough to arrive in the first hour of daylight can be a real challenge with our new baby. Luckily, when we’re in Rexburg, the nearest leks are only 15-20 minutes away, and we have babysitters (two different grandmas) who we can leave Nora with so we can let her continue sleeping. We took advantage of the shorter drive and extra help to make a couple of trips out to see the sage-grouse.

 

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View of the Teton mountains on the horizon from the Red Road, Fremont County. May 3, 2014.

One of the best places to view lekking sage-grouse is along Red Road, just north of the St. Anthony Sand Dunes. Sage-grouse prefer to lek on open grassy areas adjacent to large sagebrush stands. We did some homework to identify a handful of places that looked like they had potential to be good leks by looking at satellite images of the area to find any breaks in the sagebrush. We loaded up my phone with some coordinates to check, and we headed out. I headed out on my own on May 3 just to scout out the area and see whether or not the grouse were still around (May is a little on the late side), and then Ellen and I headed out together on May 5.

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Potential (and a few actual) sage-grouse leks near the Red Road, Fremont County. May 5, 2014.

Part of the reason I went out on my own on the first trip is I wanted to spare Ellen from the early wake up call while I did some of the scouting (especially since we were up until 2am the night before due to the long drive from Boise), and I really expected it to be difficult to track down a good spot to see the sage-grouse. Turns out, it was incredibly easy to find the sage-grouse. As soon as I passed the Sand Dunes, there was a large group of sage-grouse lekking on the first open field I saw.

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Greater Sage-Grouse near the Red Road, Fremont County. May 3, 2014.

The sage-grouse leks typically wind down towards the end of April, so I was surprised to see such great numbers. It certainly wasn’t anything like the 100+ birds that others had been reporting in this area a few weeks earlier, but at one location I counted at least 50 birds.

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Greater Sage-Grouse near the Red Road, Fremont County. May 3, 2014.

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Greater Sage-Grouse near the Red Road, Fremont County. May 3, 2014.

In addition to great numbers of sage-grouse, we had lots of other nice sagebrush specialists singing their hearts out as well. Probably the most vocal and ubiquitous birds of the morning were Vesper Sparrows. It seemed like I was never without at least 3 or 4 within ear shot, and they were spooking away from the road left and right as I drove through.

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Vesper Sparrow near the Red Road, Fremont County. May 3, 2014.

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Vesper Sparrow near the Red Road, Fremont County. May 3, 2014.

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Vesper Sparrow near the Red Road, Fremont County. May 3, 2014.

Brewer’s Sparrows were present in good numbers too, though they were a little more shy than the Vesper Sparrows.

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Brewer’s Sparrow near the Red Road, Fremont County. May 3, 2014.

Sage Thrashers were quite abundant as well, though interestingly they weren’t being quite as vocal as some of the other birds.

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Sage Thrasher near the Red Road, Fremont County. May 3, 2014.

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Sage Thrasher near the Red Road, Fremont County. May 3, 2014.

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Sage Thrasher near the Red Road, Fremont County. May 3, 2014.

After finding the first few leks straight away, I checked out a few other side roads to see if there were other places to get a closer view. In one pullout there was a hen hanging out by herself on top of a pile of gravel. She seemed comfortable there, and just slowly sauntered away as I pulled up.

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Greater Sage-Grouse near the Civil Defense Caves, Fremont County. May 3, 2014.

A little ways down the road to the Civil Defense Caves I found another nice grassy field that looked like it might have had a lek on it a little earlier in the morning, though when I arrived the last couple of birds were wandering away.

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Greater Sage-Grouse near the Civil Defense Caves, Fremont County. May 3, 2014.

When Ellen and I headed out together on May 5, the sage-grouse were just as cooperative. The first few leks right after the Sand Dunes were still there, but a little further up the road there was another lek that didn’t have any birds when I was there a couple of days earlier.

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Greater Sage-Grouse near the Red Road, Fremont County. May 5, 2014.

This new location provided us a much better opportunity to get close to the sage-grouse than we had found before. It was fun to be able to get an up close and personal view of the birds showing off their incredible courtship displays.

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Greater Sage-Grouse near the Red Road, Fremont County. May 5, 2014.

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Greater Sage-Grouse near the Red Road, Fremont County. May 5, 2014.

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Greater Sage-Grouse near the Red Road, Fremont County. May 5, 2014.

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Greater Sage-Grouse near the Red Road, Fremont County. May 5, 2014.

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Greater Sage-Grouse near the Red Road, Fremont County. May 5, 2014.

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Greater Sage-Grouse near the Red Road, Fremont County. May 5, 2014.

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Greater Sage-Grouse near the Red Road, Fremont County. May 5, 2014.

We shot some video while we were there, showing the incredible display the males perform to attract the hens. Turns out a lot of the effort is wasted, as about 90% of the hens mate with just a few of the most dominant males.

The Tetons provided a beautiful back drop. All in all it was an incredible morning and an incredible experience.

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Greater Sage-Grouse near the Red Road, Fremont County. May 5, 2014.

After enjoying the birds and checking a few other spots for an hour or so, we started noticing many of the birds heading back out to the sagebrush for the day. We took their cue, and headed back ourselves.

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Greater Sage-Grouse near the Red Road, Fremont County. May 5, 2014.

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