Meadowlarks are handsome and eye-catching birds that are common in grassland and farmland. The male has a predisposition to perch on fence posts and sing his heart out. Our first meadowlark was the Long-tailed Meadowlark (Leistes loyca) in the province of Araucania in southern Chile two days after Christmas last year. We found it sitting on a fence post by a grassy field overlooking Lago Budi while it was serenading. Fast forward 4 months and 11000km to the North on a dusty country road in the outskirts of Camrose. Its the Global Big Day of Birding and we are travelling in a convoy with the birding contingent of the Edmonton Nature Club. On a fence post along a stubble field next to a Hutterite colony (you can see the dark outline of the colony buildings in the background) we spot our second meadowlark species, the Western Meadowlark (Sturnella neglecta). Both species have the characteristic pointy bills and exhibit exactly the same behaviour; weakness to perch on fence posts and the typical meadowlark singing posture where they point their head upwards as they vocalize. Meadowlarks can be found in the Americas and interestingly all the North American species (2-3 species, depending on how you are counting) are yellow breasted while all the South American species (5 species) are red breasted.
The alarm clock went of the next morning in the middle of the night at 3:45. At 4:30am we rolled in at the dimly lit Canadian Tires parking lot to meet up with our tour guide and the rest of the grouse afictionados. We were 8 people and our guide Randy, a local born, raised and well-aged Wainwrightian. Once everyone had arrived the convoy rolled out into the empty streets of Wainwright. A few minutes later we left the last outpost of civilization behind us as we took a narrow road heading dead south across the Canadian Forces Base. We traveled at high speeds down desolated country roads, enveloped by the impenetrable black night. Occasionally an animal scurried across the road. It was like a scene out of a movie – surreal, secretive and very exciting. About half an hour later, as the first rays of light started to creep across the horizon, the lead car slowed down and pulled off on to a non-existing path in the tall brush. We drove slowly a few hundred meters across the field until we were out of sight from the main road. After parking and regrouping Randy gave us the low-down on the viewing protocol: enter the blinds quietly and quickly, stay in the blinds during the entire viewing period, use bathrooms before entering the blind, keep the location to yourself and stay warm. It was definately chilly with the vegetation covered in frost, so that last advice could be a challenge.
It was only a few minutes walk over the crest of a low hill to get to the the blinds. As soon as we had cleared the hill the blinds came into view and we realized that the party already was in full swing. Three small box shaped blinds were lined up on the field. In front of the blinds there were already several dozen grouse moving around and making squeaking and cooing sounds. As we approached most of the grouse flew off, but surprisingly enough not all of them. Perhaps they were used to the drill. The blinds were small and only had sitting room on wooden benches. We crammed ourselves and all our gear into one of the blinds and closed the hatch. The blinds had cutouts on the front for viewing and for poking the camera lenses out. With four adults and camera gear in the blind it was cosy to say the least and the only wiggle room was whatever room your toes head in the boots.
We counted a total of 35 Sharp-tailed Grouse on the field in front of the blinds, some right outside the blind and up a radius of about 30 meters from where we were sitting. The display grounds, called a lek, were covered by short native grass that looked like it had been grazed. The large turds on the dance floor suggested that cattle could be grazing here. The lek was surrounded by taller grass and shrub that could provide cover for the grouse if a predator would show up and crash the party.
As we settled in we soon realized that the there was a definitive rhythm to the display. Periods of display was intermittently punctuated with everyone stopping and freezing. It resembled musical chairs, where individuals get eliminated as the game progresses. Instead of competing for chairs, however, the male grouse are competing for the attention of females. It was not clear which individuals paired up. All the males looked great to us and the females were strolling around with a sort of indifferently dignified coolness. We did not see any mating taking place in the lek so there might be a separate location for the hanky-panky, perhaps in the tall brush surrounding the lek.
Occasionally a dance-off between two males results in a physical altercation where the males lunged towards each other clashing midair. The males are trying to establish dominance of the lek by intimidating other males and I guess sometimes you just got to roll up your sleeves and get the job done.
The males have bushy yellow eyebrows making them look like real macho grouse that mean serious business.
It’s easy to tell the difference between the males and the females. Females are more plain looking and lack the bushy yellow eye brows and the purple patch on their throat. Also, contrary to most humans, the females do not dance. They just hang out on the lek observing the males. The females are looking for a male that can hold the dominant position within the lek. The male that can pull off that feat is likely going to be a toughest bird in the bunch.
It is obvious where the Sharp-tailed Grouse gets its name from – from the sharp pointy tail that they rattle as they dance.
The males’ lekking behaviour involves spreading out their wings, stomping their feet rapidly and forcefully, and rattling their tail feathers while moving around in circles. Males do this tail-rattling in synchrony with each other in between periods when they stop and pose for the females and size each other up.
After about two hours, around 7am, things had slowed down substantially. Most of the females had left by this time leaving mostly males in the lek area. Perhaps not surprisingly, once the females had left, the males stopped displaying and were just passively sitting on the field. Randy informed us that these are traditional lekking grounds. The grouse return to the same lek location each year. With a radius of only about 20-30 metres we were trying to figure out what made this lek location special. After all, on a big open field, what makes one location any different from another one? From a human perspective, there does not seem to be anything unique about the location the grouse have chosen for their lek. Maybe one has to think like a grouse to fully understand the significance of the location.
After the tour we went to the The Two Old Men at the Wainwright train station for a well-deserved breakfast with Randy. Perhaps not surprisingly, the place was run by…, two old men.
The Sharp-tailed Grouse was Lifer: #150 and AB Big Year: #101. It was an awesome experience and the icing on the cake on our Global Big Day tour the previous day. The grouse lek season is coming to an end in the next few weeks, but we are already planing to go and view them next year again. In the meantime I leave you with this video clip of the action from last Saturday.
Our last stop of the day during our Big Day of Birding tour with the Edmonton Nature Club was Big Knife Provincial Park about 2 hours drive south east of Edmonton. The whole gang went for a walk through the forest, which was a nice change as we had spent most of the day doing in the car. This small provincial park straddles the Big Knife Creek, named after a fight to the death between “Knife”, a member of the Blackfoot tribe, and “Big Man” of the Cree tribe. I have not been able to find out why there were fighting, but clearly it must have been something of great importance. During our nature walk we found 15 species of birds, including a bunch of firsts (first of the year and first in our life); including the Great Blue Heron (Ardea herodias), Broad-winged Hawk (Buteo platypterus), Eastern Phoebe (Sayornis phoebe), and the diminutive Golden-crowned Kinglet (Regulus satrapa). As we were leaving we came across a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker (Sphyrapicus varius, Life: #145 , AB Big Year: #96) hard at work drilling sap wells high up in a lattice of branches. Unlike other woodpeckers, Sapsuckers do not look for insects to eat in dead trees. Instead they make, and maintain, sap wells and use the sap as their main food source, just like humans utilize the sap from maple trees for maple syrup. These sap wells must be continuously maintained so that the sap continues to flow. It had a rather scruffy appearance, like someone that just rolled out of bed in the morning after a few days without showering. I have been told, however, that that’s how sapsuckers roll it.
The good great news is that yesterday, on May 4th, it was the Global Big Day of Birding. As it turned out, The Force was with us and the Big Day of Birding became the Big Weekend of Birding. It all started off with a whirlwind birding tour of central Alberta with the Edmonton Nature Club, followed up with an predawn Sharp-tailed Grouse Tour with the Wainwright Wildlife Society and wrapped up with a mellow and quick tour of the pelicans of Sherwood Park. There will be separate blog posts about these adventures in the close future. The not so good news (it does not really qualify as bad news as it is sort of a good problem to have I guess) is that once I came home I quickly realised that I did not have a device capable of importing, processing and uploading all the images and videos from the weekend’s adventures. All in all the weekend netted 500+ images and video clips with a combined size of about 15 GB. It is painfully obvious that my current workflow for processing images and video clips, which is the same one I used when my cell phone was my “camera”, is completely inadequate to deal with the volume of images I am creating with the Nikon P1000. As it stands now, I cannot even access the images from this weekend as I first need to backup exiting images (which will likely take several days), create space on a suitable device by deleting old photos and then hopefully be able to start working with the new photos and videos. Oh, and I should probably also overhaul my workflow for processing photos and videos after a day of shooting, but that is an entire different story. As a result, the only new image available today is this teaser photo from inside the blind at the grouse tour, yes that is a female Sharp-tailed grouse that is being recorded as she is checking out the boys strutting their stuff. Consider this photo just a preview of things to come in the next little while, once I get my photos in shipshape.