Dancing with Sharp-tailed Grouse!

Each year our local naturalist society makes the one-hour drive to the Canadian Forces Base at Wainwright, Alberta, to see the annual Sharp-tailed Grouse dance at their lek. The field trip is arranged by the Wainwright Naturalist Society, whose members also maintain the several blinds where we sit and observe. This part of the province has the highest counts and density of breeding Sharp-tailed Grouse.

Thursday morning at 3 am I was awake and ready to head out to watch male Sharp-tailed Grouse strut their stuff at the lek (mating ground) on the Camp Wainwright base, along with Lakeland College students in the Wildlife & Fisheries Conservation program. We left Vermilion at 4 am because there’s a security briefing at the base, about not touching anything, including exploded and unexploded mines.

Once the briefing was over, we drove to the part of the base, all native prairie, where they practice with mines and explosives and then walked about a quarter of a kilometer to the blinds. The birds start dancing at sunrise, which is why the field trip starts so early. This year we actually arrived before the grouse did, so it was good that we didn’t disturb them as we got ourselves situated in the blinds. There are very few places left with any Sharp-tailed Grouse at all, let alone breeding pairs.

Our group counted 15 displaying males this year, up from last year’s six grouse. The grouse weren’t as active as in previous years — not dancing as much and spending more time just huddled up, which was probably attributable to the wind, cold temperature (-8 c), and snow falling. But otherwise it was a great morning!

After we finished watching the birds at around 7 am, we drove back to the base for breakfast in the mess hall, where they prepare anything you might want, from pancakes, waffles, and sausages, to eggs and fruit.

This is the fourth year I’ve watched the Sharp-tailed Grouse dance, and the day is always one of the highlights of our naturalist society activities and of my birding year.

Some of the males got fairly close to our blind which provided me with a good opportunity to practice with my new camera,

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Here’s a short video I made,

One of the other blinds and a couple of pairs of males. How many can you count?

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I wasn’t able to get very good photos of the birds dancing, but in this photo you can see the bright purple air-sac,

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