Conservation Minnesota

A Family Outing to View Minnesota’s Amazing Sharp-Tailed Grouse

While I had heard about dancing prairie chickens for years, it wasn’t until this spring that I read that male sharp-tailed grouse also dance as a part of their mating ritual. I have always been curious about the prairie chicken dance, and since they live right near us, I decided to go and see the sharp-tailed grouse do their thing.

Lake Bronson State Park is about 15 miles from where I live in Hallock. I’d read that you can book a blind through the park even though the blind is actually located on private property. I called on Monday, made the reservation for Wednesday (May 6) and was told that Pete, the assistant park manager, would be emailing me the next day with the time, the directions and other relevant information I would need to know.

The blind

The next day I got the email from Pete with the necessary information and he asked if I was bringing my husband and sons along with me. He told me that he had brought his young, preschool-aged daughter out and it was quite an experience. I hadn’t given much thought to bringing the family along. From what I read, I assumed that they would have to miss some school and I always try to avoid that. And I’d been told that it was important to get to the blind 45 minutes before sunrise. The thought of getting them up at 4:00 a.m. was not appealing. But as I mulled it over, I decided that the experience would be great for the kids. Later that evening during supper, I asked if they would be interested in joining me. The 8-year-old who we call Nature Boy was immediately interested. 

“I’m going,” he said full of excitement. It was not a surprise that the eleven-year-old was not interested. He is what we call a technology-addicted basketball boy with little interest in the outdoors. He said, “I think I’d rather watch a video of it.” I consulted with my husband and he decided that he could work it into his schedule. Thankfully, Basketball Boy didn’t put up much of a fight when I told him that it would be a family affair.

Later that night we began to prepare for our early morning trek. You would think that we had made plans to go camping for a week given all the equipment we were rounding up. The information sheet told us to bring cushions to kneel on or buckets to sit on, waterproof boots, coffee or hot chocolate, warm clothes, a bright flashlight, binoculars, a video camera and a still camera. Nature Boy couldn’t stop talking about it. He was bubbling over with excitement. We set the alarm for 4:15 a.m. We got up before the alarm sounded and began making coffee and hot chocolate, feeding the kids and gathering up the “stuff.”

The instant we walked out the door the sound of birds singing filled the air. It made me wonder what we must miss out on outdoors while we sleep. As we drove to Lake Bronson we noticed that fog was hovering just above the ground, which gave the morning a magical feeling. I was concerned that the fog could make it difficult for us to see the show but I was so enthralled by the beauty of it that I couldn’t seem to make myself care. The information had told us that temperature had little effect on the dancing behavior, but that the main deterrents were precipitation and wind. It was calm but not exactly clear.

Taking a break to read a book

We followed the map and found the blind easily enough. We stopped the car, gathered the stuff and hiked through the field to the blind. Some birds had already gathered and we clearly disturbed them as we walked towards them. Once we got settled in the blind we watched the grouse return to their places. As they made a difficult-to-describe noise that sounded a bit like a motorboat they stuck their white tails up into in the air, put their heads down and extended their wings to their sides. Pete was right – it was quite a show.

As the sun came, up it got easier to see their performance. According to the DNR, the dancing ground is called a lek. The dancers are all male, while the females are supposed to be around the periphery. The males strut their stuff to impress and attract the females. A number of times, we would point out different birds on the outside of the crowd of dancers and guess that they might be the females but eventually those birds would join the dancers to dance themselves. We weren’t sure if we’d scared the females away when we came or if they were just hidden in the grass. The grouse would do their dance at the same time for a minute or so and then they would all stop and sit quietly or walk around slowly. Then, all of a sudden they would begin to dance and make their motorboat noise in unison again. We guessed that they were doing this in response to sounds that the females were making, but we didn’t know for sure.

For the most part the boys were very interested in the whole production. They asked lots of questions and laughed at what they thought seemed like silly behavior for some birds. Of course, the hot chocolate that we’d brought for them certainly didn’t hurt their disposition. And, they both brought books to keep them occupied when they got tired of watching.

When the grouse had been quiet and still for what seemed like a long time we decided to gather our things and head to the car. As we drove down the dirt roads towards home, we saw a hawk, numerous deer, what appeared to be two young elk, a variety of birds and ducks and more sharp-tailed grouse that stood right next to our car, allowing us a better view of them and their yellow heads. My husband asked,“What’s next on our nature list?” It was obvious that he had had a great time. When we got home, Basketball Boy admitted he was happy he’d gone on the morning jaunt without me even asking. Our trek had been a success. I knew we would all be tired later but it was a great way to start the day.

For more information about sharp-tailed grouse, check out the following web sites:www.dnr.state.mn.us/snapshots/birds/sharptailedgrouse.html http://www.sharptails.org.

Shrinking Habitat 

According to the Minnesota DNR, the once-thriving sharp-tailed grouse population has declined sharply in the last 50 years. The reason for this is the loss of grassland and brushland habitats. Controlled burning and tree clearing has helped prevent some open brushlands and grasslands from turning into woodlands. More here.

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