Springtime magic

There's nothing quite like the dance of a male sharp-tailed grouse

Nate Long
Habitat biologist

One of my highlights every spring is the chance I get to count sharp-tailed grouse on a remote grouse gathering area — called a lek — in northern Utah.

With his head held low and his pointed tail straight in the air, the mail sharp-tailed grouse spreads his wings and rapidly stomps his feet while moving in a small circle. This is their springtime dance.

With his head held low and his pointed tail straight in the air, the mail sharp-tailed grouse spreads his wings and rapidly stomps his feet while moving in a small circle. This is their springtime dance.

To reach the lek at first light requires an early departure from the office and a long hike in by headlamp. But witnessing these unique birds is a springtime treat that's more than worth it. I can't help but feel it's a turning point in my year. Not only is the snow receding and springtime plants emerging, but I've also survived another winter of meetings, project proposals, meetings, project completion reports, meetings — and more meetings. Now, I'm not complaining about meetings, but I've been told by those far wiser than me that "it takes a really good meeting to beat not having one!"

The magic begins

Once I arrive at the lek, I sit behind a large rock 200 yards away and observe the birds through binoculars. As the sun rises over the snowcapped peaks to the east, I'm treated to the calls of sandhill cranes, turkeys, pheasants and — perhaps the most iconic call of spring — the Western meadowlark. I usually see deer and elk too. I've even had more than one count end early when a coyote ran through the lek, causing the birds to disperse into the surrounding hillside of sagebrush.

But, back to the grouse.

Just like greater sage-grouse, sharptails congregate on leks in the spring. At the lek, the males perform a courtship dance for the females. With his head held low and his pointed tail straight in the air, he spreads his wings and rapidly stomps his feet while moving in a small circle. Once the courting season is over, the female will lay an average of 12 eggs.

With any luck, a few of those chicks will make their way to the lek next spring, just in time for me to enjoy the beauty and magic of this place and the dawn of another spring.

Video

See male sharp-tailed grouse gathering in communal dancing grounds to secure breeding rights in the video below.

Nate Long

Nate Long

Nate is the habitat restoration biologist for northern Utah. When he's not working, he enjoys spending time outdoors hunting, fishing, camping and backpacking with his wife and four young boys.

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