Natural Connections: Sharp-Tailed Grouse

"A big part of the competitive dancing routine of sharp-tailed grouse seems to be pairing off with another male in a staring contest."

Natural Connections: Sharp-Tailed Grouse

Rain splattered my windshield as I drove the dark country roads, but a break in the storm arrived at the designated intersection just moments before me, and many minutes before dawn. The emphatic call of a whip-poor-will told me I was in the right place.

Less than 24 hours earlier, Eddie Shea, a Wisconsin DNR wildlife biologist, asked me to help complete the final sharp-tailed grouse survey of the spring. The only catch was that I had to be on the Barnes Barrens at least 45 minutes before sunrise. After I saw prairie chickens dancing last month, and told you all that “I’ve always been too busy building exhibits in April to reserve a dauntingly early spot in a bird blind” to see sharp-tailed grouse, I had to say yes. The open spot in the bird blind had finally found me.

Eddie and Sam Lau, a Ruffed Grouse Society biologist, introduced themselves, with the first gray light of dawn just barely illuminating faces. After a quick review of the plan, they headed to opposite ends of the core sharp-tailed grouse habitat to count birds. Mike Amman, a Bayfield County forester, led me into a blind situated near the lek.

The smell of doused campfire hung on the damp air as Mike strode off into the darkness with long-legged speed. I hurried to keep up over uneven ground, which I soon realized was a logging two-track through burned scrub. Just 10 years ago this was a jack pine forest, Mike explained. Last year they conducted a fall burn to knock back the pin oak and bur oak even more. Sharp-tails need open space.

We had to be quiet, but Mike told me how he was improving sharp-tail habitat here on the county forest. The grouse had long been attracted to a narrow strip of brushy habitat the foresters called “the bowling alley.” It had been maintained as a firebreak, but was no longer needed. The low scrub was good for the grouse, but the narrow shape meant perches for hungry hawks in nearby trees. Plus, the existence of that fire break is a symptom of a management regime that is loath to let a fire burn. Without either natural fires or targeted management, sharp-tail habitat will disappear from the landscape. Currently, less than 1% of Wisconsin’s original barrens ecosystems remain.

That’s where the Northwest Sands Habitat Corridor Plan comes in. According to that plan, Mike is expanding the Barnes Barrens into a circle instead of a line. The result will be no net loss of timber, with significant gains for the grouse. Plus, private, state, and federal land managers are creating and maintaining other patches of barrens habitats within 3.2 miles of each other—the average distance that a sharp-tail will disperse— which will allow birds to move between larger core barrens properties such as Crex Meadows, the Namekagon Barrens, the Douglas County Wildlife Area, and the Moquah Barrens.

Beyond our whispers, I heard another conversation in the darkness. Sweet-sounding coos, goofy gobbles, and the flapping of wings accompanied ghostly movements. These were good signs.

I ducked inside the nylon pop-up blind, found the folding stool, and listened to Mike’s footsteps recede. Quickly, the natural sounds filled back in. The whip-poor-will had stopped, but a clay-colored sparrow buzzed, a towhee sang “drink your tea,” and a brown thrasher shared his commentary on the morning—repeating each opinion twice.

All of these birds need the same scrubby, open, barrens habitat that sharp-tails prefer. “To the county’s credit, they recognize the larger role they can play as land managers to meet the needs of wildlife that require underrepresented habitat types such as barrens,” Eddie told me. Barrens-specific rare plants like wild lettuce also ride the coattails of the charismatic sharp-tails. And sharp-tails may ride the coattails of Connecticut warblers—who share the designation “species of Special Concern” in Wisconsin. Foresters are managing some nearby jack pine forests with short understory where the warblers like to nest, and the grouse have been tracked to those same habitats in winter.

Through the gray dawn, I heard the grouse clucking and their feathers rustling as they returned to the lek and began to display. I could see their sharp tails spiked vertically as they spread their wings stiffly and stamped their feet. Wings flapped aggressively when two rivals came together. More rain arrived with daylight, though, so I never got a clear view of the best displays.

By the time the sky cleared again, the guys were more subdued. Mostly, the 11 males on the lek paired up, lunged at their buddy, and then crouched down in a staring contest, sometimes even closing their eyes. Over and over they repeated this basic dance. The purple patches of skin on the necks that inflated when they cooed, and the yellow combs over their eyes did add to the effect. But the displays were half-hearted with no gals around. Presumably, the females had already chosen a fancy-dancing mate during an earlier contest and were off in the shrubs sitting on a nest.

In the end, the most impressive thing about my visit to the lek wasn’t the dancing birds, but the knowledge that land managers are coming together to prioritize the habitat of a fascinating but declining bird. And it’s working. The sharp-tails I helped to count are part of a population that has almost doubled since last year. With any luck, I’ll say that again next spring.

Emily’s award-winning second book, Natural Connections: Dreaming of an Elfin Skimmer, is available to purchase at www.cablemuseum.org/books and at your local independent bookstore, too.

For more than 50 years, the Cable Natural History Museum has served to connect you to the Northwoods. Our new exhibit: “The Northwoods ROCKS!” is open now! Our Summer Calendar of Events is ready for registration! Follow us on Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, and cablemuseum.org to see what we are up to.

Last Update: May 31, 2023 8:58 am CDT

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