The forest is always teaching me something. I’m provided endless opportunities to see or hear something new, to watch life (and sometimes death) unfold in new ways. By visiting the forest almost daily, year-round, I’m privileged to observe not only the typical, but also the anomaly, the unusual, the transitional and seasonal. I’m intrigued, inspired to learn more about what I see and hear.
Just a few days ago, I was introduced to the sound of a black bear’s claws scratching through the thick trunk of a Ponderosa tree as he controlled his descent toward the ground. That sound is now firmly planted in my brain, and I will recognize it forever more.
This morning, around 8:00 am, as the boys and I walked along one of our favorite, non-motorized abandoned logging roads through the forest, Conall suddenly stopped, looking and listening toward the uphill side of the slope we were traversing. I, too, stopped, trusting his instincts. I scanned the hillside – thinking bear, or skunk, maybe deer – but didn’t see anything moving and exhaled with relief. I have Finn on leash, hoping to keep him from exacerbating a sore shoulder he got a few days ago chasing a whistle pig (local name for ground hogs) through a meadow full of downed tree trunks in a years-old burn area while we were running. I did, though, hear a low-pitched sort of thump, or thrum, of several beats. It felt almost like a vibration, rather than a sound. Then silence, or more accurately, the usual soft background sounds of songbirds and our breathing, but nothing else.
I convinced myself that what sounded like a distant drum beat was in fact the burbling of water just under the ground’s surface, something I sometimes hear, a sort of quick and short-lived rat-a-tat-tat. This area is full of natural springs and underground water moving downhill.
The boys and I continue our meandering pace up our dusty, sometimes rocky road. I resume my visual study of the plants and trees around me. We’re passing by a big open hillside that in April was a riot of yellow when the sunflowers were in bloom. The wildflowers at this elevation are nearly all dead or gone to seed now, the big leaves of those sunflower plants brown and desiccated, crumbling slowly to feed the ground from which they sprang. Even the old, tall trees all around us seem a bit parched without much rain this month. Too many of the firs in this forest are dying, displaying the depressing brown needles of bark beetle infestation. I’m saddened, looking at them, every year more and more brown across the forest, less green. Thankfully, the big pines – Ponderosa and lodgepole – seem to be resistant to the beetles, their needles remaining a deep, healthy green. The shrubs growing under the tree canopy are green and thriving. A few happy white daisies, some purple asters, and tall clusters of white yarrow flowers add splashes of color to the otherwise green and brown landscape.
A few yards farther up the road, I hear the low, thrumming beat again, maybe 8 to 10 beats, then silence. Conall has moved on ahead and either doesn’t notice it, or doesn’t care, and Finn beside me on his leash is also unconcerned. We’ve passed the open slope and now there are big trees on the uphill side of the road again as well and the downhill slope. Looking into the trees, I see the slightest movement and it takes me a moment to realize what I’m looking at: a large bird standing on a stump, next to a tree. A grouse, I quickly decide; not as large as a turkey. As long as the boys aren’t searching for him – they seem able to smell grouse because they’ll often suddenly veer off-trail into the trees and within a second or two, a grouse flushes out with that sudden beat of wings that always makes my heart race – he seems quite content to stay perched there, watching us pass by.
I pull my phone from my pocket to take a photo, realizing it likely won’t turn out well given his distance from me and the shadows of the trees. As I’m futzing with my phone, I hear the thrumming sound again. I look at the grouse, and see feathers moving, fluffing outward, in time to the thrumming. Several beats again, then he stops. Half a minute later, he starts again, his chest and feathers moving, but this time just a handful of beats.
I take my photo, then urge the boys to continue along the road, leaving the grouse in peace. I’ve no idea what I’ve witnessed, hell, I’m not even certain it is a grouse, but I’m pretty certain I was treated to something unusual in hearing that sound.
Back home, I consult my Birds of Idaho pocket book and google grouse. I learn I saw a ruffed grouse, a male who was “drumming.” The males drum just before and after sunrise, always from a favorite log or stump.
From the Audubon website: It may be the weirdest noise in the woods: the thrumming whumps of the male Ruffed Grouse.
From the Ruffed Grouse Society website: Male Ruffed Grouse are aggressively territorial throughout their adult lives, defending for their almost exclusive use a piece of woodland that is 6-10 acres in extent. Usually this is shared with one or two hens. The male grouse proclaims his property rights by engaging in a “drumming” display. This sound is made by beating his wings against the air to create a vacuum, as lightning does when it makes thunder. The drummer usually stands on a log, stone or mound of dirt when drumming, and this object is called a “drumming log.” He does not strike the log to make the noise, he only uses the “drumming log” as a stage for his display.
And from the All About Birds website: The early conservationist Aldo Leopold wrote of the Ruffed Grouse, “The autumn landscape in the north woods is the land, plus a red maple, plus a Ruffed Grouse. In terms of conventional physics, the grouse represents only a millionth of either the mass or the energy of an acre yet subtract the grouse and the whole thing is dead.”
Reading all this, replaying the distinctive, primal thrumming sound in my mind, I realize how lucky I was to witness this male grouse and his drumming this morning.
The woman narrating this video perfectly describes the feeling of hearing a drumming grouse:
How many other wonderful surprises does the forest hold for me and the boys to discover? In the short term…huckleberries! Conall smelled them first, leading Finn and me to the luscious berries, ripe and larger than last year’s meager supply. We take time to savor picking and eating several, just around a bend in the road from where the grouse drummed us along.
Cover photo: Ruffed grouse drumming, National Audubon Society.