I love the gentle surprises the forest offers me when I’m paying attention. Even better when it’s one of my dogs that alerts me to the surprise.
When I see something new, unusual, and/or intriguing, I take photos or record video/audio if I can, and back home, start researching to learn more.
A couple days ago, the forest’s surprise came in the form of two large birds on a decommissioned forest logging road my dogs and I were running on.
We were finishing our run, just a tenth of a mile from my car, parked below a gate that keeps motor vehicles off these old roads. It’s why I like running here.
Conall was ahead of me and Finn behind me, a fairly typical configuration for late in a run as Finn ages and tires more easily. We all move more slowly now so Finn can continue to enjoy time in the forest.
First, I watched as Conall startled a large, brown bird that ran (rather than flew) up a slope covered in sunflowers to get away from us.
Then I realized that Conall saw another large bird up ahead. This one chose to move more slowly and purposefully, staying on the road, fanning tail feathers much like a wild turkey (but smaller), seemingly leading Conall away from the other bird.
Having seen the first bird and now this one, obviously a male, and noting their size, I realized they were likely grouse.
The male led Conall on a slow chase along the road until Conall – who is curious but (other than voles) doesn’t try to kill wildlife – got a bit too close and the grouse flew up onto a nearby tree limb (feature photo).
I was grateful Finn had been distracted by some scent behind me when this scene started playing out, because Finn does like to flush big birds – turkeys, grouse – making them fly far away to avoid his full-court press.
In all the years I’ve been running and walking in this part of the forest, it wasn’t until two summers ago that I was startled by the odd and fascinating sound of low-pitched drumming coming through the trees. Conall alerted me to it. Puzzled, the boys and I cautiously walked along an old logging road toward the sound. I then saw the source: a ruffed grouse standing on a tree stump, fanning his wings. I wrote a blog post about it here. I learned that the drumming sound comes from the male’s wing feathers beating against the air, even though it sounds like something coming from deep within his throat.
This bird Conall was pursuing, however, was behaving differently. No standing on a stump. Despite expecting it to fly away as I approached the limb in had retreated to, I started recording video as I moved closer.
To my surprise, instead of flying away, this bird started strutting his stuff along the tree limb! Quite the show!
Those yellow eyebrows!
Back home, here’s what my laywoman’s research revealed: I had videoed a Dusky Grouse male, a chicken-like bird found in wooded habitats.
During the breeding season, Dusky Grouse are usually found in or near mountain forests, especially those dominated by firs, Ponderosa pine, quaking aspen, and Douglas fir. …If a female approaches a male’s spring territory, and especially if she vocalizes, males begin courtship displays, involving hooting calls, strutting, exposing the purplish red skin of the neck sac, fanning the tail feathers, bobbing and drawing in the head, and drooping the wings. Males have no role in nest building or rearing of young.All About Birds
I don’t recall making any sounds resembling those of a female Dusky Grouse, but based on this male’s behavior captured in my video, he was apparently still feeling a bit randy, or maybe confused, strutting his stuff to both Conall and me from his tree branch even though the real target of his display had hightailed it off the trail.
I could hear the deep, rhythmic humming sound this male made as he puffed out his neck feathers, but sadly it doesn’t come through on the video. If you’re curious, you can hear exactly what I heard by visiting this page on All About Birds and playing the “song” audio clip.
I’ve read that during mating season, male grouse – both ruffed and dusky – are not shy toward humans, making their display easy to observe. In my experience, that’s true. And it’s definitely worth seeing if you can.
The forest, and nature, never disappoint. So much to see and learn!