The Oregon adventure continues:
For the past few weeks I have been writing about a trip my wife and I took to the high desert area of Eastern Oregon. My goal was to see my very first White-headed Woodpecker and much to my amazement, we found one ten minutes into the trip. We now had extra time, so, of course, we started looking for new birds. But there was one bird I needed to make a special effort to see. This bird will never be found on Cape Cod, or anywhere east of the Mississippi, and this is where I left off last week.
We all get a kick out of watching Mourning Doves cooing to each other or seeing Mr. Cardinal feeding his mate. But those things are nothing compared to witnessing the bizarre courtship of the male Greater Sage-grouse. Tipping the scale at over six pounds, the sage-grouse is North America’s largest grouse and was once widespread throughout the West. But hunting, grazing and development have confined these birds to a few isolated pockets. Yet each spring they continue to gather on their breeding grounds, which are called “leks.” Like tom turkeys, the male grouse strut their stuff to impress the ladies. But instead of just spreading their tails turkey-style, the grouse also have a strange convulsive display, looking like someone who needs to be Heimliched (or me dancing at a wedding). As a kid I watched sage-grouse displays on countless nature shows and now I wanted to see one for myself. An hour drive from our cabin was an active lek (officially known as the “Millican lek”) and after finding directions online, I set my alarm.
To see the birds in action it was suggested that I arrive at the lek an hour before sunrise. That meant I had to be out the door at 4:09 am…a time that I didn’t even know existed until then. At that ungodly hour it was still dark; even the billions and billions of stars didn’t help (although, they were beautiful). As I drove I kept expecting a cow to wander out in front of me, but the only thing I saw was a Great-horned Owl that flew in front of my headlights (and one very lucky mouse that the owl didn’t see). The directions to the lek also made me nervous. The website said to drive eighteen miles east of town until I reached the bottom of “Horse Ridge.” (Horse Ridge?) At that point I was to look for an “unmarked” dirt road. That dirt road continued for two miles and then I had to turn onto another unmarked dirt road…all in the pitch black. (Was I looking for birds or making a drug deal?)
Finally, as if by magic (or luck), I somehow found the spot, parked and stepped out of the car. This is when I realized what they say about the desert is true: warm days and cool nights. It was a pleasant 65º the day before, but at 5:09 am the air temp was 17º (that’s right, one – seven degrees). I was dressed for late spring, not Ice Station Zebra. As I headed back towards the warmth of the car, I heard a weird sound coming out of the dark. Even though I couldn’t see them (or anything else), somewhere not very far from me, male sage-grouse were making their distinctive but totally unusual calls. When they are courting, these grouse produce a peculiar guttural “song” that sounds like a cross between a UFO and bubbling pea soup. I just stood there, alone under the desert stars, absorbing a natural encounter few people have experienced. The mystical moment was eventually cut short by the cold and I was forced to climb back inside my vehicle. But I refused to start the engine. The birds didn’t need the stinky exhaust from my rental car to interfere with this ancient ritual.
As the sun rose I could finally see what I had been hearing. There were twenty or so male grouse, all puffed out, strutting and jousting, just like they have been doing for thousands of years. Man, it was cool to watch. Then I noticed that there were other eyes staring at me. Fifty feet away was a herd of pronghorns. Pronghorns are beautiful antelope-ish looking animals that probably should be in Africa, but are unique to North American. Weighing over 100 pounds and standing four feet tall, pronghorns live in the open areas of the West and are the fastest land animal in the entire New World. Now they were just wondering about me. Like an idiot I tried to take a photo, but the second I moved the shy creatures vanished into the sagebrush. I turned my attention back to the grouse, but by this time it was getting lighter and the birds were slowing down. (I think once they could see how silly they looked they didn’t want to dance anymore.) It was also time for me to leave and pick up my wife, who had gone horseback riding. She and I had a wonderful lunch at a vegetarian hamburger and hot dog stand (yes, there is such a thing). We were both so excited about our separate experiences that we talked over each other’s stories, but neither of us noticed, or minded. It was that kind of day…an unforgettable one.
Our trip to Bend, Oregon was awesome. We saw lots of new birds and the local folks were super friendly. One time, after I had stopped in the middle of the road to check out a hawk, a cowboy-looking guy pulled up in his pickup truck (of course), but instead of cursing at me he kindly asked if we were lost. (Where I come from there would have been cursing.) Anyone who is looking for a fun birding experience should consider a trip to Bend. I’ll even tell you where to find the best vegetarian places. And if you are looking for sage-grouse, simply drive to the bottom of Horse Ridge and turn onto an unmarked dirt road. If you get lost, just ask the pronghorns.