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Fitness and Photography for Fun - A blog on staying fit by hiking and doing photography by David Mendosa

Greater Sage-Grouse‏

May 13th, 2011 · 5 Comments

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Just a few days ago I was reflecting that the bird I most wanted to see was the Greater Sage-Grouse. Maybe next year, I thought. I knew that they make their mating display only in the early spring.

But here in the Northwest spring is late this year. The Greater Sage-Grouse usually do their mating display in March and April.

It also required careful planning and help from a lot of people and following up on all the leads I got. That chain of events started when I met a professional photographer named Larry Arbanas along a road in the Hart Mountain National Antelope Reserve in southern Oregon. I stopped because he was the only other person out and about on Tuesday morning and because I could see his camera and tripod. He told me that he was making a series of “Mountain to Mountain Wildlife” videos featuring the wildlife at the refuge. I asked him if he knew Jeff Mackay, the refuge manager, whose email message was responsible for my visit there. He did, and immediately offered to take me back to the refuge office and meet Jeff in person.

Jeff was arranging for Larry to have a blind set up to photograph Greater Sage-Grouse at the Hart Mountain National Antelope Reserve. But that reserve doesn’t have any leks where I could see them display near a road. Then, Jeff mentioned that only about 100 miles away the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge had a lek right next to a road.

I decided to go for it, which immediately meant driving to the Malheur headquarters for precise directions. A couple of volunteers and then the refuge manager there told me that the lek was 8.4 miles down the Foster Flat Road, but no one knew the best time to visit. They did refer me to the Malheur Field Station a few miles away. There, the very helpful Duncan told me what I needed to know.

Nobody volunteered the information that grouse display just before sunset as well as at sunrise. But from my visit a month ago to the Greater Prairie-Chicken display near Wray, Colorado, I knew that they did. When I asked Duncan what direction sunlight came from on the lek in the morning and afternoon, he told me that in the morning they were back-lit but in the evening the sun would be behind me in my SUV.

That settled the time for me. I decided to see the display that very evening. The decision met staying the whole day at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, and that turned out to be a wonderfully productive day of photographing birds in its marshes and wetlands.

Duncan told me that I needed to be at the lek by 7:30 p.m. when the Greater Sage-Grouse arrive. That meant I first needed to reconnoiter the location. So the next thing that morning was to drive down Foster Flat Road to find the exact location of the lek. At 8.2 miles according to my SUV’s odometer I found small piles of rocks on either side of the road at earlier visitors had marked.

That evening I arrived at the lek at 7:20. Not another vehicle was on the road, which is a rough track not suitable for passenger cars, but which my SUV made it as long as I drove slowly through the huge potholes and ruts. I had the lek all to myself until 7:33 when a dozen or so of the Greater Sage-Grouse all flew in together. Eventually, I counted at least 14 males and females.

I made sure not to disturb the birds by arriving before they did, making no noise, and staying in my vehicle.

The light was glorious, some of the best that I have ever had for photography. The birds in all their display were also glorious. I snapped hundreds of images in the next 28 minutes. Then, the sun faded, and by 8:12 I drove away.

The drive back to where I stayed at Hart Mountain Cabin near the town of Plush was a challenge, but worth it. The 102-mile drive in the dark over mostly dirt and gravel roads took me until 10:45 p.m. to return to my home away from home. On the drive back I didn’t encounter a single vehicle or see a single person. Since I had left the cabin at 5:30 a.m., I had a long day of photography indeed.

These Greater Sage-Grouse are the largest North American grouse. They are 21 to 30 inches long, and males weight 5 1/2 pounds, twice as much as females.

During the mating season the males put on courtship displays on their traditional arena, or lek, which generations of the grouse have used. The males defend their ground against other males. They display by inflating their air sacs and by spreading their long pointed tail feathers in a fan.

A Female Greater Sage-Grouse

A Greater Sage-Grouse Came Close

Click on the picture above to enlarge


Click on the picture above to enlarge
A Male Greater Sage-Grouse Displays

A Male Greater Sage-Grouse Displays

Click on the picture above to enlarge

The Greater Sage-Grouse name is apt. During the winter sage grouse feed almost entirely on the soft evergreen leaves and shoots of the sagebrush.

A classic symbol of the American West is the sagebrush. As far as I know, only sage-grouse and pronghorn feed on it. No wonder that they are Western icons.


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Posted in: Photography

5 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Andy Knorr // Mar 12, 2012 at 5:19 pm

    Nice pics David. I was planning a trip up there but with gas what it is I’m not sure. Is the road super rough or could I make it in a crossover type vehicle? I have a lot of off road experience on a motorcycle, but??? Thanks for the report Andy

  • 2 David Mendosa // Mar 12, 2012 at 6:01 pm

    Dear Andy,

    Actually, the roads are quite good. You can make it in a regular car!


  • 3 jim carlton // Mar 18, 2014 at 4:14 pm

    Hi David, I’m writing a Wall Street Journal article on the growing popularity of Sage Grouse Lek watching around the West and was hoping to chat with a wildlife photographer who has been to one. Could I call you? if so, please let me know a good time and number. Thx, Jim 415 765-6123

  • 4 dea // Nov 5, 2014 at 11:30 am

    Should have stayed at Diamond Hotel (30 mi) or Frenchglen (35 mi); Plush is real push! Narrows (20 mi) has wigwams for rent, too. All mileage from lek on Jack Mountain.

  • 5 David Mendosa // Nov 5, 2014 at 11:48 am

    Dear Doug,

    Yes, they would have been closer. But I had plush accommodations in Plush! I did enjoy lunch or dinner (I forget which) at the Frenchglen Hotel.

    With metta,