Grouse Dance


     As I write this I have just just finished sorting and editing the pictures I took last week. I spent parts of three days at Benton Lake National Wildlife Refuge (NWR) in north-central Montana. The main purpose of going there was to photograph the "dancing" Sharp-tailed Grouse on the lek. What a kick!
    I have seen native Americans, either in a movie or a documentary, imitate this dance but didn't realize the source or the significance of it. But as I watched these grouse circle around highstepping it with their wings outstretched, all the while clicking and clucking almost as if in rhythm, I saw the connection.
    I had reserved the blind for that morning and entered an hour before sunrise as requested. During that hour I watched the grouse through my binoculars as they performed. I don't know what time they started but they were quite active even then. As I watched and waited for light enough to take pictures, I was able to see that they had a sequence that they followed. Also I learned that what appeared at first to be aggressive behavior in the males was not that at all. Probably the disinterest shown by the females was also not as it seemed but I'm not as sure on that.
    As you look at my pictures and read my musings, please remember that I am not an expert on anything. What I comment on is what I think I saw and what I think it means. Take it for what it's worth and I hope some of the enjoyment I had passes through.
Male and Female Male

The Players


     On the left is the male pausing, or posing, before the female in his best dancing form. She actually seems to take notice which isn't usually what happens. Only the males do the dancing. The females most often look as if they are trying to find something to eat or simply trying to get out of the way.
    The left photo is a male obviously in the mood to dance but looking for a dance partner.
Two Males Two Males

Ready


     Everything gets still. The males partner up with other males by getting in position facing one another. Then they all begin clicking their beaks and clucking. At this point they look like they are about to attack each other, as you can see in the picture on the right. But they don't. Instead, they begin to flutter their wings and shuffle their feet, and the dance begins.
Two Males Two Males

The Dance


     So, clucking and clicking, fluttering and shuffling and hopping, away they go. Usually in unison with their partner for this dance they turn and circle and hop as you see in these shots. Sometimes they do dance without a partner and once in a while they seemed to ignore one another, but more often it seems to be as these pictures show them.
Grouse

Out of Step


     Sometimes they get carried away with their enthusiasm and hop so high they actually take flight. I saw some that once in the air flew a short distance away and then came walking back. If two go up together it can look like an aggressive move but they seem to separate quickly so I don't think it is.
Male Grouse

Gotta Rest a Bit


     This was taken about an hour after sunrise and they seemed to be getting tired. The dances were not lasting as long and when they paired up, they just didn't look like their heart was in it. As you can see this one is not even displaying his purple patch as I came to think of it. Shortly they flushed and the lek was empty. I had been there for over two hours and figured it was pretty well over for the day, so I picked up and left. As I was about 200 feet away from the dancing ground I could see some diehards returning, but as I continued to the road I could see there was only about half the number there had been, so I think it probably wound down pretty quickly from then on.
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