Many birders chase warblers come spring, but the best show in the bird world starting in March might be on the grassy plains, where grouse perform eye- and ear-catching displays: Leaps and glides that would make a modern dancer swoon, booms and pops worthy of an orchestral percussion section, and runway-ready attire that glows and transforms in the subdued light of a prairie dawn.
Five North American species of grassland grouse gather in groups during the breeding season to dance on leks—open areas of ground where males display for females. And many public and private organizations offer access and tours to viewing blinds during the height of grouse lekking activity, giving birders a front-row seat to the show.
Any trip to a lek starts with doing your homework: Four of America’s grassland grouse are listed as Near Threatened or Vulnerable by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, so it’s critical for birders to plan carefully and follow all guidelines for minimizing disturbance at leks. But play by the rules and get yourself into a lek blind well before dawn on a spring morning, and you’ll be in for an astonishing show.
During the courtship dance of the male Greater Sage-Grouse, the golden, balloonlike air sacs on its neck inflate and deflate at high speed—creating a sound like the rapid-fire popping of champagne bottles. The air-sac pops (also referred to as “plops” or “snaps”) are part of a strutting display, when males take a step or two forward, hold their tail feathers fanned in an upright position, and flare their yellow eye-comb feathers. During the display, their air sacs (technically known as cervical apteria) grow 50 times bigger as their distinctive sounds echo up to 5 miles across the open sagebrush landscape.
See the Show
Greater Sage-Grouse populations have declined significantly across western North America, but their range still spans the so-called Sagebrush Sea that runs across 10 states and two Canadian provinces. Sage-grouse leks are most active in the hours just before sunrise in the months of March, April, and May.
Wyoming is the stronghold of today’s Greater Sage-Grouse population, with more than a third of the world’s remaining sage-grouse living in the Cowboy State. The Wyoming Game and Fish Department offers a map of the approximate locations of 15 sage-grouse leks throughout the state; visit Wyoming’s Sage-Grouse Lek Viewing Guide, and call (307) 777-4600 to get directed to the proper Wyoming Fish and Game regional field offices for the lek you’re interested in.
In California, Mono County in the eastern Sierra Nevada hosts a Greater Sage-Grouse population that is geographically isolated from the rest of the species. Several accessible leks are situated on Los Angeles Department of Water and Power property in Long Valley near Mammoth Lakes. Long Valley is about 60 miles northwest of the city of Bishop and more than a 5-hour drive from all the major California cities. For viewing information and guidelines visit the Eastern Sierra Audubon Society’s Greater Sage-Grouse guide, or call Bill Deane at the LADWP, (760) 873-2283.
The Gunnison Sage-Grouse looks and acts similar to the Greater Sage-Grouse, but is only 2/3 the size. The male also has extra-long filoplumes on the back of its head that recall a punk-rock ponytail. The Gunnison Sage-Grouse is very sensitive to disturbance near leks, possibly even more so than other grouse species, so birders should use extra caution.
See the Show
Gunnison Sage-Grouse is a federally listed endangered species, and over 90% of the entire population lives in the Gunnison Basin in Colorado. The only public viewing spot for a Gunnison lek is about 20 miles west of the town of Gunnison at the Waunita Watchable Wildlife Site operated by the nonprofit conservation group Sisk-A-Dee (Shoshone for “grouse of the green river”). The 2022 viewing season runs April 1 to April 30, with no viewing from April 10 to April 16. Advance planning (sometimes one year or more in advance) is required. Visit the Sisk-A-Dee website or call director Patrick Magee (970) 641-3959.
When displaying, Sharp-tailed Grouse males look a bit like wind-up toy airplanes. They spread their wings, lower their heads, and point their honed, arrowlike tails toward the sky. Amidst stuttering steps and frequent direction changes, they inflate their lavender-hued throat sacs, rattle their tails, and utter a range of barks, coos, pops, and gobbles.
See the Show
Sharp-tailed Grouse tend to use the same lek sites year after year, so they can be a relatively reliable bet for seeing a spring-dancing grouse. Eastern Montana and western North Dakota host the highest densities of Sharp-tailed Grouse.
In Montana, the Benton Lake National Wildlife Refuge near Great Falls (more than 3 hours’ drive north of Bozeman) conducts a grouse-blind lottery each spring to allow access for birders while regulating the total number of visitors. To submit your name for this year’s lek lottery, email your top three dates to firstname.lastname@example.org, or call (406) 727-7400 ext. 226, before March 27. Blinds will be open Thursdays through Sundays from March 31 to May 15.
In Nebraska, the Bessey Ranger District near the town of Halsey (more than a 4-hour drive west of Omaha) sets up first-come, first served blinds on U.S. Forest Service land for Sharp-tailed Grouse viewing from mid-March through early May. Greater Prairie-Chickens can sometimes be seen there as well. Visit the Bessey NWR webpage on grouse viewing blinds or call the Bessey Ranger District at (308) 533-2257.
A gathering of male Greater Prairie-Chickens on their booming ground sounds like wind howling through a haunted forest. But there are no trees at their lek sites amidst the prairie. Male prairie-chickens start their incessant booming in the pre-dawn darkness—rushing at each other or running in parallel along invisible territorial lines that they establish within the lek. Once females arrive, the males ramp up the intensity by performing flutter jumps, leaping several feet into the air while flapping their wings, often while uttering whoop, cackle, or whine calls.
See the Show
Greater Prairie-Chicken leks are booming from late March to early May.
In Kansas, the Flint Hills Discovery Center in Manhattan (an hour drive west of Topeka) offers Greater Prairie-Chicken lek tours on select Saturdays and Wednesdays from mid-March through late April. Call the center at (785) 587-2726, or visit Greater Prairie-Chicken Booming Tours.
In southwest Nebraska, the McCook/Red Willow County Tourism Board offers guided lek tours from March through May. Call (308) 345-1200, ext. 318 or visit Prairie Chicken Dance Tours.
In Wisconsin, the Paul J. Olson state wildlife area (about a 2-hour drive north of Madison) hosts the annual Wisconsin Prairie Chicken Festival on April 9. Participants will get to visit booming grounds and go on a guided grassland bird tour. Visit the Wisconsin Prairie Chicken Festival on Facebook or email email@example.com.
Northwestern Minnesota is one of the last strongholds for Greater Prairie-Chickens in the Land of 10,000 Lakes. The Minnesota Prairie Chicken Society has contact and reservation information for a half-dozen sites throughout the region.
Sounding considerably more chickenlike than Greater Prairie-Chickens, Lesser Prairie-Chicken leks are full of gurgling gobbles and laugh-like cackles, and their leks are commonly referred to as “gobbling grounds.” During their gobbling display, male Lesser Prairie-Chickens expose their mustard yellow eye-combs, elevate their tail as high as they can, erect pinnae (earlike feathers), and extend their bodies forward and parallel to the ground. When females arrive, it stimulates the males to flutter-jump, making the lek look like an avian popcorn popper. Even females get in on the action; when several hens are concentrated in a small area on lek, they may do some of their own booming and rushing at adjacent hens.
See the Show
Lesser Prairie-Chicken leks are most active from mid-March through late April.
Lesser Prairie-Chickens are rare and range-restricted, so there are fewer opportunities for the public to view their breeding dances, says Jackie Augustine, executive director of Audubon of Kansas. But Kansas actually offers some of the best opportunities for birders to get on a Lesser Prairie-Chicken lek. From April 7 to 10 Audubon of Kansas and partners will hold the inaugural Prairie-Chicken Festival in the town of Hays, about a 3-hour drive west of Topeka. Lek-viewing opportunities will be available for all festival attendees. Visit Audubon of Kansas online or call (785) 537-4385 for information. A little farther west in the town of Oakley, the Buffalo Bill Cultural Center offers guided tours to Lesser Prairie-Chicken leks from March 15 to May 15. Visit their website for more information, or call (785) 953-1139.
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