Sharp-tailed Grouse at the Lek

Posted by Dan Arndt

Back in April I spent a morning out at a local Sharp-tailed Grouse lek sitting in a blind with some great company. In order to make the minimum disturbance to the birds during their courtship displays, we left Calgary at just after 4:30am, and made it into the blind just as the action was getting started.

In the early light, the males were establishing their territories on the lek and getting ready to defend them, while the females looked around to see who had the best, biggest, or most appealing area on the lek.

male Sharp-tailed Grouse

male Sharp-tailed Grouse

::Aperture: ƒ/6.3|Camera: PENTAX K-3 II|Focal length: 500mm|ISO: 3200|Shutter speed: 1/200s|

female Sharp-tailed Grouse

female Sharp-tailed Grouse

::Aperture: ƒ/6.3|Camera: PENTAX K-3 II|Focal length: 500mm|ISO: 3200|Shutter speed: 1/200s|

The males would strut around and dance and display, and every time one of the few females would walk by, the males would face off, often the same two in a challenge for who would be the one to get this mate this year.

Sharp-tailed Grouse squaring off

Sharp-tailed Grouse squaring off

::Aperture: ƒ/6.3|Camera: PENTAX K-3 II|Focal length: 500mm|ISO: 3200|Shutter speed: 1/200s|

dancing Sharp-tailed Grouse

dancing Sharp-tailed Grouse

::Aperture: ƒ/6.3|Camera: PENTAX K-3 II|Focal length: 500mm|ISO: 3200|Shutter speed: 1/200s|

posing Sharp-tailed Grouse

posing Sharp-tailed Grouse

::Aperture: ƒ/6.3|Camera: PENTAX K-3 II|Focal length: 500mm|ISO: 3200|Shutter speed: 1/320s|

dancing Sharp-tailed Grouse

dancing Sharp-tailed Grouse

::Aperture: ƒ/6.3|Camera: PENTAX K-3 II|Focal length: 500mm|ISO: 1600|Shutter speed: 1/320s|

As the displays continued into the morning hours, the number of males seemed to swell, with pairs splitting off to face off for the next few hours, sometimes splitting up briefly, but quickly returning to their chosen rival to test their mettle.

Sharp-tailed Grouse squaring off again

Sharp-tailed Grouse squaring off again

::Aperture: ƒ/6.3|Camera: PENTAX K-3 II|Focal length: 500mm|ISO: 1600|Shutter speed: 1/320s|

The Rivals

The Rivals

::Aperture: ƒ/8|Camera: PENTAX K-3 II|Focal length: 500mm|ISO: 1600|Shutter speed: 1/640s|

The field of battle

The field of battle

::Aperture: ƒ/8|Camera: PENTAX K-3 II|Focal length: 250mm|ISO: 1600|Shutter speed: 1/500s|

After a brief respite, this male takes a break to survey his surroundings

After a brief respite, this male takes a break to survey his surroundings

::Aperture: ƒ/8|Camera: PENTAX K-3 II|Focal length: 500mm|ISO: 1600|Shutter speed: 1/500s|

The rivals back at it.

A few brave females surveying the battle.

::Aperture: ƒ/8|Camera: PENTAX K-3 II|Focal length: 500mm|ISO: 1600|Shutter speed: 1/500s|

A close-up of the head ornamentation of a male Sharp-tailed Grouse

A close-up of the head ornamentation of a male Sharp-tailed Grouse

::Aperture: ƒ/8|Camera: PENTAX K-3 II|Focal length: 500mm|ISO: 1600|Shutter speed: 1/800s|

It wasn’t until quite late in the morning (relative to when we woke up!) that things really began to come to blows. Note in a few of these photos, one of the grouse has a mouthful of feathers. It seems quite straight forward that removing the colorful or distinct plumage from another male might reduce his chances of impressing a female.

The dispute begins.

The dispute begins.

::Aperture: ƒ/8|Camera: PENTAX K-3 II|Focal length: 250mm|ISO: 1250|Shutter speed: 1/800s|

Full contact

Full contact

::Aperture: ƒ/8|Camera: PENTAX K-3 II|Focal length: 270mm|ISO: 800|Shutter speed: 1/1000s|

First blows.

First blows.

::Aperture: ƒ/8|Camera: PENTAX K-3 II|Focal length: 270mm|ISO: 800|Shutter speed: 1/1000s|

Not quite a fair fight.

Not quite a fair fight.

::Aperture: ƒ/8|Camera: PENTAX K-3 II|Focal length: 270mm|ISO: 800|Shutter speed: 1/1000s|

Attack from above...

Attack from above…

::Aperture: ƒ/8|Camera: PENTAX K-3 II|Focal length: 270mm|ISO: 800|Shutter speed: 1/1000s|

... from the side...

… from the side…

::Aperture: ƒ/8|Camera: PENTAX K-3 II|Focal length: 270mm|ISO: 800|Shutter speed: 1/1000s|

... and from below.

… and from below.

::Aperture: ƒ/8|Camera: PENTAX K-3 II|Focal length: 270mm|ISO: 640|Shutter speed: 1/1000s|

As the morning progressed, the battles became fewer and further between, all to the chagrin of one of the females looking on. Some birds are just not easily impressed at all!

Unimpressed female Sharp-tailed Grouse

Unimpressed female Sharp-tailed Grouse

::Aperture: ƒ/8|Camera: PENTAX K-3 II|Focal length: 150mm|ISO: 400|Shutter speed: 1/800s|

Thanks as always for reading, and good birding!

12 thoughts on “Sharp-tailed Grouse at the Lek

  1. I love getting these photos. It makes me happy to see wild birds in our vicinity & I am learning so much. Thanks for the beautiful photography!

  2. Loved this Dan! The progression of the rising sun on the birds and their activity was wonderful. Well done!

  3. Pingback: Pheasants, Grouse, and Partridges of Calgary - Birds Calgary

  4. This post is just amazing. I love subscribing to this website. Everyone has such treasures to share. On the weekend at Sheep River Falls we saw tiny little grey birds, diving into the water, shooting the rapids, then coming up after being submerged for six or seven seconds, and feeding their young. The birds look like robins with short tails, no red breast. We didn’t have a camera and cell phone photos wouldn’t show up. The birds bounced up and down like they were in a jolly jumper, and when the babies were being fed they fluffed up, squawked and bounced too. Anyone know what these cute little bouncers would be?

  5. Dan, great pictures (as always!) but what caught me this time was your ‘play-by-play’, I loved it!
    Thanks for a great story….
    Val

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