Laura Erickson's For the Birds

Monday, May 26, 2014

Spruce Grouse!

Spruce Grouse
Last year during my Conservation Big Year, I spent a morning with my friend Troy Walters searching for a Spruce Grouse where he often finds them, near Eagle River, Wisconsin. Troy and I had long led a weeklong birding workshop for what used to be called Elderhostel, now Road Scholar, at Trees for Tomorrow, a natural resource school in Eagle River, Wisconsin. Our group never saw a single Spruce Grouse, but we figured they were too shy and retiring for a whole crowd of people to see, and we’d probably have better luck if it were just the two of us, but couldn’t find one. I figured I had bad Wisconsin Spruce Grouse karma, and ended up seeing the only one for my Conservation Big Year in Vermont in October.
Spruce Grouse
This year, Troy has moved on to a new job, and I was extremely doubtful that we’d find the Spruce Grouse—Troy’s the one with the consistent luck—but I set out with the group anyway. The lowland forest area is also a great spot for Boreal Chickadees and Golden-crowned Kinglets, so it was worth a visit with or without Spruce Grouse.
But first thing when we got out of the school bus and started walking down the sandy road into the forested area, one of the sharp-eyed participants spotted a moving bump on the side of the road. Sure enough, it was a Spruce Grouse!
Spruce Grouse
Spruce Grouse
We all got reasonably good looks at what was a lifer for almost everyone, but since we were going to be walking down the road anyway, I figured we might as well do it in a way that would least disturb the bird, which would have the added benefit of our getting even better looks. We were gathered in a clump, and so I suggested we advance five steps and stop again. Every sensible bird sees us before we see it, and knows darned well that we are there, so I kept my voice quiet and calm but didn’t worry about being absolutely silent—birds seem more alarmed when we sneak up on them like predators than when we calmly approach. The ground was soft, our footsteps fairly quiet.
Spruce Grouse
After five steps, we took a bunch more photographs and then advanced another five steps. As we drew closer to the bird, we all worked our way to the other side of the road as well.
Spruce Grouse
The grouse stayed on the ground until we were surprisingly close, and then he just took a few steps into the woods and flew up to a tree right on the edge, where we could get even more photos. Everyone was thrilled, both at the exceptional views the gorgeous bird gave us and at how we’d disturbed him as little as possible as we walked past him.
Spruce Grouse
Spruce Grouse are found throughout the coniferous forests of Canada and Alaska, dropping down where lowland spruce forests are found in the northernmost states in the eastern half of the US and in the mountainous regions of Washington, Idaho, and Montana down into the Grand Tetons. In winter, they feed largely on spruce needles, but as soft vegetation and especially fruits become available on the forest floor in spring and summer, their diet changes. Hunters prefer eating spruce grouse shot earlier in the fall than later, because the meat starts having a somewhat unpleasant taste as the grouse’s diet changes back to spruce needles. These extraordinarily beautiful birds aren’t particularly shy—their nickname, “fool hens,” comes from their regularly allowing people to approach as closely as ours let us, even when the people are armed with guns rather than cameras. Fortunately, Wisconsin lists the Spruce Grouse as Threatened, and it’s a fully protected Species of Special Concern in nearby Michigan, so our handsome and obliging bird should be safe as long as he keeps out of the way of Goshawks and cars. I hope he lives long and prospers.
Spruce Grouse

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