At Home: In search of sage grouse
Bird watchers cherish North Routt mating ritual
July 1, 2011
Steamboat Springs — Having trouble wooing a mate on the Ghost Ranch Saloon dance floor? Take a cue from the greater sage grouse.
Once a huge part of Northwest Colorado's culture (Hayden used to harvest it "by the wagonload" and Craig hosted annual Sage Hen Days in the early 1900s), the bird's population has declined in Routt and Moffat counties, but its "Hey there, big boy" mating ritual and the allure for birders eager to glimpse its gyrations remain strong.
Two local environmental organizations — The Wilderness Society and Colorado Environmental Coalition — lead excursions to watch the chest-puffing mating rituals. Recently found eligible for listing under the Endangered Species Act, the greater sage grouse is the largest game bird in North America other than the turkey. And it certainly has game on the dance floor.
"Every spring, folks come from all over the country to watch the male birds do their strangely intriguing mating dance on the traditional mating grounds, or leks," says Soren Jespersen, Northwest Colorado Wildlands coordinator for The Wilderness Society. "It's truly an amazing courtship ritual. Not a single person we've taken there has come home disappointed."
The courtship entails male sage grouse inflating air sacs on their chests while dancing on their ancestral breeding grounds. Hot spots for viewing are on public lands in northern Moffat and Routt counties, but Jespersen adds that if you try to find mating grounds on your own, you'll need a good tip and plenty of patience. "Seventy percent of Colorado's remaining population is here, but because of their rarity, the Division of Wildlife doesn't reveal the exact locations of the leks," adds Jespersen.
While some grouse ply their trade in North Routt, the best place for viewing is north of Craig, where The Wilderness Society and Colorado Environmental Coalition conduct tours as do grouse-savvy outfitters such as Dean Visintainer, who takes guests to a lek on his private land. Whatever you see, pay attention; emulate its moves and you just may draw a crowd — and possible mate for yourself — at the Free Summer Concert Series.
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