Steamboat Springs Local Colorado Division of Wildlife Officer Jim Haskins said prime time for witnessing the mating dance of one of Routt County's most dramatic birds is fast approaching.
"The Yampa Valley is home to three of Colorado's seven species of native grouse," Haskins said. "A characteristic of most of these species is the elaborate spring breeding display of the male birds."
Two of the three grouse, the sage and sharptail, are considered plains grouse, and breeding males have similar displays. Males start to gather in late winter on breeding grounds called "leks." Their daily displays are part of an annual ritual that determines the dominant males on a lek.
Females won't start showing up on leks until later in the spring breeding season, and once bred will rarely return. Peak lek attendance, the time when the greatest numbers of males and females are seen on a lek, is usually sometime in mid to late April.
Northwest Colorado's third grouse species, the blue grouse, is considered a forest grouse. Unlike its plains cousins, the male blue grouse does not get together on communal display grounds with other males, Haskins said.
Instead, solitary males establish territories where they engage in daily displays in the hopes of attracting local females. A prominent part of the display of all three birds is the inflating of air sacs located on the throats of the males. The expansion and contraction of these sacs results in the distinctive sound or call for each species.
Most of the breeding grounds of all of these species in Routt County are found on private property.
However, the breeding display of sharptail grouse can be observed from Twentymile Road about six miles south of the Hayden Power Plant. The birds display on the west side of the road on a small knoll a short distance from the paved road.
Sage grouse can be viewed from the California Park Road north of Hayden.
Both these leks are on private property and viewers need to stay on the public roads while viewing. Binoculars and spotting scopes will provide viewers with a great look at both species.
Utmost care needs to be taken to not disturb birds on the lek sites, Haskins said. The best time to view these birds is right after sunrise until 8 or 9 am. Sage and sharptail grouse males will be active from late March until mid-May. Access to the sage grouse lek on the California Park Road is generally not possible until mid April.
Blue grouse are the most plentiful of the three species but the hardest to find. Males can often be seen displaying along back country roads in mountain shrub habitat. As forest roads open in late spring, the grouse can also be found at higher elevations. For more information on grouse viewing opportunities, call the Colorado Division of Wildlife at 870-2197.