Dawn on a Greater Sage-Grouse lek – Nikon D810, f8, 1/500, ISO 400, Nikkor 500mm VR with 1.4x TC, natural light
Each year across the western states Greater Sage-Grouse begin to fly into leks on the sagebrush steppe during late winter and early spring to perform their fascinating courtship displays well before the first sign of dawn.
Anyone wishing to see this yearly ritual should arrive on the lek well before daybreak so as to not disturb the grouse because if they are disturbed and fly away they won’t be back again that day and no mating will occur. You also need to be prepared to stay until the last bird finishes his display and leaves the lek or please, for the sake of these birds, just don’t go to see them display. They face enough hurdles nowadays as it is.
Talk softly, don’t turn on your engine to get warm if you are in a vehicle. Pee before you get there. Dress warmly. Turn down the volume on your cell phone.
Also, on nights with a full moon it might be best to stay away from the leks because the grouse can and do display all night long. Don’t use flash. Or electronic playback of calls. Always put the well being of the birds before the photos.
Greater Sage-Grouse on a frigid morning – Nikon D810, f8, 1/1000, ISO 640, Nikkor 500mm VR with 1.4x TC, natural light
If you do go be prepared to feel amazed by their courtship display, to have it touch something deep inside you. Even before the sun comes up you can hear the pops and whistles that are created when the males inflate the yellow air sacs in their necks. In the dark you can see the males moving around the lek because of the white feathers on their necks, it can look kind of ghostly.
As dawn breaks and the sun comes up the dancing and strutting increases.
My advice for anyone who does go to photograph the Greater Sage-Grouse on their leks is to start off with high ISOs then decrease that as the light gets brighter. Also, take a lot of images, I know it is a pain to cull hundreds of images but having more images gives you more choices when you are done photographing these birds. From one frame to the next movement can happen that makes one image more appealing to your eyes.
Male Greater Sage-Grouse at the edge of the lek – Nikon D810, f8, 1/800, ISO 400, -0.3 EV, Nikkor 500mm VR with 1.4x TC, natural light
I can only speak for myself but I feel so privileged to watch these grouse dancing on their leks, it is a mesmerizing display. To watch the males scuffle, tossing bits of soil and vegetation into the air with their movements and then to see them separate with hardly a feather out of place. Watching the males on the edge of the lek I wonder if they will join in on the ritualistic display.
Spread tail of a male Greater Sage-Grouse – Nikon D810, f8, 1/640, ISO 400, -0.3 EV, Nikkor 500mm VR with 1.4x TC, natural light
As handsome as these Greater Sage-Grouse are from the front or side a view of the back of their tails is interesting because of the way they spread their tails feathers and the tail feather patterns are attention grabbing too. I don’t mind butt shots of these grouse at all.
Male Greater Sage-Grouse on a high sagebrush steppe – Nikon D810, f7.1, 1/1000, ISO 400, Nikkor 500mm VR with 1.4x TC, natural light
After mating with the male grouse the female leaves the lek area and she’ll be on her own to raise the next generation of Grater Sage-Grouse, the males don’t help the females with nest area selection, incubation or rearing the six to nine young.
Be prepared to want to go back and watch the Great Sage-Grouse courtship display again. Seeing it once will not be enough, take my word on that.
Life is good.