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by Stan Tekiela
June 11, 2022
Looking up into the dark Wyoming night sky, all the stars in the Milky Way where shining so brightly it looked like white paint had been splashed across the sky from horizon to horizon. I blinked my eyes a couple times to bring the entire scene into better focus. After all, it was 4 in the morning, and I had gotten a grand total of 3 hours of sleep before finding myself in the middle of a 200,000-acre ranch in eastern Wyoming.
Trekking across the open sage brush landscape in the dark of night is always a bit of a thrill. About 20 minutes later I arrived at a non-descript location in the middle of nowhere. I picked a spot near some low growing sage brush and sat down with a small ground chair (flat on the ground) and set up my tripod and camera. Knowing that getting close to my subject will be a challenge I mounted my 800 mm lens on the tripod. I used a camouflage fabric covering to conceal my camera and myself with only the front few inches of my camera lens poking out.
I settled down and tried to get as comfortable as possible while sitting on the ground in the dark in the middle of the sage brush. It was cold, just above freezing, but I was dressed to be out in the cold. Off in the near distance, a pair of coyotes started to yip and bark. On the other side of the clearing several more coyote joined into the pre-dawn chorus, which just added to the magic of this landscape.
The sun wouldn’t come up for another 2 hours, so I tried to close my eyes and catch up on some much-needed sleep. Before I could catch a catnap, I heard the unique call of the Greater Sage Grouse (Centrocercus urophasianus). This is why I was sitting in the dark all covered up and waiting. I had come to Wyoming to study and capture images of the Greater Sage Grouse during their breeding season.
I couldn’t see the birds yet, but I could tell there was at least three of four. The time ticked by and with each passing minute it became slightly brighter. Eventually I could see the outline of these most amazing birds.
The Greater Sage Grouse is the largest grouse species in North America. Although the Sage Grouse is not listed as an Endangered species, its population has declined over 90 percent since settlement times when it was estimated there where as many as 16 million birds. Today it is thought as few as 200,000 roam the sage brush region of 11- western states and parts of Canada.
As the sun came up and enough light illuminated the landscape sufficient for me to capture some images, I was thrilled to see as many as six males and three or four females. Each spring the males gather in open areas that don’t have as much Sage Brush growing and display for the females. The area or arena where the males display is called a lek. The word “lek” comes from the Swedish “leka”, which means “to play”. I suppose that might describe what goes on during the mating process of these birds. Many of these leks have been used for many, many generations.
Females come from far and wide to watch and assess the males. What the females sees or looks for is really a mystery. When I look at these males displaying, they all look the same and sound the same. But no doubt the females are seeing or hear something different with each male. Studies show that nearly all the female’s mate with just one male even while many other males are displaying right next to the dominant male.
While I was photographing over several mornings I watched as many females entered the lek and moved around assessing the males. Eventually they would approach the dominant male and seek a copulation which would take only a few seconds. She would then fly off where she will make a nest under a large sage bush, lay her eggs, and start to incubate the eggs.
The dancing and showing off would last about an hour after the sun broke the horizon. Then as if time ran out the males would suddenly fly off into the sage scrubland surrounding the lek and won’t return until the following morning when it all starts up again. Until next time…
Stan Tekiela is an author / naturalist and wildlife photographer who travels the U.S. to study and capture images of wildlife. He can be followed on Instagram.com, Facebook.com and Twitter.com. He can be contacted via his web page a naturesmart.com.
The nationally syndicated NatureSmart Column appears in over 25 cities spanning 7 states: Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, Illinois, Ohio, New York and Pennsylvania. It is a bi-weekly column circulated to over 750,000 readers.
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