Dancing with the Sharp-Tailed Grouse

Photographs and Article by David Lilly
April 28, 2013


Sharp-tailed grouse by David Lilly ©

All bird photographers have the Sharp-tailed Grouse on their list of birds to photograph. For several years I have searched for the Sharp-tailed grouse, but with no luck. This year a fellow bird photographer, Ken Cribben made contact with a rancher  who had Sharp-tailed Grouse on his property . We gained permission to look for the Sharp-tailed Grouse. We were not disappointed(except for the snow in late April). We conducted a reconnaissance and found the lek. We then waited for a clear morning. A week and half later we finally got a clear morning.


Sharp-tailed grouse by David Lilly ©


We left Calgary around 5 A.M. It took approximately 45 mins to get to the location. We gathered our equipment and stumbled in the dark to a Blind that was in place. It was still dark, so we had to wait until around 7 A.M. High ISO did not help in this case. We wanted the early morning sunlight to cast the nice orange glow on the birds. To our surprise the birds beat us to the lek. The sounds the grouse make during this time , I found to be very interesting. I guess the males could not wait to impress to females. The females I noticed were on the outside. Each male seem to have his own area inside the Lek. Around 9:30 A.M. The grouse finally decided they had enough and flew off .



Sharp-tailed grouse by David Lilly ©



Both me and Ken use Nikon equipment. Ken set up his 600mm on a tripod and I rested my 500mmm on an opening in the blind. Protocol states you should try to get to the lek before the grouse show up.  I have been told the grouse will leave the Lek if they are disturbed on a regular basis. Once the sun started to shine the Grouse started their dance and mating routine. The lek is a dancing ground. The lek is used year after year and for many years. The vegetation on the lek is stampeded and very short. However, the Fescue Grass, that was a favourite food of the Plains Buffalo did present some difficulty for great photographs. 


Sharp-tailed Grouse by David Lilly ©


I know I had to try to pick an open area and keep my fingers crossed  for a grouse to dance in that area. I was rewarded by several grouse doing their display in front of me. On the Lek were these photographs were taken there were approximately 20 dancing grouse. As this may be my first and last chance to photograph these grouse, I keep my finger on the shutter.


Sharp-tailed grouse by David Lilly ©


In Canada there are six different Sharp-tailed Grouse. The northern Sharp-tailed Grouse found in Manitoba, northern Ontario and central Quebec. The Northwestern Sharp-Tailed Grouse in the Great Slave Lake region. The Alaska Sharp-tailed Grouse is located in norther British Columbia and Northern Alberta. The Columbian Sharp-tail Grouse can be found in Southern British Columbia. The Prairie Sharp-tailed Grouse are found in Saskatchewan and Manitoba. The grouse you see here in this article are Plains Sharpe-tailed Grouse found in the plains on Southern Alberta and Saskatchewan. In Alberta the best place is in southern Alberta in the Porcupine Hills and the foothills west and east of Highway 22. The Sharp-tailed Grouse is the provincial bird of Saskatchewan.


Sharp-tailed Grouse by David Lilly ©


The sharp-tailed grouse are called Sharp-tailed Grouse because of two (deck) feathers being square-tipped and a little longer than their lighter outer feathers and hence the name. Look closely and you see what looks like a sharp tail. Also, the adult males you see in these photographs have a yellow eyebrow and purple sac below their beck.


Sharp-tailed Grouse will usually display from mid April to mid May. In mid May the females will find a suitable nesting site and lay up to a dozen eggs. A point to note here the female raises the chicks by herself. The chicks are borne ready to scratch and forge for food. The male after a busy month will lay low until the fall. They will then gather together and form flocks for the winter.


Sharp-tailed Grouse by David Lilly ©


The greatest threat to the Sharp-tailed grouse in Canada is habitat destruction and over hunting. Already the Mexico Sharp-tailed Grouse have disappeared. We has photographers must do our part, when given the opportunity to photograph these magnificent birds. We must protect the location of Leks. Sharp-Tailed Grouse are classified as sensitive in the General Status of Alberta Wild Species report.

LInks & Additional Resources

David Lilly portrait


David Lilly is a professional nature photographer living and working in Calgary, AB he also teaches photo workshops. His photos have been published in PhotoLife, Calgary's Natural Parks, Alberta Nature Magazine and Fine Scale Military Modeler. Dave shoots with Nikon equipment. This is Dave's 6th article for the Canadian Nature photographer. David is also vice president of the Calgary Camera Club.

David Lilly
E-mail: dlilly@shaw.ca
Web site: http://www.canadianbirdphotographer.ca/

Phone: 403 236-8587 (Cell)


David's Other Articles on the Canadian Nature photographer


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