Earth.com exclusive: Birds, sex and dying dances
Sitting in on the hard plywood floor of the cramped wildlife hide, we peeked out of the windows on a flat piece of grassland, eerily lit by a nearly full moon. The early morning hours seemed full of potential as Erin, my girlfriend, and I sat whispering and sipping coffee from a dented green thermos. In those hours before the grouse arrived I thought back to another lek.
Erin and I worked for three months as temporary managers of a nature reserve in the cloud forest near Mindo, Ecuador. Besides maintaining facilities and assisting guests, a large part of our work was bird work. On our first full day being oriented to our responsibilities, we rose before dark and were led by the departing reserve managers on a path climbing a hill through dense, tropical forest. The trail led to a small spur trail that ended at a small shack draped in camouflage netting. Inside the small tin roofed blind, we sat on a rough wooden bench and waited with clipboards of empty data sheets and binoculars hung ‘round our necks. Eventually we heard the flutter of arriving wings and the loud, rising aaaawoooo cry of the male Andean Cock of the Rock (Rupicola Peruvianus) abbreviated: ACOR.
Through the dense foliage there wasn’t as much to see of the birds as one could hope. The exotic vocalizations and loud beating of wings as males sparred or showed off gave the imagination a lot of material. The Andean cock of the rock is a medium sized bird that is rather non-descript except for the bright red and large crest on the males heads. In the early morning dimness, through the tangle of branches, vines and epiphytic bromeliads the ACOR males were mostly flashes of vivid color against a collage of green.
Watching the Sharp Tailed Grouse (Tympanuchus phasianellus jamesi) was the opposite of the half-veiled display of the ACOR. With the grouse, everything was on display. The name, Sharp Tailed Grouse, proved to be very adept at capturing the bird. The males in displaying point their tails straight up, revealing a white rump pointing sharply indeed at the sky. The birds make a rattling noise as they shake back and forth, snaking in lines through the lek. Then all the grouse freeze. It seems the males pause in their dance to see if any females have taken notice. One time all the males froze except one who kept dancing for a bit, oblivious, when he saw his mistake I imagine he stopped quickly to hide his embarrassment. A few of the males seemed more dominant or at least made a more impressive lekking display; these inflated bright purple pouches in their neck. There were also the plump, clucky squelching noises and the excitable birds jumping into the air.
From the site of the grouse lek, you could look across the rolling fields of grassland cut by the regular lines of barb wire to the water tower of the town of Wall. At night, when we heard coyotes yipping their savage song we could see the tiny lights of Wall twinkling, like a far off dream.
In Ecuador as with the grouse, the lekking happened in the early morning but less impressively before sunset. For a small fee we would take guests to the blind to watch the ACOR. One afternoon I took a young Italian man who said he was also a biology student to watch the ACOR lek. As we were sitting in the hide waiting patiently for the birds’ tell-tale aaaawoooo or the sharp rattle of wings, I heard the far off beep beep beep of a car alarm. We sat quietly and waited for the birds to come, they came but over the time we were in Ecuador, we noticed them coming less often.
As we sat in the blind watching the grouse, the dance became a little less active but the birds were still all around us. The sun was just starting to come up. Erin and I sat tight, the forest service information packet which told us how to get here warned us to leave the grouse undisturbed until they were all gone. For grouse, lekking grounds are special places, places they return to year after year. I heard a story of people inadvertently building a house on top of a lekking place. The birds were said to return and lek on the roof of the house. The truth is that human disturbance has a huge impact on grouse. You won’t see a lek in the parking lot of a shopping mall. My bird book tells me that the Sharp-tailed Grouse were once much more widespread than today. A range that spread along much of Canada and the western US has been shattered and shrunk to islands dotting the map. Sharp Tailed Grouse are considered a species of Least Concern; they have a stable population; does that mean we shouldn’t mourn what is lost?
As Erin and I sat, patiently waiting for the grouse to leave on their own, men in the blind next to ours stepped outside, hefting a camouflage camera with a huge lens. The birds were a flap of feathers and then gone. The men walked to their car without a second thought. We sat, filled with rage and waited, maybe the birds would return. We waited in vain, the grouse were gone.