I HAVE MADE occasional trips to photograph Columbian sharp-tailed grouse on a lek in southern Wyoming for almost a decade. The Columbian sharp-tailed grouse (Tympanuchus phasianellus columbianus) is one of the seven recognized subspecies of North American sharp-tailed grouse. It is also the rarest and smallest of the subspecies of sharp-tailed grouse. Columbian sharp-tailed grouse have experienced declines in distribution and population due to overuse and development of the mountain shrub and grasslands that it favors. It is native to the sagebrush steppe of the western United States and British Columbia. First described by the Lewis & Clark expedition, Columbian sharp-tailed grouse were once the most abundant grouse in the West. Today, Columbian sharp-tailed grouse no occupy less than 10 percent of its historic range. It is currently considered a Species of Concern in several U.S. states
Like other grouse, Columbian sharp-tailed grouse congregate year after year in the spring on a small area known as a lek. Males perform highly animated dancing courtship displays to impress females to mate. These displays consist of rapidly stomping their feet at blur-like speed while keeping with their wings extended, often rotating in a circle. It always makes me smile when they synchronize their dance with each other, turning and freezing in position simultaneously as their neighbor. I also always enjoy hearing them approach in the pre-dawn darkness as they approach the lek. Their weird hooting, cackling, gobbling sounds, and loud foot-stomping are memorable.
Photographing these fast and erratic moving grouse is always a challenge. The birds dart across the lek at high speed, with males stopping suddenly to perform their mating dance. Trying to shoot video is even a more significant challenge. I joke with my shooting buddy Noppadol Paothong that photographing sharp-tail grouse is the ultimate test of camera technology and a photographer’s skill.
VIDEO Sights and sounds from a Columbian sharp-tailed grouse lek in southern Wyoming
PHOTO GALLERY of all my Columbian Sharp-tailed grouse photos
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