IDAHO FALLS — Before you see them, you hear them.
The male sage grouse makes a chorus of burps, or perhaps champagne bottles popping — though somehow less crude than either of those things.
As the sun creeps up over the foothills, the pointed, bulbous forms of the birds appear, rising above the woody desert plants for which they are named.
One stands up, then another. Soon the lek, or breeding ground, fills in with about 40 sage grouse. Most are males. All hope to reel in a mate. Their seductive showmanship includes inflating air sacs on their chest, displaying a spiky tail and a three-step strut.
And there’s the sound.
Like in a bar, harmless and feathery skirmishes occasionally break out. “Were you talking to my girl? She’s clearly into me, man.”
Many times it’s all for naught: Biologists say the ladies tend to gravitate toward one dominant guy on the lek.
That was the case Saturday morning at The Nature Conservancy’s Crooked Creek Ranch, about 20 miles west of Dubois, Idaho. As light hit the desert, the male birds were busy shuffling around, trying to find the most visible location to dance. Standoffs sometimes ensued, when one bird encroached on another’s turf. Generally, however, the fights consisted only of some wing flapping and a stare down.
For most, the effort proved fruitless. Within an hour, roughly 10 hens who showed up to mate circled around a proud, puffed-up male. Rather than sealing the deal, he spent the morning protecting his harem by fighting off would-be suitors.
The annual mating show, best seen in April, is a sight not to be missed in eastern Idaho, where many of the birds have hung on in recent years despite ever-encroaching construction and energy development on their sagebrush habitat.
Crooked Creek Ranch is one such ideal location to catch the annual mating dance.
Several observers made their way to an isolated ranch house last Friday evening, spotting pronghorn and other wildlife along the way. As dusk fell, a few sage grouse were visible, flying low. It is no surprise the birds persist in isolated valleys such as this, which have witnessed little to no development and are miles from the freeway. It is a quiet and mostly undisturbed landscape; just rolling hills of sagebrush leading to the foothills of the Beaverhead and Centennial mountain ranges.
The key to the best show is rising early. We were up before 6 a.m., with our host, Marilynne Manguba, ushering us out the door. A pair of hunting blinds had been set up for viewing. They were positioned perfectly.
As the sun peeked over the mountains, we shivered less and watched as the sage grouse mostly forgot we were there — sometimes wandering to within a dozen feet before stopping, puffing up, and popping.
To watch a live stream of a sage grouse lek in Central Oregon, go to bit.ly/LekCam2016.