We could hear them before we saw them, when the light in the eastern sky was still dim. It was a sort of cooing sound at first. Then clucks and something like muffled owl hoots. Then a whistle-like whine. And finally the clicking. When the clicking got louder, that's when the action started.
Suddenly, sharptail grouse appeared out of a low-hanging ground fog, first ones and twos running into view and eventually building to an even dozen. All of them with tails up, wings out. All of them males. All of them sex-starved and ready to rumble.
Just south of Solon Springs in Douglas County (Colorado, United States), the Friends of the Bird Sanctuary and the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources set up a tent blind (a square hut-like tent) in the exact spot, called a lek, where male sharp-tailed grouse love to dance.
The blind is open to the public to reserve, and the dancing will continue nearly every morning through about mid-May. "That particular lek has been going for at least 40 years, maybe more," said Greg Kessler, Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources wildlife biologist.
"There were reports years ago of as many as 20 or 30 males on it. It's been down to as few as four. Now it's back up to about a dozen, and that's pretty good. They are hanging in there."
Out of a nearly square-mile (2.5sq km) of open field here, it's unclear why the grouse pick this exact spot every spring to strut their stuff. "There's a little rise in the land there. We think it's a combination of visibility and maybe how the sounds resonate. But we really don't know," Kessler said.
Male sharptails gather in open fields like this to attract females, in the hope of mating. It's called dancing, but it's much more. There's fighting and calling and squawking and flying and running and stomping and spinning.
And then, as fast as it all starts, it stops. The birds freeze in place, like some unseen referee blew a whistle. Then, with no apparent signal, they all begin again in unison, as if choreographed in practice. Sometimes the entire flock will fly away at once, only to return a few minutes later.
The males often pair off, then square off face-to-face. These mini battles range from violent wing bashing – with jumping and brutal footwork – to simply setting down and staring at each other.
Sometimes they lay almost prostrate, wings spread, necks stretched, beak-to-beak, just inches apart – simply staring at each other. They appear too tired to move. Then it all starts up again. Most of the action is happening barely a kilometre away from the blind.
Early in spring, the show is mostly a guy thing. The hens aren't interested yet and most don't even show up to watch. But slowly now the hens are coming, a few at a time. They'll pick their favourite male to mate with, right there in front of the flock.
It's unclear to us mere humans what the females are looking for, exactly. All the male dancers appear to be pretty close in talent. After the fog burned off the dancing really got going, and, on what turned into a sunny morning, the males kept going for nearly three hours.
It's a show that's been playing in the Northland for centuries, but one that surprisingly few Northlanders have actually seen. And, if they don't hurry, it may be too late. Sharp-tailed numbers are slowly fading across most of their original range in northern Minnesota and northern Wisconsin.
While sharptails are common in states just to the west of the US, only pockets of birds exist now in areas of Minnesota and Wisconsin, where European settlers claimed sharptails in flight blocked the sun.
Much of the Northland was perfect sharp-tailed habitat for centuries, with frequent wildfires clearing brush and trees and creating the vast, open fields that sharptails desire – not just to mate but in which to feed and raise their young.
Native Americans called them the fire bird because sharptails thrived so much where there had been a recent fire.
Bad for humans, good for birds
The massive wildfires of 1918 across Carlton (Minnesota) and St Louis (Missouri) counties "were a disaster for people but created great sharptail habitat," said Chris Balzer, area wildlife manager in Cloquet for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. "It's been pretty much downhill for sharptail habitat since then."
As small farmsteads were abandoned and reverted to forest, and as fire suppression to save homes and people took first priority, sharp-tailed habitat has been declining, and so have sharp-tailed numbers. Forests, wetlands and intensive, row-crop farming don't work for sharptails. They need big, open, grassy fields.
Tom Rusch, area wildlife manager in Tower for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR), said once active leks near Cook, Angora, Cherry, Palo and Zim have been abandoned or hold just a handful of birds – not enough to offer public viewing blinds any more.
Balzer's office is down to just one sharp-tailed blind open to the public now, near Meadowlands. There used to be several leks in the area.
"It's been a steady, downward trend. We'd have leks with 12 birds. Then it would be down to six or eight. Then four ... And then one year there were no birds at all coming to that spot," Balzer said.
The birds are back
Rusch said efforts continue in the Sax-Zim Bog area (a nature preserve in Minnesota) to restore sharp-tailed habitat and numbers. So far, it's been an uphill effort, despite 35 years or more of mowing, burning and otherwise managing small tracts of land for open-field species like sharptails.
The DNR simply can't make up for the broader loss of open private land habitat, he noted. "The landscape has changed. The small farms are disappearing. With it goes the haying, mowing, burning, cattle and small grains that are complementary to sharptails," Rusch said.
"Those farms are slowly replaced by (tall) brush and forest that are less and less complementary as they age. New landowners want forests for deer hunting."
Kessler noted that it often is difficult to conduct controlled burns at the Douglas County Bird Sanctuary because of concerns smoke will inundate nearby Highway 53 or local homes.
While the best sharp-tailed habitat should see fires every five or six years, it's sometimes 10 or more years before the DNR can burn the Douglas County land. There may never be another "darkening of the sun" period for sharptails.
But Kessler is holding out hope that the birds can be maintained in the area with the help of forest managers on county, state, federal and private lands. By using logging techniques to mimic fire, Kessler said there's been some success at keeping enough open areas to keep sharptails on the Northland landscape.
Last year, the Lake Superior Landscape Restoration Partnership completed a three-year project, relocating 160 sharptails from north-western Minnesota to the 8,900ha Moquah Barrens in Bayfield County (Wisconsin) where the US Forest Service has been conducting regular controlled fires to restore open habitat.
While some of those birds scattered, some stayed, and there are now males dancing on leks there for the first time in decades.
"If we can maintain enough of these open areas, and develop some connectivity between them, through logging efforts, to get some genetic diversity, I think we'll have some birds here for a while," Kessler said. – Tribune News Service/Duluth News Tribune/John Myers