Working in Denali, there’s never a day when I get bored with the scenery or dismiss my great fortune in being able to do research here. Certainly though, some field days are better than others either because the jays were particularly cooperative or because of some other wildlife highlight. Today was one of those latter days. The jays weren’t especially busy, and I’ve grown increasingly concerned that one of our females has died, but the park pulled through in delighting us in other ways.
Spruce grouse are such a daily occurrence that it’s borderline obnoxious, but only because of their habit of waiting until the very last minute to flush and then nosily flying into your face like some kind of helicopter poltergeist. If you can manage to detect them before their fun little game of surprise though, watching them play statue can be quite comical. It’s hard not to imagine them sitting there, praying they don’t get noticed and wishing they were still velociraptors.
Today offered a very different kind of behavior outside of their usual repertoire, however. I spied a male strutting about the undergrowth and couldn’t help but notice he was rather marvelous looking. The red comb over his eye was looking rather sharp, and his breast and tail feathers were fully erect.
At first I wondered if he was perhaps trying to intimidate me, but I quickly discovered that I was not the lady he was trying to impress.
Given that spruce grouse don’t start breeding until April, I can’t really imagine what this female made of the whole situation. Evidently though, nonbreeding season courtship displays are not uncommon in grouse, prairie chickens or other galliformes (heavy-bodied ground birds). Most of what I’ve heard suggests that these displays are the work of young males, eager to practice their skills for next year. I did come across one paper that suggested such early season displays in black grouse are actually important for securing territories, and confer higher reproductive success.1 In any case while I can’t speak for her, I’ll tell you I was 100% feeling his moves.
Our second encounter was substantially shorter but by far more thrilling. I barely captured even one rather derpy photo but I don’t think you need much more to understand my excitement.
This was my first wild feline ever. I hope it’s not my last lynx of the season, but either way I’m not complaining.
- Rintamaki, P.T., Karvonen E., Alatalo, R. V., and Lundberg A. (1999). Why do male black grouse perform on lek sites outside of the breeding season? Journal of Avian Biology 30: 359-366.