Fast forward to last week, when Lindsay and I were in Gunnison, Colorado. On Wednesday morning, Lindsay and I left our friend Lynn Cudlip's house under cover of darkness at 5:00 AM to get to the Waunita Watchable Wildlife Site by 5:52 AM, in hopes of seeing the extremely rare Gunnison Sage Grouse (Centrocercus minimus) performing mating rituals. This site is the location of a known Gunnison Sage Grouse lek, or a gathering of males where competitive breeding displays take place, and it is closely monitored by the group Sisk-a-dee. There are some fairly strict guidelines for watching the Gunnison Sage Grouse lek at the Waunita site, including that you must arrive at least an hour before sunrise. From what we were told, this was our only chance to see this ultra-rare bird conducting its breeding ritual.
So we arrived and sat silently in our chilly car as a cloudless 20 degree dawn rubbed its weary eyes. Little by little, we were able to begin to see the fence posts that are located near the middle of the lek. The fence posts were several hundred yards away, and it was still rather dark, but we weren't seeing any birds. Then, at about 6:40 (ten minutes before sunrise), the volunteer at the site came to our window and asked if we'd seen the birds. WHAT?! They were there?! She proceeded to tell us that she saw 14 birds for a couple of minutes before they left the area in groups of two and three. No! We got there that early and missed them?? Because Gunnison Sage Grouse sometimes display for up to two hours after sunrise, we kept watching, deliriously hopeful that the birds would return, or that some of them hadn't left, but sadly there no birds in the seemingly lifeless field. The volunteer left the site at around 6:50 AM.
We still had a full day of birding ahead of us, so we decided to start driving the dusty county roads to see what we could find. A couple of miles from the Waunita site, while driving through Mountain Big Sagebrush (Artemisia tridentata ssp. vaseyana) habitat, I spotted a white spec 100 yards or so off the road.
|A distant Wal-Mart bag?|
|Definitely not a distant Wal-Mart bag! Click on the photos in this post to see them larger and in more detail.|
|We couldn't believe that we'd found one Gunnison Sage Grouse... and then we found a second. We had happened upon a lek!|
|A handsome male Gunnison Sage Grouse struts his stuff.|
Habitat loss of greater than 90% has led to rapidly declining populations of Gunnison Sage Grouse to the point that only 8 populations remain and the species is a candidate for listing under the Federal Endangered Species Act. Within the extant populations, the number of birds is also decreasing. This truly is an at-risk species, leading to National Audubon Society placing it on their red watchlist.
Above you can view a video that we shot of a displaying Gunnison Sage Grouse (click on the icon in the bottom right to view the video fullscreen). Without a healthy dose of dumb luck, we never would have seen these amazing birds. In fact, thanks to dumb luck, we were able to see them at a closer range and in better light than we would have had we seen them where we planned to at the Waunita lek. Sure, birding takes some skill, but sometimes, like Tom used to say, all that you need is "dumb luck."