15 April 2012

Dumb Luck

When Linsday and I were but fledgling birders, we spent a lot of time birding with Tom Stankus.  Tom always had a saying about birding... that finding birds was "dumb luck."  As Lindsay and I got better at birding and I started to learn bird songs, we started to wonder if birding really was just dumb luck, or if there was more skill to finding birds. 

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?
I have a habit of finding "leafbirds," "debrisbirds," and recently even a shadow on a distant tree that I thought could be an owl before using binoculars, so I almost didn't bother stopping for the spec.  It was still early in the day, though, and we didn't have anywhere to be, so I figured I should stop and take a look.  After initially thinking that the spec would be a plastic bag or a Styrofoam cup, as I was bringing my binoculars to my eyes I thought that the spec could possibly be a Black-billed Magpie (Pica hudsonia), one of the commonest birds that we had been seeing on our trip.  Then, as my eyes began to focus through my binoculars, I realized that the spec had a robust convex shape, and as soon as I saw this my heart started pumping more rapidly.  I told Lindsay to take a look and see what she thought, and then we saw that the object was moving.  Then I saw the tail... through dumb luck, we had found a displaying Gunnison Sage Grouse!!

Definitely not a distant Wal-Mart bag!  Click on the photos in this post to see them larger and in more detail.
Scanning the landscape, I soon found a second displaying male Gunnison Sage Grouse, even closer to the road than the first.  We sat in the car silently and admired these large chicken-like birds with spiky tails for at least 20 minutes until they vanished into the thick sagebrush cover.

We couldn't believe that we'd found one Gunnison Sage Grouse... and then we found a second.  We had happened upon a lek!
Researchers estimate that there are only ~5000 Gunnison Sage Grouse left, all known from a small area in southwestern Colorado and extreme southeastern Utah.  Until the 1970s, the species was unknown to science, as those birds found in southwestern Colorado and southeastern Utah were thought to be Greater Sage Grouse (Centrocercus urophasianus).  After conducting research on the differences between Gunnison Sage Grouse and Greater Sage Grouse, the species was described in 2000.  The ranges of the two species do not overlap, and Gunnison Sage Grouse is smaller with a shorter tail and larger filoplume (the long, hairlike feathers on the back of the sage grouse's head).  In addition, the mating displays of the two species are different; the display of the Gunnison Sage Grouse includes constantly raising the filoplume, and the dispay ends with a sassy tail-shaking motion.

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."


Steph said...

Scott and Lindsay,
Great, good luck! Congratulations on such a fortuitous sighting especially after the early morning disappointment and for not instantly disregarding it as a "litterbird." Your post nicely coincided for me with this segment about the Greater Sage grouse that I heard on the radio yesterday.

Pete said...

I agree with your friend Tom Stankus. The old axiom "discovery favors the prepared mind" applies to many endeavors, but not often to birding or bird finding. Nice going on the grouse. I have never seen one even though an old army buddy, a birder, and bird artist lives in Gunnison and I have two reasons to visit there.

Scott Namestnik said...

Thanks Steph and Pete. Yes, Pete, you definitely need to get out there!