The timing couldn’t be more perfect–tonight at 7:00 CST on PBS be sure to check out “The Sagebrush Sea,” a documentary by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology on the vast sagebrush land and its inhabitants. The Greater Sage-Grouse will play a prominent role in this film. If you want to see what Evan and I got to watch live last month with Dad, be sure to tune in tonight! Special thanks to readers Shalese Sands and Brad Nelson for the heads up on this documentary.
P.S. I’m almost done with the Epilogue to our Montana Sage-Grouse trip which highlights all our bonus lifers and other cool birds from the Sagebrush Sea or Big Empty.
To read the story about our recent Montana Greater Sage-Grouse Lifer with my dad, Rick Wallestad, who researched Sage-Grouse in the 1970s, check out the following: 1) The Prologue–The Impetus, 2) Part 1, 3) Part 2, and 4) The Epilogue–Bonus Lifers.
All that separated months of planning and anticipation from our biggest lifer was the chasm of a few hours of restless sleep. Finally, after multiple disappointing checks of the clock through the night, 3:00 was here. It was go time! As is usually the case for big events like this, Evan was easy to wake up. Before long the three of us were out of the house and at our rendezvous point with John Carlson and Charlie Eustace on the north side of Billings.
It was a nice addition to have dad’s former colleague, Charlie, along with us. Since Charlie had obligations later that day, he drove separately up to Lavina. Dad seized the opportunity to catch up with his old friend and fellow biologist by hopping in with Charlie. Meanwhile, Evan and I rode up with John for the 45-minute ride in the darkness. Evan dozed in and out of sleep, but John and I were wide awake and excitedly talking birds, amped up by the adventure that was about to happen. In no time, we were at Lavina where we picked up Dad and Charlie. In minutes we were off the tar and on East Red Hill Road which would take us to the lek that John had selected for us. As John drove through the desolate sagebrush country in the dark, Charlie entertained us with one more story from Dad’s former days with the Fish & Game Department. I knew that cell phone technology originated in the 70s, but what I did not know was that Dad had one of the first ones. He used it to call into field offices when he was out doing research. According to Charlie, Dad was only the second person in Montana who had a cell phone at the time. When the other person, the *ahem* Governor, found out he did not have exclusive rights to this cutting-edge technology and that a lowly field biologist also had a cell phone, the governor’s ego was greatly bruised. And as a result, my dad, like so many students in my classroom over the years, got his phone taken away. Charlie laughed and laughed (and so did we) as he told the story.
Don’t ask me how, but John eventually discerned our stopping point in the darkness along East Red Rill Road. He confirmed the location by checking his GPS. Many life birds are happenstance. Many are searched for and sought out. This one was pinpointed down to the degree, minute, and second–a field technician that works under John had placed a blind in the optimal viewing location for the lek and then given John the coordinates. John took off walking into the black, sagebrush abyss armed only with a headlamp and his GPS. John still had to set up the blind that was waiting for us somewhere out in the middle of nowhere. As he walked, we could hear him flushing Sage-Grouse off the lek, which he told us would happen. I’ve flushed many, many gamebirds over the years, but I could tell that these sounded different. They sounded bigger.
The rest of us gathered our things and then went in the direction of John’s headlamp. Setting out into utter darkness distorts the perception of distance. It felt like we had walked a mile, but in reality it was probably a quarter mile or so. I’ll never forget taking a look back to the east where the sun was still well below the horizon but already showing the contours of the hills as a bright orange line that stretched as far as you could see. Even in the darkness, you could tell we were in Big Sky country.
We eventually made it out to John who was finishing setting up the blind which is no easy task under optimal conditions, let alone when it’s dark and there is a strong wind. Once we were out there, we realized that we were a couple chairs short, so I went back to John’s Suburban to get more. On my hike back, I flushed about a dozen Sage-Grouse. All were heard-only flushes until three birds flushed in front of me giving me my life look as large, long-tailed silhouettes illuminated by the orange glow to the east. Awesome. Once I made it back to the blind, the task was now to get the four of us inside. John opted to go view a different lek since we couldn’t all fit in the blind. None of us knew where the door was or how it operated, so everybody shimmied underneath the walls to get inside. Only afterward in the daylight hours did I realize there were cacti all over the place. But the four of us eventually got inside and got situated as best we could as human sardines.
Once the rustling stopped and we all could sit still, it didn’t take long to hear the popping sound of the Sage-Grouse doing their crazy, head-bobbing, air-sac pumping display. It is an eery sound that could be heard all around us. I never realized until just a year ago that they did this dynamic motion and made this unearthly noise. Utter darkness slowly transitioned into a dimly lit landscape finally allowing us to see monstrous blobs on the landscape. And they were close. Eventually we could make out the large, white collars of the birds and see them as they thrust their heads while popping out their two large, yellow air-sacs. Evan and I had the front row and were excitedly looking to see more and more birds being revealed as the light began turning silhouettes into our target. It was so cool to finally be here, seeing this bird, and seeing it in just this way with just the right company. Here is the first photo that I took, which was quite awhile after we had started seeing and hearing the birds. It gives you a sense of the mystique of seeing these incredible birds when it is just light enough to discern your own hands out of the darkness.
Even though the sun wasn’t up high enough for good photos, we were fascinated by what was going on all around us. Not only did we have roughly 30 males in front of us, but we could hear another large group of Sage-Grouse behind us–right where we had walked through. Sunrise was still a ways off, but the light was finally good enough to get some pictures.
John told us that the black, hair-like feathers at the back of the neck are called filoplumes.
The Snowy Mountains which were living up to their namesake on this day made a nice backdrop for watching displaying Greater Sage-Grouse.The birds pictured above were all fairly close in front of us, to the west and north. Behind us to the southeast we could finally make out the more distant birds as the light increased. This group was close to 40 birds! Here you can see how the Sage-Grouse choose a flat area with no sagebrush for their courtship display.
Dad told us that, despite all these males, only one or two will mate with all the hens. They are competing and working their hardest to be that stud. The group of hens will work their way onto the lek and then choose the candidate with the best genetic makeup, determined by whomever puts on the best display. Below you can see two hens sitting by the stud of this lek. Dad, being the biologist he is, was not entranced and distracted like we were by the myriad of males simultaneously doing their strut all around us. Instead he knew what to look for and was watching intently through his binoculars for copulation which he saw and then announced to the rest of us.
You will see this later in the video at the end of this post, but these males do their air-sac pumping display, pivot, and then do it over again in a different direction. Undoubtedly they are broadcasting their sound in all directions in an effort to attract the attention of the hens. If you compare the above photo to the photo below taken just a couple seconds later, you will see how some of the males are facing a new direction. You will also see birds at different stages in the very rapid air-sac pumping display.
Dad taught us how the birds on the periphery of the main strutting area are the juvenile birds. In fact, some of these juveniles are relegated to do their strutting off the lek in the most undesirable of all places, the sagebrush itself. Occasionally one of these young bucks would test his mettle and wander through the main part of the strutting ground only to be chased off by the big boys. This never failed to elicit laughter from Dad and Charlie. It was fascinating to observe all these things Dad has talked about for years which were fairly abstract concepts to us until this point.
In addition to watching the courtship and mating antics, photography was also a priority for me, so I turned my attention back to the closer birds and eagerly awaited the sun to peak over the horizon. That didn’t stop me from photographing as I waited, though. This photo was as close as I got to capturing the split-second where the air-sacs are fully deployed.
I was eager to get the photo above in the perfect morning sun which was coming in just a couple minutes. That wasn’t in the cards, though. Dad and Charlie started discussing what we’d do in the cramped blind if someone had to relieve himself. Then, after months of planning and careful preparation, I realized I made a fateful mistake: I did not make sure Evan went to the bathroom that morning. All the talk of waterworks was enough for Evan to realize this now too. I told him to quietly slip under the back corner of the blind (we still hadn’t found the door) so the close birds wouldn’t spook. When he was successfully out without flushing any Grouse, I whispered for him to go right next to the blind so he was still out of view of the birds. Well, he didn’t understand what I was saying and tromped out about 15 feet. That was it. The birds got out of there in a hurry.
Hope was not gone, though, as the two most prominent males held their ground. There were girls on the line, after all, or so they thought. Their thunder was gone, though, as they slowly started to realize there were no females to impress and no young whipper-snappers to beat off their turf. There was nothing to get pumped up for–literally or figuratively.
They instead mailed it in and pretended to still care by doing a non-threatening stand-off– in perfect light.
It turns out that Evan just accelerated what would have happened naturally anyway. Moments after this picture was taken, a Golden Eagle came in low and scared these two birds off also.
The Eagle then flew directly over the blind just 30 feet up, giving us our best looks ever at this species. I could see the golden nape with my naked eye. We watched out the back window of the blind as the Eagle proceeded to fly over the larger group of Sage-Grouse to our rear. Instantly they all took off, and the show was completely over. The time of day was 7:00.
I called up John so he could come and get us. We had a good 15 minutes to wait for him to show up, so we packed up the blind and chairs and started trekking back to East Red Hill Road.
L-R: Charlie and Dad
It was a fast, intense morning and much shorter than I hoped. For Dad it was probably just about right. Having seen this bird and this courtship display many times he had said that viewing Sage-Grouse from a blind for a few hours might be overkill. I disagree, but then again, I also haven’t spent as many cold, dark mornings in the sagebrush-covered landscape as he has! But for me, there’s not enough sagebrush or its Grouse in my life.
Once John arrived, we took some time for some group shots to commemorate the morning’s outing. In the distance we could hear male Sage-Grouse firing it up again in the places to which they had dispersed.
The old biologists: Rick Wallestad and Charlie Eustace -Photo courtesy of John Carlson
L-R: Dad, Me, Evan, John Carlson, Charlie Eustace
Since the day was still very young even though we’d been up for four hours, we went to the smaller lek on Emory Road that John had been viewing that morning to see if any of those birds were still around. On the way we dropped Charlie off at his car in Lavina and said our goodbyes to him.
As we cruised down Emory I was watching for Sage Thrashers when I was startled to see a few Greater Sage-Grouse in full display mode on the left side of the road. John told us we were very near the lek he was at, so these birds had probably just come from there. I was happy to have a second chance at photographing them.
One of the protective efforts landowners and government agencies are taking to conserve Greater Sage-Grouse is to mark fences near active leks. When the Sage-Grouse fly into the lek in the pre-dawn, they have been known to be killed by collisions with barb-wire fences. John explained that these markers are meant to reflect the light from the rising sun, helping the Grouse see the fence and avoid hitting it. So, if you are out West in sagebrush country and you see these white markers, you are likely near a Greater Sage-Grouse lek. According to the pamphlet I picked up at the Montana FWP office, only fences in high-risk areas are marked, which is 6-14% of all fences in Sage-Grouse habitat. These marked fences can reduce collisions by 83%.
Fences in high-risk areas of Sage-Grouse habitat are marked to reduce collisions.
After enjoying these bonus Sage-Grouse for a bit as well as some other fun birds, we headed up to an area north of Roundup known as the Yellow Water Triangle. This is the area where Dad conducted his research on Greater Sage-Grouse in the 1970s. We were going to tour it and hopefully see some Sage-Grouse there as well, though it was getting to be too late in the morning for birds to still be on leks.
Dad brought one of his original maps along so he could point things out. It’s a pretty cool relic.
I believe the circles mark locations of leks, which Dad always called strutting grounds, that he knew of in the 1970s.
As we drove through the trails on the BLM land, Dad would tell us when we’d go by an area where he had a lek. Sure enough, the barb wire fences were marked with the white markers, meaning that birds are likely still using those grounds today, nearly 40 years after Dad worked in this area.
In retrospect I wish we would have taken more time to get out of the vehicle and explore some of these places, but the ferocious winds (40 mph!) were making for a miserable day for being outside and taking pictures. About the only picture I got of the landscape of the Yellow Water Triangle was in this picture I took of a buck Antelope.
Pictures or not, it was nice to see this land where Dad spent so much time as a younger man than myself. He was my age when he left the Fish & Game for the entrepreneurial life. Now I at least have a frame of reference for the stories Dad has told and likely will retell. John Carlson told me later by email that he really enjoyed driving Dad through the Triangle and hearing his reactions to how the landscape has changed.
The rest of the day we continued to drive around central Montana on the quest for more life birds that are resident birds in this area. We were quite successful in that regard, but I’ll save all that for the epilogue to the Greater Sage-Grouse story. In reality, those birds were just icing on the best and most memorable bird trip we’ve done. I want to send out a huge thank you to John Carlson who facilitated the whole thing, making it an effortless and remarkable experience.
The Feather Story
When we were riding in John’s Suburban after our successful Sage-Grouse viewing, John gave Evan a special Sage-Grouse feather he found that morning. This feather is one of those black feathers with the white tips that you see on the back side of the fanned-tail. Several can be seen in the photos above. Evan cherished this gift from John, but like a typical 8 year-old, he wasn’t too careful about storing it in the vehicle. He’s usually pretty good about always knowing where his stuff is, so I didn’t think much of it.
Late that night, long after our 12-hour birding adventure was over, I was finally tucking Evan in to bed to get some sleep before our return trip the next day. It was at this time that he broke down sobbing telling me how at one point when we all had the windows down looking at birds, his special feather blew out the window (remember the 40 mph wind?). The kid was inconsolable.
That next morning I was planning to do some more Montana birding before we left for Bismarck where we’d again be spending the night. I was considering everything from looking for an American Dipper down at Red Lodge to going back to Lavina to try to get video of the Greater Sage Grouse–an opportunity I didn’t get because our time with the Grouse was cut short. Anyhow, when I heard Evan crying his heart out, I knew what I’d do. I’d head back to Lavina to view the Sage-Grouse and then go feather-hunting. I told Evan my plan, and it was the only thing that calmed him down.
I planned to go alone so Evan could sleep in. I didn’t expect my dad would be interested, but I was pleasantly surprised when he asked if I wanted company on the trip back to Lavina. A bonus was that Leo Jurica decided to join us too. So the three of us set off for the lek we viewed the day before. We got a later start this time since we didn’t have a blind we were trying to reach in the dark.
Getting there around 7:00 AM, there were still around 20 or so Greater Sage-Grouse males strutting on the lek. The views were considerably more distant this day since we were on the road. The Sage-Grouse are scattered across the middle of the photo, all the way from the left side to the right side. There are cattle in the background on the right.
Though I wasn’t close enough for audio or the best video quality, I was able to document the very unique courtship display. This first video is an up-close look at two males doing their thing. Junior high boys or those that still think like them should not watch.
The next video shows a larger group of male Greater Sage-Grouse doing their strut.
Around 8:00, the birds started to disperse off the lek for the cover of sagebrush. Once they were gone, we went to work looking for a replacement feather for Evan. Apparently there were a couple of stragglers that popped out of the sagebrush on the periphery of the lek. I seized upon an unplanned photo opportunity that screamed out at me.
Seeing Sage-Grouse was unforgettable. Seeing them with Dad was even better. Now I had a photo of both together which I hadn’t planned but now cherish. Serendipity.
Back to the feather search, we looked and looked and looked. I foolishly thought the previous evening that this would be an easy task. Dad, Leo, and I combed the entire lek looking hard for one of those feathers. We were all dads and 2/3 of us were granddads, so we all searched with due diligence as we all understood how such a matter could make or break a kid’s day and trip. We went to ground-zero on the lek which is determined by the greatest concentration of bird droppings. We would find the occasional feather, but they were never the right feathers nor interesting ones for that matter either. Now finding a feather became something of a treasure hunt where the rarity of the feather enhanced its desirability. Despite our desire, we could not turn one up. We finally called it quits for searching at this lek.
There was only one other option–to return to the lek on Emory Road where John found the original feather. There were no birds left on that lek by the time we got there. That was good because then we could start searching right away. This lek was smaller, and its ground-zero was even more concentrated with droppings. Again, there were oddball feathers, even a clump of feathers with skin attached from a Sage-Grouse brawl, but not the right feather. After a long time of searching but coming up empty, I was feeling really frustrated. How could it be so hard to find one of these feathers? I was just about to give up and was thinking I’d write to John to see if he could get me another, when I spied the object I sought, sticking straight up in the air with the quill stuck in a mud crack! I couldn’t believe it–this was as big a thrill as any rare bird I’ve found.
With the coveted feather in hand, we headed back to Billings. The Sage-Grouse saga truly was over now and was most fulfilling. As we pulled into the Juricas’ driveway, Evan was outside and ran up to the vehicle immediately asking, “Did you get it?!” Though it was something I already knew, the question revealed to Dad and Leo just how much this mattered to Evan. As dads we sometimes go the extra mile to make our kids’ wishes come true and make them happy….Thanks for the trip, Dad, and all the memories Evan and I will carry with us forever.
When I was young boy I was mystified by a picture that hung on the wall of my dad’s study. It was a print of the same picture you see on the cover of the book my dad wrote on Greater Sage-Grouse shown on the left. At the time I didn’t even know what I was looking at; it didn’t look like a bird to me at all until one day my dad pointed out the beak and I could finally discern a bird face. Still, it was a bothersome picture, and as a kid I thought this creature was weird and ugly. Oh, little did I know how my opinion would one day change. What I once did not want to look at even in a picture, I was now yearning to see in the flesh. Life was coming full circle in a way–a relatively new hobby was now colliding with my family’s history. As I mentioned in the last post, the Greater Sage-Grouse had been the center of much of my dad’s work at the Montana Department of Fish and Game in the 1970s. I grew up listening to my dad’s stories of this bird’s behavior, stories of him working with this bird, and stories of life in general from my family’s time of living in Montana. Undoubtedly the Greater Sage-Grouse was a key factor in the Big Sky state becoming the birthplace for me and my siblings. Going to see the Greater Sage-Grouse was more than just adding a life bird; it was a chance to see living history. And there would be no better way to do that than in the company of my dad, Rick Wallestad.
Serendipity via the World Wide Web
In the last post I mentioned how the interview I did with my dad was a pivotal post. It resonated with many people and sparked the idea for going to Montana to see Sage-Grouse with Dad. One of the best by-products to come of the post was a thoughtful blog comment by John Carlson that showed up out of the blue, long after the interview post was written. I’ll let John’s authoritative words speak for themselves, but they validated both my dad’s past work with Sage-Grouse and my current efforts to chronicle our birding adventures today.
Hi Josh, I discovered your blog while looking at sage-grouse photos on Google. I saw the cover of your father’s monograph and I had to click on the link. The reason I clicked on it was that book has been in my library since I was a child and I continue to use it to this day. In fact, I used a similar photo in a presentation earlier this summer to describe the important work that Montana has done for sage-grouse over the years. I was much like Evan growing up and I am now working for the BLM in Billings, Montana on sage-grouse with two young boys of my own. I am not sure that I ever met your father when I was growing up in Fort Peck, but I do know Bob Eng and Bob Martinka. Please tell your father how important his work continues to be in our efforts on sage-grouse and he might be interested to know that sage-grouse research is continuing today in the same area he worked (along with research on other grassland and sage associated birds). This time investigating the response to changes in grazing regimes. Anyway, thank you for sharing the discoveries you and Evan are making. As I sat at my cubicle in between meetings and phone calls, it made my day to be reminded of the joys I had as a child when I was birding with my father and I look forward to seeing more. If you ever get this far west, please let me know. I would love to show both of you some of my favorite birds.
It turns out that John is a Conservation Biologist for the federal Bureau of Land Management, Montana Dakotas division. John is the primary BLM person for proactive conservation actions, planning, integration, guidance, and implementation of management for sagebrush dependent special status species in Montana, North and South Dakota with an emphasis on Sage-Grouse. In other words, he’s a modern-day authority on the bird my dad spent so much time with. So as Dad and I talked of going to Montana, we got in touch with John since he would have current intel on active Sage-Grouse leks since my goal was to see strutting Sage-Grouse males. John was more than willing and able to oblige us, and plans started taking shape over this past winter.
The whole time I was teaching on Thursday, April 17th, I thought I was absolutely crazy for beginning a trip to Montana at the end of a full day’s work that day. I picked up Evan from school, and by 5:00 we were finally on the road, Bismarck-bound. The North Dakota capital would be our stop for the night, roughly the halfway point of the 775-mile drive to Billings. The landscape of western Minnesota and eastern North Dakota is bleak, and at the time we were traveling, also dark. As Evan coped with the nothingness by watching videos and playing iPad, I was left alone with my thoughts. One such thought was that our travel was symbolic as it was bringing through Minnesota, North Dakota, and Montana–the respective birth states of Evan, Dad, and myself.
After spending a night in a dismal room reserved especially for Priceline customers, I was eager to get back on I-94 and head west again. We were now traveling in the better half of North Dakota, enjoying the rugged hills and breaks in all of morning’s glory as the rising sun was at our backs. Passing through Theodore Roosevelt National Park was especially inspiring. Evan and I were anxious to cross into Montana, though. For him it was a new state. For me it was a reunion with my past and with a state I don’t get to see often enough. Big Sky country did not fail to leave us in awe. There’s just something about that state that’s so good for the soul.
In Billings we would be meeting up with my parents who were home-bound from wintering in Arizona. Together we would all be staying with long-time family friends, Leo and Jo Jurica. Getting to see the Juricas was a wonderful bonus to what was sure to be a trip of a lifetime. Since Evan and I got to Billings mid-afternoon, I decided to poke around Lake Elmo State Park in the hopes of picking up a lifer California Gull. No Gulls were around, but it was a fitting and pleasant surprise to unexpectedly come across a Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife, & Parks office. The moniker may be a bit different today, but this was still Dad’s former employer and worth checking out, especially considering the focus of our trip.
Offices such as these are always fun to visit. There are educational displays and numerous mounts of birds and mammals to check out. One mount stood out among the rest.
There are numerous free publications at these offices. In addition to a nice, free road-map of Montana (score!), one pamphlet in particular caught my eye.
It was a reminder that the fate of the Greater Sage-Grouse is currently under intense scrutiny. As a sagebrush dependent species, there has long been a concern over the protection of this unique bird’s habitat. Ever since settlers first carved out farms from the native prairies, man has sought the removal and destruction of sagebrush in order to convert the land into grassland for cattle grazing. According to my dad’s book, this habitat decimation reached its heyday in the 1950s when planes started being used to spray the herbicide 2,4-D. By the time wildlife agencies caught on to this effective technique, millions of sagebrush acres had already been lost. Dad’s work with the Greater Sage-Grouse was part of a 10-year joint study between the Montana Department of Fish & Game and the Bureau of Land Management to determine the effects of sagebrush control on sagebrush dependent species, like the Sage-Grouse. Though the spraying of sagebrush eventually stopped, the alarm bells are still ringing loudly as the USFWS designated the Greater Sage-Grouse as a candidate for being listed as an endangered species, a fate which will be determined by the fall of 2015. John Carlson told us how they are working hard to keep it off the “List” as such a designation would have huge implications on the economy and everyday life of people sharing the land with these birds. Because of this, many landowners are voluntarily cooperating with state and federal agencies to promote the conservation of this species. Sadly, John told us other landowners are now tilling under their sagebrush in anticipation of the listing to avoid the hassles associated with owning prime habitat for an endangered species.
Not only were Evan and I about to see a bird that is important to our family’s history, but we were about to see an important bird period. The trip was becoming more and more significant.
Once in Billings, I got in touch with John Carlson. John wanted to have a face-to-face meeting that night to go over plans for the big adventure that would happen the following morning. We decided to meet up at a local McDonald’s where John, Dad, and I were joined by one of Dad’s Fish & Game biologist colleagues, Charlie Eustace. Evan stayed back at Juricas’ house with Grandma since it was late and we’d be getting up very early the next morning.
It was fun to finally meet John as well as Charlie, whose name I have often heard in Dad’s stories and recollections of his Fish & Game days. The hour-long conversation that followed was one of my favorite and most memorable parts of the trip. John, Charlie, and Dad reminisced over mutual friends and acquaintances. These three biologists also shared stories and misadventures of work in the field, creating much laughter and sore cheeks–I even got to hear some new stories from Dad. It was also fun to watch the old guard listen to John talk about about new studies and capture techniques for Sage-Grouse. Dad seemed to be in awe of the ability to monitor movements of live birds on a computer in an office because of satellite tracking. Likewise, it was interesting to learn that radio telemetry, which was cutting edge in Dad’s day, is still a very common and inexpensive means of keeping tabs on Sage-Grouse today. One of the more poingnant moments in the conversation was when John told Dad that much of Dad’s work was foundational for studies that are being done today, and then John went on to thank Dad for his work. It was pretty cool to witness.
We did, of course, discuss plans for the next morning. John had picked a large, active Sage-Grouse lek for us to go see about 45 minutes northwest of Billings near Lavina. After watching the courtship display from a blind on the edge of a lek in the pre-dawn and early morning hours, the plan was to then go visit the Yellow Water Triangle north of Roundup where Dad conducted his Sage-Grouse studies.
John told us we needed to leave Billings by 4:00 AM to get to the blind well before daylight. So we all parted company and went home so we could get some rest before the next day. The clock said it would be a short night, but as visions of seeing this bird the next morning flashed through my head, it would prove to be one of the longest nights I can remember.
Two-and-a-half years ago the birding stories were welling up inside me and bursting to get out–stories of a passion for birds shared between my dad and Evan, stories of Evan’s remarkable eye and identification skills as a then 5-year-old, and the story of how a Chestnut-sided Warbler instantly transformed me into a birder and completed the three-generation team of birders. Thus the blog was born. At the time I had no idea that bird blogging was even a thing, let alone a popular and prolific thing at that; I simply wanted a platform on which I could share these stories. A blog made sense. I never could have imagined the adventures and people that this hobby would bring into my life. Those initial stories gave way to more and more and more stories. Many of those old posts I cherish; some I regret as I look back. One story, though, that has and will stand the test of time is one that I did very early on well before my life list cracked 100. It is an interview piece I did with my dad, the eldest of this generational birding team, who has long had a fascination with birds and wildlife as he was a research biologist for the Montana Department of Fish and Game in the 1970s. The interview focused largely on my dad’s extensive research of the Greater Sage Grouse.
The impact of the piece was profound. First, I learned a lot about my dad’s work which is something I wanted to preserve for myself and my kids by doing the blog post. Second, it was one of the most popular posts ever on this blog as people from every stage of my dad’s life connected with the piece, expressing their sentiments via comments, email, etc. I was shocked by the outpouring of peoples’ memories and feelings. In fact, one person that reached out became instrumental in setting up our biggest adventure. Finally, the interview gave me an epiphany. As an emerging birder I realized that someday, I, too, would want to see this bird my dad worked with so closely, this Greater Sage Grouse. Instantly I had a vision of myself making it out west some day far in the future to see this bird, perhaps long after my dad’s days are done. It was an unbearable thought.
I knew what I had to do–I had to see the Greater Sage Grouse with my dad. Moreover, I had to see the males doing their mating display on the lek, something my dad has talked about and described for years. Plans were initially set to do so that very spring, in April of 2013. Unfortunately (or fortunately), the plan was postponed a year because a frenetic, last-minute, cross-state trip to get our Great Gray Owl lifer usurped the Sage Grouse plans. Plans for 2014 were put off because my parents had recently transitioned to the snowbird life, wintering in Arizona, and we just weren’t able to squeeze it in with their new migration schedule. Finally, though, we were deliberate for the spring of 2015 and made it happen this year. Coming up will be what I am billing as the pinnacle post of the blog detailing the story of the recent trip Evan and I took to central Montana to watch displaying Greater Sage Grouse with my dad. It is an exciting post that gets back to the heart and soul of this blog. Until that post comes out, here is the very interview that generated the idea for the adventure of a lifetime. Many new readers have joined the fold since the inception of ABWCH, so this will be a fresh read. But even if it’s not, I’m sure you’ll find the re-read just as entertaining as the first time, especially knowing what is to come…
Meet My Dad-The Biologist and Birder
In this blog post I have interviewed my dad, Rick Wallestad, about his history with birds – both official work as a wildlife biologist for the Montana Department of Fish and Game in the 1970s and his unofficial work as an emerging birder like Evan and me. Whether you know him or he’s a complete stranger to you, I think you will find the following interview with my dad to be a fascinating read. If you are a pure birder and have no connection to us personally, there is some great “bird stuff” in here. If you’ve known him in any capacity, then you will now have a more in-depth knowledge of his story. I was familiar with several of his answers, but I also learned a lot of new things in doing this project. It was important for me to document and preserve this information for Evan’s sake. A secondary goal would be that you would find this to be an enjoyable read.
How did your interest in birds begin?
As a young boy in Rolette, North Dakota, my buddy Joey Fox and I would scout out any nest we found to see what kind of eggs were there, and how many. It’s just something we did often.
What are the facts of your education and employment history with the Montana Department of Fish and Game? Editor’s Note: This state department is now called the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks.
I got my B.S. in Wildlife Management from the University of Minnesota in 1966. While there I worked one year for the Fisheries Department, reading fish scales to determine the age of the fish. Then I spent one quarter at the Cloquet Research Center assisting a research student trapping and radio-tagging snowshoe hares. I spent another summer at Cloquet assisting a PhD student researching Ruffed Grouse broods using radio telemetry, also. These telemetry projects were some of the first in the country. My adviser, Dr. William Marshall, was a pioneer in the development of radio telemetry. As a result of this experience in telemetry, it paved the way to get a job in Montana studying the effects of DDT on Blue Grouse in western Montana.
I attended graduate school at Montana State University, studying habitat requirements and movements of Sage Grouse hens and their broods. Upon completion of my M.S. degree in Wildlife Management in 1970, I went to work for the Montana Fish and Game Department as a research biologist studying effects of sagebrush removal on the Sage Grouse. Editor’s Note: “Sage Grouse” in Rick’s responses refer to the Greater Sage Grouse. In the 1990s it was determined that sage grouse found in the Gunnison Basin of southwest Colorado were a distinct species. Nearly identical looking but 2/3 the size of the Greater, it is called the Gunnison Sage Grouse.During that three-year period that I was a research biologist, I published five articles on Sage Grouse in the Journal of Wildlife Management and one technical bulletin titled “Life History and Habitat Requirements of Sage Grouse in Central Montana” published in 1975 (pictured at right). I also worked as a management biologist in Broadus, Montana for three years and managed four Wildlife Management Areas around Sidney, Montana for three years.
You mentioned working in Cloquet, Minnesota studying the Ruffed Grouse. Did you work with Gordon Gullion, arguably the foremost authority on the Ruffed Grouse?
He was there and I visited with him a lot, but I was working for Geoff Godfrey who was a graduate student of Bill Marshall. Gordy was permanent staff and also worked under Bill Marshall because Cloquet was a year-round research station for the University.
How did you capture Ruffed Grouse?
We captured them with a clover-leaf trap. It was chicken wire arranged like a 4-leaf clover. Each circle of the clover was about 4-feet in diameter. There were two leads of 18-inch high chicken wire, each 100-feet long stretched out into the swamps. Since Ruffed Grouse broods travel by walking, the hen would walk up to the this 100-foot section of chicken wire and being blocked, would lead her brood along it until they walked right around one of the clover circles at the end and were then funneled into the trap.
What are some fun or interesting facts you can tell us about the Greater Sage Grouse?
It’s one of the few birds that is totally dependent on sage brush for survival. Without sage brush there would be no Sage Grouse. The entire overall 10-year study, a cooperative study with the Bureau of Land Management, was instrumental in stopping the practice of spraying sage brush.
On the strutting ground (breeding ground) with 20 or more males, only one or two males will do the breeding. The average clutch size for a yearling bird is 5-6 eggs, and for 2+ years is 7-8 eggs. Most Sage Grouse hens nest within 1-2 miles of the strutting ground.
Editor’s Note: All photos of Greater Sage-Grouse and Sharp-Tailed Grouse on this post, with the exception of the photo of the radio-tagged Greater Sage Grouse taken from Rick’s aforementioned technical bulletin, are courtesy of Bob Martinka, a former colleague of Rick at the Montana Department of Fish and Game. Bob has graciously allowed me to use these photos. He has his own bird blog at BirdManBob, and his amazing bird photography can be viewed at his Flickr Photo Site. Thanks, Bob!
Describe how you captured Greater Sage Grouse.
We would catch them on the strutting ground using cannon nets which were set with explosive charges. The two 100-foot cannon nets running parallel were set about 40 feet apart. These would cover the main part of the strutting ground, which was identified by the droppings and feathers. When a big group of males assembled and were strutting, a cluster of hens would come onto the ground. The net charges would be deployed and the nets would spread out overlapping each other, floating down on the grouse, holding them to the ground. (Google cannon nets to see some pictures. You can also Google clover-leaf traps to get an idea, even though the ones we found were fish traps.)
Another method of catching Sage Grouse hens was to drive through sage brush areas. When we saw a hen with a brood, Dr. Bob Eng would get out and whistle like a chick which would draw the hen in. Then with a telescoping noose pole, which would extend from 6 feet to 20 feet with a noose on the end, the noose would be slipped over the hen’s head and tightened just enough to bring the hen in so it could be fixed with a leg band and a radio tracking device.
What kind of expert advice do you have in locating and viewing Greater Sage Grouse?
They can be located by driving through sagebrush country, but they are hard to see because they are brown and blend in to the surroundings. Bob Eng would spot them by looking for the eye. They can also be found by listening for the sound of the birds as they are strutting in the early morning, often for a distance of about a half mile.
The distribution of Sage Grouse is found only where there is sage brush. It would be in the west…Montana, Idaho, eastern Washington, eastern Oregon, Wyoming, eastern Colorado, parts of Nevada and New Mexico.
How do you locate a strutting ground for Sage Grouse?
Contact a biologist in any of those states’ fish and wildlife departments to ask the location of a strutting ground.
Besides your extensive studies of the Greater Sage Grouse, what other official duties did you have to perform regarding birds?
We did roadside crowing counts for Ring-Necked Pheasants, strutting ground surveys for Sage Grouse, and dancing ground surveys for Sharp-Tailed Grouse.
What fun or interesting facts can you tell us about the Sharp-Tailed Grouse?
I’ve had very little experience with “sharptails.” Their grounds are called “dancing grounds” compared to “strutting grounds” for Sage Grouse. They are usually located on the top of a hill. I experienced seeing some of these in grassland areas like Kenny Simonsen’s ranch near Sidney, Montana. There are generally not as many males on the dancing grounds, maybe 6 to 15 per ground.
Do you have any fun or interesting bird stories you can share from your days with the Montana Department of Fish and Game?
I was contacted by some birders one spring who had never seen Sage Grouse, and I took them out to a strutting ground. I was able to drive into the middle of the strutting ground with Sage Grouse strutting on all sides of the truck. They were very thrilled because it was another bird on their life list.
We referred to birds in two ways: game birds and “dickie” birds – small songbirds.
What is your favorite bird of all time? Why?
The Western Meadowlark because of the beautiful song, and it reminds me of the prairie where I grew up.
What is the “best” bird you have ever seen? Why?
The Trumpeter Swan because of the rarity of it. As I recall, the only place I’ve ever seen one is in Saunders Bay on Pelican Lake near Orr, Minnesota.
What are your target birds in 2013 that you want to add to your life list?
I’d like to identify all the warblers on our farm in northern Minnesota.
Give us an update on your birding in Arizona. Seeing other snowbirds does not count.
We saw a Red-Tailed Hawk near Maricopa and Common Egrets near Gila Bend. In Oak Creek we saw a large blue bird that we haven’t identified yet. We also saw a bird high up in a tree that had an incredibly beautiful song, but we also haven’t identified it.
What are your impressions of Evan’s birding abilities, and what lasting birding advice can you give him?
Evan’s abilities are amazing in the way he can pick out minor differences in birds. It has been impressive to see his powers of observation. His enthusiasm is contagious. As far as giving him advice, I’d say I’ve learned a lot from this 5-year-old, and it has encouraged my interest in birding.
If you want to see an amazing Ruffed Grouse video that I shot that includes male grouse on display and Evan as a 2-year old birder with Grandpa Rick, click here. I couldn’t believe this video that I shot six years ago and how it foretells the adventures we’re having today!
Editor’s Note: This is a guest submission from my dad, Rick Wallestad, who is referred to as “The Guide” on the bio page of this blog. That title comes from his background as a wildlife biologist for the state of Montana where he studied Greater Sage Grouse extensively.
Montana Sage Grouse – a bulletin for the Montana Department of Fish and Game written by Richard Wallestad
As I read your post “From Europe with Love” I experienced several different emotions. The first was one of pride in my son who has taken a hobby and turned it into a passion that he shares with his family using an incredible writing ability.
The second was one of remembrance. You are turning 35 this summer—35 years ago I was 35 and on the day you were born I walked away from a 10-year career with the Montana Fish and Game Department as a research biologist. One of my regrets is that during my 10 years of field work in Montana I did not take time to go birding. All my work was with game birds, other birds were referred to as dicky birds or small brown birds.
When I was working in the sagebrush grasslands of central Montana, a group of birders contacted me and wanted to see sage grouse. Their visit was during the breeding season and I took them out to a strutting ground. We drove to the center of the ground and male sage grouse were strutting on all sides of the truck. The visitors were beyond excited as they snapped picture after picture. One of the birders said it was his 440th life bird. I now know what a life bird is thanks to your blog.
Keep up the good work!
Mountain Bluebird – definitely not a brown bird but one of those “dicky” birds that the Guide finally stopped to see recently when passing through Colorado