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Blane Klemek column: Lek watching for dancing sharptails

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Blane Klemek column: Lek watching for dancing sharptails
Bemidji Minnesota P.O. Box 455 56619

I recently spent an hour in a sharp-tailed grouse blind on a gorgeous spring morning.

No sooner did I crawl inside and sit down than did I hear grouse fly to the lek and land -whirrrrr ... whirrrrr ... whirrrrr - one by one they flew from nearby brushlands until I was joined in the darkness by nine dancing males.

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Stamping feet, clicking tail feathers and peculiar sounding clucks, coos and hoots made for an auditory marvel worthy of getting up early for. As the rising sun began to lighten the sky, the lek itself - the browns and yellows of hay stubble -took on a subtle glow, a glow that, with a small dose of metaphoric imagination, illuminated a cast on the outdoors center stage.

Indeed, one of Nature's most remarkable annual events - a curtain call if you will - is occurring once again on open brushland landscapes across areas of northern Minnesota, Wisconsin and parts of Michigan. "Sharptails," as the birds are also called, can be found throughout the northern Great Plains states, Washington and much of Canada and in Alaska, too.

Few birds are as fascinating to observe as dancing sharp-tailed grouse. Gathering each spring on traditional leks, or dancing grounds, one might therefore ask the question: "What's a lek?" A good question, to be sure. As such, to fully understand and appreciate the dance of the sharptail, one should also learn about the lek of the sharptail.

First of all, the word itself is interesting. Lek is derived from the Swedish "lek," which is a word to describe, loosely, "play." But fun and games are not what's happening when male sharptails gather on a lek - quite the opposite is the case. "Lekking" is a competition between males vying for dominance and position on the lek, with the ultimate goal of attracting females to mate with.

Fights and chasing are common between male sharp-tailed grouse during the mating season. Early on, usually by mid-to-late-March here in Minnesota, several males begin assembling on traditional (sometimes new) leks in order to establish a hierarchy amongst themselves.

When these hierarchies are determined, a dominant male bird, or birds, will occupy the approximate center of the lek. Lesser males - birds without position or those aspiring to gain positions within a lek - are relegated to the perimeters, or outskirts, which is not the place to be when you're a courting male sharptail trying to impress prospective mates.

Lekking male sharp-tailed grouse are continuously jockeying for position with each other as they battle and intimidate one another. Classic stare-downs between two seemingly equally matched birds will as often result in one male breaking away to challenge another, as it does in all-out warfare between the two challengers, though brief as it is.

Fights are usually averted by posturing and vocalizations, but sometimes, when threats don't work or dominance cannot be established in other ways, physical altercations are the only resort. At such times the two feuding grouse rush forward, sometimes striking with their beaks, but more often slapping one another with their wings and feet, as they jump and jostle in a noisy blur of feathers.

Meanwhile, as males compete with one another for lek position, constant displaying for females is going on, too. Contrasting beautifully with their bright yellow eye lores, male sharptails puff out brilliant lavender air sacks alongside their necks while producing intriguing "plopping," somewhat "watery" noises for both visual and auditory effect. Coos, too, emanate from lovesick males seeking the attention of female onlookers. Along with these displays and vocalizations, male birds also perform the classic dance that the species is so famous for.

With their namesake "sharp" tails held upwards, and their wings extended from their sides, and their heads lowered to just above the ground, dancing sharp-tailed grouse rapidly click their tail feathers and stamp their feet. Keeping their air sacs visible, male sharptails emit a dizzying array of vocalizations that, aside from those already mentioned, include cackles, chirps, whistles and cries.

Should one or more females choose to approach an active lek, activity among the performing males becomes especially frenzied. It's as though a switch was turned on when a female sharptail enters the lek. If she likes how a male dances - typically the dominant bird located in the central part of the lek - then copulation occurs.

Leks are normally located adjacent to the birds' preferred habitat of brush and grass, which also serves as nesting habitat for female sharptails. Additionally, a preferred lek is usually free of tall grass and brush, consists of sod-type soil that enhances sound and facilitates ease of dance and is often situated on the top of a slight rise in topography relative to the immediate, surrounding surface.

The visibility of a lek is important for not only females to observe the courting males, but also so birds on the lek - notably the vulnerable males preoccupied with defending territory and dancing - are able to spot predators approaching from the ground or air. Leks can be used year after year providing conditions don't deteriorate from encroaching brush or trees, or they are destroyed in some way.

After I had spent an hour in the blind, it was time to go. When I began to emerge from the blind, all nine sharptails flushed. I spent a few moments looking at the lek as I walked across it. Feathers and droppings littered the lek. And by the time I reached the vehicle, which was only a few hundred yards away, all nine birds were already back on the lek and dancing once again.

It's springtime. Time to visit a sharptail lek. Time to get out and enjoy the great outdoors.

Blane Klemek is the Bemidji area assistant wildlife manager, DNR Division of Fish & Wildlife. He can be reached at bklemek@yahoo.com.

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