A memorable dance at dawn
The sharp-tailed grouse dance at The Yarrow is one of many spellbinding natural displays observable at this special place.
I’ve been lucky enough to visit The Yarrow, or the Fischer Ranch as it was previously known, more than a dozen times since Charlie Fischer purchased the property in 2008.
I have explored this place through and through — its many wetlands, rolling grasslands and beautiful forests, all teeming with life and beauty.
That’s why I jumped at the invitation from the Nature Conservancy of Canada to help raise awareness about its effort to conserve this place in perpetuity. Simply put, there are not many places like it.
One of my most memorable experiences at The Yarrow came when I visited it in late April to view the mesmerizing spectacle of sharp-tailed grouse performing their annual courtship display, known as lekking.
Each year, groups of sharp-tailed grouse congregate in the same location, known as a lek. The males perform an intricate courtship display while the females keenly watch on. It’s a Darwinian spectacle that determines which male gets to mate with several females, and which must simply wait until next year.
When we arrived at the ranch that spring, we first visited a lek site I had identified during a visit the following week. But no grouse were found (at first). So, we walked in to see where we should position my truck and camper to get the best view of the action the following morning.
Brian Keating preparing to film sharp-tailed grouse on The Yarrow (Photo courtesy of Brian Keating)
Not wanting to disturb the birds, I had contacted Chris Fisher, author of Birds of Alberta, who works as a professional biologist. He gave us some tips on how to approach them respectfully, the key being to arrive at nightfall and overnight at the site, and not emerge from the camper until the flock dispersed the following morning after their intensive dancing is over. We easily found the trampled grassy site, complete with little piles of grouse droppings, and used the tibia of a deer we found nearby to mark our new site. We placed the white bone into a pile of dirt where a pocket gopher had been digging, so we could find the exact spot in the diminishing daylight when we returned later.
After leaving the site for some “side quests,” including helping a friend locate her runaway pony and watching a pair of nesting sandhill cranes while enjoying a lakeside tea, we returned to the lek. When we arrived, there were still several grouse on the site, so we ate dinner in our camper, parked some distance away, and waited for them to depart.
Brian’s camper on The Yarrow (Photo by Brian Keating)
At 8:15 p.m., just before sunset, they flew off. We quickly drove into position and packed it in for the day. In the pre-dawn the following day, when I awoke shortly after 5 a.m., I could hear the grouse calling. I pulled the blackout curtains down and had only a small LED light in our cozy interior and prepared some coffee and tea.
The calls of the grouse got louder as dawn approached. I was feeling very excited that our plan was going to work. Soon, it was light enough to film, and the grouse did not disappoint. There were 15 displaying males in total, and at least two females that approached them to inspect their performances.
White-tailed deer were seen in the distance, a bald eagle flew over head and the dancing continued on and on, illuminated by the rich early morning light. When the first female appeared, the dance intensity increased significantly. The males’ neck sacks glowed purple, brilliant yellow eye combs were puffed up, and with wings held out to the side, their foot stomping was a blur.
By 9 a.m., when the last grouse flew off, the show was over. It was an experience I will never forget, and one I am keen to share with anyone willing to listen — to just say how special The Yarrow truly is. It’s not every day you get to see grouse dancing like their genetic legacy depends on it!
Two sharp-tailed grouse lek dancing (Photo by Brian Keating)
Remarkably, a European wildlife film production company found my video segment of the lek dancing during one of their filming location searches on the web and arranged for a repeat filming of the dancing with their professional film crew this past spring. How exciting it was to guide and assist with this international nature celebration project, which is scheduled to air worldwide in 2024.
Without pristine landscapes like The Yarrow, these miraculous birds would simply have no other place to go.
Conserving this place is a no-brainer, and we will all be richer for it, in experience and in the beings we share this wonderous planet with.