A dance to remember

Sharp-tailed grouse (Illustration by Cory Proulx)

Sharp-tailed grouse (Illustration by Cory Proulx)

By Brian Keating, naturalist

The sharp-tailed grouse dance at The Yarrow, in southern Alberta, is one of many spellbinding natural displays observable at this special place. I have explored The Yarrow 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 the 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 2022 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 lek], 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.

At 8:15 p.m., just before sunset, they flew off for the night. In the pre-dawn the following day, when I awoke shortly after 5 a.m., I could hear the grouse calling. The calls got louder as dawn approached. I was feeling very excited. 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. 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., the last grouse flew off, and 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.

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 wondrous planet with. To learn more about how you can help The Yarrow, visit theyarrow.ca.

This story originally appeared in the spring 2023 issue of the Nature Conservancy of Canada Magazine. To learn more about how you can receive the magazine, click here.

Supporter Spotlight

Small Acts of Conservation - Take the challenge and enter to WIN