"The dramatic physiological and behavioral nature of the Sage-Grouse has been an inspiration to a wide cross section of people, including Native Americans, naturalists, behavioral ecologists, photographers, and hunters. This species is renowned for its spectacular breeding displays, during which large numbers of males congregate on relatively small lek sites to perform a Strutting Display and to breed with females." Birds of North America Online.
Greater Sage-Grouse are found in the sagebrush shortgrass prairie of the American West, a declining habitat. Pictures on this page were taken in 2010, 2011, and 2013 in the area of Shaffer Lek, near Susanville in northeastern California.
The males in the pictures on this page were photographed at the lek in early March from a concealing blind, while they performed the celebrated display ritual. My fellow photographers and I crouched in freezing cold behind a low stone wall for an hour or more between complete darkness and sunrise before we could start taking pictures. It was very much worth it, though the photographs give only a suggestion of the truly remarkable spectacle.
The head-on glare of a displaying male, with tail feathers fully erected, and the white feather ruff hanging down, covering the large esophageal pouches; the bird inflates these during the display, and then releases the air, producing a deep "plop!", a sound which can be heard up to three miles away. Below, a male Sage-Grouse with the pouches fully inflated; this distends the two featherless patches of skin, producing an effect like mammalian breasts, with the bird's head nearly hidden from sight in the feathers.
In this inflation of the pouches, the ruff rises above the head, concealing the eyes, while the bare skin
patches distend, and the yellow patches in front of the eyes remain visible.
Two males facing off on the lek. Most of these face-offs end without combat, as one of the male birds withdraws. But occasionally they do brief battle, as shown below.
Above, a female at the lek, one of two present on this day, courted by fifteen or more males. Below, a female we came across right alongside the dirt road that passes near the lek; it was midday, and we were reconnoitering for our pre-dawn approach to the lek the next morning. The radio transmitter is part of a study of the habits and movements of these birds. This was the closest I've been to a Sage Grouse.