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Mating Dance Season Begins: Sage Grouse Tours in North Park

You might already know that North Park is known all around the world as being home to world-class trout fishing, outdoor activities, and wildlife viewing for incredible creatures such as moose, elk, deer, and more. But what you might not know is that North Park is also a haven for a smaller, lesser-known animal. In the early mornings amid the rolling plains and sagebrush that cover much of this intermountain valley, you will hear the sound that gets die-hard birders up in the early hours of the morning. The characteristic “boom” of the greater sage grouse mating dance.

About the size of a chicken, the sage grouse performs a dance ritual worthy of a National Geographic special. This unforgiving landscape is considered harsh by many, especially in the wintertime, and this early in the season, you are more likely to hear the howling of coyotes than you are the music of songbirds. The whomping boom that you hear at sunrise is the sound of a ritual that has been going on for millions of years. It is the mating ritual of the greater sage grouse.

What is the Greater Sage Grouse?

In the pre-dawn light, in the flats of river bottoms of the high plains prairie, water trickles underneath thin ice. Where the ground isn’t covered in frost, the dormant grass is still cold and brittle. Undeterred by the harshness of the land, the sage grouse gather in “leks,” where males perform an elaborate dance to attract mates. Fanning out tail feathers and displaying their wings shows health, agility, and other traits favorable to pass on to the next generation. They are the largest grouse in North America, reaching 22” long and weighing upwards of six pounds.

Sage grouse are named from the ubiquitous sagebrush that covers much of these high plains throughout the West. Not only do they find nesting and protection within dense clusters of sagebrush, but during the winter, nearly 100% of their food comes from these plants. Male sage grouse can weigh up to six pounds, and though usually seen walking around on the ground, they can fly for several miles; at speeds of up to 50 miles per hour!

Sage grouse were first documented by the Lewis and Clark expedition in 1805. They are a rare sight in the mountains of Colorado and their numbers are highest in Grand, Moffat, and Jackson counties (North Park is another name for Jackson County). The plainer looking females blend in quite well with the sagebrush and typically lay 7-9 eggs per breeding season. Though rare, sage grouse have managed to remain off the endangered species list, though there are concerns future threats to their habitat can put them at risk. 

Threats to the Greater Sage Grouse

Though they are often prey of apex predators such as coyotes, raptors, and big cats, habitat destruction is the greatest threat to the future of the greater sage grouse. As urban areas encroach into lands which were formerly breeding grounds and protection for the grouse, the availability of nesting areas has decreased. In rural Colorado, increased livestock ranging, farming, and oil and gas extraction are the biggest concern for habitat destruction. Sage brush is often considered a nuisance and though it is the primary line of defense sage grouse have against predation and protecting their nests, it is often the first thing to be removed when land is platted for new neighborhoods.

Though not endangered, the greater sage grouse is on the Tier 1 list of threatened species. It lives in only 11 states in the western US, and as more people encroach on its habitat, the opportunity to see these beautiful creatures will be an even rarer sight in the future.

Fires, Invasive Species, and Disease

Fire is a big concern as well, with suggestions of climate change, drought, and invasive species such as cheatgrass overtaking areas. Cheatgrass has been shown to be a huge culprit of fire propagation. It can grow in dry, cold areas and is extremely flammable. Not only does it burn quickly, but its seeds are also fire resistant.

The flames of wildfires fanned by more people that are careless with fire, intense lightning storms, and droughts can reduce swathes of sagebrush land to charred ashes, while the cheatgrass is ready to pop up and take over where the sagebrush once grew.

Cheatgrass makes a horrible habitat for sage grouse, offering no protection or nutritional value. Land management practices involve using herbicides to limit the growth of cheatgrass in some areas. Not only are invasive species a concern, but avian diseases have also taken their toll. Sage grouse management includes protecting breeding areas and limiting hunting season to only two days per year in the Fall.

Avian tuberculosis and cholera affect sage grouse populations, and the bright yellow of these air sacs during these displays shows they are in good health.

One of Most Unusual Sounds in Nature

You might hear a sage grouse long before you actually see one, though the plumage of the males is impressive when put on display. The tell-tale boom they make is produced by inflating and deflating skin air sacs underneath their breast feathers, which can be heard for miles. Not only does this catch the attention of females and allow the birds to communicate, it is a good indication of other health as well. 

The mating dance is a bucket list item for bird watchers. Often the subject of nature documentaries, the dance is an impressive look at the complexity of not only bird communities, but nature itself. North Park offers some of the best access—not to mention stunning backdrops—to see these birds in action. If you want National Geographic levels of sage grouse photos, North Park is the place for you.

Come to North Park to See the Sage Grouse

North Park is a haven for the greater sage grouse. Due to its remote location, tracts of public lands, and limited development, Jackson County has miles of unspoilt habitat. Each year, the North Park Chamber of Commerce hosts a weekend of watching the eons-old sage grouse dance. In cooperation with Colorado Parks and Wildlife, a private grouse lek is opened for tours, allowing a dozen lucky bird watchers the chance to see this once in a lifetime event.This year’s sage grouse viewing will take place April 26-28.

What Happens During Sage Grouse Watching

Friday night, April 26, participants will gather for dinner and then return to their housing accommodations at Antlers Inn or North Park Inn and Suites. They will reconvene for breakfast at 5am on Saturday morning. Renowned nature photographer and birder, Dale Petefish, will accompany the group to the private lek viewing during the pre-dawn hours, when the sage grouse become active. The dance is most active between 6am to 6:30am and is usually done around 9am.

Participants are free to explore town and North Park throughout the day. Dinner is hosted on Saturday evening once again where everyone can share their experiences, hear presentations from CPW, and get to know each other. Sunday morning starts with breakfast at 5am and another trip to the lek for grouse viewing until 10am. Participants can check out of their rooms afterwards or continue to explore North Park on their own.

The package includes two nights accommodations, dinner on Friday and Saturday, and breakfast on Saturday and Sunday. Guide and transportation to the private lek viewing are also included. 

Registration allows for single or couple enrollments. The cost for single enrollment is $600 with a $21 fee and double enrollment is $900 with a $31 fee.

A Note About Land Use

North Park is home to fewer than 2,000 people who live and work on the land, including the population of Walden, CO. Though much of the land in Jackson County is public land, a lot of it is private property. Those who manage these places ask that visitors respect private property, for their own safety as well as the safety of livestock that occupy these places.

Visitors should always be mindful to use leave no trace practices when visiting public and private lands with permission. Careless littering and destruction of areas contributes to the endangerment of many species that call North Park home—not just the sage grouse. By taking only photographs and leaving only footprints, we can all ensure these places will continue to exist for future generations and their access and enjoyment.

How to Enroll in the Sage Grouse Tour

Visit the North Park Chamber of Commerce website to get started. Major credit cards are accepted. As mentioned above, lodging, meals, guide, and transportation to the lek are included. The tour is limited to only 12 people in 18 rooms in Walden, CO. The minimum number of participants is 6-7, but places are expected to fill up, so please register early to book your place during this incredible event.

Please contact the North Park Chamber of Commerce at (970) 723-4600 with any questions you have about how to  enroll in the sage grouse viewing tour. The sage grouse tour is a once in a lifetime experience avid birders won’t want to miss.


 

Address

Walden, CO
Phone
970-723-4600 (Call for more info)

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