Text and Photos by Shyloh van Delft
Female Ruffed Grouse
I was walking through the Teslin Lake Campground (located in the Yukon) at the beginning of September on census. I was counting birds to see what was passing though on migration. I found Black-capped Chickadees, Myrtle, Yellow, Orange-crowned, and Blackpoll Warblers, Ruby-crowned Kinglets, Juncos, and Fox Sparrows in abundance. As I looked up into the leafy branches above me I saw a flash of bright orange. I tried out my newly found pishing skills, (which need a lot of work!) and attracted a beautiful male American Redstart from the canopy. The orange markings were bright against the coal black of his other feathers. He came down to eye level, sitting in a patch of sunlight, watched me. It was one of those times when you are struck with awe at the beauty of the moment, and know it would be perfect to capture in a picture… then you suddenly realize that the camera you always carry with you is not hanging on your shoulder. The redstart flew away. I ran back through the campground and down to the Teslin Lake Bird Banding Observatory located on the lake shore to retrieve my camera. Knowing it was too late but still wanting to check anyways, I headed up to the campground to look for the redstart again. I tried pishing but did not have any luck.
When census ended, I walked down the mist net trails hoping to see one of the Ruffed Grouse that had been hanging around. I did not yet have a picture of Ruffed Grouse. I stumbled across a female running underneath a net across the trail. I followed her, keeping my distance and trying not to scare her, but it was difficult since they are very shy. Suddenly, she took flight and landed in a nearby willow. This was my chance, it was now or never. I crept slowly and quietly around the willow. As I rounded the tree, a displaying male Ruffed Grouse on the ground below the female hissed at me.
I had never seen a displaying Ruffed Grouse before and was thrilled. He swelled his entire body up and hissed at me, moving closer. Less than four feet in front of me, he stood his ground. I took my camera out, trying to be as quiet as possible. Neither the male nor the female moved. I took many pictures of the male, trying to capture every detail: the feathers ruffed around his neck, framing his head, the rich brown tail spread in a fan.
After awhile I decided to return to the banding observatory and leave the grouse alone. Not only had I taken my first pictures of a Ruffed Grouse, but I had taken close ups of a male displaying. When I arrived at the observatory, I told Jukka Jantunen, who runs the observatory, about my encounter and showed him my pictures. He was glad to find out that the male was still hanging around; he had seen him there before. He told me that this particular male Ruffed Grouse was special in that his tail feathers were brown, a characteristic found in the grouse species further south. Ruffed Grouse found in the north normally have gray tail feathers.
After the migration monitoring hours were done for the day we packed up the equipment and headed up to the campground. We were planning to find the male Ruffed Grouse again so Jukka could get some pictures. After we put the equipment in the car and grabbed our cameras, I led Jukka back to where I had first discovered the grouse. We quickly found the male again. There was no female around so he was no longer displaying. The male ran into the bushes and we waited, glimpsing him occasionally as he foraged in the bushes. After a short while he came out and made his way onto a half-buried log beside the trail. Jukka and I both started snapping pictures. The grouse sat on the log and started to drum. He would beat his wings in rhythm, speeding up until his wings were a blur.
After drumming half an hour he suddenly stopped and stiffened, looking towards one of the nearby nets. He jumped off the log and ran as fast as his little legs would carry him. Jukka and I carefully and quietly followed him. The grouse reached the net and suddenly puffed out all of his feathers, hissing loudly at a female in front of him. The female flew up and sat above on the closed net to watch him. Jukka went around to the opposite side of the net to get pictures from a different angle, and I crouched behind a stump in the trail. The male strutted so close to me that I could have reach out and touched him.
After two hours, it was starting to get late so we decided to go. Watching the Ruffed Grouse was one of the highlights of my time working at the Teslin Lake Observatory. I am happy I was able to get such good looks at both my first male American Redstart and my first displaying male Ruffed Grouse.