by Dr. Wayne Lynch
February 24, 2015
Drumming male ruffed grouse
I made this entry on my birthday in April one year. "I am inside the blind by 5:30am. The grouse has become very tame,
and even as I tramped around outside the blind, the defiant bird stayed on his drumming log just 10 meters away
Moments after I arrived, the sunrise fingered through the aspens trees and golden rays dappled off the chest of the drummer. The bird is drumming every five to eight minutes, and with each session the dried leaves at the base of the
log flutter lightly in the wind generated by the blur of his wings. It is a glorious morning to be immersed in nature. The
forest around me is full with the rich songs of spring, and each song tells a tale - the rattle of an irate kingfisher as
it chases an intruder from its lakeshore territory, the bugling music of a skein of migrant sandhill cranes as they wing
overhead, the bold tattoo of a pileated woodpecker as it hammers on the crown of a dead tamarack in the nearby bog,
the chatter of love-hungry wood frogs, and the whistling wings of a pair of common goldeneyes as the male doggedly
shadows every dodge and swerve of his fast-flying mate. I never tire of spending time in a blind. It's always memorable,
always rewarding. It is the best place to celebrate a birthday. As a wise friend once said to me. “It is time to discover
the hidden beauty in common things."
Drumming male ruffed grouse
The ruffed grouse is the most common and widespread grouse in North America. This handsome woodland bird - its feathers, a cryptic mix of browns, smoky greys, tans and chestnut - is found throughout the northern forests of Canada, Alaska, New England and the Midwest, and in the foothill forests of the Appalachians, the Rockies, the Cascades and the Coast Mountains of the Pacific Northwest. In short, wherever there are sizeable stands of aspen and balsam poplars, you are likely to find this woodland drummer. My sympathy goes out to anyone who lives in Florida or southern California, but you can't expect to have great winter weather and ruffed grouse as well.
Strutting male grouse with neck ruff erected
Each spring, between March and May, every self-respecting male ruffed grouse stakes out a drumming log, and then rapidly beats his wings over and over again to advertise his machismo to rival males and prospective female partners. In a typical drumming session, the energetic male beats his wings about 50 times, in a blur that lasts about 10 to 12 seconds. (This is the kind of trivia that nature nerds thrive on.) During the peak of the mating season, in late April, a testosterone-charged "ruffy" may drum like this every 5 to 10 minutes for several hours at the beginning and end of each day, and sometimes during the night as well.
Strutting male grouse with neck ruff erected
Every male grouse uses one main drumming site, usually an old decayed log or exposed tree root, and one or two secondary sites. All of the drumming sites are commonly within 15 meters of each other. Male grouse are true homebodies. Actually, once they acquire a territory during the first or second winter of their life, they may spend their entire lives within a 75-meter radius of their main drumming log! Good drumming logs may be used by generations of grouse, so once you find a drummer you can often return to the area year after year to photograph the same bird or his successor. This is the behaviour flaw that makes the ruffed grouse such an easy target for photographers.
A juvenile goshawk has just killed an adult ruffed grouse. This rare predation photograph was taken in late-winter.
So, now that you have the necessary ruffed grouse biology under your belt, how can you find a drumming log and get started? Easy. Sit down in the woods at dawn, in the springtime, and listen for the rhythmic drumming of sex-starved suitors. On a still morning, with frost in the air, a human can hear a ruffed grouse drumming half a kilometre away. Then it's a simple matter of slowly moving closer until you finally pinpoint the bird. This can usually be achieved in less than 30 minutes of careful stalking.
Feather evidence of a ruffed grouse killed by a predator
Another way to locate a drumming grouse is to befriend an expert. Since ruffed grouse are a hunted species, autumn harvests of these birds are managed by most provincial and state wildlife departments. Many of these government agencies conduct an annual spring drumming census to monitor the grouse populations in their area. The biologists conducting the counts are usually happy to have people join them in the cold dark hours before dawn to keep them company, and to keep the coffee poured as they cruise up and down back roads listening for drummers. Later, when you capture the bird with pixels you can donate photos to the department as a gesture of thanks.
The red arrow marks the location of the drumming log in front of my photo blind. Always resist trimming vegetation above a ruffed grouse's drumming log. Often there is thick shrubs or tree cover over the log, and it is tempting to thin this out to permit more light to fall on the drumming bird. This overhead vegetation is crucial protection from the grouse's two lethal enemies: the great horned owl and the northern goshawk.
Decades ago, while I was still in university, I arranged to accompany a provincial biologist on a spring grouse count outside of Ottawa. The guys agreed to meet at 4:30am on the edge of the city in the parking lot of a well-known drive-in theatre. I was early for the rendezvous and while I was waiting, I dozed off. I was suddenly awakened by a burly police officer knocking on the car window, shining a flashlight in my face, and grilling me on what I was doing in the parking lot. I mumbled something about a ruffed grouse count and the officer barked back "No jokes buddy. What are you doing here?" Eventually, the policeman believed me and then proceeded to talk my ear off with grouse hunting stories, at which point the biologist arrived and rescued me.
The number of droppings on the ground beneath a drumming log is a good way to determine how much a ruffed grouse is using the site. The salty taste of the droppings can also help you decide how recently the bird was there. (Okay. How many of you would actually put a dried up grouse turd in your mouth? Don't you know you shouldn't listen to everything you read.
So now that you have the bird staked out, how do you go about photographing it? Although I have had grouse drum right in front of me when I was standing in the open only 20 meters away, the surest way to capture natural behaviour is by using a photo blind. Ruffed grouse are pretty forgiving, so you can use any kind of blind that conceals your outline. A number of times we have used the discarded cardboard boxes that kitchen stoves and washing machines are shipped in. These boxes are handy for many reasons: they are free at most appliance stores, they withstand the weather for several months, they don't flap in the wind and startle your subject, and they are unattractive to thieves. Most of the time, however, I use one of my homemade fabric blinds which is roughly one meter square and 1 ½ meters tall. My wife and I can both fit inside and shoot simultaneously, with different focal length lenses, to capture different compositions of the same subject. Every grouse has its own tolerance level, but most woodland drummer boys will accept a blind right away, if it is erected 15 meters or more away from the drumming log. At that distance, I never had a bird take longer than about 45 minutes to hop back on the log and start drumming again.
The small comb-like scales on the sides of a grouse’s toes, called pectinations, grow in winter and increase the surface area of the feet, functioning like snowshoes.
On a typical ruffed grouse photo morning, I get up long before sunrise to be inside the blind by the time the sky starts to lighten. Most grouse will continue to drum for several hours after the sun comes up, and some may persist until midday. My usual equipment for such a blind setup is relatively simple and includes: an 80-200mm f/2.8 zoom and a flash. (For those of you who just nodded off while reading this scintillating checklist, don't forget to bring a couple of camera bodies as well. The lenses work better with a camera attached to one end.) Of course, the light of early dawn is always weak, so we usually start shooting with the ISO set at around 1000 and drop it to 400 when the light conditions brighten. Well, that's all there is to it. Like so many wildlife subjects, the biggest challenge in spring grouse photography is finding the subject. After that, even the village idiot can take the photograph.
Hens begin laying their eggs within 3-5 days of mating. The eggs, about the size of a small chicken egg, are laid at intervals of 24-30 hours, which means it takes roughly 19 days to lay a clutch of 13 eggs as pictured here.
We'll leave you with one final photo tip. When you walk into your blind, approach from a direction that will drive the drummer away from all of his secondary drumming sites as well as his main drumming log. Otherwise, the birdbrain may outsmart you and beat his heart out from one of his secondary drumming sites. Meanwhile, you're sitting inside your cosy blind, gritting your teeth and fiddling with your expensive camera that is focused on an empty log dappled in spectacular morning light.
Bio: Dr. Lynch is a popular guest lecturer and an award-winning science writer. His books cover a wide range of subjects, including: the biology and behaviour of owls, penguins and northern bears; arctic, boreal and grassland ecology; and the lives of prairie birds and mountain wildlife. He is a fellow of the internationally recognized Explorers Club - a select group of scientists, eminent explorers and distinguished persons, noteworthy for their contributions to world knowledge and exploration. He is also an elected Fellow of the prestigious Arctic Institute of North America.
Dr. Wayne Lynch
3779 Springbank Drive S. W.
Calgary, AB, T3H J5
For more titillating tidbits of tetraonid trivia you can read:
(Note: All 17 species of grouse in the world belong to the Family Tetraonidae)
#1The Ruffed Grouse, editors Sally Atwater & Judith Schnell, Stackpole Books, 1989.
#2 Ruffed Grouse - Woodland Drummer, Michael Furtman, NorthWord Press, 1999.
#3 The Grouse of the World, Paul A. Johnsgard, University of Nebraska Press, 1983.
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