Frozen fingers and frosted feathers all part of a memorable morning on the prairie
Male sharptail grouse display, dance and duel, viciously defending their stake on the lekking grounds.
EDITOR'S NOTE: Seth Owens, Education and Outreach coordinator for North Dakota Pheasants Forever and a UND graduate, shared this essay and photos from a recent excursion to watch and photograph sharp-tailed grouse dancing in the snow in “the five-mile-wide strip of scattered prairie in central Grand Forks County.”
“I hate the cold …”
“I hate birds …”
I mutter these words as I give the final tug to my backpack straps, cinching it firmly against my back. I blow steamy air against my knuckles, shove them into my mittens and plod down yesterday’s trail. The rhythmic swish, thump, swish, thump of my snowshoes on the crusted snow provides a cadence for my forward movement. Each breath I exhale rapidly condenses into an expanding cloud before floating off or frosting the hair on my face.
After enough swishes and thumps, I reach my GPS point and dump my pack onto the snow. My bare hands, freshly de-mittened, lose their dexterity as the warmth is stolen by the pre-dawn breeze. I empty my backpack, assemble my blind, and crawl in. The steely claws of cold have stolen the heat from my extremities. I lay inside my blind and shove my hands inside my jacket. My chest, protected by my multiple core layers, slowly transfers warmth and returns feeling into my brick-numb hands. With the tingles of blood returning to my fingertips, I prepare my camera gear and wait for the first fingers of daylight to reach across the sky.
“I hate the cold …”
Time travels differently when you’re waiting for the sun to rise. This morning, time melted and dripped like water off a spring icicle. The liquid of time mirrored the pooling rose gold that poured over the edge of the eastern horizon. The morning had shown up, but the grouse had not.
I enjoy watching the liquid colors of dawn ripple throughout the heavens, but this was not today’s goal. Thoughts of what I had done wrong creep into my mind, and I convince myself to be patient. The liquidity of time had refrozen. Ten minutes of waiting felt like an hour.
“I hate birds …”
I convince myself to stay for five more minutes. A squall of chatter, rapid-fire stomping, and guttural hiccups and coos fill the air. Our featherweight fighters are arriving at the icy arena. The galliform gladiators gather. Male sharptail grouse display, dance and duel, viciously defending their stake on the lekking grounds. Hundreds of these leks are contested each spring morning across the Great Plains, each male dedicated to showing his valor and courage to the onlooking hens. When the females arrive, the presence of an audience is quickly noted. The hens strut throughout the lek, seemingly unimpressed by those contesting for her hand. The males’ ferocity blazes. Where once there were simply squabbles and a few rounds of roughhousing, now fully-fledged fights have broken loose across the lek. Wings swing violently at their opposition and clawed feet tear through the air toward the enemy.
The sun is well up by now, and the breathy vapor that leaves my lips is picked up on the drafting breeze that runs through my blind. I have completely forgotten about the frigid environment that I am immersed in. I simply am; I exist as an observer.
By becoming an observer, not only have I distanced myself from my bodily discomforts and human stresses, but I have also rippled the liquid surface of time. I hold witness to an extraordinarily ancient event, a primal battle for genetic continuity. Only the most impressive winged warriors will be given the opportunity to father the next generation, and they know that failure is to end a bloodline. Their fervor and fury provide perspective on the cruelty and competition which is omnipresent in nature. Only the strongest males will be successful this spring
I am entranced by the rhythmic drumroll of feathered feet on frosted snow and awed by the brutal battles of these brawlers. I am amazed by the scene that occurs each spring morning on prairies and grasslands across North Dakota, my home.
A sudden silence washes across the battleground. All is still. Nervous chatter is emitted by a spectating female, and she explodes from the ground, narrowly avoiding her raptorial reaper. Panic spreads throughout the prairie as dozens of grouse rocket into the air. With a few rapid flaps and a long glide, the sharptail have distanced themselves from their hunter, a northern harrier, who lazily floats above the snow hoping for a straggler of the morning’s battles.
The gray ghost moves on, and the sharptail have scattered. I, listening to my frozen fingers and rumbling stomach, use this as an opportunity to depart the prairie for the morning. I pack up my gear, strap on my snowshoes, and listen to the swish, thump, swish, thump once more. By the time I reach my vehicle, the grouse have returned to finish the morning’s battles.
“I love birds.”
Owens is Education and Outreach coordinator for North Dakota Pheasants Forever. Reach him at email@example.com . Photography Social Media: instagram.com/stuff.seth.sees or www.facebook.com/stuff.seth.sees.