Flattening animals is never a good way to start the day. The jackrabbit was in the opposite lane when the brights caught it. Why it made the decision to hop daintily beneath my tires is beyond comprehension. As Tristan put it later, slowing would have made the difference between creaming it at 40mph rather than 60. I’d rather a clean job of it. I was still unerved.
Foster Flats Road slid about under the tires like the thin layer of wet snow most Seattlites find an insurmountable obstacle. When rain falls heavily on ground only half prepared for absorption, a sickly alluvium forms. We’d been warned such mud could make for disaster. However, there’d been no rain overnight and at 3:50AM a collective decision made. Yes, we were still in pajamas and the twin beds were, at that moment, the most luxurious in the world, but there was a greater pull. Time to get up the kids.
A vague hint of a slaty first light began to push over the horizon. The windows rolled down, Horned Larks were audible in dawn chorus. They were also apparently sleeping the middle of the road, groggily or stubbornly flushing seconds before our tread.
After eight squelching, sliding, jostling miles we slowed to a crawl. It was about five AM and we should have been able to hear them. We didn’t.
“Turn off the engine. I can’t hear anything.”
“Vesper Sparrow. Horned Lark. Meadowlark.” I grasped for other sounds in the inky depths.
“Stop crinkling that granola bar wrapper.”
A frumpy bird flew across the road. Our pulses quickened and I immediately cut the engine. Still nothing. I was starting to worry because we’d driven several tenths of a mile too far. People in the van began to ask pointed questions about the decision to drive beyond the bird. Collective decision making has never existed when the driver can be blamed for any potential problems. We circled back.
As if by magic, our eyes adjusted in the still waxing light. Something, looking uncannily like a pillow filled with a pair of matching balloons, adorned with a pointy fan on one end, was pirouetting about outside. We started to notice these queer shapes all over in the twilight. We were here.
Out on the sage it sounded as if a group of overweight people wearing corduroys were alternating between running and resting on elliptical machines – their inner thighs rubbing together audibly for contracted periods. As the pants rubbed, they were desperately clutching milkshakes and the viscous liquid was popping about in odd percussion inside their cups. This is a perfect example why written descriptions of avian sounds pale in comparison to a recording or a real thing. I’ve merely succeeded in describing weight watchers subscribers.
Jokes aside, what was really happening out there? Why had we woke at 4 AM, driven a sketchy muddy road, and crept about in the dark? In reality, the apparitions meters from our van were Greater Sage Grouse (Centrocercus urophasianus) in Strutting Display. This was their lek, a place where males collect to show off for females. We were attending one of most magical avian displays in North America.
Portraying this scene, so compellingly unique and fascinating as it truly was, might just be beyond me. As I watched the males dance about in the hopes that the females, lurking on the sidelines might find them worthy of copulation, I was awash in a passion that takes me now and then. Evolutionary time spread before me, I was lost in a branching whirlwind of specialization and runaway selection. I found myself swelling with excitement, in a tizzy over the beauty of the natural world. This was the second Sage Grouse lek I’d ever seen and these males were unconcernedly bouncing about just meters from us.
The noises we were hearing were partially from esophageal pouches, which swelled as they prepared for the breeding season. Males fill these pouches with air and as they do so swish their wings against the feathers of their necks and breasts. The air sacs plop (like the milkshakes, which in this case call all the girls to the yard) and the wings rub against chest to create the swish (the corduroys).
Besides the fact that these birds were an amazing sight to see, they are becoming rarer and rarer. Biologists on the state and federal level have been dancing around listing these birds for years now. This area of Oregon happens to be a stronghold but that doesn’t mean they are safe. They’ve merely benefited from occurring in the least human inhabited corner of the lower 48. Mines, natural gas, windmills, cattle ranching, and hunting seem to trump saving an animal that is an embodiment of this habitat. Sure they’re chickens, but they’re North America’s largest, only residing in the West and in shrub steppe. They need to be nurtured not stomped out of existence by clumsy cattle and gas pads. I use resources, everyone can be blamed for these problems, but denying protection for special animals does nothing but further the problem, leaving them prone to further decline.
There were nearly thirty males strutting about, amply bosomed and obviously thoroughly out of their minds. Several of the males in more central locations fought over space, displaying at eachother and occasionally physically attacking. There’s a dearth of consistent information to explain their nuptial behavior. What is apparent is that prime males come together to display, only a few of these males actually mate, and the females will nest and raise young completely on their own. We noticed that the males in the middle of the lek seemed more active, both fighting more and displaying with more frequency. The best of the best?
The sun began to creep higher, casting a harsh glare across the display grounds. Before long the males would be flying off for the day, to return in the early hours the following morning. Soon these grounds would be quiet until next March when the strutting begins anew. We’d been perched in our van for nearly three hours and I was pretty sure I was getting deep vein thrombosis. It was time to slide on off and leave these outrageous birds to their shrubs and their flouting.
If this wasn’t a formative experience for the Birdwatch students then we’d probably never find one.
(Ok, so I lied, there will be one more entry to tie up all the loose ends on our trip to Malheur. We had fun, which invariably means I have too much to say!)