Winter is dying. If sap is flowing in the trees it does not yet show. There are no flowers, no green grass yet peeking through the snow. But the birds know. Hen turkeys gather every afternoon in the flats in the canyon bottom just over the hill from our home to watch the toms strut, just like giddy school girls ogling the football team in their letter jackets at a pep rally. Greater sage grouse have also begun to respond to their rising blood. They assemble well before dawn at leks, places to see and be seen, strutting grounds that may have been used for generations by the birds. The males watch each other and the females so intently that they sometimes forget to keep an eye skyward for marauding golden eagles that come commonly cruising for breakfast.
Their smaller cousins, sharp-tailed grouse, also feel the call of Spring in their bones. These birds were once found across much of the Great Basin but loss of habitat to cultivation and grazing has reduced their numbers severely in the region. A few leks remain in Utah and Nevada. They are isolated and often inaccessible during breeding season, deeply drifted snow blocking the roads, protecting them from human intrusion.
If the roads are open and passable you must arrive early at a lek, an hour or more before dawn. Some birds will already be present, and they will not appreciate your appearance, but if you sit quietly, patiently, and do not disturb them more will come. You sit in your car with the engine off until the birds disperse, sometimes an hour or more after sunrise. Dress warmly and bring blankets. You’ll probably still be cold, even with the sun. Be sure to make that last “pit stop” before you arrive at the lek and be very attentive to the volume and types of fluids you drink. A three hour wait with a full bladder will be as memorable as the birds but far less pleasant. You do not for any reason exit your car, start your engine, make loud noises or sudden movements. The males are generally difficult to deter but wary all the same. A loud voice, a slammed car door, even the appearance of an ignoramus with a camera hanging too far out a window can be enough to spook the birds and bring an abrupt, premature end to the morning.
Sit quietly, patiently, watch, and listen. The birds call to each other, sounding a bit like turkeys exhaling helium. Their tails rattle like paper fans. They stomp their feet. Pairs of males will circle each other, staring. At times they fly at their adversary, beating each other with their wings. But more often they circle until they stop and then they sit, still staring, often for minutes at a time until one or the other grows bored or distracted and wanders away.
Eventually the birds disperse. You start your engine, roll up your windows, turn the heater on high, stamp your feet and wiggle your toes until their tingling assures you they have not frozen off, and you begin to pick your way through deep mud and snow drifts to a world too loud and fast and brash for dancing grouse. And if their magic has touched you, you may just find yourself wondering why you cannot stay.