Most years Dale puts together a new digital program. His programs are full of sequences of photos showing events in nature we have watched. Getting all those photos is the reason I have so much time to field sketch. But I photograph too; and, in this instance, I was photographing rather than sketching. The only sketch in this blog post was done after my first grouse drumming experience.
Describing sounds in nature is often a challenge. Chickadees are kind enough to sing something easy to put into words – “chickadee’. Killdeer too – “killdeer.” Some birds have sounds we can relate to. A bittern pumping sounds rather like a far off sledge hammer; I used to say a marsh wren sounds like a treadle sewing machine, but who has heard one of those recently? A ruffed grouse drums/sounds like an old tractor first starting up: Whoomph . . . . . . . . . whoomph . . . . . . . . whoomph . . . . . .whoomph . . . . whoomph . . . whoomph . . whoomph ..whoomh . whoomph . whomphwhomphwhomphphphphph! A slow start, gradually gaining in speed and finally a blur of sound. Each whoomph is made by the beat of the male grouse’s wings. But you probably haven’t listened to an old tractor either? You’ll have to use your imagination.
I grew up hearing drumming every spring, down in the woods, not far from the family farmhouse. Drumming refers to the courtship display of the male ruffed grouse. A lone ruffed grouse picks a fallen log in the woods and drums day after day during the spring, working hard to attract a mate. Grouse are hunted in Wisconsin and so are spooky. Only once did I actually get to watch a grouse drumming. That grouse had chosen to drum on a log that was reasonably close to the dirt road just north of the house. In late afternoon Dale and I parked our van in place and walked back to the house. At bedtime we returned to the van, crawled into our sleeping bag, and looked forward to first light and watching the ruffed grouse.
We were soon asleep … and soon awakened -- “whoomp . . . . . . whoomph . . ”. It must be the wee hours of morning! Pale light filled the van. Dale carefully crawled out of the cozy sleeping bag, put on warm cloths and got into the front seat of the van to photograph. Only then did he look at his watch – something close to midnight. Moonlight was playing tricks with us.
He returned to our sleeping bag and tried to sleep. Hard to sleep when we kept hearing the drumming about 100 yards away ... and we so desperately wanted to watch him drum -- patience! Wait for dawn! We did and we were well rewarded. I smile as I remember that later that day we had the pleasure of taking a friend of my parents back to our same parking spot. He was 80 years old and had traveled the world photographing hummingbirds, but had never had the pleasure of watching a ruffed grouse drum.
Now we fast forward to a little over a year ago. For the third time I’ve found a ruffed grouse drumming in a protected area – no hunting. Such a difference. Each time I find a grouse drumming in a protected area they are far more approachable.
It starts with hearing that tell-tale “Whoomph . . . . . . . . . whoomph . . . . . . . . whoomph . . . . . .whoomph . . . . whoomph . . . whoomph . . whoomph ..whoomh . whoomph . whomphwhomphwhomphphphphph! “ My heart races and I immediatly think, “Where is he?” Friends had mentioned where he might be, but he wasn’t. I need to carefully ease into the woods: listening, watching. It is difficult to judge just how far away the whoomphs are coming from. One hundred yards? Five hundred yards? I quietly pick my way up slope following a game trail. He is close.
There he is! Ruffed grouse display by themselves, unlike some species of grouse which gather on a lek. This one faces east on a long downed log and well sheltered by overhanging branches. He stands relaxed. Aware. I freeze and watch. I barely breath.
He drums! I’m so close and he is so buried in branches. Every so slowly I ease down and half lie on the slope. From my odd position and have a much clearer view.
Slowly the grouse’s tail drops down and presses on the back side of the log, his wings flare a little and droop,
The first ‘whoomphs’ are slow,
They come faster and faster,
and erupt into a blur.
I hunker in my odd position for half an hour. The sunlight slips behind the nearby ridge, coolness comes to the woods. Eventually my grouse wanders off. Far off I hear another grouse drum but to go find him I’d have to go deeper into a tangle of woods. Probably not a good idea. I’m in bear country.