2021—Perfect Beacons

The reverberating dances on the Sharp-tailed Grouse lek are almost non-stop for the two hours just at and after sunrise. The dances of the Sharp-tailed Grouse seem more purposeful and choreographed than the dances of their neighbors, the Greater Prairie Chickens. Watching them makes me feel that some Native American dances must have been derived from watching these intricate dances on the prairie. At first, two rivals will face each other in a stare-down and then, with no perceived trigger, both males will suddenly stand and begin the dance, whirling left then right then left again, their sharp tails back to back like beacons. In fact, despite the terrain and the thick grasses, those beacons helped us find them. Even in dim early morning light before it was possible to take photographs, the first thing we could see were those white tail feathers.

There was almost non-stop dancing during our last morning on the lek. The rat-tat-tat of their feet drumming on the prairie echoed across the fields. Sometimes it was almost impossible to tell where they were drumming because the acoustics were such that the jack-hammer sounds surrounded us in our plywood blinds feeling as if they were just inches from us but the birds were really yards away, scattered around the lumpy terrain and partially hidden in the dried grasses. Their pointed white tails made spotting them, wherever they were, easy, the perfect beacons.

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