Saturday, March 18, 2017
Hunting 'Chickens': Avian Style
Just returned from a trip to the Pacific Northwest and spent some time traversing the states of Oregon and Washington. The word 'Chickens' is a collective term that many birders refer to that covers a lot of the game birds found in the United States. And the reference to 'Hunting', in the mind of a birder is to view, observe, and document any bird in the wild. As a much younger lad, many decades ago, hunting was a bit different for me as I did a little bit of actually hunting with a shotgun, especially Ring-necked Pheasants in Nebraska. I have not actively hunted anything for many years with a shotgun and no longer have the desire to do so. When I refer to 'hunting' now, it is only as a birder, not a hunter with a gun and my weapons of choice are binoculars and a camera!
Chris and I planned this trip several months ago and we were fortunate to have a great guide during our stay. Khanh Tran, knows this area well and he knows his birds very well; where to find them, and lots of information on behaviors and what to expect at different times of the year. One has to cover many miles to find some of these birds as many are located in some very remote areas. The winter this past year in this area has been very wet with lots of snow and rain. We dealt with gray skies and intermittent rain throughout our stay.
First 'chicken' we chased was the Spruce Grouse. I quickly learned how tough it is to find this bird. One almost has to know its territory as they do not wander far. They are quite cryptic and camouflaged in thickets of spruce trees and they are also quite confiding, so once found, one can approach them fairly easy with caution. We had to trek over some snow for about 1½ miles to get to the territory. But once this stunning male was found, he was very cooperative and it was an exalting encounter.
Spruce Grouse - Male
Note how easily it blends in when it is hidden in a tree.
The next species we had the privilege to observe was a Greater Sage-Grouse and a lek. This is really pretty special and the location will go unpublished to preserve this area for future generations of courtship displays for this bird. A lek is a type of bird territory in which males of a species gather for courtship displays. These locations are used year after year and if not protected, it could jeopardize future breeding and a decline in the numbers of these magnificent birds. We were a bit early for a lot of serious courtship, as we counted 18 males and only 1 female. The numbers are more likely to increase in the next couple of weeks.
Greater Sage-Grouse - Male
Note the lone female on the right side of the photo, with 2 males on the left.
This next 'chicken' is the Ruffed Grouse and was not a lifer for me as I saw several in Minnesota in January 2016, but this time the numbers were higher and offered much better photographs. All grouse have cryptic plumage that offers camouflage in their environment for survival purposes. But these plumages are very intricate and beautiful.
Ruffed Grouse - Note how it blends in with the tree
A bit more extreme than the grouse species is the family of quail. I have seen California Quail before, but had never been able to photograph them. This trip rectified that problem with providing us several looks at this bird. Similar to the Gambel's Quail we have in Arizona, but still much different and in some respects a bit more colorful.
California Quail - Male
California Quail - Female
The next species is one that we looked for on just about every road that we traveled and finally we found a group of about 13 of them along side of the road, the Gray Partridge. But as we turned around to go back for a better look, they started running away from us and eventually flew. Great photos were not meant to be this time, but I did get some good looks through the binoculars and seeing the bird is more important than capturing a photo. Here are a couple of the butt shots that I managed.
Gray Partridge - on the run
This was a great experience for me to learn how hard it is to find some of these game birds and and to learn their habits and behaviors. It is a group of birds that can be difficult to find and see, but when found the rewards are outstanding. Stay tuned to more future posts on this trip to the marvelous Pacific Northwest!