For the Birds Radio Program: Searching for the Elusive Sage Grouse

Original Air Date: Aug. 4, 1995

Twenty percent of the Erickson family spent vacation time searching but not finding a sage grouse. The rest looked at beautiful scenery. 4:26

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(date verified)
Two weeks ago, the Erickson family went out West. In a recent survey, we determined that 80 percent of Ericksons go on vacation to see scenery, and a mere 20 percent to specifically to see birds. And in our case, that 20 percent minority happens to be me. In another recent survey, 80 percent of all Ericksons said I waste way too much time looking at birds, so I thought it best to spend at least a little time looking at scenery and making appropriate exclamations about how beautiful, awesome, magnificent, or splendid a particular item of scenery happened to be. I also decided not to drag everyone on too many wild goose chases, or, as the case turned out to be, wild grouse chases.

So we departed. I’ve already birded in the West, so there aren’t too many lifers for me there, but one, the [Greater] Sage-Grouse, supposedly can be found throughout the sagebrush country that the interstate runs through. As soon as we reached Montana, I spent my hours scanning sagebrush in search of this turkey-sized grouse. I looked at millions and millions of sagebrush plants, but not one harbored a sage grouse—at least not a sage grouse that could be picked out at 65 miles per hour. It was just as well. If I had spotted something suspicious, there was no way we could have stopped on the interstate for a satisfying look. Finally, we rose into the Rocky Mountains. Russ and Katie each shot a roll of film as we went through a treacherous but beautiful pass, but I spent shockingly little time looking at the awesome scenes. I wanted to see birds. We drove through Yellowstone on our way to our first vacation destination—Grand Teton National Park.

Sage Grouse are rare in Yellowstone, but common in the Tetons. When we reached the first stop in view of these enormous and inspiring peaks rising above the flat sagebrush land, everyone jumped out of the car to enjoy the view. Eighty percent of the Ericksons faced west, looking at the awesome scenery. Me, I took in the mountains as I climbed out of the car, and I now faced east, still searching the monotonous sagebrush for that elusive Sage Grouse. The sun was low, the colors of the clouds and the setting sun against these magnificent peaks luscious, but to a birder, all that can be fully appreciated in a second. The real task was to find a sage grouse.

At some stops along the road, as many as thirty people would all be facing the mountains, with one lone woman pointed the opposite way, intently searching the sagebrush, hoping against hope that I could see some movement, some tiny sign that a sage grouse was finally at hand. Every now and again, I spotted a distant something that looked enough like a sage grouse to warrant hiking out for a closer look. The majority patiently waited as I traipsed through miles of sagebrush, but not one sage grouse materialized. I did fine one rock that looked a lot like a sage grouse at 300 yards. I’d have brought it home as a souvenir except that it weighed over a hundred pounds.

For three days in the Tetons, three more in Yellowstone, and another driving back through Montana, I spent the majority of my hours looking at sagebrush instead of incredible scenery, desperately trying to prove to my now skeptical family that yes, sage grouse really do exist. And for three days in the Tetons, three more in Yellowstone, and another driving through Montana, every sage grouse joined in a conspiracy and hid out, ensuring that the 80 percent majority could smile at me with smug complacency, knowing that it’s a lot smarter to look at a spectacular mountain right there in front of you than to search for mythical birds in the hot, dry sagebrush. One day I may concede the point, but meanwhile I plan to go back to Wyoming next spring to see sage grouse doing their breeding display. I suspect the scenery will still be there.