Grousing Around Utah
After putting in some time and effort searching for Gunnison Sage Grouse in Gunnison County, Colorado last week, I figured I'd lay low on this bird and wait until April until they start lekking. ('Lekking' refers to the competitive displays of male grouse and prairie chickens, performed at a specific location to attract females)
I enjoy a good birding challenge, and finding grouse not in the breeding season, almost serendipitously brings me great joy. I've stumbled upon Gunnison Sage grouse before in the summer, which was the first time I saw that species in my life. I was lucky.
However, this past week in Utah I learned that we spent the first night camped less than 40 miles from Monticello, the last concentration of Gunnison Sage Grouse in the state of Utah. I had to try and find the Gunnison Sage Grouse again- it was just too tempting!
After our expedition into Grand Gulch, the group took a day to do some climbing. I had the option to go birding, and without any hesitation I was ready for round two in the sage northeast of Monticello. I had pretty much a full day to search for the grouse. Starting at noon was a downside, since the males are vocal starting an hour before sunrise during the breeding season, which might have already started.
First, I spent several hours along Hickman Flats road exploring the area. I had thousands of acres of what looked like suitable habitat. I saw multiple Golden Eagles, which surprised me at the density they occurred along this stretch of habitat. Most of them were juveniles, possibly wintering birds from Montana, Canada, Alaska...
I decided to go into town for lunch and some detective work about possible specific locations to search for the sage grouse. My first stop was at the BLM office. I walked into the office to find a taxidermy grouse on the wall, mocking me with outstretched wings and an informational sign. I was given equally tantalizing information: the birds were here and here (circled on a map) which was right where I had been all day so far. The gentleman suggested I try the Fish and Game office down the street, upstairs above the pharmacy. I went there next, to find the upstairs hallway with many closed doors. Only one was open, at the end of the long hall. A lady who was a massage therapist came out of the open door as I was walking down the hall, and directed me towards the office of the forester. I took his card and called him. He was the fire Marshall. He sent me back upstairs where the Fish and Game office was supposed to be. The office was closed. (hence the closed door) Next the massage therapist sent me to "county office" down the street. That ended up being the court house and police headquarters. The clerk sent me back down the street to a different county office. I stopped at a tourist information building along the way. The lady there said they're only in Colorado in Gunnison. She was adamant the birds are not around here anymore. Huh. I checked out the free museum there and headed out.
Next I stopped by the Monticello library. Not sure what I would find, I figured if nothing else it would be a quiet spot to work for a while. I inquired about Sage Grouse, and librarian came back with a draft sage grouse plan- jackpot!
This document provided biological insights into the habitat use, and distribution of the species in Utah. Unfortunately, many of the key areas were on private land, but I did confirm I was searching in the right habitats on the right roads.
Despite the conspicuous absence of Sage Grouse, the more I search the more I am learning about the biology, habitat requirements, and other birds of the sage flats. I'll never get tired watching Golden Eagles ride air currents like a roller coaster until becoming a small speck in the clouds. I know I'll be back in the sage, looking for this bird again. I can't wait.