Our Insights

Tracking Sage-Grouse Calls for “Dancing in the Dark”

August 1, 2018

by Ben Bainbridge
Biologist, Environmental Division

This article was originally published in Currents, POWER’s quarterly Environmental newsletter.

What kind of music do sage-grouse like? The way the males are showing off, maybe a little club music? Perhaps a two-stepping country song so they can grab the best hen for a dance? So, “What kind of music do sage-grouse like?” is not actually the question I was helping to answer at 3 a.m. while trapping greater sage grouse (Centrocercus urophasianus), but it made for good conversation.

In the spring of 2014 and 2015, I was volunteering with a survey for the Idaho Department of Fish and Game (IDFG) with a goal to capture sage-grouse in support of GPS tracking studies. Sage-grouse, both males and females, commonly sleep on or close to their mating grounds during the mating season.

Captured birds were fitted with backpack style GPS transmitters that provided feedback on an individual bird’s movements. Biologists with IDFG and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) could then follow these birds on seasonal migrations, or monitor females for nesting habitat and nesting success.

Sage-grouse tracking studies like this provide crucial information for the conservation and management of this iconic western bird. On the other hand, sage-grouse trapping just makes for a very interesting night.

I met up with a team of four biologists and conservation officers (i.e., game wardens) at a BLM fire-crew bunkhouse to plan for the night ahead and grab supplies. My wonderful wife made chocolate chip cookies for the evening, making me a very popular volunteer.

Then we piled into an IDFG truck and headed off into the dark night on the sagebrush sea. Did I mention how dark it is out there? One unlucky biologist sat out in the cold on a special elevated chair in the bed of the truck while using binoculars and a spotlight to see the eye reflection of a resting sage-grouse.

Flocking around. Each spring, the sagebrush country of western North America fills with sage-grouse for breeding season. The males proudly display their white chest and head feathers to attract a mate.

Upon finding a bird, the biologist with the spotlight signaled for the truck to drive straight at the bird while the other two biologists got out of the cab and retrieved large hoop nets on 8- to 10-foot-long poles. That was my job in this endeavor.

Here’s where the music comes in—large speakers were taped to the hood of the truck and blasted our music into the night to mask the sound of the approaching truck. The music was left on all night, so we just plugged in an iPhone and set it to shuffle for the night. Apparently, the sound of a truck approaching in the dark scares grouse, but Garth Brooks or Metallica does not.

My moment of action arrived when the biologist with the spotlight signaled he had found a bird. Wait—scratch that, it’s just a pronghorn. But not too much longer we were on a bird—a mature male. So I hopped out of the truck, grabbed my giant net, and held on to the jukebox on wheels while it drove off through the mature sagebrush toward the blissfully resting rooster.

As the truck got closer, I moved away from the truck, stumbled through the sagebrush and then rushed the formerly sleeping bird with my net held out like Elmer Fudd! All this was done with the music blaring into the night and never turning on the truck’s headlights or my own headlamp. Did I mention how dark it is out there?

Success! Once I netted the bird, I jumped on it like a fumble back in my football days (but careful not to crush it). At this point, someone killed the music so that the science part of this expedition could begin in earnest

Extricating seven pounds of angry, flapping, fighting male sage-grouse from a giant net is no small task, but the team persevered. I held the bird like a football with the head tucked back under my right arm, the feet in my right hand, and the wings held in place against my body and with my left hand over the bird’s back. Once secured, the bird was fitted with a GPS tracker and measurements such as weight, age, sex and a blood sample from the toe were taken for future study.

Before release, this particular bird was nice enough to sit calmly in my arms for a photo. Releasing this guy was not some grand finale like you see on the news when someone releases a bald eagle back into the wild. I carefully placed the bird back on the ground and slowly tip-toed back to the truck hoping he wouldn’t take flight and fly into a rock, or worse, the side of the truck.

It would be a pretty funny scene to anyone watching from afar—a group of biologists driving and stumbling around in the dark with large nets, no headlights, no discernible pattern, a spotlight moving all around like that giant eye in “Lord of the Rings,” all while blaring random music on the hood of the truck. But hey, it works. And the birds don’t seem to care what kind of music we played, although there was better luck with good ol’ country music!

About the Author:

Ben is a biologist with experience in laboratory and field research with mammal, avian and amphibian species, plant species, wetlands and silviculture. He has experience in population surveys for federal- and state-listed special status species and condition assessment of their habitats. Ben has a clear understanding of the requirements and processes of the National Environmental Policy Act and has applied these principles to field research and the permitting of electrical transmission projects. He is familiar with the wetlands delineation methods of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Cowardin classifications. Questions for Ben? Send him an email at ben.bainbridge@powereng.com