Words On Birds by Steve Grinley

A Search for Sooty Grouse
December 17, 2016
By Steve Grinley

     Last week, we left our heroes in the Heart ‘o the Hills campground in Olympic National Park in the state of Washington. Margo had just seen her 700th North American species, the red-breasted sapsucker. The day was still young and our plan was to drive up to Hurricane Ridge to try to see the elusive Sooty Grouse, which would also be a life bird for her. 

     The clouds and drizzle gave way to breaks of sunshine as we drove up the mountain. We encountered a couple of small bands of Steller’s jays along the way. Soaring red-tail hawks and a possible red-shouldered hawk flew along the ridges. 

     At one of the scenic pull-offs, an Oregon junco perched atop a small shrub and sang for us. He did not seem bothered by the cars and people coming in and out of the small lot. He was content to just perch up and sing. Margo was able to photograph him, and I even managed a couple of cell phone shots.

     As we looked out over the valley, with more mountains in the background, we watched a large raptor soaring. Its long flat wings and small head indicated that it was a golden eagle. We could even see the golden feathers of its nape when it banked in the sunlight.

     We stopped for lunch at the visitor’s center and cafe at the top of the mountain. As we ate our lunch, we looked out onto the large stone patio where we watch other vistors feeding gray jays. Unlike our blue jays, gray jays are quite tame and bold. They will often feed right out of your hand. After lunch, we stepped outside and took some close up photos of the begging birds.

     We continued our quest by driving the last half mile of road and then hiking down the Hurricane Ridge Trail in search of the grouse. The wind had picked up a bit, and the clouds were threatening again. Birds were few and afar between. A few kinglets, a towhee, a glimpse of the russet tail of a hermit thrush were about all we could find. No sign of any grouse, so we headed back to the car. 

     We remembered that Dave Larson at Mass Audubon Joppa Flats had told us about checking a couple of picnic areas along the last section of road where he has had grouse in the past. He suggested that we sit and wait them out. So we drove a short way to the first picnic area and we walked quietly around the area. It was mostly wooded, and there were few if any birds.

     The second picnic area looked more promising. It was more open, had a number of large conifers, and it opened up to an open field that was edged with short plants with some berries on them. It looked like good sooty grouse habitat to us. But what did we know. Margo had never seen a sooty grouse and it has been almost fifty years since I’ve seen one.

     We heard a jay-like call and three or four gray jays flew in. These may have been the same ones that were at the upper visitors center as that wasn’t far away. They were obviously looking for a handout and I did go back to the car and brought them a few crackers. When I ran out of crackers, they got bored (or hungry) and flew off.

     We continued to scour the area. We was walking along a grassy path, I was a few yards behind Margo, when all of a sudden there was a rush of wings in front of her as a large bird lifted from the ground and disappeared into a large conifer in front of her. It was obviously a grouse!

     Margo had good looks at the bird, me – not so much. But we watched the conifer and could see the movement of the grouse as it climbed higher in the sixty-foot tree. After a few minutes, there was no movement at all. We circled around to one side of the tree to try to see if we could get a vantage point, but we couldn’t see the bird. We tried other angles, but either our view was blocked by other trees, or the branches of the tree were too thick to see anything that might be closer to the trunk.

     This went on for more than forty–five minutes. How could that large of a bird disappear like that? We thought that it may have moved to another tree, and we even considered that maybe it flew out when we were not paying attention! No, it was too large of a bird and we would have heard it, just as we hear it when it flew from the ground in front of us. It had to be still up there somewhere.

     We were on opposite sides of the tree when Margo finally called out: “I see it!” I made my way around to where she was, and in the few minutes it took, the bird disappeared once again. Margo described the spot where she had seen it. Soon, there was movement there and the bird came back into view. It was a handsome male! But I wanted a better look.

     I ran to the car to get the scope. When I arrived back, the grouse was still visible, feeding on some of the cones or buds on the tree. The scope gave us eye-popping views of this beautiful bird. We tried digiscoping the bird with less than satisfactory results. Though it was getting a late in the afternoon, Margo decided she wanted to try to get a picture with her camera, so she retrieved it from the car and tried to get some shots. She got some good photos, one of which can be found here: https://www.flickr.com/photos/24246528@N05/30340381382/in/dateposted-public/

     Sooty grouse was #701 for Margo and my first in fifty years, so we were very happy. We had no luck finding an ancient murrelet for her on this abbreviated trip as it was too early in the season. Still, we were happy finding two of the three target birds that we sought after.

Steve Grinley
Bird Watcher’s Supply & Gift
Route 1 Traffic Circle
194 Route 1
Newburyport, MA 01950
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