Nothing to Grouse About

Nov 15

(from the wondermyway.com photo blog of GLLT Education director, Leigh Macmillen Hayes)

A week ago I shared a unique experience with five other naturalists, the majority of them in the six to eleven age range. For twenty minutes the six of us watched a Ruffed Grouse at it moved about, overturning leaves and foraging on buds. When we last saw it, the bird headed off in the opposite direction that we intended to journey, and so we moved on with wonder in our eyes and minds.

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And then the next day I returned on a mission to study some twigs at the same property. No sooner had I stepped onto the trail when I heard the sound of leaves cracking a wee bit and what to my wondering eyes should appear but the same bird.

The curious thing: the bird followed me, staying about ten feet away as I tramped on. I stopped. Frequently. So did the bird.

And we began to chat. I talked quietly to him (I’m making a gender assumption) and he murmured back sweet nothings.

It was then that I did the unthinkable–I named him: ArGee.

Again I started down the trail, and again ArGee followed about ten feet to my right. And then I thought I got ahead of him, but a few minutes later he caught up and foraged by my feet as I examined twigs and buds for their idiosyncrasies.

When I finally turned back, ArGee did the same. Eventually I ran because I didn’t want him to follow me to my truck. Would he have? I don’t know. Would he survive? I sure hoped so. Would I visit again? I knew the answer was yes. Would I see him again? Who knew?

The next day I dragged my guy along. But much to my dismay, no ArGee. I’d been blessed twice and had to accept the possibility that he’d either flown off or became part of the food chain. My hope was that if the latter was the case, it was a four-legged predator or larger bird and not a human bi-ped.

Since last week, about five or six inches of snow blanketed the area and this morning dawned frigid with the temperature at about 5˚. I dressed for it and headed to a nearby spot in hopes of meeting up with a group that was going to count salmon and redds. But, I missed the link-up and decided instead to wander in ArGee’s territory so I could reaffirm his disappearance and move on.

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As I looked up at something in a tree, I heard a slight noise by my feet and guess who? I greeted ArGee with a quietly grand hello and together we shared the space, mindful of each other. After about twenty minutes he headed under a stand of hemlocks that provided some cover.

I snapped and crackled through the woods, bushwhacking over to his position, all the while wondering if I was getting too close and perhaps he didn’t want me to spend more time with him.

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But what I discovered was that he’d stopped foraging, stood still, though occasionally turned his head, and puffed up his dappled and barred plumage. While I had donned several layers to keep the brisk air at bay, ArGee needed to fluff up in order to trap air in his feathers. Cool fact (or cold!): A bird’s body heat warms the air between its feathers and the more trapped air, the warmer the bird.

While ArGee warmed up, I focused on some of his features, including the crest feathers on top of his head. Their formation brought to mind ocean waves cresting, but perhaps they were actually standing upright because he saw me not as friend, but rather a foe?

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I knew I was overextending my stay, but I couldn’t leave. And he didn’t seem agitated, so I continued to look. There was that eye-ring to notice, rather bead-like in appearance.  And the contrasting orientation of the feathers above and below his dark eye, their comb-like tips spread out like miniature fans.

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For another fifteen to twenty minutes, he warmed up below the hemlock, while I stood nearby and watched, occasionally offering a quiet comment, which he considered with apparent nonchalance.

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I had time to consider his robust down-turned beak and figured it must be adapted for the coarse vegetation it consumed. Ruffed Grouse are known to feed on buds or catkins of aspens, birches and cherries, and that was the habitat in which ArGee had made himself at home. They’ll also consume, seeds, fruits, leaves and twigs, insects, and maybe even salamanders, in season of course.

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Finally, my friend seemed to have warmed up and so out from under the hemlock ArGee emerged.

And immediately he found bramble leaves still green.

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And in a matter of seconds it disappeared into his mouth.

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Then it was time to think about another.

Out in the open again, I had a chance to get a better look at ArGee’s feet. Though today’s snow was rather crusty, there’s potential for up to ten inches of fluff to fall tomorrow and then his feet will play a key role.

Where the snow is deep and soft, grouse travel atop it with the help of their “snowshoes”—lateral extensions of their toes. Can you see the comb-like rows of bristles, aka pectinations? They began growing in September and reminded me of a centipede serving as each toe. It’s those bristles that act like snowshoes.

They also have stout legs for walking or running and those were also covered with insulating feathers that looked like an old pair of furry sweatpants.

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It’s difficult to tell a male from a female based on appearance, but typically the bird is a female if the color is faded or absent on the central tail feathers, thus I leaned toward ArGee being a male. No matter what the sex of this particular bird, the varied shades of black, gray, rusty red and buff all presented in a variety of patterns, including small hearts–what wasn’t to love?

For a while longer, ArGee and I played “I See You” and I continued to wonder about his behavior. Usually this species is quite elusive and difficult to approach. In fact, most often I am startled by the loud wing beat of a bird exploding, or so it sounds, from the ground or snow in front of me, and my heart responds with rapid beats for a second . . . and then I realize it was a Ruffed Grouse trying to avoid me.

Today, and this past week, that has not been the case.

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ArGee has seemed as curious about me as I’ve been about him.

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Is he tame? Or has he been defending his territory? Perhaps it’s a hormone imbalance as the season changes, especially given that winter seems to have arrived early.

I’m not sure what’s going on, but I’m grateful for the time I have had to get to know this bird of the Maine woods a wee bit better. As has happened in the past, we parted ways at the same point, so I’ve a better understanding of his actual territory.

I’ve experienced grouse being aggressive when protecting their young in the spring, and wonder if at some point a close encounter with ArGee could switch dramatically from fascinating to hostile as he defends his territory.

Sometimes the critters with whom we share this natural world do things that make no sense, but then again, sometimes we do the same. For now, I have nothing to grouse about!