Which Bird might I see today? – FALL
Hunters, armed with guns, know that fall is a good time to look for grouse; birders, armed with binoculars, know that you can see them any time of the year! These birds do not migrate. In our part of the Okanagan valley three species of grouse are found in the forests; (elsewhere some grouse species are found on prairies or in sagebrush habitat). These three species are Ruffed Grouse, Dusky Grouse and Spruce Grouse.
Ruffed Grouse Female
The Ruffed Grouse is perhaps the most widespread gamebird in North America. These are large birds, 17–20 “/43-51cm and there are two colour forms, rufous (not found here) and grey. Ruffed Grouse are known to enjoy sunbathing, so are often seen on forest roads such as Beaver Lake Road. If they’re not out in the open, spotting them is not easy, however. These birds are remarkably camouflaged. They freeze in place and can go undetected until they suddenly burst into the air in a noisy explosion of whirring wings. If you happen to be walking along a trail, this can give you quite a fright!
Male Ruffed Grouse attract their mates by ‘drumming’, a display performed at any time of the year but intensified in spring. The bird finds a fallen log, large rock or hillock, usually well hidden by trees and undergrowth, puffs out his chest and flaps his wings rapidly, creating the drumming sound. I always think it sounds like someone trying to kick-start a motorbike, slower at first but rapidly increasing in speed. Thump – thump, thump, thump, then thump-thump-thump, trailing off in a blur of sound. Finding a male Ruffed Grouse drumming doesn’t mean, however, that you will be able to photograph him in the act. He will slip away rapidly as soon as he hears your approach; trust me, I’ve tried it many times!
Ruffed Grouse forage for leaves, buds and fallen fruits, occasionally taking insects as well. They are found across Canada and the northern US in mixed habitat forests. The name refers to the ‘ruff’ of feathers around the bird’s neck, which it raises when alarmed or to intimidate a perceived predator. (Think of the portraits of the first Queen Elizabeth and her courtiers, a ruff of white linen accentuating their faces). One of the photos I have here shows a female with her ruff partly raised and her tail fanned. She had ten tiny chicks with her when I encountered her along a forest trail and clearly wanted to see me off.
Dusky Grouse were until fairly recently considered a sub-species of the Blue Grouse, but DNA studies have determined that they comprise, in fact, a separate species. The coastal form of the Blue Grouse is now called the Sooty Grouse. Very slightly smaller than a Ruffed Grouse, a Dusky Grouse can be found in the high or mid-altitude open forests, usually at higher elevations in winter and more open, lower forests in summer. A good place to see them is the Kettle Valley railroad bike and walking trail, especially in late summer and early fall. Dusky Grouse feed on leaves, flowers, fruits and some insects and also take evergreen needles, buds and cones in season.
Our third grouse species is the Spruce Grouse, rarer than the previous two as they frequent remote habitat where humans are seldom encountered. They like forests dominated by conifers such as Spruce, Lodgepole Pine, Jackpine, Hemlock and Cedar. They are not afraid of people, perhaps because of rarely seeing them, so have been nicknamed “fool hens”.
Spruce Grouse are about the same size as the Dusky, slightly smaller than the Ruffed. Their diet is specialized, as they feed mostly on pine or spruce needles. They do also take leaves, fruits and seeds when these are available. (It must be a pretty boring diet otherwise!) Males clap their wings during courtship but otherwise both males and females are mostly silent.
Spruce Grouse and Chick
Spruce Grouse Chick
So arm yourself with binoculars and head for the woods. You just might see one of these grouse on its forest wanderings.