My friend, the ruffed grouse

Bruce
Bruce Mactavish
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There is a rocky outcrop in the woods in the White Hills behind the Department of Fisheries and Oceans Building in east
St. John’s. It measures maybe two metres long and a half-metre wide.

In May, ruffed grouse are often seen on the roadsides and the edges of lawns eating fresh green sprouts of spring vegetation. — Photo by Bruce Mactavish/Special to The Telegram

Maybe outcrop is too ambitious a word to describe this piece of exposed bedrock. But to one bird, this bare rock on the forest floor is its whole world in the spring. It is the drumming post for a ruffed grouse.

Male ruffed grouse stake their place in the spring forest by making a drumming sound with their wings. A good drummer attracts the females. He does not go searching for a spring mate but depends on his performance to attract a female to him.

My friend the ruffed grouse and I have a thing going on. For five springs, a ruffed grouse has been using this rock for a drumming post. I do not know if it is the same grouse or not. Five years seems like a long time for a ruffed grouse to live.

The rock may be known among the local grouse world in the White Hills as a prime site to broadcast your drumming. Perhaps it will be occupied each spring for many generations ahead.

I feel like it is the same bird based on eye contact. When I come to the opening in the woods off one of the less travelled trails, I look upslope at the bird and it looks down on me.

We eye each other for a while. I stand still and try not to stare. The grouse holds stock-still, probably hoping I don’t see it and move on down the trail.

Eventually the grouse realizes that I can see it and after another period of time accepts me as no danger at all and resumes drumming.

After each little drumming performance, it stops and looks at me. I look back. We continue to agree with each other that we’re both OK. The grouse goes about with its drumming solos and I set down my camera on the tripod and start recording the show.

The lighting is poor in the shade of the evergreen woods. Ruffed grouse shun the open sunlight, especially during a drumming session which may be heard by all of nature but is not intended to be seen by anyone but the girl grouse.

Getting a clear view is a bonus for a photographer. One can always adjust the settings on the camera to accommodate the low light levels.

The grouse stands tall on his rock, surveying the woods around with his eyes and ears.

Maybe he is hoping to hear the footsteps of a female grouse on the dry needles and twigs on the forest floor.

Maybe the females announce their interest with the tiny high pitched grouse calls that we sometimes hear when a grouse is surprised in the alders.

When it is time for another drumming routine, it stands erect and looks ahead. The show begins with one rapid flick of the wings. A second flick of the wings is followed by another and another, each getting more rapid in succession.

Each flick produces a low “woof” sound. The speed increases until a blur of wings produces a low thundering, fluttering sound. You can feel it in your chest.

Each burst of drumming lasts for 10 seconds or so. When the wings stop, the clenched breast muscles release their grip and a wave of relaxation moves through the body, exiting out through the tail as is it fanned, exposing the prettiest part of the bird. What female ruffed grouse could resist that exposé of strength and passion?

In early May this year, I went to check on my personal ruffed grouse. I heard it drum once before I got to the narrow alleyway in the forest that reveals the drumming post.

We locked eyes immediately. I am sure it was considering the potential danger I presented, but to me it felt like we were getting reacquainted. I stood there for 20 minutes but it did not drum again. It was too cold for drumming that morning. That was Ok. I would come back later on a warmer spring morning.

Spring arrivals and rarities

As expected, many new spring migrants returned to the island over the long weekend, aided by southerly winds, although it was foggy on southward facing coasts. Some of the new returnees are northern waterthrush, blackpoll warbler, Wilson’s warbler, spotted sandpiper, tree swallows and common terns.

Most of the Icelandic vagrants directed off course by the persistent northeast winds in early May have departed Newfoundland and presumably headed toward Iceland. The flow of rare birds continues but now from mainland North America.

Linda Ryan was rightly pleased to host a rare blue grosbeak at her feeder in Birchy Cove, Bonavista Bay. Nicole in Doyles on the west coast was also blessed to have stunning adult male blue grosbeak at her feeder.

A sandhill crane, not to be confused with a heron, entertained birders as it moved around among the farm fields in Goulds.

A Pacific loon picked out of the similar looking common loons off St. Vincents beach by Alvan Buckley, Lancy Cheng, Alison Mews and Ed Hayden was a big hit among Avalon birders who have been waiting a long time for a chance to see this species in the province.

The last couple of weeks of spring will be exciting as the rest of the warblers, flycatchers and other birds return. Keep those eyes to the skies.

Bruce Mactavish is an environmental consultant and avid birdwatcher. He can be reached at wingingitone@yahoo.ca, or by phone at 722-0088.

Geographic location: White Hills, Newfoundland, Iceland Bonavista Bay Doyles Goulds.A

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