|Venturing out to take a head count of sage grouse on a newly discovered, and very significant, sage grouse strutting ground, or lek, NDOW biologists and volunteers got a firsthand reminder that early morning rising is for the birds literally. Sleepy-eyed sage grouse counters got a case of the early bird syndrome, thanks to observant NDOW volunteers whose discovery in the Pah Rah mountain range prompted this excursion. The ultimate goal: to observe, count, band and radio-collar a sampling of the sage grouse as part of an ongoing statewide sage grouse conservation effort to determine how the birds are doing in Nevada.
This Pah Rah lek discovery is especially exciting for biologists, because, although leks had historically been documented in the general area of this range, north of Sparks, many lek sites have since been developed and have given way to one- and two-story homes.
"We in the Washoe-Modoc Sage Grouse Conservation group (a subunit of the Governors Sage Grouse Conservation Team) find it exciting that sage grouse are showing up in a PMU (planning management unit) in which we feared not many remain," said Rose Strickland, a sage grouse conservation team member.
Due to the location of the lek and the fact that breeding season will soon be coming to an end, biologists wanted to gather information about the birds found in this area without delay. This work will ultimately help statewide conservation efforts to determine distribution and population trends of sage grouse in Nevada.
This particular outing began on an April morning at 4:30 so the survey team could reach its destination before sunrise when sage grouse become most active and begin their mating rituals. The low "gla-glub, gla-glub" of the grouse could be heard just before the darkness gave way to dawn, and surveyors caught glimpses of white-chested males moving among the low-lying rocks and brush. The smaller females, without the distinguishing white breast, were harder to spot.
Although they are the largest of the North American grouse species, with males weighing up to eight pounds, the striking brown, black and white colored sage grouse have adapted well to blend into their surroundings. They are often undistinguishable from tones of the muted Nevada landscape. Many Nevada outdoor enthusiasts have been sent inches in the air with surprise as an unseen sage grouse flushes just footsteps from their boots.
Leks serve as the best areas to get the most accurate head counts of sage grouse. The number of birds that show up varies from lek to lek some leks may draw only two male sage grouse, while others may draw 250. The relatively small site yielded a count of 24 males and three hens, but the numbers signified a valuable opportunity to determine sage grouse distribution in this section of Washoe County and determine if these particular birds are genetically unique.
"We are trying to determine the northern boundaries of a certain genetically unique sage grouse," said NDOW biologist, San Stiver. "Genetic testing helps us determine if a genetically distinct population is integrated from point A to point B or if it is isolated. That, in turn, helps us focus our conservation efforts."
Adult sage grouse often return to the same leks year after year, vying to be the dominant bird in the group and be the one lucky enough to breed with the females. Ninety percent of the females on a lek breed only with a few of these dominant birds the rest of the male sage grouse are out of luck.
Volunteers returned a few nights later, after the initial count, to capture a sample of the sage grouse. In about a six-hour period, three sage grouse had been caught, collared with radio transmitters so biologists can track their movements, banded with leg identification, and held steady as blood samples were taken for genetic testing. Volunteers used spotlights to catch the gleam of the sage grouse eyes in the dark, a static projecting boom box to mask the sound of human movement, and long-poled fishing nets to capture the sage grouse.
Biologists are eagerly awaiting the results of the genetic testing. The results will help further knowledge about sage grouse distribution and will assist the Nevada Sage Grouse Conservation Team in their effort to develop and implement a pro-active strategy to find solutions to localized problems before the species truly reaches a threshold of vulnerability from which recovery might be difficult.
NDOW Volunteer Coordinator Kim Toulouse emphasized the importance of such endeavors. "Volunteer events such as this one are crucial to help collect data that may help conservation planners protect and restore important habitats."
In the meantime, volunteers and NDOW staff continue to survey leks throughout the state. These efforts could not be completed without dedicated Nevada Division of Wildlife volunteers who contribute their time and efforts and by public and private entities throughout the state that contribute funding and other resources to the sage grouse conservation effort. Recently, the Northern Nevada chapter of Safari Club International donated $11,000 to be used toward the Nevada Division of Wildlifes Volunteer Lek Survey Program in Western Nevada. The contribution is invaluable and allows the agency to continue its efforts with new and necessary telemetry and GPS units.
More information about the Nevada Sage Grouse Conservation effort, and sage grouse themselves, can be found on the Nevada Division of Wildlife website, www.ndow.org.
Copyright © 2003 J & D Outdoor Communications. All rights reserved.