WORDS ON BIRDS
A Search for Sooty Grouse
December 17, 1016
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
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
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.
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
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
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.
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