Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Grouse (and a big surprise) in the Coulees

I'll never forget the morning I spotted a Ruffed Grouse drumming.

I was on my way to a hawk banding site on the Appalachian Trail in northwestern New Jersey on a crisp, fall morning.  Although I'd never seen or heard a grouse "drumming" before, I recognized it immediately.   (Think "muffled lawnmower.")  

I looked up the path, and there he was.   A sliver of sunlight breaking through the trees spotlighted the lone male Ruffed Grouse, sitting upright on a log, chest puffed out, flapping his wings against the air.  

Late this summer, I saw another Ruffed Grouse, standing right in the middle of Dorwin's Mill Road just east of Durand, Wisconsin.   I pulled off the road immediately.  While I fumbled to get my camera, the bird calmly walked off into the woods and disappeared.

I went back to Dorwin's Mill Road late this afternoon, with my camera ready, hoping for better luck.  Nothing.   Disappointed, I decided to take the long way home, through the coulees.  (In west-central Wisconsin, a "coulee" is a valley with steep hills on either side.)

As we followed CR AA into Buffalo County, I noticed a very large bird gliding effortlessly along the ridge.  I wouldn't have stopped for a closer look had I not seen the story on WCCO-TV last night about the increasing number of Golden Eagles spotted in west-central Wisconsin the past couple of winters.

I pulled off to the side of the road and watched as several crows came out of the trees along the ridge to mob the eagle.  It wasn't until the big bird banked and turned that I thought maybe it's not just another sub-adult Bald Eagle.    I willed it to land in a tree across the valley, and pulled out my spotting scope.  No mistaking the color of its head - a Golden Eagle! 

We watched until the light was gone, then took Stai Coulee Road back to Highway 25.  I was practicing better gas mileage by not accelerating downhill (it's a Prius thing), when I spotted a dove sitting right in the middle of the road in front of us.  As we rolled closer, I realized it wasn't a dove.  It was a Ruffed Grouse!   Too dark to photograph, but not too dark to enjoy.

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