How I Got This Photo: Ruffed grouse drumming

  • Article by: BILL MARCHEL SPECIAL TO THE STAR TRIBUNE
  • Updated: March 20, 2014 - 1:56 PM

One of nature’s most peculiar sounds is the “thud, thud, thud” made by a male ruffed grouse, which drums on a log to attract a mate.

Photo: Bill Marchel, Special to the Star Tribune

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It was a perfect April morning to photograph an amorous ruffed grouse — clear, calm and about 20 degrees.

Before dawn, I was situating my photography gear inside the blind I had placed near a known ruffed grouse drumming log when I heard a rustle in the leaves. Even before I could peek, a ruffed grouse — barely 15 feet away — went through a drumming sequence. I was thrilled. But for now, the light was too dim for photography. All I could do was wait and watch from my ringside seat inside the blind.

A few weeks earlier, I had located the drumming log. The amount of grouse droppings on and near the log told me I had found an active stage from which the male grouse would attempt to woo a hen and to warn other males this was “his” territory.

I positioned a tent-like photography blind about 30 yards away from the drumming log. Every other day or so, I moved the blind closer to the log until, after about a week, the blind was perfectly positioned. This ploy allowed the male grouse to gradually become accustomed to my hideout.

In the predawn of those April days, I watched from the confines of my blind as the male grouse displayed a courtship routine typical of other grouse I had observed and photographed. The passionate male would move to a precise spot on the log and spread his feet slightly, apparently to stabilize himself. Then, leaning back on his spread tail, the bird would begin drumming, the first few wing beats inaudible except for the rush of air. Next, after a slight pause — about a second — the audible part of the sequence would commence with four drums of equal intensity.

Another slight pause would follow — again about a second — and then the grouse would continue by beating its wings slowly at first, eventually accelerating until its wings were just a blur. After the final wing beat, the bird would tip forward, momentarily losing its balance as it compensated for the reverse thrust of its fluttering wings.

Finally, when the light was sufficient for photography, I shot frame after frame of the drummer. He was a sight to behold.

As the morning wore on, it was obvious the bird was losing enthusiasm. The temperature climbed quickly with the rising sun. By 8 a.m. the grouse was panting between drumming sequences. About a half-hour later the grouse walked away, pecking at morsels as it went.

The passionate male grouse failed to attract a mate that morning. It did, however, provide me with a most memorable image.

Bill Marchel, an outdoors writer and photographer, lives near Brainerd.

  • Know your ruffed

    1 During a normal spring, the peak of ruffed grouse drumming occurs during the last two weeks of April. The males drum most often early in the morning, occasionally throughout the day and then again in the late afternoon. They even drum at night.

    2 A drumming sequence consists of about 40 wing beats, but it is difficult to count because the wings move so rapidly. Upon completing a drumming series, a male grouse will sit quietly for about four minutes before repeating the routine.

    3 The bird produces an incredible drumming sound by striking the air with its wings vigorously enough to create a brief vacuum, in effect causing a sonic boom.

    4 Although a drumming grouse can be heard for a half-mile under ideal conditions, the sound is not particularly loud at close range.

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