Last week on a windy and warm morning, I hiked a narrow woodland trail in predawn darkness, my destination a photography blind situated near a ruffed grouse drumming log.
Moving tentatively along, I heard in the distance the drumming of a ruffed grouse. This was not my drummer. Instead it was one of four birds that I knew had drumming logs within a one-quarter mile or so of my location.
Nearing the blind I could make out the shadowy form of a ruffed grouse in the gray light perched exactly where it was supposed to be on its drumming log. It was a mere 20 feet from my blind.
I paused, hoping the grouse would jump from his stage and walk away, and not fly. My experience has been that the birds that take wing don’t promptly return to their logs, or worse, completely skip their morning display.
Much to my delight, I watched the bird’s indistinct form slip from the log and wander off.
Once in the blind I situated my tripod and aimed my telephoto lens toward the log. I wasn’t alone in my vigil. In every direction the world was coming to life: Sandhill cranes, Canada geese, mallards, wood ducks, various songbirds, all were singing joy to the dawn.
Then it happened. Suddenly I heard a dull thud, thud, thud, and when I glanced through a portal in my blind I spotted the ruffed grouse on its log going through a drumming sequence. I was thrilled. The light was still too low for photography, so I waited. And watched.
The gray-phase male displayed a courtship routine typical of other grouse I had observed. Moving to a precise spot on the log, the grouse would spread its feet slightly. Leaning back on its spread tail, the bird would begin drumming, the first wing beat or two being inaudible except for the rush of air. Then after a slight pause, the sequence became audible with four drums of equal intensity. Another slight pause would follow, and then the grouse would continue, beating its wings slowly at first, then accelerating until its wings were a blur.
The grouse began to strut, although I failed to spot a female or competing male. Unfortunately it was still too dark to photograph.
The strutting ruffed grouse was a splendor. Normally the forest bird is reclusive, its cryptic coloration allowing it to literally disappear into its environment. However, the strutting grouse was quite the contrary. With wings drooped, tail spread to its fullest, neck ruff erected and eye comb glowing orange, it was a spectacle. Stomping a foot with each step and shaking its head, the bird strutted back and forth.
Then the bird jumped to the ground and strutted out of sight.
The grouse returned to its stage a few minutes later. Now I had sufficient light in which to photograph. The grouse would perform two or three drumming sequences and then walk off out of sight, only to return in a few minutes and repeat the routine.
Then it left and did not return.
As I collapsed my tripod, I reflected on a good morning. I shot more than 200 images, a few short videos, and had a front-row seat to one of nature’s greatest displays.
Bill Marchel is an outdoors writer and photographer. He lives near Brainerd. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.