I felt the chill in the air as I left the house early Saturday morning. The three-quarters moon dominated the sky. Beneath it to the west sat the brightest “star” on the horizon, Saturn.

    I felt the chill in the air as I left the house early Saturday morning.  The three-quarters moon dominated the sky.  Beneath it to the west sat the brightest “star” on the horizon, Saturn.  

    I could hear the hushed winnowing call of the Wilson’s Snipe from the trees lining the driveway.   The loud, rhythmic “cheeri-up, cheeri-o” song of an American Robin came from lawn next door.   

    The honking of Canada Geese, the rattling bugle of cranes and the nasal quacking of Mallards hung in the air.

    The sun would be up in about an hour.  I’d have to hurry if I wanted a good seat at the arena on the beach ridge.  

    My destination was a spot I happened across about a month ago.  It was around sunset.  

    I was walking along a road that was more grass than dirt, when suddenly a dozen Sharp-tailed Grouse exploded into the sky right in front of me.   

    What that was all about?  

    It took me a minute to come up with an answer.   I had walked right into the middle of what bird scientists call a “lek,” a place where Sharp-tailed Grouse congregate in the spring to strut their stuff – competing with other males for territory and the attention of females.

    That’s where I was headed.   I didn’t want to disturb the males as they approached the lek, so I planned to get there an hour before sunrise.  

    I arrived before the grouse, sat in my blind and waited.  

    There was no wind.  I could hear a few ducks, cranes and geese.  Their calls were a whisper compared to a week ago when the cacophony of waterfowl was deafening.

    As the sun lit up the clouds to the east, I heard the flutelike gurgling of a Western Meadowlark.   Then I heard it, a distinctive “chuck.”  Then a “chortle” and a whistling “woo… woo.”    

    There they were, off to the west.  Four stealth shadows the size of chickens, marching towards the lek.  Two more walked in.  Another flew in.

    It was 6:15 a.m.  More than a dozen Sharp-tailed Grouse joined me.  And after a few “chilks” and “lock a lock” calls, the dancing commenced.

    They bowed and cackled, inflated their purple air sacs and yellow eye-combs, stomped the grass with their feet, zoomed around in circles with their wings outspread and rattled their tail feathers.

    Then suddenly, they froze.  It was as if someone had pushed the pause button on a video.   

    Seconds later – just like that - whatever spooked them was gone.  The grassland grouse were back in action.

    A pair of males spread their wings, lowered themselves in the grass – and engaged in a stare-off.  Each one cackled rapidly at the other.

    One stepped back and started dancing away.  The other joined him, synchronizing with his dance steps, hoots and cackles.  They stopped abruptly, looked around, then walked away from each other – as if nothing had happened.

    Another pair formed and did the bow.  This time, no stare-off.  They went at it.  Feathers flew.   

    The loser backed off and ran away.  The victor chased, seemed to lose interest, then did a little victory dance.  Before you know it, he faced-off again with another challenger.  The action was non-stop.

    But, where are the females while this is going on?  

    They stood along the perimeter of the lek, appearing to be disinterested.  But they were looking - for the dancer and fighter with the best moves and best territory.

    Suddenly, the action paused again.  The grouse flew off.   I didn’t see what spooked them.  

    But I used this break to leave the lek and drive over to the impoundment to see who dropped in last night: several species of ducks, Tree Swallows, cormorants and grebes.  

    The gates to the wildlife drive at the Agassiz Valley impoundment are open.  Grab your binoculars and take a look.

    If you have the time, Agassiz Audubon needs your help.  They’re looking for volunteers to help set-up sharp-tailed grouse viewing blinds on the beach ridge – and to help with their community nest box project.  

    Give them a call (218-745-5663) if you’d like to learn how to monitor nest boxes (for American Kestrels, Eastern Bluebirds, Chimney Swifts, ducks, wrens and chickadees).  No experience necessary.  They’ll show you how to do it.