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Sage Grouse at Sunrise

April 27th, 2010
Albert Dickman photo www.kaleidoscopeidaho.com
Albert Dickman photo www.kaleidoscopeidaho.com

by Jeff Cole

Most people never see sage grouse.  They are elusive, endangered and you have to get up at ungodly hours to see them. The 23 groggy observers I led from a dim Boise, Idaho parking lot at 4:45 a.m. on a Saturday morning would testify that it’s mostly timing that keeps the sage grouse a relative secret.

Early enough that even the sun was hitting its snooze button, our caravan crept and finally rested on a dusty road cut through a sea of sagebrush in remote Owyhee County. It’s a country so isolated and inaccessible that directions to its treasured landscapes exist only by word of mouth, not in guidebooks or on the internet.  As recently as 1981 notorious criminal Claude Dallas ranged freely on thousands of acres before his capture for murdering two Fish & Game wardens not 20 miles from our position.

A group comprising two professional photographers, a videographer from Idaho Public Television, Idaho Fish and Game biologist Michelle Commons-Kemner, and several eager observers, sneaked out of our packed carpool into the freezing darkness. Parked near one of their mating arenas—known as a lek—we were careful not to slam any car doors, and stood in the last minutes of night waiting to see grouse. We could hear the bird’s bizarre call and the occasional scratching of feet and scuttle of wings.  The cold slowly penetrated my down coat, gloves and hat.  Breath steam and darkness thwarted my vision as I squinted and tried to imagine that some of the dark blobs of sagebrush were actually rare upland birds.

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