The first time that wildlife photographer Noppadol Paothong trekked to see Columbian Sharp-tailed Grouse perform their spring courtship at a remote lek in southern Wyoming’s mountains, it was blizzarding. Heavy gear on his back, he fell to his waist in snow every few steps, but with the help of a Wyoming Game and Fish Department biologist, he finally made it to the nearly 8,000-foot-elevation site. They set up a blind and hid for two hours until near ready to give up. Then, the sky cleared, and 20 birds came to dance atop seven feet of snow. “It was one of the most memorable moments in my photography experience,” he recalls.
For the past dozen years, with the same determination as the birds, he’s returned in spring—making it his quest to capture the spirit of this enigmatic species.
To perform their highly choreographed ancient dance on an April morning, four bachelors (above) strut from cover onto the lek—a clearing of matted, short grass intermixed with shrubs—with their otherworldly cackling and gobbling sounds startling the predawn stillness. As females watch from the tops of shrubs and trees on the sidelines, the males’ backs bow, heads dip, and wings straighten as their tails lift. They spin in tight circles, moving in unison like feathered windup toy airplanes kicking up snow.
In synchronized time, their flight feathers rattle, and rhythmic strutting keeps time with the pulsing purple air sacs on their necks. Sharptails’ feet can stomp an astonishing 20 times a second, creating a purring that accompanies their cooing.
The sharptails’ dance isn’t all harmonious, however. The dominant male’s territorial goal is to maintain the lek’s center. Nearby birds will square off and spar (below) by flying several feet off the ground to gain an aerial advantage, chest-bumping, smacking, clawing, and pecking their rivals. Feathers litter the ground and staring contests to intimidate opponents are common. The congregation occurs over three months, from March to May, with females usually arriving in April to select the healthiest male with the most robust stamina. The stakes are high: It’s often winner take all.
After breeding, females don’t have to go far—the lek is near ideal nesting habitat. “This elevation zone provides the perfect diversity of habitat types to cover their different seasonal needs within a fairly small area,” says Wyoming Game and Fish district biologist Philip Damm.
Bundled head to foot in winter synthetics like a polar explorer, Paothong (above) sets up his photo blind well before first light, early enough, so his presence doesn’t disturb the millennia-old mating display. Photographing the birds’ erratic mid-air clashes is extremely challenging: These moments may only last a second, and the birds are often facing, fighting, and landing at different angles. Fight shot sequences took years to capture.
Over the past decade, improving camera technology—which can shoot well in less light and focus on fast-moving animals—helped, but so did Paothong’s growing familiarity with the birds’ behavior. He closely observed long periods of staring contests, not taking his eyes off the birds, and developed his sense of when aerial combat was about to begin. “Cameras aren’t everything in nature photography,” he says. “Timing is everything to catch fighting shots.”
Sharptails once ranged from Alaska to California, Oklahoma, and Quebec, but agriculture, energy exploration, mining, overgrazing, and conifer encroachment have shrunk their habitat. The species has disappeared in eight Midwestern and Western states, while populations remain robust enough to hunt in others.
Through the birds’ range, biologists monitor leks to gauge the health of six sharptail subspecies—and by extension, the health of the grassland and mixed shrubland habitat these birds need. Aluminum leg bands, radio collar data, and DNA testing allow biologists to evaluate the birds’ habitat selection and survival throughout the year, offering clues to their lives and the best strategies for protecting them on the landscape.
The smallest subspecies, Columbian Sharp-tailed Grouse prefer higher elevations and are usually darker in color. Both males and females have an array of chevrons on their chest feathers, which fluff in the cold.
While Wyoming has designated the bird a “species of greatest conservation need,” biologists are seeing populations increase at southern Wyoming leks, where intact or restored habitats exist on both public and private lands, the latter thanks to conservation efforts from ranchers. There’s also the fact that sharptails eat a flexible diet of berries, forbs, insects, and seeds and are highly adaptable if given enough habitat. University of Wyoming Ph.D. candidate Jonathan Lautenbach, who studies these birds, is hopeful the species will find spaces to thrive in the long term, especially because “hunters and birders both can appreciate them,” he says.
For his part, Paothong admires the birds’ fortitude. Remembering that first visit in a blizzard, he notes the grouse “couldn’t care less about it.” Regardless of weather conditions, they stay focused on their ultimate goal—continuing their courtship so their species can thrive to dance for years to come.
This story originally ran in the Spring 2023 issue as “A Dancer’s Stage.” To receive our print magazine, become a member by making a donation today.