Pasque flowers © Bill Allen
Winter’s cold is ending come April and even if there may be sudden snow, early wildflowers and courting birds reveal that spring is on its way.
A certain sign of spring and fascinating to watch are the courting displays of sharp-tailed grouse. These chicken-like birds gather at a lek, a patch of ground where males compete for the attention of hens by performing a dance display at dawn. Dancing grouse spread their wings, lower their heads, and raise the short bright yellow feathers above their eyes. The tail is also raised and spread like a fan. The birds then rush forward or turn in tight circles, rapidly stamping their feet and rattling their tail feathers. The males inflate and deflate prominent purple neck sacs, coo and cackle. They also fight – within the lek, each bird has a small territory and those spots are hotly contested as hens may prefer males in some locations over others.
The birds’ performance typically lasts three to four hours and is best observed from a blind. Blinds can be reserved at several locations at no cost. The North Dakota Game and Fish Department has an observation blind at Lonetree Wildlife Management Area southwest of Harvey; call 701-324-2211 for reservations. Blinds often are available at these National Wildlife Refuges (call for information and reservations): Lostwood (701-848-2722), Des Lacs (701-385-4046), Long Lake (701-387-4397), Arrowwood (701-285-3341), Upper Souris (701-468-5467), and J. Clark Salyer (701-768-2548). Grouse also can be watched from the road at the Conservancy’s Davis Ranch and a blind is available at Cross Ranch (call 701-794-8741 to reserve, and be prepared for a muddy vehicle trail and a quarter-mile walk to access). Dress warmly, and enter your blind before sunrise so the birds won’t see you. It’s best visit the blind the day before so you’ll know your way to it in the dark. You will be rewarded with a front row seat for watching dancing grouse.
Courting grouse are not the only early signs of spring in North Dakota’s grasslands. Prairie crocus or pasque flower (so-named because it blooms around Easter-time), thrives on prairies with gravelly and sandy soils. One location to search for pasque flowers is the Conservancy’s Pigeon Point Preserve in eastern North Dakota. Aldo Leopold, on the necessity of wild things wrote in A Sand County Almanac that “…the chance to find a pasque-flower is a right as inalienable as free speech.” Find a pasque flower and know unquestionably that spring has arrived on the prairie.