Lessons in recognizing a popular upland forest dweller: ruffed grouse

(Photo by Sharon Stiteler)

I moved to Minnesota in my early 20s. After growing up in Indiana, I was anxious to see what new birds this state had to offer. I didn’t know my bird calls well, and I was learning which birders to trust when it came to bird ID questions.

One bird I was excited to experience was the ruffed grouse. I definitely wanted to see a grouse and hear one drum. I got my first ruffed grouse in Minneapolis; however, it didn’t count. A new birding friend had taken me to the grain elevators over on Hiawatha in search of a prairie falcon. As we walked along the railroad tracks of this busy place, I found a fresh carcass on the ground – it was a grouse.

My friend wasn’t sure about this grouse; they aren’t considered urban birds. And it was odd lying dead next to train tracks. My friend speculated that the bird probably was flying across the tracks, the train hit it, and the bird got stuck. At the grain elevators, it either fell off or someone kicked it off. That seemed about as plausible as a grouse running into the metro area. I hoped to see or hear a live grouse eventually.

A month later, I was walking around TS Roberts Bird Sanctuary next to Lake Harriet in Minneapolis. I heard many new sounds and was trying to learn all I could. As I walked in the woods, I heard a strange clucking. I noticed people with binoculars staring intently at the water. Excitedly, I asked what they thought the sound could be. In hushed tones they said, “We think it’s ruffed grouse.”

I was dubious, but they lived here and were older so surely they knew their bird calls. I expected to find grouse in woods, not over a small urban wetland, and not what sounded like dozens of them mere feet in front of me. The people continued on their walk and left me to my mystery grouse. I stared intently, willing the grouse to show themselves. I knew they camouflaged well with their gray plumage.

After about five minutes of this nonsense, I realized that these couldn’t be grouse. But I was determined to figure out what they were. I started systematically scanning the water with my binoculars, and after another 10 minutes, I discovered the sound-maker: a wood frog.

I eventually witnessed many grouse in many places across Minnesota and Wisconsin. It’s a thrill the first time you experience their drumming. A hint for recognizing drumming: You feel it more than hear it.

Categories: Sharon Stiteler

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