Last week I was driving down a long wash board dirt road through a veritable sea of sagebrush. I had been here before a couple of years ago in this remote section of high desert to photograph the greater sage grouse. With a pair of binoculars resting on my lap as I drove, my cell phone range and on the other end was David from the Nature Conservancy. A state biologist had passed along my name to him and he wanted to know if I had any interest in photography the sage grouse on the leks at one of their sweeping private ranch preserves in the Snake River Plain.
The timing of this phone call could not have been better. Here I was, a few hundred miles from home, heading out into the high desert to set up a blind to shoot grouse from. Where was this ranch he was talking about? 30 miles west of me. Spinning my mud covered Land Cruiser around in the road – if you can call it a road – I plugged in the name of the road and headed west.
After Ron, the ranch manager, was gracious enough to take me around to inspect the various leks on the property, I chose a spot, got my blind together, and then headed off to find a hotel for the night. The whole trip had been something I kind of threw together in a moments notice, grabbing camera gear, blind, ghillie suit, and a change of clothes in a bit of a hurry. Normally I bring camping equipment with me when I know I will be this remote. I have a pretty sweet sleeping platform I built for my vehicle that I can then toss a Thermarest Dreamtime XL mattress ontop of and camp on location out the back of the Land Cruiser. I was about the time Dave called me up that I was realizing I had forgotten all of that stuff and would therefore have a nice 80 mile drive from a hotel at 3am to get to whatever lek I ended up setting up on.
The following morning, after 80 miles in the small hours of the morning, and several cans of Starbucks Double Shots, I turned onto the old dirt road the ranch set off of at the base of the mountains. By 5:30 am, I was zipped up in my blind and assembling my gear with an hour and a half of darkness left before sunrise. The greater sage grouse gets the party started pretty early. And so you need to find yourself in a blind at a bare minimum of an hour before first light – which is about 30 mins before sunrise. Otherwise, if the birds see you entering the blind, they will spook off the lek and may not return until the following morning.
Once in the blind though, the challenge becomes simply having the patience to wait for the light. Within minutes of settling down inside, I could hear the sound of the males all around me. The sound is unbelievable. Quite like nothing you’ve ever heard before if you have never spent time at a sage grouse lek. With some 30 birds already displaying and strutting within just feet of your lek, it can be difficult to resign yourself to just waiting when all you really want to do and shove your lens out the window and start shooting. Of course, this is totally futile an hour before sunrise. And so you settle in to the rythms of the grouse, listening, waiting, watching, as black becomes grey and then grey fades into subtle hints of blues, purples, and golds as dawn approaches, and the world around you comes alive.