Almost three weeks have passed since Alexi and I arrived in the tiny town of Shoshone, Idaho. We have settled into our charming creaky home (built in 1886), found running routes around town, befriended our neighbors and their two dogs, raided the nearby thrift stores for home goods, explored the Sun Valley area, and have (almost) gotten used to the trains that roar through town every hour and the mysterious siren that goes off every night at 10pm.
In the Shoshone BLM Office we have completed various tasks around the office to prepare for a field season of vegetation monitoring. In the first two weeks several different people in the office took us out to different BLM allotments to get us acquainted with the Shoshone Field Office and the plants we’ll be monitoring. On Tuesday we conducted our first nested frequency survey and learned about 12 new species.
It is always exciting the first couple weeks at a new field site when you start learning the plant species. The landscape goes from being a sea of unknowns to a sea of familiar faces. I love it when you see a plant you recognize from a previous field site in your new field site. It is like seeing an old friend and begins to make the new place feel like home. The seasonal lifestyle has shown me that I very easily fall in love with a landscape and grow attached to it. By knowing the species in the area you gain a sense of ownership of the land, which is an important aspect of conservation.
One of the highlights of our first three weeks working in the Shoshone Field Office was conducting a sage grouse lek survey and actually seeing the leks! We had conducted two surveys in the first two weeks, but the weather was uncooperative and we only managed to see sage grouse that we flushed out. On Wednesday morning Alexi and I went to a different site where active leks had been observed this year. Since now is when the males normally stop lekking there was a good chance that we wouldn’t get to see them, but we decided to give it a try.
The strutting begins. Time to impress the (absent) ladies.
Guarding his staging turf.
It was difficult to hold our composure when we first saw the males’ white chests puffing out amongst the sagebrush and realizing that we were in fact witnessing a lek. It was still dark out and the males were a little slow at first, but when the sun started peaking over the horizon and warming their feathers they livened up and began to strut. I would not describe their dance as majestic. While their plumage is beautiful and their posture much better than mine, their signature strut is actually quite humorous to me. When they puff up their chest with their vocal air sacs, they look like fat indignant old men. Then they jiggle the air sacs around for a bit and make an odd sound that is similar to a champagne bottle being uncorked. In the first lek we counted 23 males, but no females were to be seen. The males were undaunted by the absence of females and continued their strut, staking their staging territory. We witnessed several fights between males where they would face off and then actually viciously attack each other.
Face off at dawn
While I don’t think of their strut as majestic, I do admire their efforts to attract a mate. During the lekking season they go out and strut for several hours a day, which undoubtedly uses a ton of energy. They are vulnerable to predators (we’re pretty sure we saw a bald eagle right across the road from one of the leks). Many face rejection since only a few of the dominant males will actually get to mate. And even when most females are probably already sitting on their nests, these males are trying just as hard to impress. We did see one female in the second lek. She was surrounded by two males with her head tucked into her breast and was either a) shy, b) playing hard to get, or c) just not into them.
It was very exciting to get to witness the species that we are trying to protect in action. It puts our fieldwork into context and makes our tasks seem more important. I am very thankful we had the opportunity to observe the leks before we delved into our vegetation surveys.
If you have never seen a lek in action you should check out this video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m0M8pZnNlnI
I am very excited for our next six months in Idaho. There is a lot to explore and do here and summer is just around the corner.
Until next time,
Shoshone BLM Field Office