Viewing the Grouse Lek in Saskatoon: Enjoy Saskatchewan Bird Watching at Its Finest

A grouse lek, for those who don’t know, is when a group of male grouses put on remarkable, striking (and very competitive) displays to woo any observing females. The sharp-tailed grouse courtship displays are extraordinary, and coming to Saskatoon to see them offers birders one of the world’s great birding opportunities. Carol Patterson did just this, and she shares all.

Courtship displays of Sharp-Tailed Grouse are becoming harder to find with habitat loss
Courtship displays of Sharp-Tailed Grouse are becoming harder to find with habitat loss. Photo Credit: Carol Patterson

There’s a wildlife spectacle so rare few Canadians will ever see it. Once Sharp-tailed Grouse were common across shortgrass prairies but their numbers have dwindled from habitat loss and other factors. The location of their leks where they gather to perform elaborate courtship dances are carefully guarded secrets by those people who know. 

Seeing the grouse dance had been on my birdwatching wish list for years so when I heard that Stan Shadick, a retired astronomy professor, and lifelong bird enthusiast had partnered with a Saskatoon-area farmer to offer early morning lek visits, I made a reservation. Shadick described the sharp-tailed grouse courtship displays as “the most spectacular of any North American bird species.” 

And it’s so remarkable that people are coming from across the country to see it. “About half my customers are keen bird photographers. They come from out of province. Vancouver, Calgary, Toronto. I had one chap come from Ottawa. He spent six days here,” Shadick recalled. 

Preparing For a Canadian Birding Experience Like No Other

Covering vehicle lights to avoid startling grouse on the lek
Covering vehicle lights to avoid startling grouse on the lek. Photo Credit: Carol Patterson

Arriving in Saskatoon the night before my tour, I made plans to meet Shadick at a gas station at 4:15am the next day. 

As the hotel’s elevator door slid open, two young ladies stood there, blinking their glassy eyes and giggling. Mistaking my camera bag for luggage, one stage-whispered to the other, “Do people really check out at 4am??”

It’s possible they were turning in after a night dancing but I was looking for a different type of dancer. 

Shadick pulled in to the gas station and gave me instructions to follow him to a nearby farm. We stopped at the farmyard to tape garbage bags over back and side windows so the grouse weren’t scared off by human silhouettes. And for good measure we taped bags over the headlights in case we turned them on by mistake. 

Driving in the dark in this getup was a challenge but added to the adventure. Shadick directed me into position on the edge of the lek. We turned off the car engines, rolled down the windows and waited. A pale orange glow peeked over the eastern horizon but otherwise it was dark. Really dark.

I barely had time to snuggle under my blanket when I heard the first call then quickly a second. It sounded like someone saying, “Awesome. Awesome.”

Sharp-tailed Grouse on a Stunning Lek in Saskatchewan

And they were. It was too dark to see a bird but I could hear the drumming and clicking of tiny bones stomping on the prairie earth. They hit the ground so rapidly with their feet, it sounded like rattles. 

Gradually the light lifted the curtain of darkness and I could see chicken-size birds, their wings held stiffly out from their bodies as they spun in small circles or charged their rivals, their tails held straight up, a white feather beacon in the dimness. Marigold-orange-eyebrow feathers flared above their eyes. Purple sacks inflated on their neck until they released them in a loud boom. Shadick had described the courtship displays as spectacular and he wasn’t overselling it. I felt like I was at an avian Mardi-gras!

Males charged towards each other, circling and stomping to create a din that attracted females. The bigger the display, the better the lek position – the middle is the most desired spot – and the better the chance of mating. 

Males will dance every morning for a few hours from mid-April to mid-May, but females come to find a mate and they’re all business. Once a female has bred with her choice of dancing partner, she flies away to nest. She doesn’t return. 

I watched the male’s work themselves into a vibrating and spinning frenzy as one female then another slunk onto the lek. At one time, I counted 28 birds dancing and dashing around in the dim light. I wondered how many pairs would come together to breed and sustain the species. 

Photographers can view birds up-close with this blind
Photographers can view birds up-close with this blind. Photo Credit: Carol Patterson

Four hours after we’d parked, the last birds flew away and we emerged from our auto blinds, the lek so full of drama and spectacle at dawn, now looking like a scraggly, nondescript piece of ground. An untrained observer would overlook the places where vegetation had been trampled by generations of birds’ feet.

Lives Dedicated to Wildlife

I felt happy I’d seen the spectacle and I felt great knowing that the tour fee I paid Shadick’s company Saskatoon Custom Bird Tours would help Saskatchewan wildlife rescue. Stan’s wife, Jan Shadick founded Living Sky Wildlife Rehabilitation, a non-profit, registered charity to care for wild animals needing assistance. 

Jan was the first Saskatchewan wildlife rehabilitator to receive provincial and federal permits in 2005 and she has cared for all manner of animals including some little brown bats displaced by a curling rink roof replacement. 

In an average year she takes in more than 2,000 animals, most of them birds. Her latest celebrity guest is a Costa’s Hummingbird that flew off course last fall and was rescued from a Saskatoon bird feeder. Jan is working on securing permits to get the bird back to its normal habitat in California. Jan’s efforts at rescuing wildlife are the focus of reality TV show Staying Wild. So far you can only watch it on CityTV Saskatchewan but it’s hoped other stations will pick it up. 

Stan made sure to tell me about the show as he does with all his guests and uses his considerable birdwatching skill to raise funds for the rescue. In addition to spring grouse tours, he leads people to endangered whooping cranes in the fall, and to some of the rare birds of Grassland National Park in spring.

Stan has the record for the most bird species seen in Saskatchewan on E-bird (The Cornell Labe of Ornithology’s citizen science website) and is always looking for ways to raise rescue funds and showcase Saskatchewan’s wildlife. His summer plans include bison and birdwatching by horse-drawn carriage at Sturgeon River Ranch near Prince Albert Park and birding by houseboat on Lake Diefenbaker. 

I packed up my camera happy to know I’d helped a hummingbird take a trip south to increase its chance of survival and I’d had the experience of a lifetime. 

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