A prairie hen for us

The Seedskadee Refuge is not right next to the interstate. The headquarters is 28 miles from the interstate. But when we read about the refuge, what the name means and that sage grouse are common there, we left the interstate and drove those 28 miles plus the entrance road, about half a mile of rocky, rough washboard.

The sage grouse, specifically the greater sage grouse, in addition to being a species we had never seen, is a striking bird. A male or cock is nearly as big as a wild turkey. Hens are smaller but still bigger than pheasants. Both are grayish-brown with small white spots, dull colored actually, like the landscape they inhabit. Both males and females have black bellies but how often are you going to see the belly of a bird that stays on the ground, walking through sagebrush, never perching on the sage or other vegetation, if there was any other, and rarely flying?

In spring the males, like those other grouse, prairie chickens and sharp-tailed grouse, gather on leks or mating grounds and put on a spectacular display. Each puffs out a large white ruff on the sides of its neck and its breast, inflates two yellow air sacks and elevates its tail feathers in a spiky fan. But this was October when we visited Seedskadee, we’d see no courtship displaying.

An employee at the refuge office told me sage grouse were indeed common at Seedskadee. She’d seen several as she drove into work that morning. There had been three right near the office. If we’d drive their auto tour route, slowly, we should see sage grouse. But we’d have to watch carefully.  “They blend into the cover,” she said.

We drove slowly. Very slowly. Nobody would drive that road fast. It was rougher than the entrance road. We saw the river of the prairie hens, the Green River, which flows through the refuge. We saw cottonwoods and willows along the river and a few trumpeter swans floating on the river. We saw three mule deer near the river. We watched for a moose but didn’t see one, nor did we see a porcupine although they occur at the refuge we’d been told.

It was the sage that we watched most carefully, however. There we saw pronghorns, two, then two more, then four, six, a herd of a dozen. Most of them stood and watched as we passed though a few ran a short distance before standing and watching us. We saw a few little brown, sparrow-like birds. They flew up, were in sight a few seconds, then dropped back into the sage and disappeared. They might have been sage sparrows.  They might have been white-crowned sparrows or song sparrows or any of several other species of sparrow but we couldn’t tell.

But we did not see a sage grouse, not one. As we left the refuge and drove back to the interstate highway, however, we decided next time we’re in southern Wyoming we’ll visit the Seedskadee National Wildlife Refuge again. And next time we’ll drive even more slowly, watch more closely as we go along the river of the prairie hens.

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