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Nature on Trail: Sooty Grouse

In Washington, we have ruffed grouse, spruce grouse, blue grouse, and even sharp-tailed and sage grouse in the sage desert lands of Central Washington. Let’s take a closer look at one particular species. Blue grouse in Washington are now divided into two different species, so those living in the western Cascades are the sooty grouse (Dendragapus fuliginosus) and those who inhabit the open terrain east of the Cascade crest go by the name dusky grouse (Dendragapus obscurus).

By Alan L. Bauer

Sooty GrouseMeet the Sooty Grouse

Or, should we say, the wild chickens formerly known as blue grouse.

For some, the sight of a squat, brown-feathered, chicken-sized bird walking about in the mountains could appear to be a “wild chicken” sighting. But chickens roaming the Cascades!? Nah! As I’m sure many of you have guessed, these birds are grouse. In Washington, we have ruffed grouse, spruce grouse, blue grouse, and even sharp-tailed and sage grouse in the sage desert lands of Central Washington. Let’s take a closer look at one particular species.

City Grouse, Country Grouse

A few years back, during the first week of September, I photographed five blue grouse at 5,350 feet near Tolmie Peak in Mount Rainier National Park. I shared these images with my friend Andy Stepniewski, hands down one of the leading birders in all of the Columbia Basin area and the author of The Birds of Yakima County. “Those are really great sooty grouse images,” he said.

Sooty grouse? Now, I had thought I was a top-notch birder to immediately know that I was sharing my huckleberries with blue grouse. But I was only half right, and as nature always proves, there is so much more to learn! Blue grouse were enjoying an exciting time in the ornithology
world just then. In his response, Andy actually exclaimed, “Stay tuned! This is cutting-edge ornithology!”

In 2006, the American Ornithologists’ Union had decided to divide the birds that you and I are accustomed to calling blue grouse into two taxonomic species. In Washington, this divide follows the crest. Those living in the western Cascades are the sooty grouse (Dendragapus fuliginosus) and those who inhabit the open terrain east of the Cascade crest now go by the name dusky grouse (Dendragapus obscurus).

From Andy, I learned that the primary difference between the two divisions of blue grouse species concerns the tail band features and some minor differences in plumage coloring. The sooty grouse has strong bands of gray in its tail. No wonder I love being a photographer. It is a lifelong biological education about every subject nature has to offer.

More of a Hooter

You’ve probably heard the drumming noise that ruffed grouse make: whomp-whomp-whomp-whomp. Blue grouse, er—sooty grouse and dusky grouse—make an entirely different noise, a clear hoot that is more like the sound an owl or a pigeon would make. Their song has five parts to it, sort of an “Oohhoo-hoohoo-oohhoo.” As I sat in Rainier’s crimson huckleberry meadows, I heard this enchanting call over and over from these fellow huckleberry-lovers. You should have seen their eyes as I tried to talk back with them for half an hour! I may not be able to talk to the animals like Doctor Doolittle, but I certainly appreciate the details of this spectacular place we call home.

Alan is a professional freelance photographer residing in Fall City. He has co-authored several hiking guidebooks and has been published in dozens of publications around the globe. Give him a hoot: www.alanbauer.com or alan@alanbauer.com.

This article was originally published in the September+October 2011 issue of Washington Trails magazine.