In recent days, I’ve heard a number of reports of people taking a run down the Khyber having run-ins‚ with a grouse. The grouse stands in the middle of the run and as they approach, holds its ground, making all sorts of noise and plumping up its feathers. Once the skiers/boarders pass the said grouse, it proceeds to accompany them some distance down the trail, flying along beside them.
In the Sea to Sky area, there are four species of grouse, three of which are commonly sighted: the Blue grouse ( Dendragapus obscurus ), the Ruffed grouse ( Bonasa umbellus ) and the White-Tailed ptarmigan ( Lagopus leucurus ). The Spruce grouse ( Falcipennis canadensis ) has had only isolated sightings in this area. Unfortunately, despite the number of sightings no one was able to make a positive identification of the Khyber grouse. Most likely it is not a White-Tailed ptarmigan, as they tend to live year round in the alpine zone. But, the behaviour of this grouse would indicate that whatever species it is, it is most likely male.
The Blue grouse is the largest of the B.C. grouses, with males up to 55 cm long and weighing 1.4 kg. The male blue grouse has a blue to grey plumage with white on the breast and back. The air sacs on the sides of neck vary from yellow to orange and are surrounded by white feathers. The comb above the eye is a yellow-orange colour, but turns bright red during courtship. The tail is black with a grey terminal band. All grouse species have feathers extending to the middle of their toes.
The male Ruffed grouse can measure up to 40 cm in length and weighs up to 500 g. The plumage of the Ruffed grouse can vary from a grey-brown to a red-brown colouring with white mottling (spots). Specific coat colour is based on habitat and is a form of camouflage; red-brown coloured grouse tend to inhabit the darker forest of the coast. The Ruffed grouse has a solid crest and black ruffs or neck feathers on either side of its head.
Finally, the Spruce grouse male is up to 43 cm in length, with a weight of up to 500 g. The male has grey to brown colouring also mottled with white, a chestnut terminal tail band, a black throat and chest, and a red to crimson comb over each eye.
In southern B.C. the grouse leave their heavily forested wintering grounds as early as mid-February, depending on the winter. They migrate vertically up or down the mountain to open areas, such as logging slashes, forest burns, lightly wooded mountain valleys, alpine meadows, creek bottoms and bogs. Or even open ski runs perhaps?
Once there, the male will select a location such as a stump, log or tree from which to attract a female. This location will also allow him to survey his territory for any other males of his species or invaders of another species.
His response to a female or a territorial invader is quite similar. The male Blue grouse will produce a series of hoots‚ increasing in tempo and volume. The male Ruffed grouse and the male Spruce grouse will "drum", which is a sound produced by cupping the wings and rapidly beating them against the air. Along with the sounds, all species of male grouse add movements and body posturing, such as tail fanning and neck feather ruffling, to the production.
So it seems likely that the skiers/boarders were invading the mating territory of a male Whistler Mountain grouse and he wasn’t sure as to whether they were competition or just some sort of invader. Regardless, he was protecting his interests. The species of this "tough guy" grouse remains a mystery so if you encounter him next time you are on the Khyber and are able to make a positive ID please contact me using the information below.
Stay tuned for an update in a future issue of Naturespeak.
Monthly Bird Walk — The next bird walk will take place Saturday, April 3rd. Join Whistler experts in the monthly update of our feathered locals and migrants.
Written by: Sorcha Masterson