Encounter with a Ruffed Grouse family

For those who have never been, the Dryden Kuser Natural Area (generally known as “Kuser Bog” or, if you’re typing fast and your ‘phone autocorrects, “Kaiser Bog”) is a wonderful place for a 90 minutes to two-hour birding stroll. It’s a roughly 2-mile round trip walk on a well-trodden path from the parking are just below the High Point monument. Mosquitos abound; insect repellant is absolutely required.

I’ve made several visits there this year already, hoping to recreate Andres Choussy’s and my experience of two summers ago, when we stopped to look at some other bird and flushed a Ruffed Grouse from just a few feet away-we got a two-second look only. Other birders have also seen or heard Ruffed Grouse there this year, but I had not been so fortunate. In fact, in thinking about it, I have not SEEN a Ruffed Grouse for more than a few seconds in more than a decade, other than a sighting of one in Higbees Field 4 on Cape May a couple of years ago (it was part of a release program, I believe). The last really good sighting was on a cool Fall morning just before sunrise at Hawk Mountain in Pennsylvania, when I arrived in half-light to find an adult grouse perched at the North Lookout, seemingly annoyed that I’d disturbed its vigil.

Until today.

This morning, about one-quarter of the way along the western side of the Kuser Bog trail, as I was walking very slowly and the woods were quiet, I heard a rustling on the slope to my left. Scanning, I espied a juvenile Grouse picking its way through the undergrowth. Fantastic! And then, the adult was there, just for a moment, a spectre of brown and red in dense mountain laurel. More fantastic! I watched, unmoving, trying to see “her” (I assume it was a female) and her young again, with no success. So, I followed their path up the hill, moving as quietly as I could. Eventually, I saw more scuttering ahead, and was able to see one, two, THREE juveniles. I took another step. One of the youngsters flew a short distance, and I headed in that direction. There appeared another juvenile…four altogether! Then, I saw the adult female again, and she saw me. At first, she moved away, but when I leaned forward to follow, she must have decided I was a threat to her young and, unselfishly, she turned back TOWARDS me (!!), clucking softly. I surmise that she was hoping to lure me away from her brood, which had gone on ahead. So, she and I had a staredown over a distance of about 20 feet, she not moving other than to turn her head every once in awhile, me changing stance only to lower my binoculars to rest my arms. I hadn’t brought my camera, which I think in the long run was fortunate; she might’ve been truly spooked by the sight of a large metallic object being pointed in her direction. So I have only my mind’s eye to remember the complexity of her plumage…the bars, the stripes, the browns and russets, the perky crest…perfectly evolved for hiding amidst fallen leaves.

It was I who eventually backed up and then turned away, leaving the grouse to shepherd her young ones towards more forage. Thus ended one of those magical moments that made all the hours driving up and down Route 23 behind dump trucks, the many miles walked, and all the dousing with DEET, worthwhile. I won’t soon forget this encounter.

Good birding!

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