July 24, 2014
Spruce Grouse
Spruce Grouse

You probably haven’t noticed, but there are no images of Ruffed Grouse on our website.  I have both Dusky and Sooty Grouse.  I have all three ptarmigan species.  I even have Gray Partridge.  I have Spruce Grouse for God’s sake!  But no Ruffed Grouse.  And now that Northern Bobwhite is in steep decline all across its range, Ruffed Grouse is probably the most abundant and widespread of the entire grouse family.  All birders have one or two nemesis birds, birds they really want to see but have failed, in myriad ways and for myriad reasons, to find.  Yeah, Ruffed Grouse is on my bucket list, certainly the only North American bird on said list.

My favorite bird families fall into two categories:  those that fill small and special econiches—woodpeckers; and those that are elusive, local, and hard to find—grouse.  And owls, of course, which fall into both those categories.  Did I just mention grouse?  You know I’ve looked widely and well for all the members of these three families.  Sure, I’ve seen Ruffed Grouse, but my camera needs to see one.   And, yes, what my camera wants is the photo cliché.  I want a male on a drumming log.  I know that’s at the heart of the issue here.  I know exactly what I want and I want it too badly.  Bad karma.

I have ten Ruffed Grouse sightings, beginning in Olympic National Park in 1975 before I knew what a camera was.  I have, or I should say had, photos of Ruffed Grouse from Yellowstone in 1985, back in the early slide days before I knew what a good bird photo looked like.  I tossed them when I finally learned.  In the interim I’ve seen Ruffed Grouse in five states and one Canadian Province, but no photos of any kind—driving and couldn’t stop, stopped but bird long gone, no camera, too slow with camera.  Ruffed Grouse don’t hang out waiting when they see you coming.

This Ruffed Grouse thing all came to a head last month when we visited birding friends in Vermont.  Knowing of my recent addiction to dragonfly photography, they put me in contact with the Vermont odonata expert who had begun his career as a bird tour leader.  After we had discussed odonate sites, he threw out a logical and expected question.  The conversation went like this:

Bryan (sounding helpful)—Are you looking for any birds while you’re here?

Me (not really thinking of birds at all during peak of warm weather dragonfly season)—Meh, not really.  I think I’ve probably seen everything you have in Vermont.  I guess I’d take a Ruffed Grouse if one came along.  Can you get me a Ruffed Grouse?

Bryan (sounding puzzled)--You mean Spruce Grouse, right?

Me (laughing at myself)—Bryan, did I stutter?  I said Ruffed Grouse?

Bryan (sounding amazed)—You’ve photographed Spruce Grouse, but not Ruffed?

Me (getting frustrated at the direction of the conversation)—You got it, Bryan.  And I want one on a drumming log.

Of course I knew full well there wouldn’t be one on a drumming log in the middle of July.  I also knew full well there are Ruffed Grouse all over the state of Vermont and I probably would see one but not get a photograph because my camera would be set up for ode photography.  This partially played out on July 4.  We’re following our Vermont birding friends, they in their car, we in our rental, down a country road.  I look out across a wide farm field and there’s a Ruffed Grouse watching the vehicles go by.  But it’s too far away, the midday light is terrible, and our friends don’t see it and keep going.

But wait, that’s not the punch line.  Four days later, on July 8, I’m walking along a tight trail through deep, dark spruce woods in northern Maine.  My mind is totally on dragonflies (species in the emerald family love sunny clearings in forests), but my ears are on high alert for sounds.  This is Black Bear country.  I hear rustling close by.  I stop, set the tripod down, feel a little shiver run my spine.  Branches rub.  There is a small commotion.  Ten yards off the trail a Spruce Grouse drops from a tree, looks at me, scurries through the undergrowth, flips up into another tree, looks again, then heads for glory.

That’s how “nemesis” works.