Grouse galore

In England grouse was something I ate occasionally, if I was lucky, but never saw. Here I see them occasionally, but never eat them. You can’t have everything.

We have Ruffed Grouse and Spruce Grouse around here. The Ruffed Grouse, Bonasa umbellus, live in my woods, and are common. The Spruce Grouse, Canachites canadensis, live higher up the mountains, and are rarer. They are both secretive (mostly), and you hear them flying up from the ground when you disturb them, but rarely get a good look. They seem to be more visible in the fall, coming out of the woods and crossing the roads. I’ll start with the Ruffed Grouse. This is a female:

She clambered over a stone wall, and off into the woods:

The male lingered. You can see that he has a neck ruff, not extended here:

In the winter you find their tracks in the snow:

Sometimes they drag their tails as they walk:

and in close-up:

The underside of their feet grow miniature snowshoes called pectinations in winter, to help spread their weight. The photo below is from this terrific website:

I have only seen Spruce Grouse once. We are at the southern edge of their range, and so they are more likely seen at higher elevations. It was in the fall, not breeding season, but for some reason a deluded male was dancing for his inamorata. I was hiking with only a tiny camera, and he was energetic, so they are a little blurry, but the red eyebrows are quite impressive! Here he is before he really gets going. Notice the log. This is his stage.

The favored log is in an open space under spruce (!):

Once his tail is up and those eyebrows are raised, he is quite a sight, He turns sideways so she can admire the eyebrows:

and when he comes straight towards you he is not easy to ignore:

He swirls around:

and as he dances he drags his wings, just visible here:

Ready for his close-up, eyebrows raised. Best brows since Mr. Spock.*

Oh how I wish I had taken a movie. Here’s one I found online:

A description from Birds of the World:

“Upon locating a female during the breeding season, a territorial male exhibits a series of characteristic behaviors: erects much of the plumage (particularly the breast and tail feathers), droops wings slightly, erects the superciliary combs, bobs the head vertically, and often pecks the substrate (ground or branch) while presenting the side of the head, thereby showing off the combs. The Tail-swish (Figure 13), Tail-flick (Figure 13), and Head-jerk displays (Table 6) are the primary male courtship displays. The tail-swish involves moving slowly forward with head and tail erect and undertail coverts spread widely (17), and walking with an alternate spreading of lateral rectrices that is synchronized with the movements of the legs. This gives an exaggerated swaying motion that is accompanied by a swishing sound, produced by the movement of the rectrices. The tail-flick is the climax of the Tail-swish Display and follows a short rush. The male stops suddenly near the female with wings drooped and snaps the rectrices laterally where they are held briefly before being closed (60). The Head-jerk Display occurs when the male squats near the female and stamps his feet rapidly. The wings are spread slightly away from the flanks, rectrices are repeatedly fanned, and the head is turned rapidly from side to side in a jerky manner. Males may remain in this position, often motionless, for short periods of time.”

*Just to remind you of Mr Spock’s eyebrows:

Seeds for the year ahead

Like any gardener, at the start of the year my mind turns naturally to seeds. Something to do with new resolutions and new generations, even if spring is still far off. My favorites are the ones that are packaged in dramatic pods, or that float on the wind, or both. Today there is a breeze, so I shall show you some airborne ones.

Top of my list has to be common milkweed, Asclepias syriaca. The young pod is big and green and luscious looking

but then it dries, and splits open to reveal rows of tightly layered seeds,

each of which has its own tiny parachute .

The pod opens wider, and the seeds escape captivity and head out into the world.

The empty pod is sculpturally elegant,

and in closeup after a heavy dew, the individual seeds look like a many tentacled octopus, or the aigrette from a 1920’s dancing girls’ fan.

The superficially rather different plant, Butterfly Weed, Asclepias tuberosa, has similar seedpods on a smaller scale:

that also contain skydiving seeds:

Not so dramatically, but still prettily, the common wild clematis, Clematis virginiana, bears seeds with personal aerial equipment too, but they are not protected by a pod. They start like this:

and as they mature the whole seed head becomes a white fluffy mass, giving the plant the common name of Old Man’s Beard (mixed here with Winterberry)::

Each seed has a long tail with a feathery fringe, which helps it get airborne.

Sort of a cross between a kite and a sperm.

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