The Drum Beats of Spring: Michigan’s Exotic Dancer

WILDER SIDE OF OAKLAND COUNTY

DSCN0519I was hunkered down against the moist moss at the base of tree near the edge of a tamarack swamp at Indian Springs Metropark. It was about two hours after sunrise. My mission was simple and pleasurable. Sip coffee from a thermos; and wait to see what creatures stirred. Sitting motionlessly in promising habitat, and just listening, is my favorite method of intentional wildlife encounters. I expected turkeys, perhaps a deer, or maybe even a dramatic appearance of the red-crested forest giant, a Pileated Woodpecker. I did not expect an encounter with a beautiful exotic dancer in the dappled sunlight of a spring morning. But as John Muir once penned, “In every walk with nature one receives far more than he seeks.” You will discover more than you seek along the trail system that meanders through prairies, woodlands and swamp habitats of 2,215 acre Indian Springs Metropark. You might even meet the dancing drummer, a Ruffed Grouse. Go early, when the park is most peaceful. And check out their Environmental Discovery Center before heading home.

A faint, slightly muffled sound seemed to come from a tangled thicket of branches at the edge of the tamarack woods. The sound quickly snared my attention. Perhaps the sound could be best described as an old lawn mower engine struggling to start. Almost a minute of silence, except for the chatter of chickadees that flitted overhead followed, and then that odd chug-chugging sound increased in tempo and perhaps volume, or maybe it was my concentration that made the sound seem louder. My friend, the exotic dancer, the woodland drummer, was back. And if you have ever witnessed a Ruffed Grouse drum on a log to entice the ladies, well, that drumming dance is about as exotic as they come.

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Almost three years had passed since my first front row seating encounter with a Ruffed Grouse, a bird that thrives in the Northwood habitats of Michigan but can also be found in pockets of good habitat in the woods of Oakland County. Indian Springs Metropark is one of those place where the habitat is just right. Favorable grouse habitat in our county usually includes young trees, especially aspen. They are also attracted to areas with new growth following a fire. I have never seen Ruffed Grouse at Seven Lakes State Park or Rose Oaks County Park, both located near Fenton, but have heard drumming at both parks. And one day I hope to see the grouse I hear every now and then near my swamp in Brandon Township.

My passion for this beautiful woodland bird really took flight at a spring conference of the Michigan Outdoor Writers Association in the wilds of northern Ontario. We were hosted by Errington’s Wilderness Island on Lake Wabatongushi within the 2,700 square mile Chapleu Crown Game Preserve. And as I often do at conferences, when the wild woods beckon, I quietly wander off. Fellow conference attendees know me as a tree-hugger. I wear that title with pride. The woods are a patient teacher if one walks slowly, stops often and listens. Ten minutes into that meander through an island spruce forest I heard a grouse, a grouse so intent on drawing in his lady he ignored me. I believe he saw me as I approached. He did not seem to care. The photos accompanying this salute to our Oakland County drummer of spring are all from that encounter, for the grouse at Indian Springs and I were separated by branches of tamarack trees that made a clear photo image impossible. The Ontario grouse proudly strutted his stuff and drummed, maybe twenty feet in front of me.

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Contrary to what you may think you are seeing, grouse do not drum wings against the log, but the log is part of his stage and sounding board. “Come-hither, young lady” is the message. The grouse selects a resonant log in a clearing, and the drumming sound is created by the contact of the air pushed against the log. There is a clear and present danger in this courtship lure as he ruffles his neck feathers, fans his tail feathers and drums his wings faster and faster. The sound is distinctive, and that means, coyotes, owls, hawks, and foxes may listen to the sound as the dinner bell. As was the case in Ontario, and at Indian Springs, thick cover around the drumming site offers a measure of cover.  Sometimes it works. Sometimes not.

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The woodlands and trails across our county are truly beautiful as the dawn of May approaches, and with hardwood leaves missing we have unprecedented opportunities to seek out the ways and wonders of nature. Walk slowly, stop often and listen. And just maybe you will hear our cryptically colored exotic dancer and smile to the drum beat of his wings. And if not, you will still come home with a great story to share from the Wilder Side of Oakland County.

Jonathan Schechter is the Nature Education Writer for Oakland County Government and blogs weekly about nature’s way, trails, and wildlife on the Wilder Side of Oakland County.

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