This post comes from one of our good friends, Nate Fronk, who just finished a field season at Yosemite National Park. Nate has a master’s degree in Wildlife Science from Penn State, where he studied the effect of Marcellus shale gas development on forest songbird populations. Nate has worked throughout Pennsylvania and California on various bird research projects. In his free time, Nate enjoys birding, nature photography, and being outdoors.
As a Biological Technician at Yosemite National Park, I sometimes get the question “What was the owl I heard hooting in the middle of the day?”. In most cases it wasn’t an owl at all but a Sooty Grouse. These reclusive birds are one of the characteristic bird species of the fir forests of the west side of the Sierra Nevada and one of my personal favorites. Their “hoot” notes can be heard up to 2 kilometers away, making them difficult to track down and easy to misidentify by ear to the novice birder.
Despite spending two field seasons working in the Sierra Nevada I have only seen 4 Sooty Grouse despite hearing about 3 times that. Last month, I was hiking up to May Lake in Yosemite National Park when I heard the booming call of a Sooty Grouse. It felt like he was right next to me but after a half hour of looking I still wasn’t getting any closer so I decided to give up and continue on the trail. Five minutes later I heard the call again but this time when I looked I saw a male Sooty Grouse displaying on top of a small rock outcropping only 25 yards away. I slowly approached the grouse just so I could get a better angle to snag a few pictures. I didn’t realize until I sat down at how amazing the view was.
It was amazing how cooperative this grouse was, as I approached to within 20 yards. He displayed without hesitation as I snapped away. This is the first time I have ever seen a male Sooty Grouse and it will surely be the most memorable!