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Bismarck-Mandan Bird Club

We woke at 4:15 a.m. and gathered our gear for the 40-mile drive to Long Lake National Wildlife Refuge near Moffit. We needed to be in the blind before dawn to await the arrival of sharp-tailed grouse on their display grounds, called a lek, an assembly area where they carry on their courtship.

We parked the car off the gravel road after sweeping the headlights over the pasture to ensure we knew the location of the plywood blind that the Fish and Wildlife Service sets up each year for observation of the ancient grouse ritual.

Conditions were perfect with only a slight breeze from the south bringing in the squeals of gulls from the open water a mile distant as they began to feed on the winter kill of fish exposed through the thawing ice, the cold season giving up its bounty. Over our heads, I picked up the winnowing sound of a Wilson’s snipe performing aerodynamic stunts in the pre-dawn stillness, the air rushing over its outspread tail.

In the 30-degree early spring weather, I pulled on my winter coat and secured the Velcro straps on my orthopedic boot that I would wear protecting my weak, worn ankle as we made the trek across the pasture to the blind. I mused that my body had become less stalwart over the years while the ground I walked upon and the event I was about to see remained the same: vibrant and young.

My birding partner got out our breakfast box from the vehicle, and we slung our binoculars around our shoulders, switched on our flashlights and began the hike, first down the slanted ditch into cold spring runoff, the icy water immediately running into my open-toed walking boot. We then picked our way through a small hollow with several rivulets, searching for mounds of pressed grass for dry footholds.

Soon, we were on higher land and made our way to the blind over the rutted pasture. We settled into the blind on the two chairs provided, opened up the windows and awaited the show. In the distance, I could hear my favorite sound: the rattling call of the sand hill cranes as they stirred from their slumber in a tight nighttime flock, folded wing to folded wing, hundreds waiting for dawn so they could feed, then fly up and float in lazy circles high in the sky, their muted rippling calls dimpling the air and showering down like a hundred small waterfalls.

Out of the darkness came the first sounds from the grouse: a clattering of their tail feathers as they began the dance. Then a couple white triangles emerged from the lingering dusk as the males peaked their tails skyward. Soon, loud cooing sounds resounded across the prairie, delighting the hearts of the two observers, sitting cold and happy with wet feet, nibbling on homemade banana bread and sipping coffee from a thermos as they listened to the prairie waking up, being called to attention by the urging of the grouse.

The red dawn saturated the straw grass as first two or three, then 10, then 20 male grouse carried on their courtship ritual: darting at each other, freezing in place, then stamping their feet, before leaping in the air and whirling in ecstasy, then landing and inflating their violet neck sacs, the yellow combs over their eyes, made red-orange from the angled sunlight. They strutted and preened as a few females loitered at the edges of the lek, looking bored at the antics around them.

Three marbled godwits cruised in, their nasal rolling calls joining the growing prairie chorus of the rapid lisping of horned larks sprinkling down from the sky and the clear whistles and rich sweet warbling of the western meadowlark. One flew close to the blind window, its yellow breast bursting with impending song, then graced us by landing on top of the blind where its beautiful voice reverberated through our shelter.

We had observed for a couple hours and the males were dispersing, a few apparently disinterested females, were strolling about, and it was time to go. As we left the blind, our old limbs creaking, other prairie denizens, pintail ducks and mallards, flew up and scattered as we temporarily disturbed their summer home.

On our walk back to the car, the prairie pasture tried to keep us by sucking our boots into the muddy ruts, landing us in the cow manure enriching the soil. But we picked ourselves up and shrugged it off, happy we could join our fellow creatures in springtime, our hearts filled with joy from the natural world.

Janelle Masters, a retired professor from Bismarck State College, is a member of the Bismarck-Mandan Bird Club.