How to Identify Sage Grouse Habitat in a Sea of Sagebrush
In order to find good sage grouse habitat, you should focus on their needs for that particular time of year. Sage grouse require food, shelter and water. They also need leks, nesting ground and land to raise the broods. Look for areas with sufficient food and cover, especially. This is the foundation of sage grouse hunting.
Water for Sage Grouse
I have found sage grouse in areas where I couldn’t locate water sources. Nevertheless, the grouse still found the hydration they needed. There may be obscure pockets of water they fly into and out of. During certain times of the year, sage grouse can even get water from other sources like insects, plants, even the dew in the morning — but areas with water are best. If you find an area with a good food source, good cover plus water, that’s a bonus.
I like to look for stock ponds since sage grouse country is typically cattle country. Where the cattle get their water, so do the grouse. Areas I hunt have creeks, stock ponds and water tanks, which I focus on. Keep in mind that sage grouse can fly long distances at a time. If water is scarce they may not necessarily move closer to water but just have to fly further. Early in the year, the young will need to be closer to the water while older birds may fly greater distances.
When you find water, look for tracks. See which direction they are coming from and start to work around in that direction. If you are working a creek, look for cover around the creek and start to work it. One year I started the season off in an area I had never hunted before. I did a little driving around to get the lay of the land. I found an alfalfa field with a creek below. In between the field and the creek was good sage cover. I found many birds in this area. It was the perfect setup for sage grouse as everything they needed was right there. As I walked back to my truck I noticed that all the birds I saw were young broods. They next day I was at the field at daybreak and watched several big males fly into the fields and to the creek to get food and water, then fly off a couple miles from there for the rest of the day.
Food for Sage Grouse
Sage grouse have an undeveloped gizzard, which means they don’t have the required muscle to break down hard foods like grains. So what do sage grouse actually eat? In winter months, sage grouse rely on sagebrush. This can prove to be their Achille’s heel. Each year, fields of sage turn into cropland, decimating the most vital food and cover source for sage grouse.
Since they can only eat softer foods, sage grouse like leafy greens, dandelions, and insects. I like to look for alfalfa fields when pursuing early season grouse. Often enough they will enter the field early in the morning and return in the evening while spending the day in heavier cover.
Sage grouse fly long distances with ease. A tactic I sometimes use is to watch the field at sunset or just after. I can see where they fly in and out of, which allows me to mark where they land — and plan my hunt accordingly.
In a good grasshopper year, I focus on cover and areas where the grouse can chase the hoppers. CRP-type lands and grain stubble fields do well during these times. Look to these areas and surrounding cover.
They Always Need Sagebrush
Sage grouse need sagebrush to survive — it’s as simple as that. Their diet in winter months consists entirely of sagebrush. The sage should be taller than the snow, since the grouse consume the leaves at the top of the plant. Most of the time in winter, you’ll find them on a south-facing slope. They start to move into these areas after the weather turns cold. Some states still have seasons in October; they could provide a good place to look for sage grouse.
Good sagebrush will have a healthy look to it. It will have a vibrant sage color and some buds on top. The natural grasses will be mixed in with the sage. Good grass is a mixture of new greens and old dead-looking grass, straw in color. It will not be overly thick or thin. Sage grouse like to look around and seek some open places, but still need the protection and ability to hide.
Sage you want to avoid would be dead-looking sage, lots of brown in color. It does not have many leaves on it and no grass around it. Many times this will be land that was over-grazed by cattle. Also avoid the extremely thick sage that’s hard to walk through.
What is a Lek — and How to Identify Them
A lek is an area that has been used year after year for the sage grouse mating ritual. Male sage grouse will gather on these leks and perform a mating ritual hoping to win over the female. Typically, you will find a lek in sage country but it will be very open, allowing the males to display and prove their dominance. There may be many males on the lek, but only a couple will be used for breeding all the hens. If you took an aerial view of a lek in the morning it would look like the males are in a circular shape with the most dominant males in the center. Hens will make their way to these males for breeding.
When spring population counts are conducted on sage grouse, biologists or volunteers will go to the leks before sunrise. They will count the males on the leks and compare the numbers from year to year. This gives them a good idea of what the population is looking like on average.
Males will start to gather around the leks in late February until the end of May. Breeding usually takes place in March and April.
Look for Physical Sage Grouse Sign
When looking for sign of birds I concentrate on two main things: droppings and tracks. Finding feather is a good way as well, but doesn’t allow for determining a timeline of when the bird had ventured through that particular area. Droppings are the best indicator to know if birds have been in the area recently. If you find old white droppings that flake away with a nudge of your boot, that is old sign which could be months old or more. Droppings that have some green or brown color but are starting to fade indicate birds have been in the area within a few weeks. When there is a dark green color to the droppings that’s a good indicator that it is fresh, usually within the past few days.
Tracks also help you to determine if birds have been in the area, but don’t always allow you to get an idea of how recently they have been there. Some of the country the birds inhabit will receive moisture then dry up rather quickly. The sage grouse will leave an impression on the ground, but that could have been a couple days to a month prior to your arrival. Back when Montana’s hunting season stretched into the middle of December, tracks in the snow presented a more accurate time frame. Today, with the season only spreading through the month of September, this is no longer a key factor for finding birds when hunting.
It ultimately comes down to knowing what sage grouse need at particular times of the year. Food and cover are the main things to look for, but keep water sources in mind as well. Once discovered, finding the birds will be easier and your search far more efficient. Look over the area where you harvested your bird and make a mental note of what it looks like. Is it more grass than sage, next to an alfalfa field or in a draw? Look at the time of day and what the weather is like. Was it in the early morning, by water or food? Middle of the day out in the sage? Was the wind blowing and the birds were down in a draw on the lee side? A last measure is to open its crop and see exactly what they are feeding on in that area, then look for that particular food source.
Brandon Moss's life motto is, "I don't care what I'm doing as long as I have two straps over my shoulders." He is a 4th generation hunter who can't spend enough time in the field. Born and raised in Montana he has nurtured an addition to following American Brittany's out on the prairies. Brandon hopes by telling his story it will inspire others to head to the field and experience, what he has come to love, for themselves.