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For me, April can't come soon enough. It's an exhilarating time to wander the sandy back roads of Wisconsin. From the lonely brush and bog frost pockets of Wood and Jackson counties to the open-air cathedrals in Bayfield, Douglas and Burnett counties, we stop, look and listen.
Like variations on a theme of music, all of the sharp-tailed grouse haunts have the same open vistas, variously called pine barrens, brush prairies, oak savanna, sedge meadows and bogs.
On frosty April mornings prairie grouse gather on dancing grounds, or "leks." These are usually sparse grassy openings, slightly elevated, offering good visibility. But we've found the birds dancing on little traveled sand roads, fire lanes and even on cranberry dikes.
The dancing starts before dawn, when it's almost too dark to see their pure white tails pointing straight up to the starry sky. As if inspired by the old Quaker hymn "Life Flows On In Endless Song," soft cooing and gobbling fill the still air. The excited males try to attract a hen by "flutter-jumping" and dancing in a small arc, their feet a blur, tail feathers clicking. Colorful yellow eyebrows and inflated violet neck pouches decorate the males.
One predawn pilgrimage found my wife and me stumbling along a dark trail out on the Namekagon Wildlife Area – the "Barrens." She whispered her much-asked phrase, "Are there any bears around here?" "No," I lied reassuringly, "too early for blueberries." While scouting the day before, we found our assigned dark green canvas blind on the edge of a well-used lek. Finding your blind out on the open prairie in the dark can be a challenge.
By 4:45 a.m. cackling and hooting males poured in to stake their claim. We counted a chaotic melee of 27 males that eventful morning. This was the Barrens at its peak of the ten-year cycle.
A pair of ravens, attracted by the bedlam of flutter-jumping males, swooped down as the hens sauntered nonchalantly through the lek. Not very alarmed by these intruders, the grouse just scooted out of reach. One raven got into the act and jumped after the grouse while its mate watched, no doubt perplexed by its partner and the displaying grouse making such a spectacle of themselves.
The prairie hoedown began again with more grouse flying in to join the dancers. At any disturbance the males would freeze in their bowed positions. Then, as if a band leader was starting "On Wisconsin" with a down stroke of his baton, they all resumed their hooting and dancing, almost like students at Camp Randall during a Badger football game.
Ten minutes later the lek exploded with grouse. Some came rocketing only a few feet over our blind. A northern harrier hawk had just zoomed through in an unsuccessful attempt to pin a grouse to the grass.
The St. Croix River on the west and the wild Namekagon River to the south border the Namekagon Wildlife Area. Dry Landing Road cuts through the middle until it reaches the Douglas County line on the north. It's rather remote and hard to get to, but the Barrens is a favorite of many recreationists.
Early risers who want to experience the sand dancers' ancient rite of spring can reserve a blind at six managed properties. Out of the 20 properties originally designated as sharptail habitat areas by the old Wisconsin Conservation Department, 14 no longer have established leks.
The largest Wisconsin property managed for prairie grouse and waterfowl is Crex Meadows north of Grantsburg in Burnett County. First Nation Ojibwa, Dakota and Fox tribes hunted game and gathered the abundant berries and herbs on this tall-grass prairie. The area was drained in the 1890s, and what was once a diverse ecosystem became a dry sedge monoculture. From 1912 to the 1930s wiregrass sedges were cut here and made into carpets. In 1946 the tax-delinquent land was bought by the State of Wisconsin and restored as a wildlife area.
Current management uses refined management practices that Norm Stone fought for and pioneered during the 1950s. Their work epitomizes the best in wildlife managers and copes with opposition to current management techniques including controlled burns and fluctuating water levels.
Probably the most beautiful pine barrens in Wisconsin is found in the Chequamegon National Forest in north central Bayfield County. Aldo Leopold described Moquah Barrens as one of the finest sharptail areas in Wisconsin. In the 1930s jackpine was planted and the frequent wild fires were suppressed, signaling the end of the sun-loving sand dancers. The 7,200-acre steep rolling prairie was reborn in 1965. Nutrient-rich ashes fed the pine barrens, which burst forth with blueberry, pasque flower and fern. Seventy-one sharptails were translocated from Crex and Kimberly-Clark wildlife areas in 1990 and 1991.
During the disastrous first winter, wildlife technician John Denomie found nine radio-collared grouse killed by hawks. John, who works with the Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission, spent long hours on snowshoes monitoring the birds. He showed us the spot where he found his first brood of sharptail chicks and described the elation he felt realizing the success of the relocation efforts. I helped John remove the blinds he had set up on two well-used leks. He then sprinkled kinnikinnic (ceremonial tobacco) over the lek, as an offering of respect and thanksgiving to the sand dancers and Mother Earth for sharing their sacred rite of spring.
Just southwest of Solon Springs in Douglas County lies the 4,000-acre Douglas County Wildlife Area nicknamed the "bird sanctuary." It is maintained as a brushy grassland with small stands of young aspen and jackpine. A puzzling rapid decline in sharptail populations occurred recently. One explanation is that uncontrolled use of ATVs disturbed the birds on their leks where blinds were run over and smashed. No dancing grounds have been found in recent years.
East of Solon Springs and Gordon, a complex of clear-cuts and newly planted red pine plantations harbors the largest population of sharptails in Wisconsin. Unfortunately the situation is only temporary, as these pine barrens are managed for pulpwood. The only hope for sharptails in the area is to manage a portion of the state-owned Brule River State Forest as a monoculture to keep it in open brush savanna.
On a calm dawn survey last April, I was following a set of huge timber wolf footprints down a sandy fire lane east of Solon Springs. A maze of sharptail tracks crisscrossed the lane with excited grouse flying and calling from leks on both sides of the break.
It was as if I had been transported back to the pioneer era when the land was first cleared and prairie grouse populations exploded. On such mornings in spring and fall it is not too rare to see over 100 grouse out in the barrens. These open shrub prairies are teeming with wildlife and sun-loving forbs and grasses.
The glacial sand outwashes called "pine barrens" preserved the legacy of the frequent wildfires that once swept through these drought-prone areas. Because of this importance, a pine barrens management and research workshop is scheduled for Mar. 10 & 11, 1999, at the Northern Great Lakes Visitor Center West of Ashland. It is co-sponsored by the Wis. DNR, the USDA Forest Service, the Sigurd Olson Environmental Institute, the Bayfield Forestry Dept., and the Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission.
Price County is blessed with two managed sharptail properties. Kimberly-Clark, the much larger of the two at 8,600 acres, is a rather recent Wisconsin DNR wildlife area, obtained as a gift from the Kimberly-Clark Corporation in 1963. Timber sales followed by controlled burning made it prime habitat for prairie grouse. Clouds of billowing smoke from the burn conducted by congenial and experienced property manager Jack Koch caught our attention during a visit. He pointed out an occupied osprey nest not too far from a sharptail blind and told of a local timber wolf family. This last spring Koch made two blinds available for recreationists and photographers.
Riley Lake Wildlife Area is an intriguing lowland mix of leather leaf, black spruce, alder and sedge with only 570 acres in upland grassy openings. It was thought to be too small and isolated from the Kimberly-Clark property to sustain a viable population of sharpies. Mike Bablick, a wildlife technician with the U.S. Forest Service, showed us the lek locations with blinds. He also pointed out a cluster of giant boulders used by wolves to survey their domain. The wildness reminded me of the endless black spruce taiga in the Alaskan interior that burn frequently during dry summers.
Finding the sharptails at Pershing Marsh was easier than we expected, thanks to a detailed map given to us by Larry Gregg, DNR researcher and sharptail expert. Mid-afternoon is usually no time to be looking for grouse, but as we walked cautiously down the sandy lane, my wife Pat caught sight of a flutter-jumping grouse. We scooted into a nearby blind after flushing a few clucking lovesick birds. It wasn't long before they returned, sailing in right over a still-smoking section of a burn.
Property manager Mr. Vanacek told us later that sharptail viewing was becoming very popular. Blinds are reserved for many April mornings. Established in 1953, Pershing Wildlife Area contains 15 flowages on its nearly 8,000 acres. There is an osprey, cormorant and heron rookery on the property, too.
Wood County Wildlife Area and Dike 17 in Jackson County are within 25 miles of each other, but lack the sharptails that were once so abundant in this flat sandy outwash of glacial Lake Wisconsin. Commercial cranberry bogs have replaced some of the abandoned farms. The wild sedge and bogs adjacent to cranberry beds seem to sustain most of the remaining flocks of sharpies. According to Wayne Hall, wildlife biologist at the nearby Sandhill Wildlife Area, no leks were found at the two locations even during the peak of the grouse cycle. Given a lack of fire, mature trees are now growing on the properties, eliminating the grassy habitat sharp-tailed grouse require for survival.
Pioneer wildlife manager Wallace Grange warned that without management, sharptails would be extirpated from the Wood County area by the year 2000. To prevent that from happening, the Wisconsin Sharp-tailed Grouse Society is introducing a central Wisconsin integrated management plan. The goal is to insure the survival of oak savanna, prairie and bog species so our children can rise early on frosty April mornings and witness the age-old ritual of the sand dancers.
Thomas M. Jancoski of Grafton visited all of Wisconsin's prime sharp-tailed grouse grounds during the last few years. He is an avid grouse watcher and member of the Wisconsin Sharp-tailed Grouse Society.