In predawn darkness I quietly hiked a narrow woodland trail, tripod and camera thrown over my shoulder. I was en route to a photography blind situated near a ruffed grouse drumming log.

This was last week on a calm, cool morning.

As I pussyfooted along, I could hear in the distance a ruffed grouse drumming. This was not "my" drummer. Instead, it was one of two birds I knew had drumming logs within a third of a mile or so of my location.

Nearing the blind, I could make out the shadowy form of a ruffed grouse in the gray light perched exactly where he was supposed to be on his drumming log a mere 15 feet from my blind.

A male ruffed grouse is drumming from his moss-covered log, mere 15 feet from the blind. There is still time to get out and listen for the unique drumming sound, one of Nature’s most fascinating audio courtship rituals in all the bird world. Photo by Bill Marchel
A male ruffed grouse is drumming from his moss-covered log, mere 15 feet from the blind. There is still time to get out and listen for the unique drumming sound, one of Nature’s most fascinating audio courtship rituals in all the bird world. Photo by Bill Marchel

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I paused, hoping the grouse would jump from and walk away from his stage instead of flying. Past experience has taught me grouse that take wing sometimes don't promptly return to their log, taking their time, or worse, skipping their morning display completely.

Much to my delight I watched his indistinct form slip from the log and wander off.

Related: Create a ruffed grouse drumming log

Once in the blind I situated my tripod and aimed my telephoto lens toward the drumming log through a port in the camouflage cover. As I began my vigil, I wasn't alone. In every direction the world was coming to life — sandhill cranes, Canada geese, mallards, wood ducks, various songbirds, all were announcing a new day.

Then it happened. Suddenly I heard a dull thud, thud, thud, and when I glanced through a portal in my blind, I spotted the ruffed grouse on its log going through a drumming sequence. I was thrilled. The light was still too low for photography, so I waited. And watched.

In between drumming sequences, the grouse would remain basically still as he surveyed his surroundings. Photo by Bill Marchel
In between drumming sequences, the grouse would remain basically still as he surveyed his surroundings. Photo by Bill Marchel

The gray-phase male displayed a courtship routine typical of other grouse I had observed. Moving to a precise spot on the log, the grouse would spread its feet slightly, apparently to stabilize itself. Then, leaning back on its partially fanned tail, the bird would begin drumming, the first wing beat or two being inaudible except for the rush of air. Then after a slight pause, the audible part of the sequence would commence with four drums of equal intensity. Another slight pause would follow — about a second — and then the grouse would continue by beating its wings slowly at first, then accelerating until they were just a blur.

At one point the grouse began to strut, although I failed to spot a female or competing male. Unfortunately, it was still too dark to photograph.

A strutting ruffed grouse is truly a splendor. Normally the forest bird is reclusive, its cryptic coloration allowing it to literally disappear into its environment. However, a strutting grouse is quite the contrary. With wings drooped, tail spread to its fullest, neck ruff erected and eye comb glowing orange, he is a spectacle to behold. Stomping a foot with each step and shaking his head, the bird strutted back and forth on its log.

Then the grouse jumped to the ground and strutted out of sight.

Related: Full circle: A ruffed grouse project

In just a few minutes he returned to his stage. Now I had sufficient light in which to photograph. The grouse would perform two or three drumming sequences and then walk off out of sight, only to return in a few minutes and repeat the routine. Each time he appeared I rapped off multiple images. As the light improved, much to my delight, he strutted from his moss-covered stage.

Drumming went on until about 8:30 a.m. at which point the grouse left and did not return.

As I collapsed my tripod, I reasoned it had been a good morning. I shot over 200 images, a few short videos, and had a front row seat to one of nature's greatest spectacles.

Related: Bill Marchel: When hunting turkeys, persistence pays

More about drumming grouse

The typical peak of ruffed grouse springtime drumming is usually the last two weeks in April. They do drum in May, and sometimes even June. Male grouse drum most often in early morning, sometimes during the day, and then again in the late afternoon. They even drum at night.

A drumming sequence consists of roughly 40-50 wing beats, but it is difficult to count because the wing beats are so speedy. After completing a drumming series, a male grouse will sit quietly for about four minutes and then repeat the routine.

The drumming of a ruffed grouse can be heard for up to a half mile under ideal conditions. Surprisingly at close range, the sound is not particularly loud. The incredible drumming sound is made as the bird strikes the air with its wings vigorously enough to create a brief vacuum, in effect causing a sonic boom.

Related: Bill Marchel: Sky Dance

BILL MARCHEL is a wildlife and outdoors photographer and writer whose work appears in many regional and national publications as well as the Brainerd Dispatch. He may be reached at bill@billmarchel.com. You also can visit his website at BillMARCHEL.com.