Last updated: October 9, 2015
Most mother birds are protective creatures. Their young are their first priority and the mothers don’t appreciate intruders. The Klondike Gold Rush natural resources team received confirmation of this recently.
The mission for the day was to retrieve a bat detector placed a little off-trail. As we hiked along the trail, talking and making a good amount of noise to ensure any animals would hear us and most likely flee, we came around a small bend while going down a large boulder. I jumped back at what we had stumbled upon and chaos ensued. Flapping its wings, hissing aggressively and mock charging us, a mother grouse was incensed. We had unknowingly came upon a foraging grouse and her chicks. After collecting ourselves and snapping a few pictures, we took a detour around the little family.
Once we returned to the office I immediately looked at the pictures taken of the grouse and tried to identify it. Using an identification book it took only a few minutes to confirm it was a blue grouse (Dendragapus obscurus). As I typed it into my computer, I realized I had never heard of a ‘blue grouse’ in the Skagway area. Digging deeper, I tried another identification guide. It turns out that Dendragapus contains two species, D. obscurus (the dusky grouse) and D. fuliginosis (the sooty grouse). They are often grouped into one taxon. They were originally considered two species, then one species with regional variation, and finally were resplit into different species after DNA analysis in 2006 confirmed their genetic dissimilarities.
There are some obvious coloring differences between the males of each species. The dusky grouse has a bright red apteria with a large yellow patch above the eye. The sooty grouse, the species we came across on the trail, has a yellow apteria and a darker yellow patch above the eye. The apteria is the space between feathers and in the case of Dendragapus, an area of apteria is particularly large as part of the mating display the males put on for females.
Both species are found in the American West. D. obscurus is typically found in the Rockies and slightly inland, from Colorado and Utah primarily to the Yukon and the North West Territories. D. fuliginosis is found on the Pacific coast from northern California to southern Yukon.
The sooty grouse encounter was startling, but an excellent lesson. Taxonomy is one way in which science is constantly evolving and changing with new discoveries. My internship time here at KLGO is constantly changing in scope and expanding my knowledge of both local resources and wider national policies and protocols on natural resources.