The air was still on the crisp April morning. I sat in a blind in a stand of young aspen trees, listening as the American Robins and Hairy Woodpeckers woke up. Then a deep “thump, thump, thump” reverberated through the woods, like an old motor sputtering to life. I focused my camera on the grouse, which had braced his tail on a mossy log while he beat the air with his wings. His drumming announced to his neighbors that this was his log, and his piece of the northern forest.
Since the day I picked up a camera and went off in search of wildlife, I’d always wanted to photograph a male Ruffed Grouse as he drummed away on an early spring morning. But I quickly learned this was easier said than done. Three springs came and went before I had a front row seat at the show. Along the way, I learned a few things that helped me get there. Let me share those with you.
First, to find a drumming log, go visit a woodland in early spring, just as the snow is disappearing but before the trees leaf out. Forest stands that have a lot of aspen trees are always a good place to start.
There are two ways to locate drumming logs. One is to walk through the woods and look for large logs lying on the ground. If you check enough of these in a good area, you will certainly find a few drumming logs. They will be the ones with piles of bird droppings on them. This also shows you where the bird typically sits, which can give you an idea of whether you will be able to get a clear shot at the log or not. Careful observation will also tell you which direction the grouse usually faces. Take notice which ones have the most droppings, as these are the ones that get used the most. This method works best if you already know there are Ruffed Grouse in the area.
Secondly, you can go to the woods early in the morning and listen for the grouse to drum. Wait a few minutes, as they often drum at about five-minute intervals. Once you hear one, quietly move that direction a short distance and wait to hear it again. Keep doing this until you are close. If the drumming stops, it likely means that the bird saw you, and you should start looking for a log. Also, the grouse may move to a different nearby log, so if it switches directions, take notice. Search the nearby area until you find its primary drumming log. Realize that the drumming sound carries a long way, and the bird will often be a lot farther away than it initially sounded. I have tracked them as far as a quarter mile.
Once you find a drumming log that you like, it is time to get set up. I like to do this in the middle of the afternoon when the bird is less likely to be there, so I don’t disturb it. What I used for a blind was just a simple 4’ x 12’ sheet of camouflage fabric fastened between a few trees. A small hole in it allowed me to poke my camera out the front. I set up a short distance from the log in the direction I thought the grouse would face, making sure I had a clear shot at the log.
When I started trying to photograph grouse drumming, my biggest problem was that the grouse would leave when I arrived, and drum on a different log a short distance away. It wasn’t until I was doing some work with remote cameras that I noticed something. The grouse would leave when I came to set my camera up, but a few minutes after I left, the grouse would always return.
So I tried an experiment. I had a friend walk me into the blind. The grouse left, as expected, but as soon as I was set up, my friend left, and I sat quietly. The grouse, hearing him leave, returned within a couple minutes. This worked almost without fail. I also had my friend come back out when I was ready to leave so the grouse would remain unaware that I was there.
Spring is just around the corner, and I can almost hear the Ruffed Grouse drumming. It’s time to get ready.