To Photograph a Drumming Grouse

by Kevin Shank | May 1, 2024 | 0 comments

male Ruffed Grouse drumming
Ruffed Grouse drumming. Photo © Allen Shank.

— Allen’s Story —

Thump- thump- thump b-b -d-d-d-d-D-D-D-D-d-d-d-d-d. I sat upright in my chair. There on the log it was, a beautiful Ruffed Grouse.

About a month earlier, I was walking through our woods between the house and greenhouse, when I suddenly heard a grouse drumming very close to me. I turned around, and there, about 20 yards/meters away, was a grouse sitting on a log.

After that discovery, my brother Darren quickly tried to get some photos of the drumming grouse for a photo contest he was about to enter. After he had gotten some nice photos, it was my turn. The next suitable morning found me out before it was light. I got into a blind I had set up the night before. I already had my chair and tripod set up, so all I had to do was put my camera on the tripod and wait. My brother had noticed that usually the grouse would go to another log first, and then come to this log later in the morning. So I kept an eye out for him to show up, but didn’t really expect to see him for a while. I looked all around, but there was no grouse. I leaned back in my chair.

Thump- thump- thump b-b -d-d-d-d-D-D-D-D-d-d-d-d-d. I sat up and peered out the window. The grouse WAS there. I composed the camera on the bird and waited. Soon it drummed again, and I got my first photos.

After drumming, the grouse would look all around for a few minutes, and then preen before drumming again. This routine went on for several hours, and I got photo after photo. Some of the photos had sunlight; some did not. Some had a motion blur on the wings, and some did not. Some were of him preening, grooming his feathers. Others were of him watching the forest, perhaps looking for a female. The photo opportunities he gave me were splendid. Finally, after I had filed the camera’s memory card full of photos, the bird flew away, and I could head in for school.

Ruffed Grouse on log
Ruffed Grouse. Photo © Allen Shank.

— Darren’s Story —

Click-click-click-Brrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr. The Ruffed Grouse on the log in front of me was drumming, and my camera was humming. It was 7:44 a.m. on May 2, 2014, and I was sitting in a photo blind about 20 feet (6 m) from a grouse’s drumming log. I was planning to submit some photos to a contest soon, so with this unique opportunity so close home, I decided it was time to try to capture some photos.

If you have never heard a ruffed grouse drumming, you are missing out on an interesting bird behavior. A male grouse drums by sitting on a log, bracing with his tail, and then beating the air with his wings in an effort to attract a female. The drumming begins with several single thumping beats with the wings, then rises into a rapid-fire crescendo before tapering off. From a distance, it sounds like someone trying to start a motor.

The first morning I tried was almost a complete failure. My first mistake was not setting the blind up the evening before. Consequently, I wasted half an hour of the morning setting up. The second mistake was not getting out early enough. It would have been ideal to have been in the blind fifteen minutes before daylight, but it was more like forty-five minutes after first light before I was settled in. Then it started to rain.

I tried two or three other mornings, but, due to various reasons, I either left before the bird came or else spooked it while I was walking in. Finally on May 2, I was able to slip in early. Although I was ready by daylight, the grouse had already begun to drum. Thankfully he was at one of his other nearby logs, and I hadn’t spooked him. After waiting in the blind for a while, I dozed off.

Thump- thump- thump b-b -d-d-d-d-D-D-D-D-d-d-d-d-d. I snapped awake and slowly sat up in my chair. Sure enough, there he was right in front of me. After ten minutes or so, he did it again, and I caught my first shots of a drumming grouse. My first shot was at 7:44, and I shot ninety-five photos before it flew away at 9:00.

Although my shots from that day were relatively successful, the grouse had sat on the log where I was not expecting it, and there was a small mountain laurel bush right between me and the bird. Later that morning, I did a little pruning and moved the blind to a better angle in preparation for the next sunny morning.

Ruffed Grouse drumming on log
Ruffed Grouse. Photo © Darren Shank.

Shortly after 5:00 a.m. on May 5, I rolled out of bed and soon headed for the blind. Before long the grouse started up on one of his other nearby logs. I settled back in my chair to wait. Around 7:20 he started drumming on the log in front of me. This time he posed beautifully on the log with no obstacles blocking my view. Over the next two hours, I was able to capture many photos as he put on quite a show.

Another highlight of this morning was when a Tufted Titmouse flew through the blind window and landed on my arm. After sitting for a little, it flew on.

Finally, around 9:15 a.m., the grouse walked up the log to within 10 feet (3 m) of me before flying off to the top of a tree.

Ruffed Grouse drumming
Ruffed Grouse drumming. Photo © Darren Shank.

— Kevin’s Summary —

Photos of a Ruffed Grouse drumming on a log by photographer Leonard Lee Rue, III intrigued me from the first time I saw them. I once met Mr. Rue and asked him about how he captured those photos. One tip I learned was that grouse return to the same logs to drum. Once you find a log, you can set up a blind and wait for the bird to return. To find a log, begin by listening for the birds, and move in its direction. To identify the specific log, look for grouse droppings on logs. When you find those, you can expect the bird to come back to that exact spot.

It has probably been nearly thirty years since my chat with Mr. Rue, but I’ve still never photographed a drumming grouse. In fact, I’ve rarely known where a drumming log was, and the few times I did, I never returned and set up a blind. This spring the boys beat me to it. So, I asked them to tell their stories for this lesson.

One difference between Mr. Rue’s photos and those my sons took, was Mr. Rue photographed with film rather than digitally. Quality color film notoriously had a low (slow) ISO rating. Using available daylight and slow film would result in shutter speeds slow enough that there would be more blurring of the grouse than desirable. To get good lighting and stop movement of the grouse on the photos I saw, Mr. Rue used a flash, and balanced it with the daylight.

Darren and Allen, however, used a digital camera. The Canon 1D Mark IV they used enabled them to capture quality photos while using an ISO speed of 1000 or 1250. This high (fast) ISO enabled the boys to photograph without needing a fill flash. Early morning light provided warmth to some of their photos, complete with a glint in the eye.

A successful photo needs sharp focus on the eye. However, blur in the wings shows action, and that can add a nice dimension. After all, grouse wings are just a blur when they are actually drumming.

By setting the camera on “aperture priority” mode, the boys could choose to shoot using a wide open aperture. This allowed the camera to fire at the fastest shutter speed within the confines of the lens aperture ability and the available daylight. We prefer this setting over “shutter priority,” as the latter allows the selection of a shutter speed faster than the ability of the lens in any given lighting situation.

Of course, patience is a valuable ingredient. And did I mention a tripod? Always use a tripod when you can, to achieve the best possible focus.

Maybe next spring my turn will come.

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