There aren’t many places in Wisconsin where the sharp-tailed grouse still dances. The birds once performed their extravagant courtship rituals across much of the state, but these days are only found in a few distant patches that meet their specific habitat needs.
One of those places is the Namekagon Barrens Wildlife Management Area in the northern reaches of the St. Croix River watershed. A coalition of public agencies and nonprofits just helped push the Barrens’ north unit past an important threshold by purchasing 1,400 acres from the Lyme Timber Company.
“All of the research we’ve had over many years is that you need at least 5,000 contiguous acres of pine-oak barren habitat for sharp-tailed grouse,” says Nancy Christel, Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources Wildlife Biologist. “Up until this donation, we have not had that amount of land.”
The sharptails’ specific needs also provide a goal that is useful for managing many special species that call the globally-rare habitat home. Christel lists other inhabitants of the Barrens: upland sandpipers; vesper, savanna, field, and other sparrows; and wolves, bears and fox. All told, 121 bird species have been seen in the area.
Failed frontier farmers
The Barrens are a desolate place by human standards. Covered mostly in scrubby trees growing in sandy soil, they are pockmarked by signs of unsuccessful human habitation. Along St. Croix Trail, a sign stands by the crumbling foundation of a one-room schoolhouse. Down an unmarked logging road on neighboring county forest land sits a circle of cement, a century-old silo the only sign of a brief attempt by settlers to make the land support their crops and families.
At first, the DNR’s Christel says immigrants “thought it was a great place to farm. They built a school, farmed a few years, then hightailed it out of there and said it was the worst idea.”
The only people that remain from those times are the three dozen souls buried in a cemetery on its southern edge. Visitors today are left to wonder, who were the hardy humans who called this inhospitable place “home” long enough to choose it for their eternal residence? (A new granite marker will be dedicated at the cemetery on June 28th.)
Today the barrens are mostly left to the grouse, loggers working county land, hunters and dog-trainers, and wildlife-watchers who come but do not often remain much past sunrise.
“It’s one of those places that people don’t just accidentally come upon. People want to go there,” says Christel.
This remote and quiet landscape is a big draw for about a month every spring. That’s when the sharptails do their dance at dawn, and bird enthusiasts from around the nation flock here to viewing blinds.
“I run into people who come from all over the country to see both sandpipers and sharp-tailed grouse. One guy from Florida spent two weeks out there photographing,” Christel says.
Ritual of spring
Starting at about sunrise each day between mid-April and mid-May, the sharptails gather in groups on dancing grounds (or “mating arenas”) called leks. Grouse come back to the same lek year after year – as long as the habitat remains suitable.
As the sun rises above the horizon far across the wide open landscape of low brush and scattered pines and oaks, the males perform in hopes of impressing a mate. Their movements and sounds are like nothing else in the wild kingdom. The grouse flatten their wings and stick up their tails and puff out purple air sacs in their neck. They fight, jumping and pecking and kicking. They cluck and chirp and coo.
Ultimately, the ritual produces the next generation of sharptails, the same way it’s happened for thousands of years. We’ll never know what they would think if they knew humans traveled hundreds of miles, woke in the dark, and sat in cramped tents to watch them do it.
The upper reaches of the St. Croix are not far to the west of the barrens, the Totogatic River (a designated Wisconsin wild river) flows along the southeast edge, and the Namekagon River (part of the Saint Croix National Scenic Riverway) sits to the south.
Managing the barrens carefully can help those rivers because native vegetation typically has deep root systems to extract water from the sandy soil. These roots also hold the soil in place, preventing too much sediment from getting into surface water.
The newly-acquired land is largely planted with red pines right now. It will eventually be restored to barrens habitat, ideal for sharptails, sandpipers and other creatures that thrive where humans do not.
“These species want open landscape with pockets of pine scattered throughout. When we work on converting this new property, we’ll leave some of those pockets,” Christel says.
When complete, the sharptails will have a little more room to dance like nobody is watching.
The Conservation Fund led efforts to secure funding for the purchase, which was provided by:
- Knowles Nelson Stewardship Fund ($528,408)
- Walmart’s Acres for America ($500,000)
- McKnight Foundation, Four Cedars Foundation, Lux Foundation, and River Croix Fund via the St. Croix Valley Foundation ($30,454)
- Friends of the Namekagon Barrens Wildlife Area
- Wisconsin Sharp-tailed Grouse Society
You can reserve a viewing blind to watch the sharptails do their dance, and find other information, at the Friends of the Namekagon Barrens’ website.