Out and About

Walking in sagebrush country is a great way to exercise, and the wildlife of this stark desert never ceases to surprise

By Rob Breeding

My search for birds began last week. I was looking for chukar in open sagebrush country near the Wyoming border.

The search involved a lot of walking, but few birds. That’s OK. Walking in sagebrush country is a great way to exercise. The sagebrush sea can seem barren and featureless from the highway, but when you start out across pronghorn habitat on foot you soon realize the folded, textured country is anything but flat.

Hidden draws hold water, or at least signs of water in the recent past. The places where there’s moisture sometimes become archipelagos of cottonwood.

And the wildlife of this stark desert never ceases to surprise. The other day it was passing sandhill cranes headed south. The birds were up high, and I heard them long before I picked them out of the sky. That call — suggesting some kind of mythical beast, maybe purring dragons — must carry vast distances. I’ve spent more time fruitlessly scanning the horizon for sandhills than any other bird.

It’s sometimes hard to pick out the black specks. I hear them, squint and look overhead, give up and get back to what I’m doing (hunting chukar). But I can’t resist that dragon purr, and after a moment, I’m looking up again.

That’s how it is with cranes. I can’t get them out of my head until I’ve marked their place in the sky.

I occasionally catch chukar out in flat country, but no one hunts the flat stuff. I see birds sometimes when I cross a valley to get from one hillside to another, or when I motor across a broad plain in my pickup. That’s when I usually catch them in the flats, out ahead of my pickup on a two-track somewhere, peeling off into the weeds.

There are three keys to chukar: water, sage and rimrock. The water part is obvious. In the hottest months they may need it twice a day. Sage means food. It’s not the sage they’re eating, but instead the understory of forbs and cheatgrass.

Rimrock is what makes chukar hunting so tough. If there was a track meet pitting North American game birds in a sprint, introduced chukar might break the tape. It would certainly be a close race with pheasant, also a Eurasian species. The only North American native likely to finish in the money would be scaled quail.

Chukar stay close to rimrock, and when danger threatens, they motate uphill with impressive pace. They gain elevation on predators and then fly down to safety. I’ve had my best luck hunting them from above as it seems to befuddle their “run up, fly down” mojo, but that’s not always possible.

We finally found birds the other day after driving miles up a long canyon. I stopped the truck at an inviting spot where the road curved past a small sagebrush flat, which was just the ground floor. Above a sandy, eroded hill, I could see another bench, a sage-covered second story. Above that was rimrock decorated with scraggly limber pine.

I got out of the truck for what I thought would be just a quick walk. Once we started out, however, we heard birds up on the second story bench.

My setter Doll and I made eye contact, and then the birds called again, and she set out ahead trying to catch up. The last I heard of the birds they were chucking it up in a narrow, tree-lined crack in the rimrock. By the time we made it to the top, the birds were long gone.

You get used to that with chukar.

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