WDFW home
Buy license
Hunting highlights – June 2024
Monthly recreation opportunities by region

Spring survey for Sooty Grouse 

By Sarah Garrison/WDFW

Hours before dawn, biologists across western Washington are turning off their alarms, layering up against the predawn chill, and drinking their coffee on the road, heading out to the woods to listen for the hooting call of sooty grouse. Sooty and dusky grouse, both formerly known as blue grouse, occur in mountainous regions of the western US. Dusky grouse tend to occupy the interior while sooty grouse occur in the more coastal zones. In Washington, this means dusky grouse are generally east of the Cascade Crest and sooty grouse are west, though their ranges overlap. Sooty grouse are the third largest grouse species in the US and second largest in Washington (the greater sage grouse holds the title for largest).

Sunrise during a sooty grouse survey on Weyerhaeuser’s Vail Tree Farm. Thank you to Weyerhaeuser for allowing access for these surveys. (Michelle Tirhi/WDFW)

Community science data like the Breeding Bird Survey suggest that sooty grouse populations are declining. Sooty grouse rely on conifer forests through the winter, where they can survive on conifer needles for food. They’ll use more open areas, forest edges, and mixed forest types through the rest of the year for breeding and rearing their young, known as broods. Historically, sooty grouse occurred as low as sea level, but as human development took over the lowlands of western Washington, they became more restricted to higher elevations. Today, the extensive forests of the Olympics, Cascades, Willapa Hills, and other ranges support robust populations of sooty grouse. While this is not a species of conservation concern, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife is monitoring this species to ensure that it stays that way.

The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife began monitoring sooty grouse several years ago. They worked with Oregon State University to develop a survey protocol that follows an approach used for many other bird species: listening for calls of males during breeding season. In April and May, male sooty grouse will call from high up in mature conifer trees, trying to attract and impress females. Their call is a series of low hoots (listen here: Sooty Grouse Sounds, All About Birds, Cornell Lab of Ornithology), similar to an owl. While hooting or when a female is near, they put on a dramatic display by puffing up their feathers, fanning out their tails, and showing off bright yellow-orange air sacs on their necks and yellow skin above their eyes. In 2023, WDFW adopted Oregon’s survey protocol to assess population trend at the state level and to join Oregon in standardized regional monitoring.

Throughout the Olympics, the northern Puget Sound, and southwest Washington, WDFW biologists listen for hooting from before dawn through the early morning, when sooty grouse males are most likely to be hooting. For three minutes at each stop along established routes, biologists strain to hear the low hoots through the cacophony of morning forest activity from woodpeckers, red squirrels, robins, and other raucous forest creatures. Biologists collect information about habitat and weather conditions, noise interference, and other factors that might influence the number of grouse heard at each stop.

Outdoor enthusiasts can appreciate the call of the sooty grouse by listening carefully in the spring throughout western Washington forests. Early morning is best, and mature conifer forest will be the most likely places to hear these birds. During the peak hooting period of April and May, take a moment to silence any human-caused sounds and listen to the songs of the forest community. If you hear a hoot, you might even be lucky enough to spot a displaying male. Keep an eye out for the abundant wildflowers in bloom, from trilliums to salmonberries to the Pacific dogwood. As any hunter knows, even if you don’t detect your quarry, there is great joy to be had in the time spent searching.

A sooty grouse displaying from the upper branches of a Douglas fir tree. Look for the ring of white feathers surrounding the orange air sac on his neck. (Sarah Garrison/WDFW)

Seen through binoculars, a male sooty grouse puts on a display during the breeding season by puffing up his feathers and fanning out his tail. (Carly Wickhem/WDFW)

Surveying for sooty grouse at higher elevation with spring snow. (Sarah Garrison/WDFW)

Wildflowers blooming in sooty grouse habitat during the breeding season include trillium (left), Pacific dogwood (center), and salmonberry (right). (Sarah Garrison/WDFW)

Previous hunting highlights
Buy License