A new documentary airing next week showcases the lives of sage grouse and what they face to survive in sagebrush ecosystems. (Courtesy Gerrit Vyn)

The bird moved and Jeff Hogan sucked in his breath. He relaxed in the blind, keeping his eyes on the hen, settling back in for more hours and days of waiting and watching.

For a week, the Jackson-based cinematographer arrived in the sagebrush before the sun rose over the horizon. He left 14 hours later, finding his way to his car in the dark.

Every two hours, the bird turned an egg. It repositioned itself when the morning grew hot, or the wind kicked up dust. Hogan watched and waited, knowing that when sage grouse eggs hatch, the family leaves the nest within hours. If he closed his eyes, he might open them only to find the nest abandoned and his hours of waiting wasted.

The greater sage grouse is under consideration for protection under the Endangered Species Act. (Courtesy Gerrit Vyn)

He kept his camera poised, ready to capture an important and seldom seen part in the life cycle of sage grouse. That footage is part of a new documentary airing at 7 p.m. May 20 on Wyoming PBS as part of PBS’ Nature series.

“The Sagebrush Sea,” a film created by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, explains the story and struggle of the greater sage grouse, a bird surrounded by controversy as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service decides in September if it warrants endangered species protections. Such a designation could impact future development in Wyoming, one of several Western states where the bird is found. The documentary, filmed almost entirely in Wyoming, isn’t meant to be political, said Marc Dantzker who produced and directed the film. It is simply the story of the bird, its life and what it needs to survive.

Marc Dantzker walks across the sagebrush plain while working on a documentary about greater sage grouse. (Courtesy Gerrit Vyn)

“It was really what was happening in the nesting grounds and the wintering grounds where the conservation story needed to be told,” Dantzker said. “And to tell that well, we really need to explain the space.”

That meant following the birds for a year to show the distances they travel and the perils — both natural and and manmade — they face along the journey.

Early on, it became clear that the “big empty,” as the thousands of acres of the sagebrush ecosystem are sometimes called, is animated, alive and ever changing. It is filled with animals, insects and plants which form the habitat on which sage grouse depend.

An adult male mountain bluebird (Sialia currucoides) at the nest cavity in Sublette County, Wyoming in June. The sagebrush ecosystem and species like the mountain bluebird that call it home are important characters in a new film about sage grouse. (Courtesy Gerrit Vyn)

“We wanted to dispel this concept that it’s empty,” Dantzker said. “It’s really a full ecosystem with so much going on. We wanted to take the landscape and make it real for people and have them understand it’s not empty except for this fancy chicken strutting in the way of development.”

Dantzker, one of the principle filmmakers along with Gerrit Vyn and Eric Liner, spent months at a time in the field for more than two years. They captured the classic shots of the birds strutting at leks during breeding season, using remote cameras with “ridiculously long lenses” to avoid disturbing the important mating ritual. But they wanted to go beyond the colorful dance.

Filmmakers used blinds to gain close access to sage grouse during production of The Sagebrush Sea documentary. (Courtesy Gerrit Vyn)

“Everyone films the males doing their thing, but then they are done,” Dantzker said. “The story is really the story of the females.”

Once sage grouse mate, the females are on their own to protect the eggs and then the young birds. Hens lead their young across the ecosystem, dodging predators, foraging for food and avoiding development and infrastructure. The filmmakers learned how the resources the birds require change with the seasons and how hard it is for young to survive.

An adult male greater sage grouse (centrocercus urophasianus) struts on a lek in Fremont County, Wyoming in April. The birds make a unique drumming sound as part of their mating display. (Courtesy Gerrit Vyn)

Dantzker studied sage grouse and their use of sound in sexual selection and evolution about 20 years ago as part of his doctoral research. Despite his familiarity with the birds, working on the documentary changed him.

“My world just radically expanded because I only knew sage grouse on the lek,” he said. “I had never seen the sagebrush bloom. I had never sat there for so long.”

Dantzker wanted people to appreciate sage grouse and understand the importance of the ecosystem. That meant showing the often unseen but important moments, like eggs hatching.

Hogan abandoned his post watching the sage grouse nest only a few times when lightning exploded nearby.

“I really saw what it takes for them to make a living in this landscape,” he said. “You kind of get the essence of the nature of what she’s up against.”

Gerrit Vyn, principle videographer (left), and producer Marc Dantzker, ride with assistant Jamie Drysdale while working on the film The Sagebrush Sea. (Courtesy Gerrit Vyn)

He’d leave once it was too dark to film and hope the young wouldn’t emerge in the night.

For a week, he perked up every time the bird shifted on the nest. Then, on the sixth or seventh day, a chick suddenly poked up its head.

It was dark, almost too dark to shoot. But he caught it, hoping the hen would wait for morning to lead its young from the nest. When Hogan returned before sunrise the next day, the bird was still there. It got up as light spread across the sagebrush, exposing the broken egg shells underneath. The chicks tipped over and fell out of the nest. They poked at the ground to feed. Hogan filmed as the chicks trailed behind the mother and followed her into the sagebrush.

Immediately following the premier, Wyoming producer Craig Blumenshine will host a live call-in discussion, “Wyoming Perspectives: Sage Grouse in Wyoming,” with panelists including Dantzker, Vyn, Tom Christiansen the Sage Grouse Program Coordinator with Wyoming Game and Fish and Dr. Gail Patricelli from the University of California who conducted sage grouse research in central Wyoming. They will discuss sage grouse conservation efforts in Wyoming. To ask questions during the program, call 800-495-9788 or email questions in advance to grouse@wyomingpbs.org.

Free public screenings for The Sagebrush Sea:

Location: Jackson – Center for the Arts – 265 S. Cache St.
Date: Monday, May 18, 2015
Time: 7-8:30 p.m.
Lobby will be open at 5:30 pm until show time. Food and beverages will be available for purchase.

Location: Pinedale – Pinedale High School – 101 Hennick St.
Date: Tuesday, May 19, 2015
Time: 10:50-11:50a.m.

Location: Lander – Lander Library, Carnegie Room – 200 Amoretti St.
Date: Tuesday, May 19, 2015
Time: 7-8:30p.m.

Kelsey Dayton

Kelsey Dayton is a freelancer and the editor of Outdoors Unlimited, the magazine of the Outdoor Writers Association of America. She has worked as a reporter for the Gillette News-Record, Jackson Hole News&Guide...

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