Tuesday 4 April 2017

The Famous Black Grouse 3rd April 2017

Five o'clock on a Monday morning found me, in total darkness, in an area of upland heather moorland bordered by conifers that was situated at the northern end of the Berwyn Mountains in North Wales. I was parked in a tiny recess off a road, just wide enough for one car, that traverses the moorland from south to north. Leaving my home in Oxfordshire some three hours earlier the night had been cold and the sky star studded, and now at a considerably higher elevation the stars and the cold air had both taken on an increased intensity.

I was slightly early for what I had in mind but there was no harm in that as it would be better to be early than late. I turned the car lights and engine off and settled down to wait for the dawn to arrive. The darkness was all enveloping as there was no light pollution here and in a curious way the strangeness of my situation was both romantic yet a little unsettling, although I knew the dawn was but less than one hour away.

I lowered the car window and the cold night wind entered from the moor, banishing the warm soporific atmosphere of the car's interior. I put on gloves and a scarf, for I needed to keep the window open as I would hear the birds I had come to view long before I could see them.

Although it was pitch dark I could sense the presence of a vast tract of moorland sweeping away to the west, currently invisible but definitely making its presence known as the distant night sounds of stirring wildlife came from afar across the moor. Nearer there was the constant sound of a small stream trickling over its rocky bed of stones.

At nineteen minutes past five I heard them, albeit distantly but there was no doubt. Soft and insistent, a rapid, disembodied bubbling and cooing sound, rising and falling in intensity and coming from the moor. To my left on the other side of the car the moorland rose higher, up to a ridge, now becoming a definite outline as the sky in the east, beyond the ridge, slowly lightened into a gash of silver grey. Red Grouse were now awake and calling, their insistent 'go beck go beck' call was followed by a stutter of grumbling notes before falling silent. A Curlew's wild calls came to me out of the night and I followed the sounds of a female Mallard that quacked and complained as she flew invisibly in the darkness harassed by two drakes, identified by their quieter, subdued quacking. It was beginning to happen as I had planned but it could still go wrong and I was nervous and on edge.

Nick had given me precise instructions where to park on the moor and I hoped that I had found the right place. The road was so narrow it would be impossible to turn round in the dark for fear of the car ending up in one of the ditches on either side of the road. I just hoped I had not made an error and misunderstood his directions by driving too far along the moorland road.

Ten minutes later, still in darkness there was an audible rush of many wings beating the air as a number of large, heavy birds landed in close proximity to the car. There was now no doubting that I had got the right place.

The Black Grouse had arrived on their lek and by the sound of it the males were wasting no time in getting on with their displaying and jousting. Although the birds were invisible to me in the darkness, they could plainly see each other as the bubbling and cooing, officially called rookooing, began immediately and sounded fairly adjacent to the open car window. There was also a strange wheezing, hissing noise coming from the birds, like air that was being sucked through one's closed teeth. Frustrated, my eyes tried to penetrate the dark but it was no use, I would just have to be patient and wait for the dawn light to reveal all.

The dawn slowly rose and the night's darkness dissolved into a dull half light that allowed me to look out with my binoculars. I could just about discern the shadowy, dark, bulky forms of the grouse moving about on the ground but the most obvious feature were large white patches, also betraying the bird's presence, and which I realised were the ruffed, fluffed out under-tail coverts of the grouse and were the only feature of their plumage properly discernible.

The dawn sky above the ridge was now changing into a margarita shade of pink and orange, colouring the eastern sky with increasing intensity as the sun slowly rose below the ridge. It would be another half an hour before it cleared the ridge but it promised a fine morning.

I relaxed and as the light rapidly improved so the Black Grouse became recognisable and I could see them clearly. Their lek was an area of rough moorland grass, with wet patches and tracks of bare stony shale situated on a gently rising bank not far from the side of the road. 

The Black Grouse lek was in the area of orange grass beyond the white post
I counted the males many times over and from an initial ten finally managed a count of eighteen which was certainly a spectacular and welcome sight. The grouse were dispersed over an area of about one hundred metres square. At first the lek just seemed a confusion of male birds parading about at random but on closer inspection it was apparent that each bird had its own small, defined area within the lek which it defended against all others, with some close to the road and others more distant on the bank. Pairs of males were jousting with each other on the borders of their individual territories, their plumage puffed up and swollen, their fanned tails erect with the prominent white under-tail coverts looking like some giant powder puff. 

With wings held out and down at their sides they each tried to make themselves look as imposing and impressive as possible. Strutting about and facing off against each other they would bluster and posture but rarely came into a full conflict. Any conflict that did come was when one bird encroached on another's territory, trying to bully and test the resolve of its neighbour. In all the cases that I saw the intruder was rebuffed.  

Mind you, when the posturing and bluffing failed and one bird trespassed on another's patch they would not hesitate to fight, mutually flying into the attack with testosterone fuelled gusto, viciously pecking with their bills and buffeting each other with open wings but it was all fairly innocuous, no visible harm was done to either protagonist and eventually they would separate.

I saw two grey brown females visiting the lek early in the proceedings and they certainly did not remain long but whilst they were present, whichever of the males private arenas they entered resulted in that particular male and those near to it going into an increased frenzy of posing and strutting. The two females, presumably having each mated with their male of choice, then flew off back to the distant conifers as if shunning any further close attention from the males, leaving them to carry on strutting about in anticipation of other females coming to the lek. I did see one more female that arrived very late, almost at the time the lek ceased and others may have come in the meantime un noticed by me.

Once the two original females had departed the males carried on displaying and posturing with varying intensity. They would inflate their breast, holding neck and head outwards, parallel with the ground, and with wings drooped to the ground and tail erect, walk with short mincing steps along the ground, cooing and bubbling. The wheezing came when they half opened and rapidly flapped their wings and rose a foot or so from the ground as if to make themselves look the more impressive to their rivals or any female present.

This is one of the few areas remaining in Britain where it is possible to easily observe lekking Black Grouse without causing them disturbance, as one can observe them from a car parked on a quiet road. It was truly magical watching them. A genuine privilege, knowing how endangered they are and how delicate the balance is here between the potential for them to be overly disturbed or to perform without undue disturbance. The rule is never to leave one's car while they are present and that thankfully is what everyone in the  few other cars present were aware of, so the message seems to have got through. 

Black Grouse are found right across Europe from Britain through Scandinavia and into Russia. In eastern Europe they can be found in Hungary, Estonia, Latvia. Lithuania. Poland, Belarus. Romania and Ukraine. They can also be found in the Alps and small isolated populations are found in Germany, France, Belgium and the Netherlands. It became extinct in Denmark in 2001 and generally throughout its range in western Europe it is declining due to habitat loss, disturbance, hunting and with small populations becoming increasingly isolated and eventually dying out. Although it is declining in western Europe it is not considered vulnerable globally as the world population is estimated at 15-40 million individuals.

In Britain it is found in upland areas of Wales, the Pennines and most of Scotland but there are now thought to be no more than five thousand males left in the whole of Britain. They used to be widespread throughout England but have declined greatly and disappeared from former haunts in Lancashire, Derbyshire, Exmoor. East Yorkshire, the New Forest, Nottinghamshire. Worcestershire, Cornwall. Dartmoor, Kent, Wiltshire and Surrey. The RSPB are taking active measures to preserve those populations left in Britain as well as supporting re-introduction programmes such as one started in 2003 in the Peak District of England.

Such a spectacular bird has inevitably come to the notice of man and although not now hunted in Britain, the tails are still used by the Army in the ceremonial dress of the Royal Regiment of Scotland, formerly the Royal Scots and Kings Own Scottish Borderers. One would like to assume that the tails come from less threatened populations than those in Britain and that maybe in some enlightened moment it might even be considered to use artificial tails rather than the real thing. There is also a whisky called The Famous Grouse produced by Matthew Gloag and Sons of Perth in Scotland, which features an image of a Red Grouse on its label and in the last couple of years the distillery have also produced a smoky flavoured whisky called  The Black Grouse, showing an image of the male bird on the bottle's label.

I lost track of time but the sun had by now slowly crept across the moorland and the birds were illuminated so that their black plumage, glossed midnight blue, took on a greener sheen. Their appearance is truly beautiful with the iridescent blue or green contrasting with the  prominent red wattles, inflated like two huge eyebrows, on their head. The tail when fanned and held erect is lyre shaped as the outer tail feathers are contoured outwards and the white undertail coverts are puffed up into a huge white frilly bouffant, somewhat like the garment a ballerina sometimes wears beneath her tutu.

The wings are dark brown, each with a large white wing  bar and in display are drooped almost to the ground. The underside of their wings is pure white and comes as a surprise when they flap their wings. The sum effect of the posturing and plumage is designed to make the bird look as large and impressive to its rivals and any female as possible. It also had a similar effect on me!

A serious fight broke out between two males with both birds refusing to back down, flying at each other and then standing apart as if to regain their strength before one or the other resumed the fray and to which the other would join in with equal animation,  but eventually they broke it off  and postured their way to seek a face off with another male.

The cooing and wheezing was a constant accompaniment during the whole time the birds were present and displaying but as if on a pre-arranged signal it all went absolutely quiet, the males sleeked down their plumage and then seconds later all flew off at high speed, leaving just one isolated male who looked totally confused, until he too furled his tail feathers and departed into the distance on whirring wings.

It was seven forty in the morning

The lek was over for today so I drove along the rest of the road, winding up and down through the moorland to see if I could find any other notable birds.

The road across the moorland
It was a beautiful early morning with a clear sky, bright sunshine and a bitingly cold wind coming from the east. The moorland is meant to be a good area for raptors but in an hour I could only find a Peregrine, labouring in heavy flight, low across the heather, carrying what looked to be a dead rabbit or a large brown bird. Two Greylag Geese far out on the moor were an unlikely find but as was to be expected Meadow Pipits were everywhere amongst the heather and moorland grasses, together with Skylarks. A male Northern Wheatear had found some sheep cropped grass to feed on by a collapsed drystone wall and male European Stonechats were sitting like colourful sentinels on the tops of heather clumps by the road. I even managed to find another Black Grouse lek of two or three males, these birds carrying on long after the other lek had ceased.

A brief glimpse of a Ring Ouzel by the roadside brought the morning to a very satisfactory end.

Many thanks to Nick for his directions

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