Sunday 8 April 2018

The Black Grouse of The Berwyn Mountains 5th April 2018

Every April I make the effort to go and see Black Grouse at their lek in the Berwyn Mountains of Wales.This year I was a couple of days later than usual due to Easter coming early and the awful weather but Thursday was forecast to be sunny so I seized the opportunity and on Wednesday evening prepared for the three hour trip to the Berwyn Mountains in the early hours of Thursday.

To view the Black Grouse lekking you must be in position well before dawn and must never, ever, on any account leave your car once in position as the birds will fly away, it is illegal to disturb them in this way and you will certainly not be popular with any other birders present who have also come to see them.

Inevitably this particular lek has become widely known and very popular, as it is one of only a few where you can view the lek from a car parked at the roadside.The lek is completely unprotected and the whole area is free to the public to roam at will  so the risk of disturbance is high and increasing but for now everyone seems capable of either adhering to the 'stay in the car' mantra or keeping away from the lekking area, although the number of parked cars around the lek is beginning to cause problems on what is a very narrow single track road. With this in mind I determined that I would get in position well before dawn and hopefully before anyone else, thus securing prime spot to view the lekking Black Grouse.

This entailed leaving my home in Oxfordshire at one thirty in the morning and making the three hour journey in the dead of night. I do not mind driving at night as there is little traffic around and with the radio playing something light and  classical I feel calm and collected. The deserted dark lanes around my home in the Cotswolds led, eventually, to the brashness of the M42 Motorway and this in turn led to the busy junction onto the M6 where, incongruously a Barn Owl was hunting the hard shoulder, the harsh overhead lights of the Motorway divesting it of any colour and reducing it to  an all white spectral image. I feared for its future as this was no place for an owl or any other bird for that matter.

All went well until, arriving at the junction for the M54 to North Wales, I was confronted by not very clear diversion signs. The Motorway was closed for repairs as far west as Telford so a large detour was required and certainly put paid to my equanimity. This is more and more a problem these days or should I say nights, as there now seems a policy to close major routes at short notice during the nightime for 'essential' repairs.

The dulcet tone of Marge the Satnav lady was being severely tested as I countermanded every instruction, ignoring her commands to 'turn around where possible' and instead concentrated on following the diversion signs. Thankfully I regained the Motorway without further mishap and all was well with Marge again. I passed Wrexham and almost overshot the turn at Minera that led me on a tortuous route through narrow and mysterious lanes, climbing steadily into the Berwyn Mountains. Civilisation or at least habitation was left behind as I crossed a cattle grid and the headlights swept over vast acres of desolate moorland as the narrowing road wound its erratic course ever upwards.

The single track road in daylight, later in the morning, after
the Black Grouse had departed
I had to try and recall where the lekking ground was and made several false stops along the narrow road in the dark before reaching the marker that signified I was in the right place. There is a tiny layby here with room for three, maybe four cars at most, and I was pleased after my long drive to see I was on my own and the first to arrive. I positioned the car as close in to the edge of the layby as possible and noticed that the road which is rising uphill here had become a shallow stream with water flowing down it in rivulets. Oh well, it would not be any trouble to me as I had to remain car bound. 

It was four am and having got everything ready for when the dawn arrived and I would be able to see something I  settled down to sleep the time away until the grouse arrived, which would not be too long, maybe an hour. There was a bright moon, just half a white orb hanging in the sky, shedding an eerie light over the terrain. The sky was crystal clear, starry and it looked very cold outside, and on opening the car window I had immediate confirmation of the cold as it swept into the car's warm interior. It was bitter.

At half past four I was jolted from my dozing by the arrival of a huge Land Rover which took up most of the remaining free space in the layby in front of me and after some careful manoeuvres, its lights were extinguished, all went quiet and I returned to the welcome darkness and the silence of the night. Then three more cars arrived in succession and each attempted to park in the layby. Somehow two managed to squeeze into the side of the narrow road but the third car was going to cause problems for any other vehicle that wanted to pass as it stuck well out onto the road. Well that was their problem, they should have got here earlier but more to the point was that my quiet vigil had now been well and truly shattered as the previously isolated layby took on the ambience of a car park.

At 5am I heard, through the partially open car window, the unmistakeable bubbling cooing notes of Black Grouse coming from my right. They had arrived on their lekking ground nearby but were impossible to see as it was still dark.The equally distinctive  calls of a Red Grouse also came to me from out on the moorland.

Black Grouse have two main vocalisations when lekking; the bubbling cooing which goes on constantly, but individual birds  also emit a loud wheezing every so often and half an hour later, re-opening the car window I could plainly hear this sound and with the bins could just make out the white fluffed up undertail coverts which make the displaying Black Grouse so distinctive. In what was almost total darkness, lit only by the moon, these fluffed white feathers on each grouse were like disembodied entities moving around. The black feathering of head and body rendered the grouse nigh on invisible until the light improved, apart from the white undertail coverts.

I waited, now with the window constantly open, listening to this wonderful chorus of incessant bubbling interspersed with the wheezing calls, coming from the still almost invisible lek. The grouse were pretty close to the road and occasionally I could hear the clap of striking wings as two males jousted with each other.I could not see them but plainly they could see each other and the lek was in full swing.

Slowly, very slowly the light improved with the dawn rising over a ridge to my left and lightening the sky to pale blue but sunrise was some way off yet.

I could now see the Black Grouse more clearly in my bins but they were still invisible to my naked eye.I waited, patience being a virtue that I was finding hard to encompass but the world was turning and perceptibly the light was getting ever better and after another twenty minutes I could now see the grouse strutting around over to my right. Pairs of males were facing off with each other, but the jousts were mainly bluff and it was only occasionally that the birds came to blows but when they did it was quite ferocious but rarely lasted more than a few seconds. I counted seventeen males scattered across the lek.

When displaying the male Black Grouse adopt a very distinctive shape as with head and neck extended,  tail with its lyre shaped outer feathers and fluffed undertail coverts held upright and wings drooped down by their sides they strut and coo and occasionally run at another male to confront it. Usually this results in the two facing each other and just standing there looking a bit nonplussed but occasionally they will fight but often one bird backs away before it gets to this stage.

Sunrise was due at just after six thirty this morning and really it was only when the sun's rays reached the lek that any photography would be worth while.The sun would highlight the iridescence on the grouse's neck and breast feathers, accentuating the blue or bottle green depending on the position of the bird. The lek was in a slight depression on some old mine workings and the sun, despite illuminating the rising hillside beyond, had not yet reached the level of the lek. I waited and slowly the sun crept across the moorland and enveloped the lek.

The Black Grouse looked superb in the sunlight, their features illuminated by the gentle golden rays of the sun.I could but just sit and admire their beauty with the inflated red wattles and iridescence of their neck and breast feathers standing out in particular. I noticed their necks swelled as they bubbled but with their bills remaining closed, presumably the noise being manufactured by air sacs in their neck. The wheezing sound was accompanied by the bird standing almost vertically on tip toe and  rapidly flicking its drooped wings outwards and sometimes leaping in the air with bill wide open. This seemed to stimulate rival males to come over looking for trouble.

When fighting the birds flew at each other with feet extended and battered each other with their  wings, creating a sound that was audible from some distance, then they would stand looking at each other before another short bout of fighting ensued or they parted. Their white underwings shone in the sun like the fancy linings you occasionally see on  men's expensive suits, as did the white wing bars on the upper side of their wings.

The lek was in full swing before me but then something odd happened. The males seemed to communally lose interest and became listless, quiet and unlike last year were not continually feisty and constantly battling each other. One bird actually just stood for a very long time motionless with tail lowered and almost went to sleep. 

I have no idea why this was so but maybe it was a lack of any females. I did not see one greyhen (female Black Grouse) all the time I was here. Maybe they had arrived and departed earlier, in the dark, but certainly there was no sign of a female anywhere on or near the lek whilst I watched.

Then at seven o' clock all the birds suddenly flew away and the lek was left bare. Was that it all over? But no, as five minutes later half the birds returned to land with a roar of wings, flashing white wing bars and underwing coverts. I again had no idea what had caused the alarm and consequent disruption. Maybe a bird of prey or someone on the skyline? I could hear the rest of the flock bubbling somewhere over a nearby ridge to my right but the birds that had returned to the lek were for the most part silent.

Ten to fifteen minutes later one bird on the lek started bubbling and cooing, others then joined in and some desultory jousting began but really it was only half hearted although two males did come to blows. Then they flew off yet again, not very far and as before they returned after a short while as if they could not bear to leave the lek. Again they stood around with some affecting complete disinterest while others displayed to their full ability and sought  out others to confront.

Again they departed, leaving just one slightly tattered male, the one that had earlier been standing silent and still for a long period, who then decided to go into full display and put on quite a performance entirely on his own and with not another Black Grouse to witness it, before flying off fast and low across the road and out onto the snow frosted moor to my right.

In flight they look very different to the compact puffed up shape they adopt when displaying. They fly with rapid wing beats and outstretched necks carrying their heavy body fast and low over the moorland. Their tails looking distinctively long.

I waited to see what would happen, and sure enough around ten birds returned but slowly, individual birds then left the lek, flying off in random directions over the surrounding moorland and at nine am all were gone and this time there was to be no return.

What a fabulous experience and I do hope the grouse were not disturbed by the cars.

I left the snow dusted moorland and descended to a lower level on what was now a glorious morning of sunshine and blue skies and made my way to nearby Llangollen, a pleasant little town where I found the same small cafe I had visited last year when I came to see the Black Grouse. I ordered a vegetarian breakfast and a soya milk mocha, all of which cost me the sum of £5.75.

I consider I got a genuine bargain both in the Berwyn Mountains and in Llangollen..

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