It really is a strange noise, and they would have been more common and widespread back then, so perhaps it is not too far-fetched to suggest this could be the inspiration for Shakespeare’s oft misquoted witches on the blasted heath.
Beep beep, beep beep. The alarm tells me it is 3am, but I’m already awake waiting for it. It’s black grouse day, so just time for a quick cup of tea, scrape the ice off the car windscreen, then the short drive up to Atholl Estate. Although it is still dark, blackbird and robin are singing as I start the 2 mile walk through the woods to the open ground beyond.
The Perthshire Black Grouse Study Group has been monitoring the population of this iconic species since 1990. Despite national declines, the Perthshire population has recovered and the area is now a stronghold for the species. Every year in April/early May a team of dedicated volunteers count all the black grouse leks within seven 10km squares, and that was why I was out and about at such an ungodly hour.
At first light I was able to scan the lek through my telescope – it is very important not to approach too close and cause disturbance. A lek is where the male grouse (blackcock) assemble every morning to display. I guess it must impress the females (greyhens) who watch from a distance before choosing a mate, but to our eyes it is comical to watch these dandies strut their stuff like demented clockwork toys. Tails are fanned to a white powder-puff, wings drooping and chest puffed out as they spar back and forth like matadors, all the time uttering the weird bubbling and hissing calls which can be heard over 1km away.
The birds were so engrossed in their display that they seemed oblivious to a snoozing greylag goose in the midst of their chosen arena, and simply treated grazing red and roe deer as obstacles on the pitch. They totally ignored a hunting male hen harrier as he drifted by, but the arrival of a curlew set off a frenzy of activity until they realised it wasn’t an amorous greyhen after all! By 7.30 the leks were starting to disperse and my count was completed. I’d walked the length of the glen and counted 59 displaying blackcock at three leks.
Survey work is very rewarding and takes your identification skills and field craft to the next level. It is rewarding and makes a useful and important contribution to our knowledge of species and habitats, essential for conservation planning. Whatever your wildlife interest or expertise, why not volunteer your services to a local or national organisation?
It is also very enjoyable – I had a great early morning walk in beautiful scenery with wonderful wildlife. I felt privileged to be an observer, far better than watching it on TV. On the way down I met one of the estate ‘keepers who was also watching the black grouse. We compared notes, and he told me he had been finding signs of capercaillie, our biggest grouse, feeding in the woods. They also lek, and that really would be worth getting up early for.
Black grouse, red grouse, pheasant, greylag goose, mallard, curlew, oystercatcher, black-headed gull, common gull, hen harrier, buzzard, tree pipit, meadow pipit, pied wagtail, wood pigeon, dunnock, wren, cuckoo, blackbird, song thrush, mistle thrush, robin, stonechat, wheatear, redstart, great spotted woodpecker, chaffinch, goldfinch, siskin, crossbill, lesser redpoll, willow warbler, wood warbler, great tit, blue tit, coal tit, long-tailed tit, jackdaw, rook, carrion crow,
Red deer, roe deer, hare, red squirrel
Spring birdwatching courses at Kindrogan include an early morning visit to a black grouse lek. This course runs mid to late April, check our website at http://www.field-studies-council.org/centres/kindrogan/lesiurelearning/natural-history-courses.aspx
ps – the icing on the cake for a wonderful morning, one of the camera traps I had set at Kindrogan the night before had captured ‘our’ pine marten on video for the first time. See it on Kindrogan YouTube http://www.youtube.com/user/KindroganFSC