It’s 5 am, and the frost is sparkling like diamonds in the early morning sun, while ribbons of mist linger in the shadowy hollows around the forestry.
Your breath forms a cloud in front of you as your eyes struggle to focus (you got up at 4 o’clock, after all). There’s no sound anywhere in the valley, except for the weirdest bubbling noise. It’s a bit like the cooing of a pigeon but with a quicker tempo – soft at first but swelling and then dying at regular intervals, interspersed with a curious hissing and whirring.
This is a black grouse lek, and for these ego-centric little warriors it’s the equivalent of The X Factor but with an all-female panel of judges. Male black grouse are supremely beautiful birds… glossy blue-black plumage, jaunty scarlet wattles above their eye, and pristine white underclothes. But when they perform their display they look magnificent: the white feathers on the underside of their tail stand upright, allowing the long, lyre-shaped black feathers to fall like a cascade either side. They drop their wings slightly and puff themselves up as much as physically possible, tottering back and forth on nimble toes as they engage with their opponents.
We’ve never seen any of them come to blows… after a couple of face-offs, accompanied by rapid cooing and plenty of posturing, one or the other usually chickens out, and is made to run for a short distance just to prove the point. The females (greyhens) are usually looking on, but they don’t take any part in the proceedings. It would be so much fun if they were given scoring ‘paddles’ like the judges on Strictly Come Dancing.
The black grouse is on the red list of Birds of Conservation Concern in the UK, meaning that its population is considered to be seriously threatened. Although it’s a game bird, these days there are few estates that will allow any shooting of black grouse, and some will impose a fine if one is shot by accident (in mistake for a red grouse).
Historically, the black grouse has been in decline in Britain since the 1900s. The contributing factors include loss of habitat through over-grazing and increased agriculture, and the drainage of boggy areas that support cotton grass and insects, two major sources of food. Regeneration and conservation schemes are under way in northern England, Wales and Scotland, and it seems that these are enjoying some degree of success, although many black grouse populations remain in isolated pockets, which is not good for their prospects of breeding.
Black grouse do seem to be somewhat fussy in their choice of residence. They like birch and conifer woodland, but they prefer the forest fringes or felled areas with some heather and bilberry moorland thrown in. Widely-spaced trees and dense undergrowth provide ideal habitat for them to nest on the ground, and the more open areas of rough field or low scrubland offer an ideal venue for them to stage their flamboyant mating ritual in April and May.
We’ve seen black grouse at most times of year, although they’re more secretive in summer during the moult, and in the deep snows of December it’s been impossible to get up into the hills to look for them. They don’t always obey the textbooks: we’ve seen males raising their white tail-feathers and displaying to the females in September, although it was nowhere near as spectacular as their full-on stage show in the spring.
The male can grow to 21 inches in length and weigh up to 3 lb, while the females are slightly smaller. Their diet varies according to the season – the buds and fruit of bilberry and heather, hazel and birch catkins, hawthorn and rowan berries, and the young shoots of larch trees. They love the tips of young green leaves so much that they’re prepared to go to great lengths to get at them, often swaying around in the topmost branches for all to see. The females lay between six and 11 eggs in early May, in a moss-lined nest on the ground; for food, the young are dependent on invertebrates for the first three weeks.
In contrast to the male’s immaculate ‘dinner suit’, the female’s plumage is cryptically patterned in shades of brown and grey. I’ve never seen the chicks, but it seems that they’re a mixture of tawny brown and beige, in a fluffy camouflage layout of stripes and spots. From the photos I’ve seen, they look gorgeous – similar in colouring to partridge or pheasant chicks.
We’ve watched black grouse in North Wales; about 20 years ago, a few were resident on Pen-y-Bryn in the Machno Valley, until forestry clearance put paid to their habitat and they must have just moved on. More recently, all of our close sightings have been around Tayside, and we’re looking forward to seeing some more show-stopping performances in the coming months.
Black grouse feature quite often in Colin’s paintings and drawings – keep an eye his website, www.wildart.co.uk
All images copyright © Colin Woolf