Black Grouse Shoot
An early morning adventure photographing black grouse on the moors of the northern Pennines
It's all very well setting ones alarm clock for 4.45am but it is a bit academic when you can't sleep anyway because you are too excited about the potential of the new day dawning. The bleary eyes were soon cleared by a cup of the black stuff, and we set off for a Pennine Grouse Safari with pops up front in the 4x4 and me on the back seat surrounded by camera gear ready to poke it out of the left or right side as required. I didn't have to persuade him to come along - he hadn't witnessed the grouse lekking either. He's a real brick is my dad. It took us 40 minutes to drive to the site, all the time watching out for the dual hazards of black ice and kamikaze bunnies, of which there were hundreds.
We drove up the fell road to the snowline and yes, there are birds about. I hope we get lucky. So, first up, a few portraits in lovely sun and with the freshly fallen snow on the ground. Right, I was so totally made up with these close encounters by the roadside that I wasn't that bothered about the lek! but more was to come. The main Lek site was in full swing, with a big black blob of a bird every 6 feet or so over an area of about 100 sq mts. but the lekking ground was too far for any meaningful photography. However, we parked up as close as we could, got out the flask and biccies and watched and waited and just enjoyed the moment. Boy, was it noisy out there with snipe drumming, lapwing peewitting, curlews crying and the black grouse bubbling (a most peculiar sound).
One of the males took off from the main lek and flew right over the car, landing on rising ground to the right of us where there was a small group of three females. He then proceeded to perform his ritual display in circles around them and they responded by fanning out their tail feathers too. This was amazing, we had our own private mini-lek right next to us. What an experience!
the Natural History stuff............
Time to give you a bit of proper natural history commentary now I think. In the mating season, male and female black grouse gather each morning for a communal courtship display known as a 'Lek'. The same site may be used for the display for many years. Each male holds a small area within the site where he stands with white tail erect and wings spread and drooped, and his red eye wattles inflated. He faces a rival make and utters a long, bubbling cooing sound which is occasionally interrupted by a loud, scraping 'tcheway'.
The cock birds adopt threatening postures and frequently jump into the air. During this display, the somblre looking females strut nonchalantly about between the males. Most of the time the agression is ritualised, but things can come to a head and fights and short flights into the air ensue.
(ref. The breeding birds of Cumbria - a tetrad atlas 1997-2001)
Eventually a female will approach and invite mating by crouching before the victorious male, which circles in front of the hen with head outstretched. Here she is doing just that. Her tail an is rather impressive too!
So there we are. What a fab morning. The action is pretty much all over by 8 am and the birds disperse. The forecast is for rising temperatures now so we may just also have bagged the last snow of winter up here. We left with many memories of the events of the previous two hours, and I have about 500 shots to download so its back home to spin yarns over a cuppa.