‘It’s ten to four,’ my aunt said, with a cheery knock on our door. Normally, at that hour in the morning my response – in so far as it was coherent at all – would have been ‘and your point is?’ But this time we leapt out of bed and into all our clothes, and were out of the door in five minutes. We had in a moment of madness volunteered to help survey some Black Grouse leks.
We may have inadvertantly given the impression we had rather more experience than we had at this sort of thing, having casually mentioned that we’d been at a Prarie Chicken lek, but without adding that this was the sort of lek where there’s a hide, and a helpful sign to tell you when you’re there. This may be why we got sent off on our own with nothing but a recording of what a Black Grouse sounds like, a map with an ‘x’ marking the spot (the wrong spot, as it happens), a camouflage net to hide under and a notebook. It was still dark, and a clear frosty night, and our navigation skills have atrophied under heavy Tom-Tom use, but we did manage to settle on what appeared to be a ridge overlooking a likely site and waited under our camo net for dawn.
Camo nets make useless blankets, by the way.
Before the sky was even light we heard a gentle eerie bubbling noise and a less melodic call that sounded something like a cat being sick. As the dawn broke it became clear that there was a grouse party going on all right, but that we’d misread the invitation and were in danger of missing all the fun. Down we scrambled and found a better spot, scattering grouse (oops) into the trees. After that, there was nothing for it but to lie on our fronts on the (recently defrosted) grass and wait for the birds to come back. It took a little while, but just before we’d lost all sensation in our fingers and toes, they did.
If you’ve never seen a lek, and are a fan of the absurd done with high seriousness, I can recommend it. The males puff themselves up and then do the equivalent of starting a fight in a pub: ‘did you spill my pint?’ ‘are you looking at my bird?’ ‘do you want to come over here and say that?’, doing the bird equivalent of jabbing each other in the chest with a finger. They would belly up to each other, making themselves as big and ridiculous as possible, circling round, never quite actually coming to blows. If the hens were there, we didn’t see them – they don’t seem to wade in crying ‘leave it Darren, ‘e’s not worth it’ – but there were six of the males. Every so often they’d forget what they were doing and smooth down their feathers and peck at some interesting looking beetle, but quickly one of them would get back into bonkers mode ‘Do you want to step outside, posh boy?’ ‘come over here and say that if you think you’re hard enough’ and the show would begin again.
We lay there, gently freezing, trying not to laugh too loudly until the sun was well up and we had to go back to where we were being picked up. And it was a glorious morning, too. Almost worth getting up for at that hour…