Not Grousing

April 18, 2012

It’s April and that seems to mean a regular trip up to Loch Tay to see if we can help survey Black Grouse leks. Two years ago we had done rather well, despite X marking the wrong spot, and found a whole new grouse lek all by ourselves, so this year we were confident we’d be in for a treat, especially as we now knew where the party was to be held.

Four am came and we stumbled blearily out of bed, drove up to near the appointed spot, walked the rest of the way and scrambled up to a handy grassy knoll overlooking the lek and waited in the cold for the fun to begin. And waited. And waited. The day dawned, sort of, adjusted for the cloud being well below the mountain tops and sweeping almost level with us up the loch. Just as it became light we heard a bubbling sort of noise … just where the lek was meant to have been two years ago. Back down the hill we went, around the deer fence, back up the hill, through several boggy bits, listening out for the sound of grouse, and nothing. Waited. Nothing. Waited some more, the north wind now whipping round and occasionally through us. A faint bubbling over another hill. More scrambling. More waiting. More silence, broken occasionally by the sound of a lone male grouse who also hadn’t got the memo about the new lek site and was wondering where everyone else was. At 6:15 he flew off, having given up. At 6:30, toes frozen, we gave up to and went back to my aunt and uncle’s house to thaw ourselves out.

It was only after breakfast that we thought to check the footage from my uncle’s nifty infrared video camera trap of what had been going on in the feeder while we’d been out freezing our bits off on the hillside. And there on the feeder – the feeder which, I might add, you can see rather easily from inside a nice warm house without having to yomp through any peat bogs with a map where X doesn’t mark the spot – was a pine marten sitting stuffing itself with peanuts (there is a video here and here but flickr seems to have mangled it in some way)

Oh and all the other grouse leks that were surveyed? Absolutely hopping with grouse. We’ll just have to come back next year.


April 13, 2010

‘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…