After a night of alternating periods of rain and frost, the Chayne was virtually inaccessible this morning. Although the roads just looked wet, they were glazed over with translucent ice. Driving was dangerous, but walking was lethal. I had fallen over three times before I could make it to the nearest fence, and I then used the barbed wire as a bannister to help me on my way across the moor. Scoop fell over almost as often as I did, and it was actually quite funny to see her running forwards but going sideways. There was thick cloud down on the fields, but as I came back over the final few hundred yards to the car, a familiar sound swept off the rushes to my left.
My favourite blackcock has made a start on his displays for the season, and although his bubbling call was really just a series of stuttered giggles, I felt the hair rising up on the back of my neck as I stood in the swirling cloud. He was seventy yards away, but as invisible as he would have been on the other side of the moon. There’s just something about that sound which I find so stirring that it almost brings a tear to my eye, and it’s a major reason for why my life has become so dominated by these birds. So many people have given up hope on black grouse, but the very idea that Britain could soon go without that same old bubble is enough to make me sick. If I’d been keeping a note of the hours I’ve spent up the hill trying to improve the habitat and knock back the vermin in the name of black grouse, I’d be sitting on quite a nice little invoice, even at minimum wage. As it is, moments like this morning are my payment, and I don’t feel at all hard done by.
The sound was emanating from precisely the same spot where the same bird began his displays last year, an event which I photographed (above). It was interesting that this is his first morning of displaying, since the thick cloud made him totally invisible. Given that lekking is controlled by hormones, it could be that he is gradually coming into the fettle, although still feeling a little too cautious to lek in the open on a clear frosty morning as he does from March onwards. That would also explain the fitful bubbling and the fact that, last year at this time, he appeared to be performing full lek behaviour without his wattles inflated. I suppose that wattles are made up of erectile tissue, and, like us all, his hormones need to have fired him up before he can put on a full performance.