Now that the wheatears are here, the time has come to make a start on my lek search for 2012. Essentially, I need to know where the blackcock are lekking within a three or four mile radius of the Chayne, and given that the area has been abandoned by the RSPB surveyors who no longer believe that there are any black grouse around, I’m on my own. The RSPB have a point, in that the population of blackcock in and around the farm is probably only just in double figures, but I have to find out where the birds are if I’m going to be able to tie in to them when I start my release project. There’s a lot of ground in my corner of the Galloway hills and this project is going to mean alot of work, but if I can gather information at this time of year, it will really repay itself down the line. The one advantage I have on my side is that suitable habitat for birds lies on all four points of the compass, and all I need to do is roll out of bed, walk through the yard and I’m in the thick of it.
It was an early start this morning as I headed off up the hill, determined to follow up a reliable lead of a 3 bird lek a couple of miles behind the house. It was still dark when Scoop and I ducked into a forestry block and followed the narrow rides up onto the hill, keeping an ear cocked for the bubble. Tawny owls swept infront of us, and deer grazed peacefully in some of the wider passages through the trees. After a mile, we reached the point which had been described to me – a wide clearing between two thick bands of trees. It was like the land that time forgot; a mile long and half a mile wide, full of heather and raised hummocks which would suit a displaying blackcock down to the socks. No livestock, paths or signs of human habitation in any direction, just an old roe buck carrying his recently cleaned antlers back into cover for the day.
I sat down and listened, straining my ears to ignore the woodpigeons. Nothing. I had been told that the lek of 3 birds was right in the middle of this clearing, but there was no sign of anything at all. After half an hour, I walked right to the end of the clearing and scanned the hillside above for the familiar black and white shapes. Nothing. A roe buck stepped out of the trees a few yards away, saw me and crashed back into the brash, barking over his shoulder like a drunk man.
Just as I turned to come home, a distant but unmistakeable call came through the treetops. It was far off to the north and there had only been a single bubbling phrase lasting just two or three seconds, but I have to follow it up. Rather than crash through the undergrowth and risk upsetting the bird, I’ll go back tomorrow morning and walk up the other side of the hill in my own time so that I’m in control, rather than dashing back and forth on a wild grouse chase.
Despite the RSPB’s recently published figures which claim that black grouse in Dumfries and Galloway are recovering, there are still several holes in the improvement. The leks that they are monitoring may well be doing better, but nobody ever hears about the secret leks in remote corners which go out like falling stars every year.
Make no mistake, Dumfries and Galloway’s black grouse are in dire straights. I may well have missed the lek this morning, or it could have been disturbed before I arrived so that I saw nothing at all, but I’m afraid that, more realistically, that small nucleus of birds has broken up over the last year. They may well still be alive, but seperated and wandering alone, their chances of breeding are fading away. This is the reality of commercial woodland of a certain age, when, like a creeping illness, canopy closure finally brings populations crashing down.
Onwards and upwards…