It’s almost that time of year again – the season when every wild-eyed black grouse enthusiast is up and about before dawn, trekking into obscure corners of the countryside and crawling through the undergrowth to get a closer look at those dearest of all birds.
Although in my enthusiasm, perhaps I started a little early this year. At a quarter to six this morning, I headed off down the track and up into the forest behind the house. After half an hour, the winding path broke abruptly into open moorland. The sun was still a little way from appearing over the horizon, but an odd haze cast a vague blur over the entire spread of moorland and forest beneath me. There was a very slight wind, but otherwise it was a perfect morning for looking and listening.
Every year I am tricked by underground streams which gurgle with a blackcock’s stuttering rhythm, as well half heard woodpigeons swelling fatly in the distance. The pitch of a pigeon is very different from the blackcock’s proud, musical wobble, but there is something in that chanting note which sometimes makes my heart skip in error. Pheasants screamed like rusty springs and a single lark tried his hand in that cold, crystalline moment before daylight. For an instant far below me at a distance of around a mile, I picked up the faintest whiff of bubbling blackcock. It was a snatch of sound, mingled with a whispering breeze in the heather, but there was no mistaking it.
These are still early days, and I will look into this lead in a few weeks when the hint of sound will have become a flagrant signpost. Blackcock will dedicate a few minutes of their lives to lekking every day (except maybe in July and August), so I wasn’t being totally ridiculous by trying my luck in early March, but the whole display goes up several gears from the first week in April. That’s when most people will see blackcock lekking, but while there’s no doubt that a full-blown lek is a sight to see, I have more lasting memories of intimate glimpses snatched in February and March than in April and May.
When the sunlight came, it burst over the horizon and spilled a glutinous orange light all over the hillside. There was a deceptive suggestion of warmth in those first blinking moments, even though there are still shreds of snow lying behind the rushes. Deciding that the day was already past its best, I walked back to the house, had a cup of coffee, then headed up to the Chayne to check my snares.