After having sat in a cramped conference hall outside Barnard Castle throughout yesterday morning, it was a relief to hop in the car and head off up into the hills. The meeting had looked in some detail at grouse health, but while the speakers were very useful, I felt a strong urge to get in amongst the birds themselves and add a practical edge to the day. Fifteen miles up the dale is one of the best spots in England to spend time with black grouse, and with the sun beginning to sag down over the Pennines, I headed up the familiar road to Langdon Beck with deer specialist Sam Thompson, who paused momentarily in Middleton to inhale a pint and a packet of pork scratchings.
So much of the best ground in Teesdale belongs to Raby Estate, and it is a mecca for upland birds. Swinging around the corner at Langdon Beck, two open fields expanded before our eyes, revealing the best part of forty blackgame browsing through the chopped rushes. A wave of excitement crept over me as we got closer: after all the birds I have ever seen and the many hours spent looking at them, I still get a twisting thrill in the stomach when I first see blackgame. I was so delighted that I almost didn’t notice two blackcock hanging directly over the road in a young willow. They idly flopped down when the car was almost vertically below them, paddling striped wings and gliding down out of sight behind the dyke.
We headed over to the lek site just in time to see a couple of dozen blackcock in the grip of a spasm of display. Their white tails glowed on the wine-red moss, and even at three or four hundred yards it was possible to make out a couple of greyhens in amongst them. I borrowed Sam’s highland stalking glass with a whopping twenty five times magnification, and the black specks leapt towards me. I could see individual feathers and expressions where before I had only been able to make out shapes. It became easy to age the cocks, and I spotted another greyhen amongst the gathering.
I was also able to see that several of the first year blackcock have still got white speckles under the chin or on the cheeks (as per the picture above). This is quite common at this time of the year, since white or brown feathers on the head or neck of a blackcock indicate low testosterone levels – in effect, the male is growing feathers which would usually be typical of a female. These young birds simply haven’t coloured up properly yet, but blackcock of all ages develop a few white or brown feathers on the head during and immediately after the moult when their hormone levels change, and they often keep these scruffy colours through September and into the Autumn. However, for first year birds like the one above, the sexual hormone levels will soon rise dramatically and these white speckles will be moulted out so that the uniform blue-black will come through. What a useful investment a proper telescope would be, and I can think of so many uses for one throughout the spring, particularly at leks.
The cocks weren’t taking their display very seriously, and they soon packed up their tails again and crouched down to loiter on the moss. Over the next half an hour, we drove the small circuit round to Cow Green and saw dozens more blackgame, and even a covey of wild greys crouching amongst the molehills. A visit to Raby never fails to put a spring in the step, and of all the many times I have driven through Teesdale on my way to or from jobs in England, those rolling inbye fields have never let me down.