Sitting out on the Chayne a few nights ago during the last few sparks of daylight, it was interesting to hear the various grouse cocks sounding off their positions in a massive bowl of moss, heather and fallen grass. Almost three quarters of a mile separated the two furthest cocks, and the intervening space held four or five militant little birds who called and then called again as the stars came out. In a situation like the Chayne where red grouse are so thinly distributed, it makes more sense to count birds in the Spring by listening at dusk than it does to work the hill with dogs, since the individual cocks are very easy to identify by sound.
After a few nights, it is even possible to put some pretty accurate boundary markers on territories, since while the cocks move around a little night-by-night, they never leave a set area. This is also revealing, since the territories on the Chayne can sometimes be thirty acres – a telling comparison with some of the best moors in England where a territory can be packed into a couple of acres, or even less. This is entirely to do with the quality of the habitat, and the birds on the Chayne only need so much space because the hill is so poor.
That said, I do find something very appealing about birds at low densities, and I suppose if I didn’t then I wouldn’t live in Galloway. What is obvious from early counts is that I have lost a great deal of birds over the winter, and the golden days of October 2013 are almost back down to previous levels again. In isolation, this would be particularly depressing, but it is clear that the majority of birds have moved off the ground by a natural process of redistribution. Some may return before nesting, and others with their broods in July – this is the way that the Chayne has always worked.
I was particularly struck by the amount of calling the hens are doing at the moment, and one hen in particular was far noisier than her mate. The shrill, giggling call really traveled through the gloaming, and one pair in particular was moving about with a number of little display flights and courtship routines. Although I couldn’t see them, the sound moved back and forth across the hill face a few hundred yards away, and she sounded particularly frustrated with the attendance of her partner. Amongst the grouse, grey partridges from last year’s release were calling on the back hill, and I was very pleased that they should have lasted as well as they have, spurning the in-bye and choosing to live way out on the open space.
Up on Glas Maol looking at the ptarmigan on Tuesday, there was a huge amount of display flighting from the red grouse cocks, and several pairs rose up and flew close together, chasing and barging one another as they flew. Again, I heard a hen calling very noisily on the Chayne yesterday, and it seems that their activities are at a particularly conspicuous stage. I can go for months at a time without hearing a hen grouse on the Chayne, so all this noisy behaviour is an encouraging new addition.