Grouse

Manx Birds

A Manx chough (picture Peter Moore)
A Manx chough (picture Peter Moore)

Having just returned from two days counting grouse and exploring the hills of the Isle of Man, it is not easy to be brief. This is certainly a subject that warrants further coverage in due course, but suffice it to say for now that the distant shape of the Island which always lurks on the horizon has now taken on an entirely new meaning. Peregrines and choughs were the stars of the show, particularly during a short walk on Peel Hill when both were dancing within a few yards of my binoculars.

The choughs in particular were real heroes. I have spent several hours trying to get to grips with them in Cornwall, but to have three pairs all flying together in my binoculars at once was quite exceptional. They have a particularly endearing way of folding in their wings so that it seems that they almost clasp their fingered feathers behind their backs, falling like a paper dart before catching themselves and sweeping back up into the air again. A pair landed nearby, and one of them busily employed its fine red beak to pull up tufts of grass and knots of wool, stacking the material into a large, soft ball. They must be nest building on these monstrous cliff faces, and they weren’t the only ones feeling hormonal. Just a short distance further on, a peregrine hammered noisily towards us, driving a raven before it just as Scoop had pursued a white hare the day before while counting grouse on the slopes of Colden. At the last minute, the falcon turned and looked back over its shoulder at the fleeing raven with an expression that seemed to say “and don’t come back”. Down by the swirling foam at the foot of the cliffs, cormorants and eider ducks turned and navigated between the black slate rocks.

With the sun setting on the hills from South Barrule to Slieau Maggle, I set off back to catch the ferry with my head spinning with the complexity of a grouse riddle quite unlike anything I have ever come across before. With the tremendous extent of heather management that has taken place over the past few years, it is hard to blame the low numbers of grouse on poor habitat, but while the island is home to a huge number of harriers and peregrines, it is perhaps also too simplistic to argue that the only problem for Manx grouse is predation. There will be a great deal more on this to come, but it was certainly a fantastic trip and well worth the extended and sleepless crossing over from Heysham at 2:15AM on Thursday morning.

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