Grouse

Lekking at Langholm

Two of the nearest cocks this morning.
Two of the nearest cocks this morning.

After a very mixed bag of early morning lek hunts, I had a thoroughly enjoyable morning this morning at the famous Langholm Moor. Pausing at Waterbeck to pick up my artist friend Colin Blanchard, we pulled up to the lek in the car shortly before sunrise. A bold blackcock eyeballed us furiously from the roadside, but it was the sweet, lyrical bubbling coming from a little further down the road that really made my hair stand on end. It transpired that there were four blackcock all within thirty yards of the car, engaged in some turbulent conference which occupied every fibre of their concentration. The sound of more discussion swept up from an invisible hollow behind these conspicuous black and white butlers, but there was more than enough to occupy our attention in the immediate foreground.

As the sun rose, the displaying birds started to wind down a little after a busy morning. That was until the appearance of a greyhen fired them back into wild paroxysms of squalling and fluttering. She alighted on an power line above the lek and they bent themselves manfully to the task of impressing her. She preened and fiddled absent-mindedly from her box seat, and after twenty minutes she dropped down in amongst them. Two of the birds took this as a cue for a desperate show of courage and violence, and she crouched almost motionless in the white grass while they shoved and bustled between themselves. One bird was clearly the senior, and this individual had been strangely aloof throughout the entire performance, working away on his own a few yards from the others. While the kingpin and his immediate subordinate struggled and beat their wings in the frost, the two others continued to squabble as if the greyhen wasn’t there at all.

At last the victor was declared, and the winning cock buzzed along behind the greyhen as she scuttled provocatively infront of him in a series of short dashes. They were almost running between the legs of the idly browsing sheep, and with the spectacle unfolding almost within touching distance, a curlew moaned sadly just as a lark burst into life. It was the kind of coincidence of sight and sound that would make your heart wring.

Studying the photographs, I see from the finer detail that the greyhen had her wattles up and was clearly in the mood to be covered, but the moment didn’t seem to be forthcoming and she finally returned to the power line, joined by the cock. The display continued for another hour, interrupted only by the arrival of the shepherd. As he stepped off his quad bike, the birds abandoned the lek site and flew a few hundred yards down hill to some white grass. Within a minute or two of his disappearance, they were back as if nothing had happened. They are obviously used to him, and the disturbance was soon forgotten.

As the sun crept up, the displays died down until the bubbling stopped and the birds flew in a group downhill at last. They packed up their tails and mooched through the frost, restored to the status of moorland birds after their morning of solemn tomfoolery.

The black grouse at Langholm have an interesting story and yet are sadly eclipsed in publicity by the weight of idle controversy around hen harriers and red grouse. I must get round to digging up some more information on these birds and giving them the attention they deserve, because although it is verging on heresy to say it, I would sooner watch two decent blackcock at a lek than a dozen “skydancers”. Black grouse are occasionally mentioned when Langholm is discussed, but as I have been told more than once, the project is not about them and they don’t have anything to do with the grouse and harrier study.

There are one or two irritating bones of contention that I have read online and in print that I would like to address when it comes to the Langholm black grouse, so perhaps I will do some writing on the subject and throw in my tuppenceworth once the leks die down and I get a moment to myself.

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