A Cowal Lek

Looking down to Loch Riddon at six o'clock this morning

Looking down to Loch Riddon at six o’clock this morning

I was delighted to be invited up to Cowal to help with a lek survey on a piece of ground near Tigh na Bruiach, and found myself wandering through the gloom of Argyllshire at five to five this morning amidst the combined throb of blackcock and the fantastic dry buzz of grasshopper warblers. I normally scan the ground alone when I’m looking for lekking birds, but this survey was a group effort, co-ordinated jointly by the landowner and the RSPB. Half a dozen groups were allocated areas to walk and observe simultaneously so that there could be no double counting, and with representatives from all walks of life, the project became quite an interesting affair. I must say that it was a breath of fresh air to see the RSPB engaged with the people on the ground, and by comparison to the prevailing wind in Dumfries and Galloway, the atmosphere of the operation was decidedly positive.

Many of the Galloway lek surveyors sneak on to ground as if they were stealing something, often without  the courtesy to contact the landowner in advance. Quite rationally, the excuse they give for failing to communicate with the folk on the ground is that they would get a hiding if they knocked on nine out every ten houses in this area. Not wanting to dwell on the politics, there are huge numbers of great folk within the RSPB, but the charity’s reputation in the countryside doesn’t do it any favours, and it behoves them to be the “bigger” people and build the bridges which are so horribly broken and re-broken by every press release which slams farmers and tears into gamekeepers.

But to return to the more important business of lekking, the slight Southeasterly made listening for birds into a real struggle. I swore I could hear hissing birds several times, but it was only after forty five minutes that a single blackcock hoved into view on a tussock of molinia grass six hundred yards away. Radioing through the news, I then realised that there was another bird near to the first one, and was very pleased to see it in due course as it rose up onto the heather and turned in slow circles.

Trying to see him without the binoculars, I realised that he was just on the very edge of my hearing and vision; so far away as surely to be someone else’s bird. As it turned out, I was the only one to see these two birds all morning, and although I was confused when (I think) one of the birds flew over to the other, making it look like there were three, the system of non-duplication worked very nicely. A hen harrier breezed idly over my two lekking birds and they both fell silent and vanished immediately. Radio communication charted the passage of the hunter as it moved over the widely dispersed gang of surveyors, and the blackcock poked their heads up again with some reluctance a few minutes after it had passed.

It seems unlikely that an adult blackcock would have a huge amount to fear from a harrier that is only a fraction of its size and weight, but perhaps the innate fear of predators is enough to make birds always err on the side of caution. I daresay that if a blackcock did not defer in any way to a harrier, the raptor might be tempted to have a go. In the same way, I’ve seen buzzards wander idly over my pigeon decoys, looking for a reaction. When an appropriate degree of terror and panic was not forthcoming from the plastic shells, the buzzards attacked them, and one flew several yards with a plastic pigeon in its talons before it realised its mistake. In both cases, the buzzards never dreamed that they would stand a chance of catching a pigeon when they first saw the decoys, but the lack of response from the fake birds provoked a closer look, then a closer look, then a sudden strike as if the predator almost couldn’t believe its luck.

We returned indoors by eight o’clock and compared notes to reveal that this is a promising year for the birds in this remote corner of Argyll. As with everywhere on the West Coast, excessive rain has put a dampener on wild game for the past twenty or thirty years, so while we hadn’t seen a huge amount of black grouse, the population is certainly significant and worth working for. There are additional notes of intrigue to this particular population because of their proximity to a windfarm, and I will certainly return to this issue in a later post, but it has been a long day since 4am, and what with the three hour drive home (including a porpoise-infested ferry trip over the Clyde),  I can hardly hold my eyes open to type this.

And I’ve got more ground to cover tomorrow morning…

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