Lek Frustrations

A greyhen still keen to participate
A greyhen still keen to participate this morning

Having said that the leks were dying down in a blog post earlier in the week, there was still some serious interest on the display grounds at six o’clock this morning, and one greyhen had to work very hard to get the attention she was after amidst a sea of testosterone and pouting.

The cocks were very pleased to see her, but none of them could quite focus on the job in hand. They preferred to fight amongst themselves, and they set up a constant squalling as she picked her way daintily through the wet grass. She even crouched down by one cock and presented herself to him three or four times, but he was so enjoying the fight and the esprit de corps of his associated brothers and pals that she lost interest and wandered away. Photographs reveal that she had her wattles up, which indicates extreme excitement and arousal, but the draw of the battle was too much for her would-be suitors. As it was, a greater black-backed gull came swooping over the lek at around 6:40 and all the birds moved off in a quick circuit of the in bye fields before landing again – but when they came back, the greyhen was not with them.

I wrote earlier this month about the critical mass of excitement and enthusiasm generated by the sound of the lek, and the fact that this sometimes seems to be a barrier to successful mating. When you’re used to hearing one or two cocks calling at a time as I am in Galloway, the massed pipes and drums of twelve or twenty take some getting used to. The call becomes a mesmeric, almost hypnotic hum when sung in chorus; a buzz that can make your chest ring – no wonder the cocks get carried away.

The biggest leks I know of in Scotland usually hold around thirty blackcock – above this number (and often below it), smaller leks start to form in the surrounding area. In almost seven years of my black grouse obsession, I’ve never seen more than thirty four cocks in what could be described as a single lek, and I have sometimes wondered why twenty will lek together on one side of the glen and twenty others half a mile away on the other. There are all kinds of complicated reasons why packs of blackcock form as they do, but it is interesting that these packs tend not to grow beyond a certain size. There are historical records of British blackgame flying around in packs of several hundred, particularly in Dumfries and Galloway, but the modern trend is to have several smaller packs rather than one massive one.

I’m beginning to wonder whether one of the mechanisms behind this aversion to massive gatherings is that the sound and excitement generated by so many cocks becomes mesmerising and overwhelming. Perhaps the delight of fighting and the hypnosis of the song casts a distracting spell so that actual mating becomes less of a priority. You certainly start to see hens behaving strangely on large leks (as per the lekking hen), and it may well be logical that leks can grow in size beyond their functional optimum, actively impeding their own productivity. Obviously, mating still takes place on the bigger leks, but it is notable that there are often signs of frustration and dysfunction where you might assume everything was running smoothly. Newer, smaller “satellite leks” are often made up of younger, less dominant birds, but they might end up getting more of the action because they are more able to concentrate on the job in hand. An interesting theory, and one to explore further.

Snipe Chicks

One of 2014's chicks
One of 2014’s chicks

It was a pleasant surprise to find a couple of snipe chicks on the hill this afternoon while trudging around my larsens. They can’t have been bigger than champagne corks, huddled together in a nook in the rushes, and I could have walked past them a thousand times without seeing them if the hen hadn’t got up in a flutter at my feet.

Assuming that they are three days old and the incubation period for snipe is less than three weeks, this clutch was probably laid at the start of April. I’ve only ever found snipe chicks in mid to late May, and it seemed very early to make such an exciting discovery – but then again, the past few weeks have been warm and mild and there is no reason why breeding could not have been taking place. After all, the drumming and territorial displays have been underway since the end of February. It was interesting that she should only have had a brood of two, and I wondered if the snow maybe played a part in whittling down a larger brood over the last forty eight hours.

I took this picture (above) of a snipe chick on the Chayne in May last year – today’s chicks were considerably smaller and lacked the emerging wing feathers down their backs. They were little balls of fluff with broad, white speckled bands running parallel from their shoulders to their bums. The camouflage was amazing, and they never moved in all the time I peered at them. The sleet came back on a few minutes later, and I hoped that the hen would cover them over and warm them up as the darkness fell.

Spring in Reverse

January in April
January in April

It was entertaining to see two cuckoos in a blizzard yesterday afternoon, and my heart went out to them as they gazed wide-eyed at the fist-sized dollops of mushy snow. Having just arrived from the Congo, the sudden snowfall must have come as something of a shock to them.

I went around my larsen traps in the biting cold wind, crunching through an inch of snow while every wheatear, lark and warbler was standing on the track in a state of shock. They had abandoned their new found territories and gathered together so that there were a dozen wheatears together on the dyke tops here and two dozen larks there. Snipe crowded into the ditches where the slush lay, and only the curlews remained on their stances, probably knowing from long years of experience that the snow wouldn’t lie for long.

In the eerily silent aftermath, the hill was bizarrely altered. A single lark tried to make light of it all during the evening as the sun set over the Rhinns of Kells, but the jolly notes felt strange and unnatural on their own. Snipe started to chip and chack, but the evening belonged to a raven, which rose up from the murdered body of a dead blackie lamb. In the context of snow and darkness, the lamb seemed strangely out of context, even though we’re now on the verge of May.

Work in Progress

Watching a buzzard
Watching a buzzard

A change has started to come over the grouse during the past few days, and it was interesting to compare the birds here with those further North during my tour of Perthshire and Aberdeenshire last week. The hens in Galloway are definitely down on their eggs, and when I was stalking yesterday afternoon, the only birds I found were cocks sitting very tightly in the heather.

Further North, the first clocker droppings are only just being found and there were plenty of hen birds still out and about with their cocks. There was even some actual mating going on on the higher ground, and plenty of high-profile boundary disputes which would usually be the kind of business you’d expect to have seen in Galloway a fortnight or three weeks ago.

You sometimes find the first grouse nests in Galloway before the end of the burning season on the fifteenth, but these are seldom more than simple affairs with an egg or two tucked out of sight in the heather. The burning season used to end whenever the keepers burnt over the first grouse nest – usually around about the middle of April. But the timing of nesting varies hugely according to a range of different factors, and in a rare show of good sense, the laws we have today allow burning to continue (with various conditions) beyond the fifteenth on higher ground where grouse will nest later.

There’s no doubt that these birds are all working at the same process, but it’s interesting to see how the timescale varies from North to South and high to low.

At Home with the Wheatears

Settling in
Settling in

Now that the wheatears are here, it was worth heading around to the back hill to spend an afternoon watching them last week. The sun was smarting hot on the short grass, and the blue horizon broken only its is steep monotony by snow wreaths on the highest corries and clints towards Carsphairn. Soon I had a pan of water boiling for lunch on a little twig fire, and the disturbance my arrival had caused was gently healing over again. The stamping blackies had returned to graze between the mole hills, and their crumping molars provided a welcome bass note to the wailing yells of their leicester cross lambs. Most of these youngsters lay comatose in the heat, holding their heads at a blissful pitch of delight as the sun visibly grew them like plants.

The only local resident to hold a grudge was a raven who had been pushed off her nest as I walked past along the track. She clacked her beak on the sycamore boughs and hung upside down like a monkey, snapping twigs and clocking in fury until her patience snapped and she went back to her young. A month ago, this terrible plinth of dripping, knuckled twigs seemed bleak and inhospitable, but in the sunshine with cracking buds and a chorus of chaffinches, hope sprang easily. Young ravens squalled as she returned to coddle them; a monotonous “ash-ash-ash-ash” which she smothered with her wings. These chicks are still young and will be hideous out of sight – featherless and wriggling like an old man’s elbows in the oily bilge of the nest.

Somewhere out in the trembling heat haze, a cuckoo started to swell, but the sound was nothing without the breeze and it died in the stillness. Only snatches came now and again over the crackle of the fire and the jolly pip of wagtails on the short grass. High up over my shoulder and behind me, curlews sometimes called in the deep rushes, but this corner is neither hill ground nor low ground. Once it was cleared and worked, but now it is an angular billiard table of short grass, fallen bracken and the wrecked scaffolding of last year’s thistles. There once were rabbits here in huge numbers, and I hunted them with manic enthusiasm as a teenager, but now they have gone and their holes have been scratched shut by sheep or quietly widened by foxes under the moon. The dykes are crumbled lines of crisping lichen, never more than eighteen inches tall, and the pastures have little to offer except wheatears in spring.

But they were shy. There are several pairs on the face, but I had been there for two hours before I saw the first birds in the distance, and they worked down towards me over the course of twenty minutes. Two pairs at first, then three in a small bowl of short grass. The cocks sang scratchily – the same little tune delivered with a trilling, starchy professionalism. One pair came nearer than most, and I watched the cock eyeballing a haze of backlit beasties which swarmed mindlessly up and down in the sunshine. Queen bumblebees came blaring by, and a ladybird landed on my cup of coffee – a surfeit of life in the sunshine.

The nearest cock began to sing, tight-lipped and quietly as his hen peered meekly into the hollow remains of an old rabbit warren. The hens have been prospecting for nest sites since they first arrived, and they seem to feel a kind of gravitational affinity to holes. For now, he was content to let her wander, and he lay on his side and stretched his black wings out over the hot stones, frying the feathers in the sunshine with his eyes closed.

As the day cooled an hour or two later, his enthusiasm surged and he began to bombard her with attention. Singing with a starling’s dexterous voice, he crackled and trilled to her, flattening himself out like a bathing adder so that the stripe of his wing ran in a briefly broken line from the tip of his primary to the end of his beak. He would dig up strands of leaves and ribbons of blow grass, tapping them so that they were neatly aligned in his beak, then he would chase after the hen with his tail half fanned in a white, shining flag. She watched him closely, skipping ahead and keeping away as he bounced round and round like a little dart. They paused for a moment as a peacock butterfly drifted past, then resumed again. The only indication she gave during his hole pursuit was a quiet song and some subtle buzzing in her wings, while he raged and stormed tirelessly behind her, still singing despite his grassy beakful.

The raven rose from her nest to maul a pair of pigeons which had landed too close to her, and the shadows started to lengthen. I watched two of roe deer emerge from the birches, and pairs of larks and pipits came down off the hill to bustle like mice through the longer grass beyond the fence. I headed for home as they bounced and browsed through the blue grass, which had lost its sheen in the shade. Wheatears choose a number of nest sites before the hen finally starts to lay, but I had a good idea of at least three potential sites beneath the stones or tucked away below the turf. Certainly something to keep an eye on.

Past the Best

Going back into hiding
Going back into hiding

Just worth noting that the leks seem to have suddenly gone off the boil in the last three or four days. Speaking to friends on Deeside, the concentrated numbers of blackcock are suddenly breaking up into smaller groups, and even in Galloway it has been harder to see greyhens than it was ten days ago. I tend to find that the peak of greyhen activity at the leks is usually in the third week of April, and this is generally later depending on how far North you are. That said, I’ve seen greyhens being covered at Galloway leks well into the middle of May, and these are just as likely to be latecomers as birds who have lost their first clutch of eggs and need a second sitting.

Even when we’re past the peak of excitement, the cocks will carry on lekking for a few weeks yet. Some of them lek right into the start of July when their hormone levels change and the moult begins, but the excitement and drama of the “real” displays is probably more or less past.


Perhaps the best thing my camera has ever been pointed at
Perhaps the best thing my camera has ever been pointed at

When a grouse enthusiast is offered the chance to tag along on a formal capercaillie lek survey, there is only one answer. More to follow when the enormity of this morning has subsided and can be viewed with sober perspective.

Seedy Pigeon

I think these are sitka spruce seeds?
I think these are sitka spruce seeds?

I made an interesting discovery this afternoon while shooting crows on some of the in-bye. A pigeon happened to glint past in the sunshine, and I brought him down to earth with a bump. I’m a huge fan of pigeon on the table, and it has been some time since I last connected with one, so I keenly dashed down into the rushes to pick the fallen bird. Its crop was bulging in my hand, and I pulled it open to reveal thousands of tiny seeds, several of which had the remains of papery propellers still attached to them. They were almost certainly tree seeds, but what kind?

I ruminated over the question for another hour, accounting for a second crow as the sun started to sink, then came home to look into the subject in more detail. The closest approximation I can make is that these are spruce seeds, and it is mind boggling to think just how much work had gone into collecting so many. Like all seeds, I daresay there is considerable nutritional value in them, and it must be worth a pigeon’s while gathering them all one by one.

If I am right (I welcome correction) and the pigeon had been dining on spruce seeds, eating the bird myself might just be the first opportunity I’ve ever had to take something positive from my commercial softwood owning neighbours.

An Unwelcome Guest

An intruder in their midst
An intruder in their midst

I often end my blog posts with “more on this to come” or “to be covered in more detail later”, and while these comments are always included with the best of intentions, they seldom come to much. I sift through such a stack of material every day and only odds and ends actually make it onto this blog, so that while there is plenty of good stuff behind the scenes, it is quickly washed off downstream and lost, particularly at this time of year when I can hardly drive a mile in the car without stopping and getting the binoculars out.

But it is worth describing the effects of an irritating buzzard on a big lek near Strathbogie a fortnight ago. I arrived in the half light, watching twenty blackcock literally humming with delight on the opposite hillside. Greyhens came in and out like fireworks, drifting back and forth over the steep face while the cocks fought it out on the short blue frosty grass.

A buzzard drifted past in the stillness, ignoring the lek with a callous indifference and settling on the top stones of a dyke a few hundred yards away. Several minutes later, a second buzzard came past, and this bird was decidedly intrigued by the displaying cocks. It changed direction and coasted in for a closer look, finally passing right  through the middle of the lek like a bowling ball through skittles, sending all the cocks off in a flutter. They didn’t go far, but the low-altitude inspection was not appreciated. This buzzard then landed nearby and spent the next twenty minutes passing to and fro over the displaying cocks, buzzing them and generally making a nuisance of itself. At one stage, it actually made for a specific blackcock and lowered its talons as if to grasp it, but it broke away when the cock burst up into the air. Despite what we are told by the conservation charities, buzzards can and do kill blackcock, but this was a half-hearted, speculative gesture of ill-will rather than a determined attempt to catch and kill.

In due course, the buzzard landed right in the middle of the lek. The blackcock soon got used to it, and some began to display within a few feet of it. Every now and again, it would chase a blackcock away by bouncing towards it on foot, but the spectacle was becoming ridiculous and the lekking birds no longer showed any fear or frustration. They just accepted this intruder as a marginally irritating diversion to the morning’s activities, and after a few more low-level strafes, the buzzard vanished into the clear blue morning sky, heading off towards one of the classic Aberdeenshire granite tors which marked the horizon to the South. All the while, the first buzzard I’d seen had shown no interest in the lek whatsoever, implying a certain degree of mood or personality between individuals.

This had been an interesting incident, if only because the birds were so accepting of the intruder. They didn’t like being bothered by the buzzard, but they accommodated it. I have seen similar feints and silliness in Galloway which resulted in the entire lek being cancelled and the black grouse deserting altogether. This is probably related to the concept of safety and confidence in numbers, particularly since a Galloway lek seldom holds more than three or four cocks and this lek was more than five times as large. But it also implies that black grouse, like many other species, reach a critical mass in population which makes them less concerned by predators.

Galloway birds know what can happen if a bird of prey gets too near, and their reaction to pressure is abject terror and cowardice. Perhaps in this way, a depressed or failing population of black grouse is more effected by predation pressure (by which I mean disturbance as much as actual death). Even if they don’t actually kill birds, predators make small numbers of black grouse more timid and nervous, which leads to less confidence and all kinds of other detrimental and unquantifiable knock-on effects. I’ve written on this blog before about nocturnal lekking, and birds revert to all kinds of deviant strategies for avoiding predators when they are reduced to a small handful of individuals.

When lapwings breed together, they make tight colonies which are capable of joining forces to see off crows and nest-raiders, but when their numbers fail and there are only a few pairs, their eggs are easily stolen. It makes sense that a healthy population of black grouse is better able to deal with predation pressure than a few scattered individuals, and this must form part of the so-called predation trap which prevents small populations from becoming bigger.

Cuckoo’s Return

Always welcome
Always welcome

I marked the arrival of the first cuckoo yesterday afternoon as I lay out in the sunshine trying to sketch wheatears (of which more anon). There were some very distant phrases of cuckoo music towards the West, and they returned two or three times during the six or seven hours I was on the hill. I see from my notes that the first cuckoo is usually heard on the Chayne between the 18th and the 21st April, and this year was another “direct hit” on a surprisingly narrow window considering the enormity of the journey just passed. I spotted a cock bird this morning as I drove up around my larsen traps, and it was a real pleasure to see his neckless silhouette come whipping past the car in the sunshine.

I intend to improve on this picture of a cuckoo I took a few years ago when a chance encounter allowed it, but for now it is one of the best I have been able to manage. For a bird that is so easy to photograph, I must do better. There are some places in Galloway where you can see eight or ten together at a time, and I have plans to infiltrate one of these sites with camera and hide. Watch this space…