Now that the leks are properly getting underway, it’s been interesting to catch up with some old friends. I’ll soon have seven complete years of lek surveys under my belt, and it’s interesting to see patterns and themes emerging as I return to the same places again and again to review their progress.
Perhaps most startling of all, I’ve been stunned to find that one of the birds I first saw in 2010 is still on his stance and going strong in his seventh season. This highlights a general trend towards maturity in the local birds, and I know of at least three other cocks who are now entering their fifth year of displaying. This isn’t old for black grouse, and the species operates on a far slower cycle than partridges and red grouse. A blackcock isn’t fully mature until he is two years old, and the layered nature of black grouse society evolved so that old birds can pass shared knowledge on to younger ones. A seven year old blackcock is hardly worthy of a mention in the international record books, but perhaps his longevity is surprising in a world full of predators and fragmented habitat.
As I really start to learn about black grouse in Galloway, I have begun to pick up on a recurring theme which runs through the whole sorry saga. I could obviously rave on in excited hyperbole for days on this subject, but consider the following to be a severely cropped summary:
This region is sparsely populated by a handful of extremely isolated blackcock, often separated by several miles of open moorland. By showing extraordinary flexibility and determination, breeding occurs. Nesting attempts are “hit and miss”, but when they “hit”, the birds produce large broods of young poults which can be found throughout August and September. I would argue that some of the better grassy moors in the east end of Galloway provide some of the best brood rearing habitat it is possible to imagine for young black grouse, and in a year where the weather is kind, a bonanza ensues.
But black grouse like all different kinds of habitats. When the lush summer fields begin to turn in September and October, the young birds must turn to secure winter habitats based on mature heather (and perhaps birch or thorn scrub, although this is really debatable) which can protect them from predators and extreme weather conditions. Without access to the next step in their seasonal cycle, the young birds are like lambs to the slaughter, and their fate is invariably served up to them by foxes and goshawks.
Every summer, the few breeding birds work miracles, but their labours are always undone again in the autumn. Years go by without even a single youngster surviving through its first winter. As I’ve written on this blog many times before, if an old blackcock is the cleverest bird on the hill, a young one is surely the thickest. Sheer dumb luck is probably responsible for selecting which birds survive through their first winter, but it’s cunning, forethought and an innate sense of paranoid suspicion which keeps them right thereafter.
The fascinating thing about this gloomy situation is that the bulk of my surveys over seven years show black grouse numbers remaining almost exactly the same. The tiny percentage of young birds surviving their first winter seems to be just enough to replace the tiny number of old birds predated each year. It’s a precarious lifestyle on the edge of oblivion, but somehow it seems to work. There isn’t time or space on this blog to chew over any of the many implications of this discovery, but I am constantly dumbfounded by the extraordinary balancing act these birds are able to strike without any meaningful human support and a prevailing disregard for their well-being or conservation.
And at the same time, I’m aware that I’m not doing any good by simply monitoring leks. Read up on black grouse studies through the eighties and early nineties and you’ll find some excellent science, but on the whole it simply charts the birds’ decline into non-existence. There is something horribly passive about simply recording a line of ever-decreasing numbers without ever fully rolling up sleeves and making a stand.