Monday, 19 May 2008

Black Grouse Lek - Yorkshire Dales

I like my bed so it took extreme motivation to get up at the brutally early time of 03:30 today to attempt to see black grouse. Unfortunately there are no black grouse in Lancashire so I needed to go further afield. I knew of a couple of well publicised sites in the Yorkshire Dales so that's where I headed. As I was pulling out of the driveway I looked at the dashboard clock which read 02:50! Double checking the time with my watch confirmed that it was only ten minutes to 3! I had inadvertently got up an hour earlier than intended because the alarm clock was an hour ahead. Trying to quickly turn this cock-up to my advantage I thought briefly about heading up to Upper Teesdale - a longer journey but I now had time to get there before dawn and this area has the highest density of black grouse in England. I quickly dumped that idea and went back in the house to my half finished cup of tea!

A few minutes later I quietly left the house again and headed off. I made quick progress on the quiet roads and within 70 minutes was driving along a moorland road in the dales. I stopped about 15 minutes short of my first intended location for a quick recce and a pee. As I stepped out of the car I was greeted with the most amazing sound; It was 04:10 and in the pre-dawn half-light the moorland dawn chorus was in full swing. There was a backdrop of waders calling with a wailing little owl quite close - very eerie, but closer still was the unmistakable sound filling the crisp, clear morning air of black grouse, seemingly only metres away! I had stopped right next to a lek, but it was too dark to see anything!

I quickly grabbed my bins and started scanning the area where the bubbling black grouse calls were coming from, but couldn't see much. There was quite a bit of light in the sky now but the ground was still cloaked in near darkness. I waited, and as the light levels increased I could make out a rise in the ground about 30 metres to the east of the road and beyond this I could see movement. Looking through my bins I could make out what look like the heads of grouse. In order to get a better view and without risking disturbing the birds by going closer I ended up first on the bonnet and finally on the roof of car. From this vantage point I could see beyond the rise and there 35-40 metres away were seven black grouse lekking!

Slightly further down the road I noticed a stone track leading up to the lekking area. I realised that this passed behind the rise that was obstructing my view, so I drove down to this area and got out of the car. Staying behind the car at all times so as not to disturb the birds I could see the whole lek, where eight cock grouse were performing. Absolutely amazing!

As the grouse continued to lek, the little owl was still screeching and by now the skylarks and meadow pipits had joined the chorus. This was a magical moment - British wildlife at its absolute best and in my view comparable with anything anywhere.
I decided to check the two sites that I originally set out for, so I left. These produced no black grouse which somehow made finding the lek even more rewarding. I decided to return to the lek. When I got back it was about 05:30 and fully light, the bird song had receded and the black grouse were calling much less intensively. They were alternating between feeding and half-hearted displaying. It was now I realised that accidentally getting up an hour early meant that I was here much earlier than intended and witnessed the lek at its peak. In fact had I been running to my planned schedule I would probably have driven straight past this spot in favour of the original (grouseless) sites.

I scanned for female grouse but didn't see any. Hopefully breeding has already taken place earlier in the Spring and the females are brooding. Black Grouse in the north Pennines are a rare conservation success story and lekking males are on the increase. Hopefully one day they will be back in Lancashire but even then I think this place will see me visiting regularly every spring from now on.

I left at 06:00 and was home at ten past seven. I was knackered at work the rest of the day but it was worth it! Wildlife seen this morning included: Black grouse, red grouse, grey partridge, red-legged partridge, snipe, curlew, lapwing, meadow pipit, skylark, little owl, buzzard, kestrel. Mammals: rabbit, hare and rat.

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