I had headed up to North Wales on Sunday afternoon for our early Monday-morning start to enjoy the wonders of a Black Grouse lek. I called in on the ‘Lake’ site for Hen Harriers that I mention in Inglorious (see Chapter 5) but there were few signs of spring in the mountains of Snowdonia. I hardly saw a Meadow Pipit and none was singing, nor any Skylark, and at the lake itself there were just a couple of honking Canada Geese and a pair of Great Black-backed Gulls. Not a Red Grouse called from the heather, not an Otter swam in the lake and not a Hen Harrier sky-danced the sky; but all of these things will be happening there soon as spring uncoils.
Another sign of spring is that as one drives up the A5 through sheep pastures occasionally one sees a pair of Herring Gulls, miles from the sea standing very close to each other. These are always adults, and always two birds, and always standing close together. They are very obviously pairs and very obviously not in breeding locations. They seem like couples who have slipped away from the crowds to enjoy some quality time on their own before settling down to bring up this year’s brood of young. I wish them well as I speed past on the straight parts of the road heading north.
It’s not all birding this trip, Ruth and I are planning a joint venture and so this was a planning trip (yeh right! – ed) but planning can be done in a restaurant drinking gin and tonic or red wine, in a car watching lekking Black Grouse, or in a cafe eating breakfast and watching some of North Wales’s only Yellowhammers on the feeder outside. Yes, it’s tough work but it needed to be done. More on our plans later this spring.
After the Black Grouse leks (for there were more than one) we did some general birding in the Welsh uplands in early spring. It was a ‘finches and raptors’ day with Chaffinch, Goldfinch, Bullfinch, Redpoll, Siskin and Crossbills (but no Linnets – result!) and Kestrel, Red Kite, Peregrines (quite a few), Buzzards, Merlin and a couple of Goshawks. And Alan saw a very distant Hen Harrier which the rest of us missed (although for a second I turned a distant Red Kite into a Hen Harrier – oh the shame!). Every time I go anywhere with the hope of seeing a Hen Harrier and don’t see one I always think to myself, ‘I bet Alan would have seen one’. Throw in some Dippers and Ravens, and an unexpected pair of Mandarin Ducks, and it was a good day’s birding. Better than good because the company was so good too.
Alan and Ruth (Ruth and Alan) make their living out of showing people birds – and they are very good at it (after all, Alan used to be a world record-holder and Ruth still is – see Behind the Binoculars). They were talking about their future overseas trips this spring to Arctic Scandinavia (I’ve always wanted to visit Verangerfjord), southern Spain (a favourite of mine), Extremadura (another favourite) and i felt a bit itchy to travel -although this is an itch that I rather rarely get. But it’s really striking every time I visit Alan and Ruth (Ruth and Alan) how many birds they’ve seen in the previous few days in North Wales. Now, there’s nothing wrong with North Wales and quite a lot right with it but I bet you don’t think of it as a birding hot-spot do you? Well, it depends on what you want – I haven’t seen Black Guillemot, Hawfinch or Chough in the last few days but Alan has. There’s great birding everywhere and although I have spent most of my birding life finding my own birds I’m increasingly happy to pay an expert to share their local expertise with me and take me to the right place at the right time and enjoy birds that I could find myself, but probably wouldn’t very easily.
Yesterday morning, as the light grew but before sunrise, I was looking at one of the greatest birding spectacles on offer in the UK – a Black Grouse lek.
I was in North Wales with friends and expert bird guides Alan Davies and Ruth Miller and the displaying male Black Grouse were only 20m away. We sat in the car and watched as well over a dozen males strutted their stuff with spread and erect tail feathers on the mixture of grass and heather. Each male stuck to a relatively small area of the display ground but as one watched there was always something going on; neighbours displayed at each other, a male would make a short run through the grass or a couple of males would have a brief scuffle.
And these males are handsome beasts (and don’t they just know it?) with their red wattles, dark blue necks and chests, black-brown bodies, lyre-shaped tail feathers and ultra-white backsides. As we approached the lek in the dim light we could see those white-bottomed black shapes moving in the distance.
There was not a female in sight, it’s a bit early in the year for them to be interested in the males, but these males wouldn’t be putting in the hours gathering together, displaying like crazy things were it not for the fact that this is where females will arrive to mate with their chosen male before heading off to lay eggs and rear their young alone. All this action wasn’t for us, although we were enjoying it immensely, but for females who weren’t present right then and might not show up for several days or even a couple of weeks.
And as we sat watching, with the car windows open and the cold Welsh mountain air rapidly displacing the fug that had built up as we travelled, in hope, to this scene, the air was filled with the sounds of the displaying males. They make quite a lot of noise. There’s a mixture of bubbly purring notes and lots of harsh hissing going on. Whereas one can watch what an individual male does in terms of its visual display I found it impossible to pick out an individual’s song. Because birds don’t open and close their mouths like human singers would have to, it’s very difficult to work out which Black Grouse male is singing the most or singing the best – but I bet the males all know, and even more importantly, I bet the females work it out pretty quickly too when they turn up.
The biologist in me wanted to understand and explain everything that happens (if only to myself and in my own thoughts) and the birder just wanted to enjoy it. The birder won.
This Tuesday morning I am sitting at my computer in east Northants in the warm. Yesterday at this time I was sitting in a cold car in North Wales watching a Black Grouse lek. Those Black Grouse are almost certainly strutting their stuff and making those noises right now as I write these words about them. And they’ve been doing it for thousands of years, and they might do it for thousands more if we let them. They aren’t doing it for us but we can dip into their lives and thrill at the natural world around us.
Thank you Ruth and Alan for your expert guiding (see here) and thank you to Andrew too for his friendly companionship through the day’s birding. More on this later today.
There’s probably nothing in this thought, but it keeps coming back to me. Is driving a moorland legal?
We know that shooting a Red Grouse is legal, within the open season, but is it legal to get a line of people to walk across a moorland waving flags and blowing whistles and disturbing every living thing in order to push Red Grouse towards a line of guns? It’s hardly selective is it? All that wealth of wildlife, for which grouse moors are famous (within the heads of grouse shooters) must be disturbed by grouse drives. Can you do that? Is it legal?
I guess it is. But I wonder.
And I wonder what you would need to do to prevent it from being legal. Could bye-laws be changed, say within National Parks, to make such repeated, organised, indiscriminate disturbance illegal?
Does anyone know?
But if driving a moor is legal – would it be legal for a group of people to drive a moor on a different day, at a different time, and without shooting any Red Grouse? Just for fun? I guess not, but I’m just wondering.
It was a slightly pathetic song; less a ‘chiff-chaff-chiff-chaff-chiff-chaff’ than a hesitant ‘Chiff-ummm- chaff-chaff-chiff-chaff’ but it was a Chiffchaff, not for example a Great Tit (some of whom can do a proper Chiff-chaff song very well) because although there was a nearby Great Tit I could see the Chiffchaff open its mouth when the song came out.
So – it’s spring.
I’m hoping I might see some signs of spring in north Wales in the next couple of days. I wonder whether I will.