Tuesday, 10 April 2018

It's the End of the World as We Know it! Black Grouse, 29th March

One of those Facebook memories popped up last Tuesday on my timeline reminding me of a fabulous 3 day break that Mrs Caley and I took in North Wales around this time last year, the highlight of which was attending a black grouse lek. We went to watch the blackcocks (as they are perversely known) twice, once in very foggy conditions and the other in brilliant sunshine. That memory of the impressive mating display burned brightly but at that point on Tuesday evening we had no plans to return. I shared the memory out to my "friends" and received a few questions from a fellow birder about where, how and when did one get to see the spectacle. A fire was relit by recounting the experience to him and by Wednesday and after finishing a job early in the week and the Easter break looming a formative plan was hatched. No time to stay in the area this time however so at 03:30 on the Thursday morning we set out in the car to drive the 140 miles or so in order to be in position by the lek before first light (sunrise was at 06:55 that day but we'd need to be there at least 45 minutes before that). Midweek visits on sunny days are best, both for more room (there is only convenient parking for half a dozen cars) and the sunshine makes for better viewing and photos! Weekends are an absolute no no and the Easter weekend in particular would be nothing short of chaotic.

The journey time was to be about 2 hours 40 minutes and all was fine until we came across warning signs that the M54 was closed. A very slow diversion through the wilds of Wolverhampton (how many sets of traffic lights does that place have?) led us to the outskirts of Telford and back to the motorway where another very helpful warning sign informed us that the A5 was also closed ahead so another diversion via the A41 was in order. Being busy with lorry's this was slower than the intended route and we lost time so didn't find ourselves going up the moorland approach road until 06:45! It was already partially light too. A familiar song by REM had started reverberating around in my head "That's great, it starts with an earthquake, birds and snakes, and aeroplanes, and Lenny Bruce is not afraid...". It always seems to get there whenever I visit this place. We followed a carload of other birders that didn't seem to know where they were going since they stopped at the side of the narrow road and allowed us to pass. This was to our good fortune and to the detriment of theirs since when we crested the hill above the lek area there were already 4 cars in situ and the "lay by parking" was taken. Luckily I was able to park in front of the other cars without blocking the road to other road users although our view would be partially obscured by a mound between us and the birds. The occupants of the car we passed were not so lucky and couldn't find a suitable spot so had to park further away (no love lost in this game!). 

The black grouse were already hard at it strutting pompously around with their strong-arm poses and white signals flaring at each other. The lek is a "battleground" of sorts where the male birds all contest amongst themselves in order to win the right to mate with the females. Within the general lek area there will be several mini feuds between just 2 birds going on and it is never a free for all. Sometimes a pair of duelling birds will be challenged by another but generally it appears that the same "pairs" of birds just continually spar with each other. Whether that pairing system remains the same throughout the lekking season I don't know (and really should research) or whether their is some type of "ladder" league system (as at Squash clubs) I don't know either (really really should research). It is difficult to work out even which birds are the most dominant and if they are placed in the middle or on at the outer of the lekking ground (right I'm grabbing my book on black grouse right now! Well when I've finished with this anyway).


The closest birds are only about 30 metres away from the car. I should add that you must stay inside the car to enjoy the lek since if you don't the birds will be gone in a heartbeat. They will tolerate humans encased in hides or cars used as hides but not if you take the cover away. At this still early hour it isn't light enough to take any decent photos so we just watched and listened to the antics playing out in front of us. The sounds that the birds make are every bit a part of the experience as the visuals. The birds utter strange almost "Martian" like "bubbling" noises (if there was such a thing) at each other. As they engage there is a "cooeshhh" sound which is a bit like to my ears "Come On!". 


Then as they near each other a strange phrase is usually emitted as if they're asking "who are you?" or "whats your name?". They do this every time they meet which is every few seconds since they retain the same sparring partner! Most frequently after exchanging the pleasantries they just back away and display their white tails at their adversary (and as if to say "oh alright then") but every so often it goes a stage further.and the polite request becomes more hostile. Mainly it's intimidation with much posturing and normally one bird backs down quickly but just occasionally full battle ensues and the birds lock in actual combat and feathers may fly! When a fight takes place then the camera shutters along the line go into overdrive! Unfortunately low light means low shutter speeds so it's not easy to get clear and sharp images.

The sun crests a ridge in the opposite direction (East obviously) to the viewpoint so when it makes it's appearance then the whole of the lekking area is lit up. If it isn't raining that is, which it now was! This is a high moorland area after all and the weather up there is different to normal conditions. Only a shower though and finally at about 07:45 we finally got our first rays of weak sunshine and the chance to get some decent shots.

At that exact time a couple of other interested onlookers turned up in the form of a pair of Canada geese which flew in and landed right in the middle of the lek. Their arrival caused a momentary panic amongst a few of the grouse and a couple flew up and around before settling back in their places allowing me the opportunity to grab some flight shots, the best of which almost won me an accolade! But not quite! 

"The Almost Award Winning Shot!"

The geese for their part looked totally bemused by it all (almost if they'd been invited to a posh do but had managed to turn up at a teenagers coming of age party instead). Thankfully they didn't join in and disgrace themselves and after a cursory sample peck at the grass on offer exited stage left.

"You sure this is the right do?"
"Best be on our way then..."

The black grouse continued prancing around until about 08:30 when they grew tired of the whole scene and relaxed and became buddies again. There had been rain, sun, rain again and even a short snow flurry during the proceedings. In fairness the action had been somewhat muted compared to the previous year when it was enlivened by the presence of a female bird (called a greyhen) which raised the blood pressures and testosterone levels up a notch or two. This time there was no sign of any Lady grouse so I guess they must have been having a lie in.

"Snow Cock"
"Grumpy Cock"

"Cock of the Rock"

At it's peak the lek had contained 17 males but many had dispersed quietly during the morning and as we made our leave there were just 6 left and they had given up jousting completely now preferring to eat instead. We made our leave and drove over the moorland road towards a nice cafe that we know of for some much needed sustenance. Part of the way there we noticed another lek (which we knew of) still active but further away on a hillside opposite. This lek was made up of a further 14 male birds although some could have come from the other lek of course. 

"The Other Lek"

They too had pretty much finished up for the morning and indeed within a few minutes all of them had flown back towards us, over our car and away up into the moors. Except for two which very conveniently landed right next to the road about 50 yards away. I approached very slowly (still in the car) and rattled off a few frames. Both birds strolled across the road and into the heather on the opposite side allowing for very close views before they were disturbed by a couple of cyclists. Do I ever hate cyclists?! Not as much as dog walkers (that allow their dogs off leads and don't control them that is and apologies to my responsible dog owning friends) but almost as much. Their particular pastimes always seem to interfere with my own and always at a detriment since birds are invariably put to flight by them. Plus middle aged men riding bikes while dressed in lycra is a bit weird isn't it? Not that middle aged men dressed in camouflage green and carrying cameras and scopes isn't of course! 

Anyway the grouse had gone and our birding fun for the morning was over so it was off to that breakfast and then the return journey home. It had been another terrific few hours spent in the company of one of our most charismatic bird species. Do love the black grouse!

"The End....As We Know It!"

Wednesday, 4 April 2018

Purple patch! 24th February.

Our intention today was just to stop off at Loch Leven for a coffee and cake to break up the long journey northwards and then, if it was still around, to drop in and twitch a glaucous gull which we'd never seen before. But the dawn was glorious! Sunlight streamed in through the hotel window and the light was amazing. We couldn't waste it so over breakfast I quickly pored through the "Best Birdwatching Sites in Northumberland" and hatched a plan to visit the Lighthouse (or Stag) rocks at nearby Bamburgh where a flock of a 100 or more purple sandpipers was reputed to spend the winter. Purple sandpipers are one of my favourite wading birds since they pugnaciously dodge incoming waves that crash onto the rocks as they feed. They are also very well camouflaged and blend in perfectly with the hues of the rocks. Plus there would be other good coastal birds around which we very rarely encounter at home. Bamburgh is well known for it's huge and impressive castle which dominates the skyline for miles but being the philistine that I am I totally ignored that and headed north along the coast towards one of the most insignificant lighthouses that you could imagine. Even my mate Captain Trev didn't recognise it and he works for Trinity House! I parked the car and jumped out into a bitterly cold wind that blew in from the sea but it was still brilliant sunshine! 


A rook landed on a rail fence right next to me. I hadn't even got the camera to hand yet! As quick as I could I picked up the Canon aimed and fired a shot at the bird and almost but not quite managed to get a pretty smart image of the rook as it took took to the air. 

I scanned the beach and the rocks (known as Stag Rocks because of a white stag that has been painted on the side of a rock face) for the purple sandpipers but could only see a couple of redshank. 

A few eider ducks loitered offshore and various gulls passed by (but no white-wingers). Mrs Caley and I strolled along the clifftop towards some very nicely located desirable residence's and the local golf club. The first tee was in full swing (ha!) and, even though a former golfer myself, I couldn't help thinking that if we were mad to be out birding in a -5 wind chill then those chaps are clearly demented! A group of 10 or so oystercatchers were sleeping out at the edge of the rocks but I couldn't see anything else so we continued along the coast. 

I decided to check the black and white sentinels out a bit more closely and only then noticed a couple of smaller birds scurrying around the pools and rocks. Closer inspection revealed that they were indeed purple sandpipers. We edged down the cliff to get closer and then out on to the rocks to get a bit closer still. There was a convenient old slipway close by and we used that to approach to about 50 yards. Then the heads all came up. Close enough! The birds settled down again and I took a few frames but the viewing position wasn't the best. 

A curlew took flight from an unseen position and sailed past at speed closely followed by a second. 

As I was gazing out to sea and watching a small flock of about 20 common scoter fly past when a huge flurry of smaller birds whirred past and headed to the rocks a bit further up the coast. After wheeling around a few times they settled right out at the edge of the water and mostly went to sleep. This was the purple sandpiper flock that I'd hoped to see and counting from the photos taken numbered over 140 birds! Easily the most that I've seen in one place. 

We stealthily sauntered (is that possible?) up to the area where they had put down and leaving Mrs Caley comfy atop a flat rock I then quartered very warily over the rocks towards the birds. The rocks here were cratered with small pools and I had to tread very carefully in order to preserve dry footwear. I managed to get within 20 yards or so of the sandpipers before the rocks became treacherously slimy with seaweed so sat down and observed the sleepy flock. Most were either resting or preening but a few were feeding and it was on those that I dedicated my efforts to capturing on "film". A single turnstone was also present but for some reason I couldn't get a shot of it. 

Time was pressing on so after a very enjoyable hour or so we headed back to the car. A mass of at least 500 kittiwakes were now feeding frantically offshore and more eider had arrived. We left reflecting on what a great place this must be to live and bird in. Within just a few miles lies the Farne Islands and Lindisfarne and the whole coastal area is a magnet for migrant birds at the right time of year too. We will return very soon!

We motored past Edinburgh and took the new Firth of Forth crossing over into Angus and on to the RSPB reserve at Loch Leven. This is always a convenient stopover when travelling north and has an excellent cafe that overlooks the Loch and a feeding station in the visitor centre grounds. Normally we'd be visiting in June and see swallows and warblers but here in February the feeders were proving to be vital to many hungry bird species including a surprising treecreeper that was taking seed from one of the birdtables! The main attraction though was the resident flock of tree sparrows which are an increasingly difficult bird to find in Oxfordshire. After refuelling on soup and coffee I spent a few minutes taking some images of these delightful little sparrows.

We drove on northwards and arrived at Pitlochry just before 15:00 and only an hour or so before the light would wane. The glaucous gull had been seen sporadically adorning the "sludge" barrier just upstream of Pitlochry dam. According to Birdguides its appearances were irregular and didn't conform to any pattern so we'd have to take our chances. We walked towards the dam wall and amongst a dozen herring and lesser black-backed gulls stood the unmistakeable figure of the hulking great juvenile glaucous gull. Our luck was in! The glaucous gull was stood exactly where it was always seen, the barrier being about 50 metres away. The light was still fairly good too so our views were pretty good. We traversed to dam walkway to get closer views and to position the sunlight at our backs. This was a very cold spot and the wind out in the middle was icy indeed. The best views were from near the western bank but almost as soon as we'd got there the glaucous gull, without warning, suddenly took flight and sailed away south and was lost to view. Luckily I'd managed to grab a few flight shots as it passed.


Our journeys north are often embellished by some superb birds and birding and today was certainly a good one! Looking forward to finding some of the Scottish specialities up in the Highlands.