One of the main reasons for coming up to the Cairngorms this time of year was to see the spectacle that is a Black Grouse Lek. Black Grouse have a Spring courting ritual which involves dawn displays of the males in clearings in the heather moorland, known as a Lek. . Such areas can be used for decades and the ground can be worn down from their competitive displays which involve posturing, calling and fighting to establish mates. The females, known as grey hens will come to the Lek and ‘choose’ their male based on its dominance.
I had never seen a Black Grouse, so I was very excited about being able to witness such a spectacle and there are few places better than within the spectacular Cairngorms. In order to see such a Lek, you need to be in a hide, as the birds are elusive and easy spooked. We were visiting Mark Hamblin’s Lek Hide (through Andy.) The hides are superbly situated overlooking this well-used Lek, with a stunning mountainous backdrop and can be booked during the Lek season.
You have to be in the hide well before dawn, before the males arrive, so we had to get up at 1.30am to give us time to drive to the site and walk up to the hides under the cover of darkness. We were treated to signs of the Aurora and a beautiful moon as we crept up to the hides and settled ourselves down inside.
The haunting call of Snipe punctuated the air and it was a rather surreal experience, looking through the gauzed netting onto a darkened landscape, awaiting the tell-tale fluttering of wings that would announce the arrival of the males. We were quite early, meaning we were all settled and quiet almost an hour before the Grouse appeared. Suddenly, a loud wing flapping followed by an distinctive bubbling call alerted us to their grand arrival. With the light still too low for us to see clearly, all I could see were their fanned white tails waving like random flags in the darkness! There were 5 males and straight away, they were calling to each other and posturing. The sound is difficult to describe, but one which I will never forget…. loud deep, throaty bubbling, punctuated with a call that sounds like they are saying “No Way!” The darkened moorland was reverberating with these loud calls from all the males.
As the light began to seep across the landscape, a truly amazing spectacle was revealed
….five impressive males, heads low, tails spread like fans, with curved black sythe-like feathers either side called and displayed to each other…. and captivated us for several hours.
It is tempting to start photographing as soon as you can see the birds, but the low light is a great time to just sit, watch and take in the spectacle. … and it is one I will never forget. The early light revealed a mountain backdrop water-washed in pink dawn light, a heather-clad landscape and then posturing, fighting Black Grouse uttering the most incredible sounds… I was totally captivated!
The following two hours were spent soaking up the whole experience and taking far too many photos!! Watching it for the first time means that you are not able to predict what is going to happen, meaning I missed lots of shots that I wished I had captured, but even so, I was thrilled with my first photographic attempts with these wonderful birds….
The sun slowly crept across the landscape, transforming it and finally reached the Lek. The plumage of these birds is then seen in its full glory… not black in fact, but a rich, iridescent dark blue, contrasting with the pure white of the fanned tail and wing bars, combined with the inflated scarlet eyebrows. This is truly a wildlife spectacle to behold and my cards were soon filled with images!
As the sun rose and its warmth could be felt the males’ activity gradually died down… no hens appeared so their morning’s activity was only appreciated by us. After a brief pause and a flurry of wings, they were off, disappearing into the moorland and allowing me to finally verbalise my excitement to Andy and to struggle out of the hide, stiff and cold from hours of sitting still.
The landscape was incredible and it was good to stretch, have a look through some images on the back of the camera and take a look at the Lek site. Strewn with feathers from their battles, this flattened, raised area with a mountainous backdrop is just perfect for photography.
Andy and Pete demonstrated their own mini-Lek before tired, but happy, we trekked back down to the car!…
On the way back, we spotted a number of Common Lizards, warming themselves in the early morning sunshine..
What a truly memorable morning… we were feeling a little weary… and it was not even nine o’clock!!… we still had a full day ahead of us, albeit a long drive back.
We headed back towards Inverness, stopping for a much needed coffee and cake and headed to Chanonry Point, well known for its dolphins . It is rather early in the season yet but we did manage to see them in the distance and they came close enough for a few record shots of find and tail flukes.
It was lovely to sit in the sunshine, watch out to sea and chat about the Black Grouse, images we had captured, failed to capture of wanted to try to capture next time… what an experience!