Worth grousing about

As the lekking season draws nearer, Mark Hamblin talks about his long-term love affair with black grouse.

I have a love-hate relationship with black grouse. Mostly, I love them. The hate bit comes in when the alarm goes off in the middle of the night and the last thing I want to do is get out of bed and drive for an hour and stomp across a wet moorland in the dark to sit in a cold hide.

But to witness black grouse strutting their stuff on their display grounds (lek) at dawn is undoubtedly one of the greatest birding spectacles Britain has to offer. It is raw and often very aggressive animal emotion as males defend their turf and females eye up their suitors.

So this is what happens. It’s 4.30 o’clock in the morning, I’m sat in a small canvas hide in the dark with my fingers and toes gradually numbing from the frost and my brain is telling me I really should be asleep, when all of sudden there is an explosive whirring of wings as 6 black grouse descend onto the lek. Then a brief silence as they seem to gather themselves together they launch into Act 1 – a series of cooing and bubbling calls interspersed with rasping notes that fills the air with the most amazing dawn chorus you are ever likely to hear. It really is a magical experience and one that never fails to raise the hairs on the back of my neck.

I have photographed blackcock many times over the past few years and you would have thought that I would have got what I wanted by now. Well I have really but there is always something different to try to capture and this is what keeps me going back for more.

Without doubt the most exciting aspect of black grouse behaviour is when two males fight to gain dominance on the lek as it’s only the strongest and fittest males that will eventually mate with the females that visit the lek. Each male black grouse takes up the same position on the lek at dawn and they fight in roughly the same spot, which means that I’m able to set the hide up to try to capture the best of the action. These battles can go on morning after morning and if the two males are evenly matched then the fights can be very vigorous which makes for some fantastic action-packed images, although it can be very tough on the birds.

But what really makes the difference are the females. After all, no party is much fun with just blokes and so once they show up the males raise their game to another level, performing elaborate flutter jumps, leaping several metres into the air as they try to grab the females attention. This is always a challenge to try to photograph but with a bit of practice I’ve been lucky enough to nail a few of these shots. They can also work well shooting at slow shutter speeds but these can be a matter of taste and to be honest 99% of them end up in the bin!

Last year I only had a couple of sessions at the lek and so I am eager to get back this year to get another fix. And for the first time I have put in a semi-permanent wooden hide, which proved to be a tougher job than expected. Even with a helping hand it took us all day to dig down into the very stony ground so that the hide is positioned at the right level. But at least it’s there now and as soon as the conditions look good I’ll be making a pre-dawn visit. I am also renting out the hide this year and have been delighted with the response so far, however there are still plenty of openings available which can be booked through Northshots.  Visit the website for more details.

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6 thoughts on “Worth grousing about

  1. They are quite good at captivating spectators heart 🙂 for past 6 years i have spent some days almost every spring in one or another black grouse lek in Latvia’s raised bogs, but it does not get boring and there is always something new. Nice post!


  2. I have been going to that place for the last 20 years! I find it a great shame that someone did found the need to commercialise it. It`s sad that everything is about making money, isn`t it!
    F. Desmette

    1. Hi Frederic, I understand what you are saying and I agree up to a point. However, it isn’t all about making money here. In fact the bigger issue is to regulate increased disturbance at this site in cooperation with the Estate. In recent years more photographers have used the site without permission from either the estate or the gamekeeper and this has caused problems none more so than the birds being disturbed with some folk turning up at the lek well after sunrise. Hopefully this year we can limit disturbance and regulate visits by feeding folks through this commercial hide. Not ideal I know but this is the result of increasing pressure on wildlife by photographers not just here but at many many sites across the UK.

  3. Nice post Mark – I am looking forward to seeing Black Grouse again, this time from your hide.
    As a bird watcher / naturalist first and a photographer second, for over 50 years, I respect Frederic’s opinion but think he is wrong. In the last few years I have taken advantage of several of the commercially available hides that have become available. Although I have come away with some amazing pictures, it is the privilege of spending up to 9 hours watching wildlife at close quarters that has been special. I agree control is an important factor here but at none of the locations I have been to have I felt that subjects being watched we’re being disturbed in any way. In fact, it could be argued that these facilities assist in protecting wildlife. Any wildlife watcher worth their salt knows where to find these species and I have personally experienced irresponsible individuals that are of a far greater concern than a well managed hide.
    I also believe that a balanced commercial outlook towards wildlife, in the modern world, is critical to species and habitat management. There are many examples where without a commercial input sensitive species would be far worse off.

  4. Hello Mark
    I have just read your newsletter, and I am really, really sad to ear that the lek is gone, disappeared. What a shame, I have been going to that lek for the last twenty years. Until you took over the place with your money making scheme. Sorry, it was not for money but for conservation, that what you said at the time.
    This is what you wrote in your newsletter
    “I now have a new black grouse lek site near Kincraig following the unfortunate demise of my original site. For reasons unknown the birds have not appeared on the original lek this spring possibly due to predation from goshawks or they may have moved to join another lek that is situated near-by.”
    Why don`t you mention the fact that the likeliness of the birds moving away was because of disturbance. The goshawk is not to blame for everything! It is a real shame; At least I hope that you had the decency to remove your hide from the hill.
    By the way, I know of another two lek about 1 kilometer from the one you were using… All the males are still on the lek. So explain to me why are those birds not been predated by Goshawk?
    There is not two way about it. The lek was disturbed. And I will say it again, It`s a REAL SHAME!!
    Yours sincerely
    Frederic Desmette

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