‘I see a Red Grouse and I want to paint it Black’. Very appropriate for those people that are so desperate for Tetrao tetrix they casually string Red Grouse in flight over a distant clump of some beknighted Scottish moor. Thankfully, Sir Mick won’t pick up on this absurd, absolutely naff lyrical twist, and even more thankfully I am not one of those, poor birders who goes on wishing that every Red Grouse they pick up on a once-a-year foray to Speyside is a Black Grouse. That is not to say I have been deprived of decent Black Grouse action in my time. Contrary to popular thought, NE Scotland really wasn’t that good for Black Grouse: I never managed more than several feeding birds in Aberdeenshire at a single site and only on two occasions did I connect with them in Speyside, concerning just two birds in flight, and in similar cirumstances one time in Angus. That however, was my tetrix total; until a few weeks ago.
16th March 2014. 6:00am. 4 hours sleep. Ouch. Pissed. Those pints of Addlestone’s cider and Belhaven Best still entrenched in the stomach. Gets up, staggers into the awaiting vehicle. Munches on rashly prepared toast and butter. Bites Braeburn: an apple in non-alocholic, non-amalgamated attire. Sunshine blinds his insulted, exhausted eyes as he collapses onto the passenger seat. Inebriated Joe turns his floating mind to Black Grouse, a positively sobering prospect. Drunkeness wanes. Enter past participle, personal pronoun.
Mark Grubb ferried me up the Innerleithen Road, on the Lothian-Borders border, a hidden moorland nook to the east of the Pentlands and within 15 miles of Edinburgh itself. I reckon that this stretch comes second to Durham in the ‘Official Best Black Grouse County Rankings (strictly UK)’. What I was treated to that early morning far surpassed any experience I had had with Black Grouse in the north-east. Mark took me to several favoured spots for the species, and more or less everyone of them came up with the goods. By a small steading just over the border, the first three male Black Grouse of the session announced themselves, perfectly occupied as they fed intently by an old dilapdated wall 50ft away, their red combs adding a splash of colour to the moorland monotony. Everywhere, Red Grouse exclaimed ‘go back’, individuals more or less incessentaly hurtling nail-bitingly close to the car bonnet over to a new patch of heather on the side of the road as we meandered along. None, as it happened, were painted black by the imagination. We must have had at least 40 that day.
The number of Red Grouse proved to be a great omen for us. By the time we had reached the end of the favoured Black Grouse areas along the Innerleithen Road, we had already clocked 10 male Black Grouse, albeit mostly singles distantly. In twenty minutes, I had notched up around the same amount of Black Grouse as I had ever seen previously within a three mile stretch. This pleased me, but for that deep-seated satisfaction to set in I needed to see at least some signs of lekking, even if it was too late in the day now. As it happened, I never quite got the full monty, but I did get a smidgen of lekking behaviour. One of the lone individuals had a wee fan of its tail at one point, its call bubbling and reverberating across the moor. It was too distant for me to really appreciate this though.
As we were about to move off, Mark and I got exceptionally lucky with a posse of 5 male Black Grouse within just 20ft of the car, albeit slightly in the sun. Stealthily, we brought the car to a standstill, and began to watch in awe for some 15 minutes. Unfortunately two of the males responded to this and immediately sped eastwards, adorning their exquisite white-fringed lyre tail-feathers as they went, but three stayed put. One of the males was rowdy, and began to bubble furiously at the individual nearest to it. The other male, interrupted during its intense feeding session, turned. We were moments away from witnessing some prime lekking behaviour, at sensationally close quarters, but rather than responding to the battle cry the other cock cowered somewhat, and turned away, keeping low and out of trouble. No jousting today. The offending bird continued to pester the offended but soon became lethargic, and retreated in a loss of will. The same individual’s mind soon turned back to food, as it gradually ambled closer and closer to the road, feeding all the way along. It was soon so close the whole bird eventually was too near to fill the 40D’s field of view. It was within seconds of dropping down onto the road, when a car whizzed past and it was caused to belt off into the distance with the other two in tow… aarghh! What a show though. We had had 15 Black Grouse, though I was assured that this relatively standard numbers for a visit to the area. Whilst I had not experienced full-blown lekking, I could not have asked for more spectacular views (and prolonged too), especially from the comfort of the car on a windy day. A very, very special moment in my Scottish birding that truly showed just why this area is among the best areas to see Black Grouse in the UK.
A brief trip to the beautiful Roslin Glen produced 3 Nuthatches and my first two Chiffchaffs of the year, as well as Dipper and a number of other commoner species. The former constituted to only the second site I have had this species in Scotland: it is a real breath of fresh air to see that Nuthatch has colonized so successfully in Lothian. The latter, in retrospect, may well have been among the earliest Chiffs I have ever noted in Scotland. Spring still hasn’t quite arrived here, but when it does, I am looking forward to witnessing what this county has to offer. Some flavassima, or maybe even one or two of the less typical subspecies, particularly spring to mind, as a respite to uni exams (already!). It’s relieving during the incessant whirlwind adventure that is uni to remember that such great birding as this is available not far from the city.
Thanks for reading,