At a Black Grouse Lek
A Lek is a communal meeting place for male Black Grouse commonly known as ‘Blackcock’ this happens at dawn and lasts until approximately an hour after the sun hits the Lek, the main activity happens in the early months of the year and climaxes in April.
8th of April 2013
It’s still pitch dark outside when the alarm goes off at two o’clock, it only takes a brief moment to awaken and then to remember I’m off to the Lek this morning. I pack the gear in the car along with a down sleeping bag, comfy chair and two flasks full of coffee and gleefully notice there’s little or no wind and the stars are shining bright, the perfect conditions for a session in the hide.
As I drive south on the A9 the temperature gauge on the dashboard is reading minus eight but I then notice something that worries me, I can see that the sky is already getting light this could be a disaster, for some unexplained reason I’ve miscalculated by about half an hour, this could be a be a real problem, If I arrive and the grouse are already on the lek the early start will have been a wasted effort. A short while later as I make my way up the rough and steep track that leads to the lek I’m getting increasingly concerned by the brightening sky, as I break out of the forest onto the grouse moor I can see to my great relief the grouse haven’t arrived yet, phew!
The time is now twenty five minutes past three and I’m hastily erecting the pop-up hide, in record time I peg it down and throw the gear into it, only now can I finally relax knowing the birds haven't been disturbed.
Just fourteen minutes later the first few birds begin to arrive, at first there’s only the sound of air rushing over the wings and a whooshing noise as the birds land just a few metres away, this is followed by a hissing and spitting call, remember that it’s still too dark to see properly. The only way I can describe the sound to you is it's what I imagine what an alien invasion would sound like, being at a black grouse lek pre-dawn is not for the faint hearted.
Photography is futile for the first couple of hours as the light is too poor, this offers a great opportunity to sit back, drink coffee and enjoy the show.
As the dawn creeps in the full glory of what’s happening starts to reveal itself, today there are nine cock birds they are fairly equally spaced apart in a circle of about thirty to forty metres, in the centre the dominant birds holds his ground, occasionally he will be challenged by another bird, the two birds charge towards each other and square up face to face, there is posturing back and forth combined with a kind of ‘chuckling’ sound this normally precedes contact, contact is swift and often brutal, blood is drawn and clumps of feathers fly, these encounters last no more than a few seconds, strangely after showing such aggression to each other a sparring session can be followed by the two opponents standing side by side preening or staring into the distance as if they were best of friends.
Suddenly the mood changes, the calling noises increases and the some of birds are leaping in the air and furiously flapping their wings, one even takes flight and flies around in a tight circle it only then that I notice what’s caused the commotion, lurking on the periphery of the lek are four female ‘greyhens’.
Greyhens are smaller and look nothing like as spectacular as the cock birds, this doesn’t make them any less beautiful in fact their markings enable them to be perfectly camouflaged during egg incubation.
The presence of the greyhens has driven the males into frenzy, then something I’ve never seen happens, two of the greyhens fan their tails out and start displaying to each other, could it be that they have a hierarchy too? A short while later one of the hens presents herself to the dominant cock and copulation takes place, this behaviour is repeated with all of the hens before they fly off into the distance, for now semi-normality is restored.
At last the sun is kissing the peaks of the surrounding mountains; it won’t be long now before the lek is bathed in glorious sunlight, the activity between the cocks carries on as normal with the occasional battle and squabble by now I’m happily snapping away, I'm trying to capture as many different styles of images as is possible, the sun hitting the lek has finally allowed me to crank up the shutter speeds and lower the ISO, it’s now possible to hit 1000th of a second and capture some images of the fast and furious battles, and all this is happening just a few meters away from the hide.
09:30 and as quick as it began suddenly and with little or no warning the majority of birds leave the lek en-mass this only leaves a couple of birds stranding around looking a bit bewildered, after a quick doze and a preen they also take flight to join the others, the lekking has finished for another day.
If anyone reading this is keen to witness a dawn lek and all its drama I implore you to do so it’s a unforgettable experience that will stay with you forever, you never know you may (like me) become addicted to it!