Black Grouse at the 'End Of The World'

17th March 2017
It’s been many a long year since we have seen any Black Grouse in the UK, in fact it was around thirty years ago on a tour of Scotland. They are birds that have always intrigued us with their behaviour, with the male birds ‘Lekking’ pre-dawn on some lonely moorland. Showing off and posturing to attract females using their magnificent plumage, what’s not to like about them?

Basically you have to travel if you want to see these enigmatic birds and it’s either Scotland or the north of England if you want to be sure of at least seeing them. Photographing them is an entirely different matter, they are a ‘Schedule 1’ bird and therefore you cannot approach them in the breeding season. They shouldn’t be approached at any time really because they are easily disturbed and they are an endangered bird in this country. Their numbers have crashed in the UK and it is only through managed schemes that they have any chance of recovery. With this firmly in mind we booked a short break to north Wales near to Wrexham where there is one such scheme in place. The RSPB organises walks to see Black Grouse from one of their hides in the Llandegla forest but this usually results in seeing birds from a distance of a couple of hundred yards. This is not much use for someone wishing to photograph them.
However, there is in that particular area a solution to this photographic problem without, I’m glad to say, disturbing the birds. Opposite Llandegla forest there is a place called World’s End, this place is reached by a narrow moorland road that runs between Minera and Llangollen. This road bisects the moorland and runs through prime Grouse habitat. The male Black Grouse have their favourite Lekking areas and if one of the areas being used is relatively close to this road then it is possible to photograph these beautiful birds from the confines of your vehicle.

What you mustn’t do under any circumstances is get out of your car, or even worse walk the moor to try and see these birds. They will absolutely not tolerate people outside their cars and they will fly away great distances when disturbed and this would obviously impact drastically on their breeding etc. People have been seen walking through the bird’s habitat trying to photograph them, this type of behaviour is not only a criminal offence but it is ridiculously selfish and these people need to take a good look in the mirror and try and justify their actions.
On a lighter note, on Monday Susan and I arrived at our accommodation on a small farm near Minera, this was literally five minutes from the World’s End moorland road. We had researched a place to stay deliberately close to this area because of the very early time you have to be at any Grouse Lekking site. The accommodation was very nice indeed and was a cut above the usual places for the money involved. We paid £75.00 for a night with a continental breakfast. In addition there were fresh flowers, cereals, eggs, milk, orange and grapefruit juices provided. All bed linen, towels, heating and a plasma television included in the price. The owners Graham and Kath couldn’t be more helpful and made our stay very pleasant indeed.
Once we had unpacked, which didn’t take long, because this was a smash and grab attempt to photograph Black Grouse, we drove up onto the moor. As I have always maintained, planning is one of the five pillars of my bird photography mantra. The other four would hopefully be put into place the next day. We drove along the moor near to dusk and on a bare area of moorland very close to the road we counted sixteen male Black Grouse!
We couldn’t believe what we were seeing, we drove past them quite slowly and carried on along the road and they didn’t even acknowledge we were there. This was a very good omen for the following morning! However, when we were looking back at them from an elevated area some three hundred yds’ away we could see a man walking his dog along the road and when the Grouse saw him, at a distance of about a hundred yds’ they all exploded into the air and flew off immediately. This exemplifies my previous statement about getting out of your car to view these birds.
We packed all our gear into the car ready for a very early start the next morning, there’s no time for messing about that early! We dined on a portion of Susan’s excellent shepherd’s pie, I set the alarm on my phone for 04.00 and we retired to bed quite early. I must admit that I didn’t sleep well that night, I never do when I’m in a strange bed and of course when I’m hoping to get images of an elusive bird it makes it worse. I am always anxious about failure when I have made a special effort to get a special bird.
We were both up before the alarm and after a cup of tea and a very small bowl of cereal we made a flask of coffee and left. It was pitch black up on the moor and freezing cold and after stopping to arrange my lenses on the passenger seat, get our hats, scarves and gloves on and Susan getting onto the back seat we drove on. We parked up at the area we had seen the Grouse the previous evening and just waited with our binoculars at the ready. I crossed over onto the front passenger seat inside the car even in the dark to eliminate any form of disturbance. After about half an hour we thought we could hear some birds calling faintly and then through the open windows there were definitely the sounds of Black Grouse nearby. Slowly through the gloom, invisible to the naked eye, but in our binoculars we could see their white tail feathers as they displayed in the Lek.
Slowly the dawn broke and these magnificent birds manifested themselves in the glorious morning light.

They were strutting around on their own little patch of ground showing their white tail feathers and facing up to any other birds that encroached into their space. This posturing can result in quite nasty fights when beaks and claws are used. Females are attracted to male birds that are engaged in the most fights.

There was a fascinating array of calls, hissing, bubbling and croaking. It was pure theatre and we were mesmerised, I had to wait until the light built-up before I could take any decent photographs and this seemed interminable. I was praying the birds would stay for me to get some reasonable shots. Thankfully I managed to get some half decent images in addition to some lengthy video footage from this wonderful spectacle.
After about ninety minutes the birds went quiet and just dispersed and flew away. This behaviour is just part of the Lek, they perform, go quiet and then just fly away.

What an incredible experience and we were the only observers to witness it! We drove away and the coffee tasted very nice indeed after the performance we had just been treated to. In total we counted twenty male birds at the early morning Lek.

We spent the rest of the morning exploring the area, had some lunch in Llangollen and just generally chilled out. We returned to our accommodation and packed up, said goodbye to our hosts, set the Sat-Nav for home and left very contented indeed.
It’s great when plans come to fruition.

For more photos please see Latest Images / Black Grouse.

For some short video clips please see the Custom Page on the home screen entitled 'Video Clips' - next to the Guestbook page.