Black Grouse are amazing birds that are best known for their spring mating display – called lekking. At a lek, the males fan out their pure white tail feathers, then bubble, screech and strut about in an attempt to impress the females.
Black Grouse have been a feature of the hill country of north and mid wales but have suffered large population declines, so a recovery project was started in 1999. Since then the population has shown positive signs of recovery.
The RSPB run guided walks to a hide which has been built in Llandegla Forest in North Wales in order that people can experience this magnificent spectacle for themselves. I booked for myself and my wife on one in March, the downside being that the walk starts at 5.30 in the morning, meaning a 4am start from home! About 15 of us gathered in the dark to meet up with the volunteers who led the walk, who were extremely helpful and knowledgeable. A half hour walk through the dark wood led us to the hide, and we did get to see the lek from a distance, but as it was a dull, misty morning the views were not great. The compensation though was that the cafe in the visitor centre opened up early especially for the event, and the breakfasts were very welcome and absolutely superb.
However I had been told of a lek that could be watched from the road from your car so on 19th April, with my son in tow, we set off again in the pitch dark, to Worlds End near Wrexham. I wasn’t entirely sure where to find the birds, but once on the road across the heather moorland we came across a number of other cars parked on the side of the road. There, displaying a matter of 50 yards away, were at least twenty grouse. It was a tremendous experience, with the grouse bubbling, calling and posturing, and occasionally locking beaks in full-on combat. We watched for over an hour until eventually the birds started dispersing, probably to go off for a well earned rest!
From there we headed off to the tip of the Wirral, to a place called Leasowes lighthouse, which has a reputation for early sightings of spring migrants, and it had been reported the day before to have had a large influx. There were many more birders there, the locals being very helpful, pointing us in the direction of the best spots, and we had great views of Whinchats and Whitethroats, perched out and singing beautifully. We were also extremely fortunate to come across a number of people ostensibly staring at a large bush in the middle of a field, but apparently hoping to catch a glimpse of a Grasshopper Warbler. These little brown jobs are notoriously difficult to see, normally only being heard giving their grasshopper impressions from deep inside the undergrowth but whilst we were waiting this particular bird decided to perch out in the open and give a virtuoso performance, enabling us to have amazing views of this normally secretive species. I even got some phonescoped video of the bird singing, with its whole body vibrating, which was a real bonus.
After Leasowes we called in to Burton Mere RSPB reserve to sit in the lovely visitor centre and eat our lunch, followed by a walk around the reedbeds, where I even managed a quick sighting of another elusive warbler, a Cetti’s, and good views of my first Reed Warbler of the year. A bonus was a Spoonbill which had been roosting in the trees, but flew down to feed in the lagoon in front of one of the hides.
We got home exhausted after a very early start and long day, but delighted with the amazing birds we had seen, and adding another seven new species towards my target.