Tuesday, January 28, 2020

Black Grouse Theory

The last few years have seen some mirky corners of my UK list properly cleaned out. One brief view of a Nightjar silhouette? Now a decent view of birds flying round and churring. Fleeting view of Goshawk? Prolonged view of several at Cockley Cley on several occasions. Short brief view of Little Auk, may have been a Starling? Close up fly-byes and one on a reservoir.

One dingy-record remains. A bird ticked, but not experienced. Black Grouse. A brief view of Blackcock lekking at distance. Not the lekk itself, as that was just over a hillock. Just birds in the air. Good enough to tick, in the small hours of a bird race sometime last century. Roll forward thirty years, and family business in Leeds gave me an opportunity to spend the morning correcting this state of affairs.

But where to look? Unlike some of our local rarities such as Stone Curlew (Weeting Heath, or Minsmere entrance road), Goshawk (see above), or Savi's Warbler (Minsmere, Island Hide, bushes at the back left corner of the mere), information on where to see Black Grouse is difficult. Lekks are closely guarded secrets for obvious reasons, but general winter habitat?

Careful curating of my twitter feed gave some clues. The southernmost English population to my knowledge is in Swaledale, and specifically the northern tributary of Arkengarthdale. The 'road' from Langthwaite to Barnard Castle goes past Shaw Farm, a local centre for aiding the status of Black Grouse. Other names that popped up were Whaw, a village in Arkengarthdale a few miles north of Langthwaite, and West Stonesdale which is the dale from England's highest pub, the Tan Hill inn down to Keld, the village at the top of Swaledale. So, 8am out the door ...

The sun shone as I left Reeth heading north, and I started stopping off at likely-looking spots on the road and scanning. My working theory was that Red Grouse like the moorland heather-rich tops, but Black Grouse prefer the wooded edges lower down the slope avoiding the barren windswept moors themselves. I searched diligently, found lots of likely looking blobs, but when I got the scope on them they were either stones or clods of earth casting shadows, or rabbits. And there were lots of rabbits. Odd how, when you remove every predator from a grassy landscape, that the place should become over-run with rabbits.

I was soon on open moor where I connected with a few Red Grouse, and a couple of distant waders in flight that were probable Golden Plover, but other than that is was barren, and I found myself at Tan Hill Inn where I stopped for a bacon sandwich. Yes, that Tan Hill Inn. the one where Vera was filmed (partly), the one that gets cut off by snow every winter, the one that is on TV so often Mrs DD feels she knows personally the young couple who run the place.

On down West Stonesdale, Its a beautiful little dale, and the area round Keld is for my money England's finest landscape, but Black Grouse there were none. I started getting a bit desperate, stopping at places not on my itinerary and searching. In the end I thought, well Whaw was on the list twice, so go back.

Find Black Grouse at Whaw? I couldn't even find Whaw. I eventually decided the collection of odd buildings and huts on the far side of the valley were Whaw, so I pulled in by the side of the road, set up the scope and had a good look among the edges of a few stands of bushes and trees. Nothing. Just a flock of Fieldfare and Starlings.

More out of desperation than anything else I decided to scan the moorland at the top of the opposite hill. Bracken, heather, grand, and rocks. Lots of little outcrops, grey, brown, and black in the low afternoon light. Scanning back one of the black clods seemed to have moved. And then a grouse-like head appeared. Could it be? I kept watching, and soon realised there were two blackish birds and a brown one. One of the blackish birds lifted its tail to show off all-white under tail coverts. Prolonged views at 60x were enough to rule out the classic confusion species of Dark-Bellied Brent Goose and Moorhen. I scanned further and found two Red Grouse and another Blackcock. This bird, slightly lower down, showed all the features. White under tail, white crescent on the wings. At last. All that stood between me and fantastic views was half a mile of valley. I decide not to try and get closer, but headed off, turning in the road at a point that I later found out was the actual hamlet off Whaw, and headed back to Leeds. No longer with just one distant view of Black Grouse on my list, but two distant views of Black Grouse.

If you want to see Black Grouse in winter, then, weather permitting, you can go on the road from Langthwaite to Tan Hill, stop just north of Langthwaite and scan the distant tops of hills with a good telescope. On the OS Map it is opposite Wood House looking toward Low Moor. There are some roads near there so if you trust your vehicle on these single-lane tarmac tracks you could try and get closer, or if you fancy a walk you can park at Langthwaite (£), walk up to Shaw Farm and then across the moors to Whaw and back down the valley to Langthwaite. The grouse could be anywhere, on the tops of moors as well as on the edges.

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