on the Black Grouse lek

It was a banner day today, even though we boarded our transport to the high moors at the early hour of 5 a.m.  Our quest to see Black Grouse displaying on their lek was highly successful, and our skilled guides, Alan Davies and Ruth Miller (more on them in a later post) managed some up close and personal encounters with these gorgeous black beauties.

Black Grouse on the lek-

Male Black Grouse spread out on bare areas in the heather-covered moorland, but run at each other in face-offs of two or more birds.

Male Black Grouse are the size of a large chicken, weighing 2-3 pounds.  But when they are all fluffed out in the height of their display, they appear even larger.  The males strut around on bare patches of ground among the clumps of heather and bracken-covered moorland, fanning out their tails like turkeys, puffing up their neck and chest feathers, and quivering as they emit their low humming whistles and scratchy growls at each other.  Every now and then the contest between males escalates to a higher level as they face off, chest bump, and rear up at each other.

Black Grouse on the lek-

A three-way face off of fan-tailed male Black Grouse.  Those pristine white tail feathers look like a big white dahlia flower.

Black Grouse on the lek-

Getting more serious about intimidating each other…twin red comb feathers fully erected, neck feathers fully inflated, wings held out to the side, head lowered and thrust forward — what comes next?

Black Grouse on the lek-

Full body contact, kicking up muddy water at each other — which one is top dog?  Hard to say. Up close, the supposed all-black male actually has deep indigo blue-colored feathers around its neck.

A short video by Per Johan Næsje illustrating what I have just tried to describe is below:

Hens, which are a more cryptic brown color, don’t congregate in the lekking area, like we’ve seen in the Prairie Chicken leks, but are hidden in the tall heather clumps. Presumably they are watching this display of “macho grouse” and making their choice of mates accordingly.

Throughout most of their range in northern Europe, Black Grouse males display on their lek in the spring, and hens raise one brood of chicks.  However, habitat degradation, bad weather, and predation on chicks have resulted in population declines in some areas, such as in Wales and other sites in the UK.  We saw about 25% of the Wales population of male Black Grouse today, at just one moorland site.

Black Grouse on the lek-

Displays of multiple males on leks gets the reproductive juices flowering for both males and females. A lone male probably won’t get much attention from the hens.

Note added:  Photos taken with my camera by Alan Davies, who had access to the only open window facing the lek.

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