Watching the drama unfold

by on May.09, 2013, under Birdwatching, North Pennines, Northumberland

Towards the end of a day in the North Pennines with Tony and Caroline, I suggested that we should head back to a Black Grouse lek where we’d watched two Blackcock pottering about in the early afternoon…

Everything had been performing well.  Red Grouse and Black Grouse playing hide-and-seek-and-run-away-a-bit, Curlew, Redshank, Oystercatcher, Lapwing, Golden Plover and Snipe all displaying, Skylark and Meadow Pipit singing as they ascended skywards, a Wheatear on a midstream rock doing a credible impersonation of a Dipper and the mystery bird of last week’s trip revealed to be a Starling…with a pale crescent on it’s breast!

Now, we were overlooking a lek site that we regularly visit on our North Pennines trips.  Two hours earlier there had been just two Blackcock visible, now there were nine, or ten, or five, or two…every scan produced a different total as birds stopped feeding, sat down in the long vegetation and simply vanished.  A few minutes later they all stood up, started feeding and wandered about for a little while before repeating the process.  After another cycle of ‘feed-hide-reappear’, a minor skirmish developed in amongst the feeding birds.  Two Blackcock squared up to each other; wings spread, tails raised, leaping into the air and lashing out at each other.  All of the other birds suddenly became very alert, and then the fight stopped and they took flight to the nearby area of low vegetation where we’re used to seeing them display.  Other birds, previously unseen, arrived and soon there were 14 of them; arranged in pairs they began the dance that characterises the early mornings of the North Pennines, each bird facing one adversary, strutting around, leaping and cooing (although the wind was carrying that evocative song away from our ears).  Four pairs stopped, and adopted a much more relaxed posture, then two more pairs followed suit.  Soon only two birds were still displaying…and, bizarrely, the other 12 were standing in the exact positions where they’d been when they gave up, like an odd game of musical statues.  Finally one of the remaining combatants pulled his wings in, lowered his tail and raised his head.  The final lekking bird stopped soon after, and we assumed that he was the afternoon’s winner.  As the gladiatorial contest ended, all of the other birds came out of the trance that they appeared to be in and began feeding.  The defeated bird from the final pairing made a half-hearted attempt at resuming the battle, but soon desisted when the reigning champion headed menacingly in his direction.

Sometimes a wildlife experience is just breathtaking, and watching the lek, from the trigger that kicked it all off to the final mystifying tableau, has crashed into my all-time Top 5 🙂

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