Up with the blackcock

Published: 19th February 2010

Up before dawn yesterday to inspect our local blackcock lek, and try and get some pictures. Surprised to find a snowy Lochaber landscape, as although the site is slightly elevated we have no snow lying at a similar height at home. The mountains all have a fresh covering, however. We heard the grouse before we saw them, bubbling, hissing and roo-cooing, and had a further 20 minutes to wait before we could make out shadowy shapes against the snow. Even then it was hard to distinguish birds from clumps of grass and reed, unless they moved. As the day brightened we were treated to a prolonged display of posturing , with birds rushing towards each other with little scuttling runs, and even flying at each other with claws outstretched. There were seven blackcock in all, and no sign of any greyhens. The lek size has been pretty constant ever since we started watching it, and only on a couple of occasions have we seen females. Where they go, and whether or not they watch the males displaying from secret vantage points is something of a mystery. The blackcock were still going at each other well over an hour later, despite the cold and the fact that it is still only February. As the lek may continue with increased vigour right through to June a tremendous amount of time and energy must be invested in securing a mate. We didn't get any great photos, but did manage a short video clip, which we will endeavour to post – either on the blog or YouTube – watch this space for details.

The weather has been largely kind, if cold, of late, meaning that the birds have been active, and we have been able to get out and about. We had a foray out to investigate a small loch in Ardgour. The loch was shoallow and promising, but had obviously been completely frozen not long ago, with traces of a multi-layered ice-rim still decking the edges. A small troop of seven whoopers were feeding at the far end, together with about a dozen wigeon. The wigeon were flighty, and did not allow us to approach, but the swans continued to upend and feed as if nothing was happening. A small black shape kept appearing in the water and disappearing again, and for a while I really couldn't make out what it was. At last it turned into a dipper, diving and feeding under the surface of the loch – obviously even shallower that we thought.

There has been a tremendous range in tides just recently. Low tides have exposed channels and sandbanks in Loch Linnhe that I was not previously aware of, and also afforded some good opportunities for watching ducks and waders close to. We took advantage of another low tide this week by going rock-pooling at the coast near Arisaig, As hoped, the lower shore was well exposed, revealing pink, lichen encrusted pools, shaded by kelp. The colours were amazing, with a host of different anemones brightening the rocks, including orange and white Saginas. Bright green breadcrumb sponges  were everywhere, with alternative white and orange forms. We also found a couple of sizeable fish (well, at least for rock-pools), which we have tentatively identified as rock goby and painted goby. To add to the mix were a variety of crabs, a cushion star, a bright orange bristle star and a wealth of shiny topshells. The time flew by and all too soon the tide was on its way back in. Off-shore we watched a large flock of merganser. The males were displaying, craning their necks stright into the air and whistling.. Very handsome they looked too. We also noted that several (but not all) of the black guillemots were now resplendent in their black breeding plumage, adorned with white wing patches and bright red feet. Another sign that spring is on its way.