Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Dressed up and showing off, but not a female in sight!

WE GET A FEW OFFERS: a night here, a weekend there (the best was a weekend at the wonderful Airds Hotel). Today's invitation was to be up at dawn and see the mating display of the black grouse.

We met by the Corrimony Cairn, an evocative bronze age tomb and stone circle, one of very few with the entrance passage roof still intact - not bad for a four thousand year old building. Below us a gaggle of greylag geese rose noisily through the mist lying over the River Enrick. The 4x4 headed for the hills and Dan, the site manager, explained the scheme to plant thousands of Scots Pines, so recreating a fraction of the old Caledonian Pine Forest. "It's a 250 year project", he remarked. A noble undertaking, which makes starting on Jedburgh Abbey or Chartres Cathedral seem a little short term. I gather Paris Hilton is getting herself frozen, so I hope she is reading this.

The display ground is known as a 'lek'. The first one we looked at was snowed up but at the second, a gentle hillock carefully grazed down by cattle in the summer, there were nine males strutting their stuff, only slightly hindered by the slippery snow. Their black and white, lyre-shaped tails were fanned out, the red wattles above their eyes flashed as they feinted attacks. It made me think of a gentlemen's dining club - everyone dressed up and showing off but not a female in sight! Dan said the hens turned up later in the spring to watch. However proceedings were interrupted by some predator, unseen by us. Rivalry was forgotten as they headed for the safety of the trees.

We drove on to see a further sixteen cocks, feeding intermittently on the growing buds of a larch plantation. "That's 0.25% of the entire UK population that we've seen today", remarked Dan. True enough. We only have 10,000 of these wonderful birds left. Full marks to the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds for managing a growing population in this wonderful landscape and making these displays available to the public (they can't help the antisocial hour!).

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