Blackcock Lek 2017

A blackcock in his prime

The reason I cannot reveal where this lek was is not to deter all those enthusiastic to see a lek but sadly those who would seek to damage what has been years of sustained hard work and investment. I can tell you that I was in County Durham but there are also blackcock in  Scotland, the north of England and north Wales. As I have mentioned, this particular lek is the result of sustained management since 1999 when The Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust carried out its count of this piece of land. They counted five blackcock. With sustained keepering and heather restoration efforts the numbers rose to over 75 birds but this number took a battering in the winter of 2010. Almost all the hen birds were wiped out because, unlike the grouse and the male blackcock, they did not leave the hill to find food. Today, the numbers have risen again to about 100 birds split between two main leks.

Nervous arrival…

The dictionary describes a lek as ‘a traditional place where males assemble during the mating season and engage in competitive displays that attract females.’ It describes lekking as ‘to assemble in a lek and engage in competitive displays’ but the layman’s version is this: (In blackcock speak) “let’s find a good bit of ground where we can have our punch-ups over our women. We can meet there every morning, especially in breeding season, and for those still keen for a fight, in the evenings as well. If everyone has their own little area of ground or mound they protect that would be cool and if a female comes into your territory, you get to try and mate with her”; (in greyhen speak) “OK, so all the lads meet in one place and strut about splaying their tail feathers, making all sorts of noises and having lots of punch-ups. We can show up briefly, flirt, see who we like, mate with them quickly and go off to lay our eggs.”

Orange wattle, the most succesful suitor

I have photographed plenty of blackcock but never on a full 40-cock lek when the noise and action is intense. It has to be one of the UK’s best wildlife experiences and anyone with an affinity with British wildlife should experience it, just as they should experience a keepered moor with all the grouse, golden plover, curlew, oyster catcher and peewit chicks to name a few. The chicks are born with legs to run like lightening and mouths to eat as fast as possible to get to flying strength as soon as they can. It is quite a sight.

I had two hosts, Mark, the owner of the ground and a wonderful cottage (not present), and Matt, the very kind friend who invited me and bought two pop-up hides for us to use and dinner. We met mid-afternoon and headed up to the lek by Polaris 4 x 4. It was probably 4.30 when we got there. We moved one of the hides to take advantage of any light that we might be lucky enough to enjoy between then and about 7.30. By 5, a blackcock was cautiously walking into the punch-up site and then another and another. They all seemed to settle down and nap.

Pre-battle rest

Then five or six flew in and this woke everyone up, a few more arrived and all the cooing, humming, hissing and fizzing began along with tail spreading, ducking and diving and marching about picking fights.

Fighting commences…

Puffing up seemed to be a major tactic to make yourself look as big as possible.

Do I look big enough?

Another tactic I noticed was in mid-battle a bird would start cleaning itself under its wing. It was almost as if he had said “hold on mate, I gotta deal with this itch” because the opponent would stand there and wait and then they would re-engage. Maybe it was a tactic to play for a breather or a form of submission.

“Hold on, got an itch”

In defending their territory they would take on neighbour X, then puff up and do a crouched speed-walk toward the next challenger.

Crouch and attack…

This would go on until everyone seemed exhausted. Then they would settle down and have a nap until someone spoiled the peace and everyone would start again. The wattles above the eyes were like gleaming neon headlights but this was nothing compared to how they were in the morning when they were so puffed up you could see their full structure. For those salmon fishers amongst us, they looked like deer hair bombers but trimmed by an inexperienced tyer who had not trimmed them tight enough. We did get some better light and had the most exciting and wonderful evening.

Deer hair wattles

It was a 3.30am start for me the next day because I wanted to organise cameras and lenses. A quick tea, tons of layers of clothing and we headed up the hill in the dawn glow at about 4.20. It was dark but we could see. We left the Polaris and walked because the birds were there. We disturbed them a bit clambering into our hides but five minutes later and things were in full swing and the morning made the evening before seem like a rather tame rehearsal. This was the real thing, forty birds in full pageantry. The noise was incredible. There were birds everywhere, in front of me, both sides, behind, even on top of the hide at one stage. The light was too low for photographs for at least an hour and that was a good thing. It allowed me to just enjoy what I was seeing and hearing. It really was an assault on the senses.

Hen birds came in and strutted about. There was one war-torn gent who was clearly a hit with the girls because he got way more than his fair share of action with the ladies. They would come in flirt, march around, mate, which took less then five seconds, and then leave. The lucky guy would get set upon by many of his neighbours for his success. The whole event was mesmerising. Occasionally I would move too abruptly and most birds would spook and fly away only to return within minutes. Sometimes this happened seemingly for no reason. By about 9.30 we felt we had seen the best of the action though most of the birds were still there. I came out of my hide to see if I could photograph the birds flying back in. The concept worked but the light was still poor for capturing flying birds. With sunlight, it would have been amazing.

Greyhen

We headed down the hill already plotting and planning how we could and would (with permission) do it better next year. For photographers, you need a double sized hide to be comfortable with tripod and maybe spare cameras with different lenses on them. From a lens point of view, the birds can be right in front of you, one metre away, but most were about ten to fifteen metres away. Other than it being slower at f4 to f5.6, the most flexible and therefore useful lens was the Canon 200 – 400 mm. I started with the 600 mm on the first afternoon but also used a 70 – 200 2.8. To capture the whole scene a 16 – 35 mm 2.8 would have been good. I had the big lenses on a Wimberley Head on a tripod. You can see why it would be useful to have more space for all these camera and lenses and even to have two tripods up which was impossible in my very single hide! In the evening I did get down to ISO 400 but in the morning it was 6400 to 800 ISO really.

Full on action from dawn…

Some birds were quite beaten up

This was a truly magical experience and there is no better example of how management and keepering of ground benefits so many species. A big thank you to my hosts and well done to Colin the keeper. If you get the chance to go, do. There is talk of wildlife weekends being run by a superb chef friend of mine: if these materialise, go for it. It will be one of the most enjoyable and relaxing (despite the early wake up) weekends you will have.

In all his magnificence…

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