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Spike in numbers for iconic Scottish bird

Last modified: 15 March 2016

Black grouse displaying at lek at dawn

Image: Chris Gomersall

Special events being held to help public see them

In highland Perthshire last year, the number of one of Scotland’s most iconic birds, the black grouse, were the second highest since 1993 and people are being encouraged to go to special events to see them.

The Perthshire Black Grouse Study Group has been monitoring the black grouse population in highland Perthshire since 1990. This group of dedicated volunteers check all suitable habitat and count all black grouse within seven 10 km squares. That’s an area of 70,000 hectares, roughly spanning across from Kinloch Rannoch to Kirkmichael and from Aberfeldy up to Blair Atholl. Between mid-March and mid-May, they make at least two visits at dawn to count ‘lekking’ males [note 1], providing crucial information about how well the birds are doing.

Lekking is a mating system, in which males gather at a traditional display ground (lek) and put on extravagant and competitive courtship displays to attract a mate. In spring, black grouse will come together at dawn and dusk inflating their necks and raising their white tail feathers as they compete for the best spot at the heart of the lek. The females (known as greyhens) watch from the edges and choose the fittest and most dominant to mate with.

This spring, RSPB Scotland in partnership with the John Muir Trust and Dun Coillich Project will be running lek viewing events near Schiehallion to offer people the chance to see these magnificent birds.

Lauren Shannon is RSPB Scotland’s Community Engagement Officer based in Perth. She said: “Watching black grouse as they lek is a magical wildlife experience, with rivals sparring amid bubbling songs and harsh scolding sounds. People may have seen black grouse on TV, but very few have been fortunate enough to see a lek in real life and so I would encourage them to take advantage of these popular partnership walks”.

Despite national declines in numbers of black grouse, in highland Perthshire they have bounced back and the area is now a stronghold for this species. Across the county, numbers declined during the 1990s, but have been increasing since 2002. There was a slump in numbers in 2012 and 2013, probably due to wet Junes in the previous years reducing how many chicks survived to become adults [note 2].  However, in 2015, 676 males were recorded at 82 leks. This is the second highest count since 1993 with numbers up 21.5% and more females being seen than in 2014. The largest lek recorded within the study area held 53 males up on 2014’s record of 29 [note 3].

A drier June in 2014 is likely to be partly responsible for the higher number of birds at leks in 2015, but Perthshire’s mosaic of habitats also benefits the birds with recent studies showing that they are responding to native tree planting in the region [note 4].

Claire Smith is a member of the Study Group and a Conservation Officer for RSPB Scotland. She said: “It’s great that black grouse are doing so well in Perthshire and we hope it continues. Estates and land managers have put a range of measures in place to benefit black grouse and we are fortunate to have such amazing long-term information thanks to the hard work by volunteers within the study group.”

In 2015, 29 volunteers made up of local birdwatchers, Estate staff, Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust staff and students, along with Forestry Commission Scotland, Scottish Natural Heritage and RSPB Scotland staff, helped with the count. Five of these volunteers have been involved in counting since 1990 [note 5].

The black grouse walks will take place on Sunday 20 March from 5.30 – 7 pm, Wednesday 30 March from 6 – 7.30 am and Wednesday 20 April from 7.30 - 9 pm. The walk costs £4 per adult (children go free) and there will be a hot drink provided at the end. Places are limited and booking is essential. To book or for more information, please phone 01738 630783 or email perth.admin@rspb.org.uk.

The walks will start from the Braes of Foss car park which is approximately a mile west, off the B846 between Tummel Bridge and Aberfeldy at Tomphubil. The nearest postcode is PH16 5NN. There is a £2 car parking charge.

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From scrub bashing to guided walks, the RSPB run events all around the UK

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