Spike in numbers for iconic Scottish bird

Kirsty Nutt

Tuesday 15 March 2016

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.

For further information, and to arrange an interview, please contact:

Lauren Shannon, Community Engagement Officer, on 01738 630783

Or

Kirsty Nutt, Communications Officer on 01224 624824 (01224 627869 direct) or 07711 385595.

Photographs:

Images to support this story are available from RSPB Images. You can access the images by Clicking here and using the login details below

Username: Black grouse

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Editor's notes:

1. Black grouse are one of only three British bird species that exhibit lekking behaviour. In spring birds congregate at traditional lek sites (display grounds). The males compete with each other for best position to display themselves within the lek; dominant males tend to occupy central sites. The bubbling calls and the posturing of the males (cocks) attract females (hens), who will watch the displays before choosing their mate. The dominant males will mate with the most females.

2. The numbers of black grouse recorded are counts of adult birds and so are indicative of the success of the previous years breeding.

3. Although recovering in Perthshire, black grouse are still absent or declining from much of their UK range and so are a red listed species, meaning they are of highest conservation concern.

4. Habitat management needs to involve whole, integrated landscapes rather than single habitats. Changes in farming policies to promote low-intensity mixed farming, a reduction in grazing intensity, removal of deer fencing, management of the deer population and sympathetic forest management, or even restructuring of plantation forests could all benefit black grouse.

5. The study group's work has been essential in helping conservationists to understand the importance of the Perthshire population and contributes to conservation measures for black grouse including advising land managers.

6. The RSPB is the UK's largest nature conservation charity, inspiring everyone to give nature a home. Together with our partners, we protect threatened birds and wildlife so our towns, coast and countryside will teem with life once again. We play a leading role in BirdLife International, a worldwide partnership of nature conservation organisations.

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