IT’S 5.15am and it’s dark.
The last time I was awake at this unearthly hour was when I was on the way to the airport to check in for a midday flight.
I mention this to RSPB people engagement officer Julie Rogers.
“That’s what I say to everybody – ‘you wouldn’t mind getting up this early to go on holiday,’” she says with a laugh.
I concede this is true.
A small group of us are assembled in the car park of Coed Llandegla Forest, a place where twitchers, bikers and foresters work and play in harmony.
Some of those gathered are RSPB volunteers, others are dedicated ornithologists and the remainder are myself and a very tired looking Leader photographer.
We are all here in the hope of catching something a little bit special – something known as a lek.
Having done a little research before heading out I had discovered a lek is, and I quote, “a gathering of males, of certain animal species, for the purposes of competitive mating display”.
The males we were here to see were the elusive black grouse.
The moorlands of Denbighshire and its neighbours are home to half of Wales’ population of this endangered species and Coed Llandegla, along with Ruabon moor, is one of the best places to spot them.
Coed Llandegla is an ideal habitat for wildlife and it is thriving, thanks to a unique partnership between the RSPB, OnePlanet Adventure, which maintains the mountain bike paths, Denbighshire County Council and UPM Tilhill, which owns the forest (and supplies the paper your Leader is printed on via Shotton papermill).
By adopting a policy of continuous cover – clearing strips of trees while leaving others – UPM is helping to maintain the habitat of the trees while encouraging biodiversity on the forest floor exposed to daylight.
Led by Julie, we made our way through the trees and out on to an area of moorland.
Along the way our guide identified the various bird calls that came from above as the forest began to wake from its slumber.
We arrived at the RSPB hut just as the sun was beginning to rise and the mist over the hills began to clear.
It was going to be a pleasant morning.
Julie and the volunteers set up scopes while the rest of us scanned the horizon with binoculars.
The first sighting came after only a few minutes as four or five male birds – with their distinctive black and white plumage – flew in to begin lekking.
“March, April and May is the best time to see the lekking display,” explains Julie.
“They can do it all year ’round and all day – I’ve seen them doing it on Ruabon moor in the afternoon – but this is the most reliable time of year and time of day. Egg laying starts at the end of May.”
Although we were some distance away, the binoculars and scopes afforded an excellent view of this rare sight.
By now the males were in full flow, dancing around each other in an effort to establish their prowess.
The scene was much like a nightclub on a Saturday night – only somewhat more graceful.
The birds’ bobbing white tails and a bubbling call are all part of a serious mating ritual.
The females, volunteer Des James tells me, are particularly shy and would likely be hiding in the surrounding heather.
“The grouse eat the young shoots of heather and bilberry,” he explains.
“These have been cut back in places to encourage new shoots for the grouse to feed on.”
Grouse, he says, are vegetarian, except when they are youngsters.
“Young grouse develop very quickly – flying is their only means of defence.
“To help them develop they are fed a diet of mainly insects.”
Having watched the lek for some time, we continue back down through a different part of the forest, spotting other birds – crossbill, redpoll, siskin – along the way.
The walk finishes with a mouth-watering bacon sandwich, voted the best in Britain, and a hot cup of tea at Coed Llandegla Cafe.
- The RSPB will be running a number of black grouse watch walks in the coming months. It will also be running nightjar walks later in the year.
For more information and to book your place email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 029 2035 3008.
See full story in the Leader