The Moorcock

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This summer was spent working on a new project up on the North Yorkshire moors. The Yorkshire dales are one of my favourite wild places in the UK. Its a part of the world I know well, having lived in nearby York. I’ve always loved spending time exploring  the untamed, elemental landscape of these upland heather moors.

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So after Capercaillie and Black Grouse earlier in the year it was the natural choice of location for the next instalment in my continuing quest to document the natural history of the Grouse family. For this part of the project my target species was the Red Grouse.

Having laid the groundwork with a trip the previous summer, I started the project at the end of July this year and followed it through to early September. It was a big undertaking, involving a five hour journey to get up there from London. With the weather up on the moors being so unpredictable I typically left it to the last minute before making a final decision whether to make the journey north. Sometimes with interesting consequences. On one particular occasion I set off at 10pm from London arriving on the moors at three in the morning. With sunrise only an hour and half away I parked up in the public car park reclined the car seat for a power nap only to be awoken by flashing blue lights. The local constabulary were very friendly  though and seemed to accept my explanation what I was doing there at such an ungodly hour . No doubt though they thought I was completely mad. Looking back on it, I probably was! The owners of the guest house where I stayed the next night were surprised there were any police around at that time in the morning. I’ve calculated I must have driven over three thousand miles by the end of the project. I was grateful for Pressie’s company on several of the trips. It’s a long, lonely drive there and back again on your own otherwise.

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Click on image to enlarge

Click on image to enlarge

The Red grouse, or moorcock, as it was once known is celebrated as the only species of bird endemic to the British Isles. This status was honoured by the founders of   British Birds today’s leading British bird journal of record when they adopted the Red grouse as their logo. Although some consider it a subspecies of the Willow grouse, whose range extends across northern Europe, Asia and North America, it has developed in isolation from other subspecies of this bird.

The typical upland habitat of Red grouse is heather moorland, heather shoots forming its main staple  diet for most of the year. Since the mid-nineteenth century, many areas of heather have been managed to produce grouse for shooting.  Indeed, grouse shooting has become one of the major land uses of upland ground and an important source of income for both estates and the wider surrounding local community. Whatever your views on shooting (and I can see both sides of the argument), the simple fact remains that without this management the Red grouse might not be there at all.  Even so, according to studies the population remains in decline, a large part of which is attributed to habitat loss (that old chesnut again) and parasitical disease.

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Click on image to enlarge

The Red grouse is distinguished from the Willow grouse by its deep rufous barred plumage found in the male of the species . It also lacks the white plumage  Willow grouse and Ptarmigan develop in winter.

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Click on image to enlarge

The stiff wing feathers of the Red grouse are what give them their fast, explosive flight action earning them their reputation as ‘the King of Game Birds’.

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I love the male’s beautifully distinguished ‘eyebrow’ comb (or wattle), particularly prominent during territorial and breeding behaviour.

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The plumage of the female is a lovely pale shade of golden brown giving it an understated beauty all of its own.

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The habitat in which these birds live is truly breathtaking. It was interesting to watch the growth of the heather throughout the duration of the project until it finally flowered, blanketing the moors in a riot of purple splendour.

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Click on image to enlarge

Click on image to enlarge

Click on image to enlarge

Click on image to enlarge

Spending a sustained period of time on a project reaps its own rewards. I got to know the local population of Red grouse  and their individual territories very well during the time I was up there. This particular male was our absolute favourite bird. He was in beautiful condition and was particularly feisty. Even though it was high summer he seemed to spend most of his time and energy defending his territory and harem of hens against all comers from his favoured sentry points. He was a picture of pompous rage. His territorial displays were characterised  by the distinctive, imperious  ‘beck beck beck’ call that would become very familiar (and much imitated still by Pressie and myself!).

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When calling failed to do the trick he would take off like a rocket from the heather on whirring wings in full song-flight display mode before parachuting in the near vicinity of his would be rival, calling all the time to announce his presence. Great fun to watch, but not so great  when you have just spent half an hour painstakingly getting close to him without causing disturbance, the light is just getting good and he’s now the other side of the moor. Although frustrating at times, it was always a privilage to spend time in his company. With the advent of the shooting season we feared for him but on each subsequent trip up we were relieved to find him still there defiantly defending his territory with a comic sense of his own self importance. For more Red Grouse images from the project click here

It wasn’t all about the grouse though and whilst we were up there we were lucky enough to see Little Owls, Kestrel, Buzzard, Merlin and even Hen Harrier. The Hen Harrier was a particularly good spot given the extent of the illegal raptor persecution that sadly still goes on in this part of the world. For that reason it is very important to notify the National Parks authorityof this sort of siting which we did through a friend local to the area. We were also particularly lucky to find and photograph a family of Stoats. Thereby though hangs another tale…

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Although hard going at times, working on Red grouse was great fun. I have to confess though by the end of the project I was starting to go a little stir crazy with the theme from the opening credits to ‘All Creatures Great and Small’ playing in my head as we drove over  the moors and down through the splashdowns! As summer started to give way to autumn, London was calling again and my thoughts turned to projects closer to home. Next time the annual deer rut in the Royal parks

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6 Responses to The Moorcock

  1. Danny Green says:

    Beautiful Mate, god knows how many miles you did from London to Yorkshire but it was well worth it. You have inspired me to improve on my own rubbish collection of this cracking bird.

    Dan

  2. Ian Haskell says:

    Very nice – I think your best portfolio yet IMO.

  3. R Kerr says:

    Your photos are beautiful! Made me tear up and feel proud to be the daughter of a (now retired but still beating & picking-up) ‘keeper.

    • jcoxfoto says:

      Ah, that’s wonderful to hear. I’m delighted my images struck such a chord with you. Red Grouse are such beautiful birds and we really enjoyed spending spending the summer exploring the wilds of the North Yorkshire moors

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