First of all let me start by saying Happy New Year, particularly to those birders amongst us for whom January 1st is probably one of the most exciting dates in the calendar. It’s the day on which new notebooks are cracked open, year lists begun and when even the humble Robin is an exciting find. Many of us will have been kicking off another year of the Patchwork Challenge but as I was away visiting family in Leeds we decided to head out to Ilkley Moor for my semi-annual date with Red Grouse instead. In the distance a light dusting of snow could be seen on the highest peaks yet where we were there was nothing but mud, mud and more mud. And a bitterly cold wind that froze you to the very core of course. Combine that with about as much light as one can expect from an energy saving light bulb and we were faced with conditions hardly conducive to a great photographic outing. Not to worry as we had endless optimism and enthusiasm on our side and after a couple of minutes we were already hearing the laughing sounds of Red Grouse from various points across the surprisingly busy hillside. Figuring our best chance of an undisturbed bird was to head in the opposite direction from a plethora of ill disciplined dogs we were soon tramping through dead bracken when a grouse popped up directly ahead of us. Being ever on the ball I of course had the camera on the wrong setting, switched off and still in its bag. Classic preparation which meant that by the time I was looking through the viewfinder our quarry had vanished. Or so we thought. A quick scan of our surroundings soon had the bird relocated but even once found it did a remarkably good job at blending back in.
Creeping forwards I was able to get fairly close before the Red Grouse took to its feet and slowly started to amble away. I have a theory that the tamer birds found closer to the busiest areas are perhaps that way because they escape the shooters for whom this moorland is managed. Whether that’s true or not we may never know but it gives photographers like me a perfect opportunity to grab some quality images without too much hard work. This was just such an individual and I hope the following photos speak for themselves. Check out how varied and patterned those feathers are!
Our encounter abruptly ended when the bird stumbled across another hidden in the Bracken sending both into raptures as they took flight and disappeared from view. Heading deeper into the moor revealed more and more Red Grouse but all were increasingly wary and none willing to entertain anything like an approach. Low light levels were also playing their part until the red eyebrow of this individual caught my eye amongst the heather. There was just chance to grab this image before it too was gone.
Of course Red Grouse weren’t the only birds present and we were soon adding Raven, Meadow Pipit and Black Headed Gull. Not the best of hauls admittedly but then we all know from the campaigns of last year quite how barren a grouse moor can be when it comes to other species of wildlife. Thankfully there are areas nearby where birds can be found in abundance, one being Rodley Nature Reserve in the heart of Leeds. Since our last visit a couple of years ago the area has come on leaps and bounds with several new hides and lots of new habitat created. Given the time of year that translated into plenty of waterfowl including Wigeon, Teal, Gadwall, Tufted Duck and a lone Pochard. A couple of Little Grebes were sneaking around in the background whilst overhead we were treated to a flock of at least sixty Stock Doves who seemed to be enjoying the bird friendly seed crops being grown on Tim’s field. There were plenty of smaller birds present as well including a very vocal Great-spotted Woodpecker, Grey Wagtail and two Jays. Our best find by far though was a fantastic Water Rail feeding right out in the open, something which scarcely ever happens and we all enjoyed great views, if a little distant. Time I think for one of my classic record shots.
OK, probably not the best photo ever to grace this blog but an excellent bird with which to kick off the new year. Hopefully there’s plenty more where that came from.