The Guardian Country Diary: Ears strained for a mad Highland grouse

To me, at least, the Highlands dishes up its treats in small portions. On the first morning I stepped out of the lodge and heard the clucking undulations of a springtime black grouse somewhere to the south-east. I followed the noise but didn’t see him.

Instead the sparse pine forest offered up a bright pair of crossbills. Their fools’ colours – him in red, her in green – were crisp in the early light.

The second day was quieter. I sat on a hummock of moss and blaeberry and watched siskins and tree pipits in the pine tops. Siskins in late April are a bit of a novelty to an English birdwatcher.

The pipits, streaky and lark-like, zipping briskly between trees and pylons, had the manner of souped-up meadow pipits, perching higher and carrying themselves less diffidently than their heathland relatives. Something about the angle of the sunlight and the pea-green high gloss of the pine needles brought out an olive shine in their cream and brown plumage.

I walked a little further on the third day. On a heathy ridge three red deer hinds regarded me with the wary hauteur of guests eyeing a gatecrasher at an exclusive party.

I heard – flitting, untraceable – the unoiled squeak of a crested tit, and, from some distance to the north, the hard-edged bleat of a red grouse.

This is capercaillie country. I listened keenly for the glugs and cork-pops of that mad giant Highland grouse, but heard only inconclusive stampings and rustlings in the undergrowth. There’s a rich and distinct biodiversity here, but it has a habit of keeping itself well hidden.

Picking my way through the undergrowth I saw that where the heather and blaeberry were thin the varicoloured circles of spreading lichen and multiple textures of moss made the earth look like a tropical sea bed.

The rise and fall call of the black grouse broke out again as I doubled back towards the path. This time I saw him, alone by the scrub and fallen timber of his lek, the white feathers of his undertail still flared in display. It was gone seven; he must have seen off all his rivals while I was still in bed.

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