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The fascinating courtship dance of the black grouse

Updated: Jun 11

A project that I have been pursuing intensively for several years because it is close to my heart: Observing the behaviour of the beautiful grouse in their habitat and, above all, capturing it photographically.

For some time now, in addition to photography, I have also been devoting myself more intensively to filming in order to be able to capture the exciting and dynamic courtship dance of the black grouse even more impressively.

Black grouse courtship display, Black grouse hunting

It is not always easy to reach the mating grounds due to the time of year when mating takes place.

The main mating season is from the beginning of April to the end of May, but no later than mid-June. Depending on the weather, however, this can be delayed by 2-3 weeks. There is usually still a lot of snow in April and the journey up into the mountains is often still very arduous and exhausting. The mating grounds are usually between 1700 and 1800 metres above sea level.

On the road with Monika Stadlmann and Wolfgang Hauer - Backpack with up to 22kg of equipment

It's always a struggle with the immense weight that you have to lug around as a wildlife photographer. The main part is of course the photographic equipment. Clothing in winter should not be underestimated either, nor should the food and drink you need.

On the ascent, I often have the feeling that it's wonderfully warm and I even start to sweat a little. In sub-zero temperatures, however, it's very easy to get cold when you're sitting at the hide under your camouflage overcoat.

Here it is really necessary to have good winter clothing with you in several layers and to put it on after the ascent. Otherwise you will start to shiver after an hour at the latest and run the risk of frostbite. Then you would only have the option of cancelling the hike and making your way back down to warm up.

Black grouse mating, in its habitat
Black grouse habitat - in SalzburgerLand at almost 1800m above sea level - May 2024

How does mating take place in black grouse and how do I time the main mating season correctly?

Scouting out the right places usually involves a lot of preparatory work.

I am always grateful for information from fellow hunters, hikers and photographers who provide me with their current observations in the mountains. I often follow up on this information and inspect the locations.

In recent years, I have climbed up to various places several times in order to narrow down the main mating grounds.

Finding these is extremely important. This is the only way to have a relatively good chance of being able to observe several cocks mating and to have the hens in front of the lens. I now have several different places that are very well visited by black grouse every year.

The mating site is usually a shrub-free, largely flat area near the edge of the forest. These areas are often created by avalanches or windthrow and the black grouse use these open areas for mating. However, forestry and mountain pasture management also make a positive contribution in part.

Black grouse mating, black grouse mating in the Salzkammergut
Lots of loose snow is a good indication of a lot of activity and a sign of a main malting site

The ascent often starts at 2 a.m. or earlier and I have to overcome my inner bastard every time to set off at all. The ascent takes 60 - 90 minutes, or twice as long if there is snow. I'm travelling with a head torch and mustn't dawdle so that I get to the top on time.

The hide has to be perfectly prepared and I have to be invisible under my camouflage cover by 4 o'clock at the latest.

That's the deadline, because very often the first roosters arrive at 4.15 am. If I haven't finished under the cover by this time, the roosters will leave again and perhaps settle a few hundred metres further down for the morning. Then all the effort of the climb would have been in vain.

I don't watch the black grouse from an ‘umbrella’ as many of my hunting colleagues do, but from a camouflage cover. This gives me more flexibility and allows me to change my perspective as required.

Once the hide has been prepared, I have to wait patiently under my camouflage. It is still pitch dark and there is absolute silence.

The morning slowly awakens and the first ring ouzels make themselves heard. A great horned owl calls and a few minutes later the first cocks arrive at the mating site. This often happens very quietly or with a loud flapping of wings. And some even march to the site on foot, perhaps because they have spent the night nearby.

Black grouse courtship display, Black Grouse, Salzburgerland
It's 4.47 a.m. and the first cocks have arrived at the mating ground

It's still too dark to see the cocks with my eyes, I can only see a few moving shadows. But I can hear them hissing and rolling just a few metres in front of me - the courtship has begun! Unlike the capercaillie, this always begins on the ground and not in the trees.

Here in the high alpine pastures, the ‘little cocks’ meet for the arena courtship, measure their strength, determine the hierarchy and woo the females.

On this morning, the sky is crystal clear, dotted with stars and it is windless but cold. Perfect conditions for an intense courtship display.

The sun slowly rises, bringing light into the mating arena and I count up to 15 cocks at times.

It is early May and the courtship is at its peak at this time of year. The fact that the black grouse is particularly keen to call makes the spectacle all the more interesting. Both visually and acoustically, it is an unrivalled experience.

A short video of mine shows how intensively the cockerels defend their places and it can get very rough here. The cockerels try to hit their competitor's roses or neck with their beak and thus put him out of action or send him fleeing. This very often results in nasty injuries.

Black grouse occupy small territories on the mating grounds, which are of course vehemently defended, as we saw in the video earlier.

The cock fluffs up his plumage, spreads his feathers wide, making the sickles clearly visible and the roses above his eyes swell to the maximum.

It demonstrates its strength and at the same time wants to score points with the hens.

I can't really recognise the roosters' territory boundaries, but they have their demarcation lines and defend them very strictly.

Black grouse courtship display, ruffed grouse, black grouse hunting
The wings are stretched far downwards during courtship, grazing in the snow and creating strange tracks.

Black grouse courtship display, ruffed grouse, black grouse hunting
The cocks also try to gain the respect of their competitors and impress the hens with flutter jumps

Once the first exchange of blows with the cocks is over, the hens also appear on the course at some point and then the gentlemen's show-off behaviour increases significantly. They really give it their all.

The ladies have long since chosen their dominant cock in the background, but the cocks don't know that at this point. THE ROOSTER ACTUALLY HAS NOTHING TO OFFER BUT ITSELF 😄

The hen has a very good instinct and knows very quickly which cock has the best genetic make-up and this will ultimately be the one to go.

There were often 12 to 15 cocks at this place and a maximum of 2-3 hens showed up at the same time.

On average, a clutch consists of 8-10 eggs. One egg is fertilised with each sexual act, which is ‘produced’ by the hen within 24 hours and then laid in the nest. She must therefore appear 8-10 times at the mating site.

It can be assumed that it takes about 2 weeks until the nest is fully occupied. Only then will the incubation of the eggs begin and the hen will no longer appear at the mating site as she is busy with the brood.

This means that all the chicks will hatch at about the same time. The incubation period is 24-28 days and only the hen incubates, the cock does not care about rearing the chicks.

Picture 2 - Here you can see a two-year-old black grouse. The colouring of the plumage is still mottled and can be clearly seen on the wings and upper feathers. Especially on the wings and shoulders, the mottling disappears from the second moult at the latest.

Black Grouse Mate
After sunrise, it usually becomes quiet for a while as the so-called ‘morning prayer’ begins. Many cockerels rise up and the hissing and squawking continues a short time later on the trees. After a while, they usually return to the mating site. As a wildlife photographer, you can't be too hasty and simply have to wait patiently.

 Black Grouse, Black grouse hunting

The magic is usually over between 7 and 8 o'clock. The sun has long since prevailed and the black grouse rear up again briefly. The cockerels in the picture are still in dialogue and there is still a little ‘sunbathing’ on the treetops.

The hen on the left in the picture is watching the action from the background, quite relaxed, having long since categorised the morning as done.

At some point, they all brush off. For the rest of the day, they are only seen occasionally and mostly on the ground between the bushes.

This is what my cosy perch with camouflage cover looks like. I sit well wrapped up for 3-4 hours, almost motionless under the cover and watch what is happening in front of me.

I avoid quick, jerky pans with the camera as far as possible, because the black grouse don't always just shrug them off. Very often, they also brush them off.

If you're a photographer and would like to be part of a black grouse courtship - then sign up for a wildlife photography workshop for next winter - Info Workshop

A further report on chick rearing and autumn mating is planned for the end of the year.

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You can see all my wildlife VIDEOS here.

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