HAZELHEN/ HAZEL GROUSE (Bonasia bonasia)

Gélinottte des bois

 

Depending which book you read this species can go under either of the English names. It is undoubtedly one of the less well known grouse in Europe due to its habits and habitat. It prefers extensive undisturbed forest (not that common in modern Europe), especially if it is very moist such as in river valleys and where there is a profusion of undergrowth. Add to this its cryptic colouration, skill at hiding itself (both in trees and on the ground) and agile running ability...... get the picture ?? Not a bird you come across every day.

In Switzerland we are on the south-western edge of its distribution and it is probably in decline although rather little is known of its numbers. It occurs in the Jura and the Alps between 1000m - 1600m but has been recorded lower. Mulhauser (2003) studied its ecology in the Jura  and estimated a population size of between 2,300 and 3,700 but this population was increasingly isolated from that in the Alps due to loss of suitable habitat in the lowlands, and was threatened by climate change and forest practises.

I am fortunate that the Jura provides suitable habitat for this bird and I have seen it on several occasions but only on a few occasions heard it vocalise. All Hazelhen songs and calls are extremely high pitched, weak, and not easy to hear. Despite this Mulhauser and Zimmerman (2003) showed that they can produce sounds which are ultrasonic to humans, and that individual males sang the same song consistently and could be identified well enough to understand aspects of their ecology.

Painting of HazelhensI will relate the circumstance under which I got the recordings below as I do not pretend to understand what is going on here.

 

Walking along a forest track one June evening I rounded a corner and saw a Hazelhen male on the ground stretch its neck up above the herbage as they do when alarmed. It immediately ran off and then flew low into the trees, once it flew it was followed by about 5-6 others who all disappeared into dense vegetation. Clearly a family party and I had seen a male so I assumed a female was also present as it is usually the female that carries out parental care.The most frequent sound I heard from them at first was a bubbling call as follows:

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Cramp etal describe a “distraction call” of the female as something akin to this (but written words in the absence of the sounds I always find confusing), and here is a songram of those calls.

 

I followed the covey using their sounds down into a wet hollow and sat quietly to listen what might happen next. After 45 mins or so things seemed to have settled down but the party was still there, I frequently heard the following calls which may be song or may just be contact calls:

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and I show another sonogram of these.

 

I was probably within 30m of the birds when I made these recordings but could not see them.

Finally at one point I heard a sound which was a sort of descending whine sound, perhaps this was part of a song or maybe just another close contact call, there were Robins and Blackbirds and Goldcrests around so there is a lot going on and I cannot get a clean sonogram, but you can clearly hear the descending "whine" at 4s, 12s, and 16s, in this edited piece:

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I would love to hear from anyone who can help me to unravel all this.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

BLACK GROUSE (Tetrao tetrix)

Tétras lyre

 

This is a medium sized grouse, found in Switzerland from Lac Léman eastwards throughout the alpine range, generally above 1400m. It is a forest and forest edge bird, and seems equally happy on the ground and in trees.

The male is a fine bird with glossy blue-black feathers, a distinctive white wing-bar and white undertail and thighs, with "eyebrows" which are bright red wattles which can be inflated during display. The tail feathers of the male curve outwards into a lyre shape from which derives the name in French. The female is browner flecked with black and blends well with the landscape.

These birds are generally gregarious throughout the year, but especially so in spring when the males gather in groups known as "leks". They do not form permanent pairs but the males gather and display to each other and the females mate with those who display the best. During display the males drop their wings and fan out their tails showing the white underside which contrasts with the black, and then they dance in circles. All this takes place in a rough "dance arena" with the females watching on the outside, studies have shown that the dominant males occupy the central positions and get to copulate the most.

The call of the male is a bubbling "rook-ooo" sound which at a distance could be reminiscent of a dove:

 

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My recording is of a single male soloist in a tree, in May when the snow was melting rapidly so there are many hissing streams in the background here, but from a bit closer the true nature of the sound becomes clear - it has a characteristic rolling quality:

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You can understand this better from the sonogram, follow it and you can see that the calls come in waves, each sequence starting at about 400 Hz rising to a plateau of 600 Hz before starting again:


They also make a hissing call rather more intermittently, I have only one sample of this and repeat it four times here so that you can get the idea:

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My subject flew with the characteristic explosion of this family, first towards me then as he caught sight of me he veered away sharply away with his wings beating loudly:

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I have not had the opportunity to record a lek but clearly that has to be an ambition ! Until then I will have to console myself with another type of Black Grouse much beloved by ornithologists who cannot find this species in the wild......

 

CAPERCAILLIE (Tetrao urogallus)

Grand Tétras

This is nearly the biggest bird in Europe with the males weighing in at around 4kg with some recorded up to 6kg, females are about 60% the size of males.

In Switzerland we are at the south-western fringe of its main distribution which is from Scandinavia across Russia. But whilst it has a lrage population throughout this range in several countries it is endangered and in severe decline, mainly from forest destruction but also sport hunting still occurs in some places especially Russia. Its very localised distribution in Switzerland reflects this population decline, and additionally in Switzerland it is a bird that has suffered from winter sports development as new technology and equipment allow people into previously inaccessible areas creating stress and disruption during a harsh period of the year when life is hazardous anyway for wild species.

It is a forest species, favouring old mature forests which are rather open and with a good ground cover of Vaccinum (blueberries or myrtilles- type plants). Like the Black Grouse this is also a "lekking" species and the males show off and display and fight with each other whilst the females watch from nearby trees, descending for copulation when they have made their choice. Rather like a student disco really. This process usually starts in early spring when there is snow on the ground. To help with this chilly pastime they have feathered legs, and the toes have horny protrusions which act like snowshoes so that as the males strut up and down they do not ignominiously fall over. Rather like a student disco really.

At this time the males get really loaded with testosterone and can become very aggressive and have been known to attack humans who enter their territory, or their own reflection in the side of a car (that big curved beak must make a mess of the paintwork !).

Their rarity in Switzerland means that their display locations are quite appropriately well guarded secrets, and they should not be approached. Hence my recordings are all made from a distance. When displaying the males make a series of truly impressive noises which would scare any competitor. It is made up of two main parts, the first is a series of accelerating double-clicks which terminate in a loud "pop"!:

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This is then followed by a hissing, sneezing, rattling snort which can also be made on its own when it has almost a vomiting or retching quality:

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Put all this together and it sound like this:

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You would never confuse it with anything else ! Here is another example which was not too far from a busy mountain pass:

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The females will also call, making a sort of clucking noise, I came upon one in the forest one day which was clucking persistently and was able to get a nice recording:

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This still remains for me one of our most engmatic species of the forest.

 

 

 

 

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PHEASANT (Phasianus colchicus)

Faisan de Colchide

 

 

This bird was already introduced to Europe as a food item several hundred years ago from regions further east. Initially captive birds escaped and bred, then when sport hunting with shotguns became popular it was widely bred and released - in order to be shot at ! Source populations came from different races so what we have today in Europe is a bit of a mixture.

Switzerland is no exception to this, although today releases no longer seem to be taking place and the number hunted has declined dramatically over the past 50 years. It does not do well in severe cold and so it hangs on only in a few isolated areas of the lowlands around Geneva, Berne, the north-east and Ticino. Maybe it is because of this dubious background, plus the flamboyant colours of the male who always looks perpetually surprised, I confess that I regard pheasants as rather stupid birds.

 

 

It is a bird that is often heard in the distance and its "crow" call is given intermittently and can carry a long distance - you just suddenly hear it as in this recording I took from the Norfolk coast in UK:

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This is its territorial and sexual contest call, often followed by a wing drumming display. In this next recording I have shortened the time between the "crows", but if you listen carefully, especially if you have headphones, you can hear the wing drumming display and following the second crow you can hear the male fly over to the female and then give some very gentle low clucking noises as the two make contact:

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Someone once described it to me "like a Coca-cola can scraping under a door" - a concept that has remained with me ! The alarm call is in the same vein only less strident and more frequent:

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And it may become very frequent:

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Until when finally it all gets too much the bird takes off in raucous alarm:

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