WHILE we can’t travel to see wildlife at the moment, I’ve been reminiscing about the time I watched a black grouse lek for inspiration for a painting.

This spectacular courtship display is taking place on the Yorkshire Dales now and it is worth putting on your list of things to do in the future.

The annual courting ritual really is spellbinding, if at times a little comical. It involves male black grouse charging around in circles, their tails fanned and erect, making a loud continuous bubbling sound like remote-controlled toys on the blink.

Every now and then they jump up in the air and call out, before spreading out and drooping their wings to circle again.

The females meanwhile strut nonchalantly through the commotion, occasionally fanning their tail feathers to flirt with a male.

Black grouse will use the same spot to display over many years. In Hawes in the Dales a local contact helped me find one and gave me permission to use his hide to photograph it.

Black grouse gather early in the morning for their communal courtship display and I agreed to meet my guide at 4.45am.

I followed him up a stony track and up into the clouds that hung over the moor.

It was a bitter 3°C and the wind blew so hard I was nearly swept off my feet as I got out of the car.

It was still dark and it was only with the help of my guide’s headlights that I could make out a canvas hide, braced against the wind. The guy ropes were taut and the pegs had been weighed down with boulders to keep the hide from flying off.

I clambered inside and had just got my camera onto the tripod when I heard the unmistakeable “tcheway” call of the black cock, shortly followed by another one. The call sounds a bit like a tyre being let out. Before long I could see seven male birds, their white rumps glowing in the gloom.

As dawn approached, the noise climaxed. A hen was on the horizon. She wandered through the lek, casually inspecting each male. Fights broke out as the males tried to impress her.

She sauntered nonchalantly among them before wandering to the edge of the lek to watch as another female arrived on the scene – the females like to take their time before picking out the fittest and strongest male.

It was a great morning, but by 8am all the action was over and the grouse wandered off to feed. Once their tails are back down and no longer fanned they look like an entirely different species, in fact more like you would expect a grouse to look.

The next day the weather was so appalling that I didn’t go to the lek, but the day after I headed to the spot, despite the wind and rain that hammered against my windscreen. By 7am the weather had improved a bit and I got some quite good shots but not the pictures I wanted.

On the fifth day of the trip, I woke even earlier than usual, drew back the curtains and looked out of the window. I could see the stars twinkling brightly, promising a clear day at last.

As I got into the hide it was still dark and windy. The black cock arrived at 5am and started to lek, but as the sun came over the hill a short-eared owl flew by. There was an explosion of whirring wings and in an instant all the birds were gone.

Luckily they reappeared 20 minutes later and started their performance again.

The sun on their backs brought out an iridescent sheen to their feathers. But again by 8am they were off.

I was due to travel back home on Saturday and decided to give it one last go that morning. Again there was not a cloud in the sky but for the first time all week the wind had dropped.

As I waited in the hide in the dark I could hear the haunting call of curlews ringing out across the moor followed by the signal whistle of a golden plover. As the black cock arrived and also began to call, I knew this would be the morning I had waited for.

The photographs I took became studies for two new paintings of a courtship that looks more like the dance of a tropical bird than a grouse on a bleak windswept moor in the North of England.