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  • Writer's picturekatemennie

Grouse Species of the Cairngorms National Park

Updated: Mar 19

(Red Grouse, Ptarmigan, Black Grouse - Kate Mennie)

There are many birds and wildlife that people hope to see when they go out with one of our guides in the Cairngorms National Park. Here we are highlighting the four Grouse species that you can find in the National Park and how you can get the best chance to see them. We shall also try and answer the most commonly asked questions about the species.

Black Grouse lekking (Kate Mennie)

Black Grouse

Black Grouse are an illusive moorland bird that spend much of their time resting in young plantations in upland areas of Scotland, North Wales and England. Like other grouse species, the females or ‘hens’ are mottle brown for camouflage. The males are the most striking, known as ‘blackcocks,’ with their shiny, black back feathers, red eyebrows, and white lyre shaped tails.

Best time to see Black Grouse?

Although they could be spotted throughout the year, winter into early spring gives you the best chance. During the frosty mornings between January and April the males start to perform their displaying behaviour, known as ‘lekking.’ The Lek is a mesmerising performance of wing flapping, heads down and fanned out tails that stand out in the moorland. Each male hopes to be the ultimate winner and attract a female. Lekking isn’t just about the impressive sight, but also captivating haunting sounds that echo over the heathland.

Black Grouse (Kate Mennie)

How close can you get to Black Grouse?

They are not a common sight during the day, but you could get lucky and pass some on the roadside, feeding on young trees or in the heather. Therefore, you may be able to get close views from a vehicle. When Black Grouse are on a lek site, it is classed as a disturbance to approach them, so we need to keep some distance from them and remain quiet. Even from a distance, telescope views are fantastic and on a calm morning, the ‘cooing’ call from the males is captivating to hear.

Red Grouse (Kate Mennie)

Red Grouse

Another upland moor grouse, the Red Grouse is the most associated with Scotland and one of the easiest to identify. With their mottled reddish feathers, both males and females are well camouflaged in the heather. Females have a white eye ring, but the males sport an impressive red ‘eyebrow’ that stands out when searching for them. Their latin name, Lagopus lagopus scotica, meaning ‘hare feet,’ relates to the white furry legs and feet to keep them warm in the harsh environment.

Red Grouse in the heather (Kate Mennie)

Where and when to see Red Grouse?

Red Grouse can be visible at any time of year, and at certain times the easiest of our grouse species to see. A slow drive through a moor, you may spot a small head poking up above the heather. During early spring the males start to display to females and can become very vocal and appear very close. If you’re lucky one may be sitting just a few metres from the vehicle feeding. They may be sitting on a rock, or amongst the heather, and they can be poser when it comes to being photographed.


Ptarmigan are a high montane species that like to seek the shelter of boulders on mountain tops to shelter and breed. In the summer months, they are a mottled grey and white to blend into the surrounding rocks and in winter they change their plumage to almost pure white to camouflage in with the snow that covers mountain sides.

Ptarmigan (Colin Scott)

How easy is it to see Ptarmigan?

As the Ptarmigan are a high montane species most of the year, they do require a deal of fitness to see. A typical day looking for Ptarmigan can be 5-8 hours into rocky corries, high altitude mountain side and at times icy underfoot conditions. Your guide will be able to advise the best weather conditions to go and how strenuous the walk might be. With their camouflage, time will be taken to search for them and where possible, without disturbance some photography may be possible.

Capercaillie (Mary Braddock)


Our biggest grouse species, the Capercaillie is a large forest-based grouse. Unfortunately, the Capercaillie numbers in Scotland have dramatically declined, so it is not advisable for us to go looking for Capercaillie. We have fantastic forest environments in the National Park, which our guides do spend time in as part of our Guided Days Out, we will not however, cause disturbance to the birds by walking off path or walking into sensitive areas, especially during lekking season (1 March – 31 May.) Get in contact with us to discuss this further and find out about our company Capercaillie Policy.

Many of our Guided Day itineraries allow you to look for these grouse species on a day out with one of our guides. Take a look on our website on information about how to book a wildlife experience with us.

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