Tag Archives: Black Grouse

The Love of the Lek

Ask anyone who loves the avian world and has been fortunate to visit or photograph at the lekking site of any member of the Grouse family and I am sure they will all tell you that to greet the dawn of a new day with a displaying male (and sometimes many more) just outside your hide is right up there in terms of their experiences in the natural world.  It certainly is among mine and although I have been fortunate enough to have many such experiences a week in the forests and mountains of Norway this Spring was as good as any – hard earned but ultimately right up there.

The undoubted king of the family in Europe is the Capercaillie, threatened and declining fast here in the UK due to the lack of suitable habitat, but still strong in the less developed spaces of Scandinavia. Finding the exact spot where they will choose to settle the disputed hierarchy of males and ultimately attract the females of the area though is a challenge and one I was as ever grateful to my good friend Ole Martin Dahle in helping with – the site where I have enjoyed working in the past had seen a change of top bird and after a few nights camped out awaiting a dawn visit, there seemed to be no pattern to where things were happening other than it wasn’t where I was!  Upping sticks and moving to a more remote spot in search of a second site a further frustrating night followed with everything happening out of view, but a final adjustment and it was sixth night lucky as everything finally came together.

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The dominant male always takes up his position early (around 2.30 am in this instance and having spent the previous couple of hours in a nearby tree) so for a good hour or so it is always a question of quietly looking through a crack in the dome hide window (everything is well covered for obvious reasons) and enjoying the sight and sounds as best you can.  Eventually the light levels allow an image or two at high ISO’s (thank goodness for higher spec DSLRs) with single silent shot mode essential so as not to disturb things.

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The spot where he had chosen to lek really couldn’t have been better mind – the very first rays of the rising sun fell perfectly on it as he continued about his posturing, making the iridescent nature of his feathers really shine when the angles were right.

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Although there was another male hanging around in the area it is clear this guy was top dog, and it wasn’t too long before the females in the area started to gather, initially in the trees surrounding the lek site but eventually one of them dropped to the ground for a closer inspection.

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His displaying reached a new level of frenzy before the mornings courting eventually came to an end.

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Over the course of the next few days each and every one of the seven females that were around that morning will and did mate with this dominant male before retreating into their corner of the forest to lay their clutch and raise their brood of youngsters alone.  The whole courtship process at the lek is a completely essential few days in the overall breeding success of the whole of this area of forest so simply to witness it, let alone photograph and experience it in a way that is sensitive to what is happening, is always a genuine privilege.

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Having worked so long for this particular morning there was just time to enjoy a different lek site with a close relative of the Capercaillie – the more diminutive but considerably noisier Black Grouse.  Although big lekking sites with several birds are often the norm, more isolated locations that attract lone birds who spend several days and weeks displaying for a mate seem to be more the norm in the coastal woodlands of central Norway, but this is no less engaging as a consequence.  Black Grouse often appear after sunset for a late evening display and this was the case here – an 11pm visit in the dim light punctuated by the extraordinary set of calls that they make and which if you haven’t heard them before can be listened to here. Too dark to photograph he left after an hour only to return again around 3 am and once again it was a question of patiently enjoying the spectacle and taking the occasional image as the light continued to get better and better and better, initially on the distant background but eventually falling on the bird and lekking site too – note the frost on the ground in the early shots for a clue how cold it still is here overnight at this time of the year!

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In the last of these images you can see him starting to leap into the air, an integral part of his amazing displays and given that he was entirely on his own in terms of both rivals and females too it says a great deal for his will power and persistence that he managed to keep this up for a good 2 hours in total!

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Eventually he moved briefly off to a different area for a final check that he was on his own and then headed off for the day to return again that evening to continue his quest once more!

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Nature offers some amazing sights, sounds and experiences and the Spring lek is definitely one of them for me and one I look forward to engaging all of my senses in again too.

 

 

Seasons change in their scenery

Those of you who are Simon and Garfunkel fans (or even The Bangles as they did their own cover version as well) might recognise this line from their song A Hazy Shade of Winter.  I am not long back from a fortnight in Finland, a trip that was very much planned with some winter imagery in mind.  Finland however had a mild spell in February and as a consequence things were just that bit further ahead than normal, and as a result this became a trip of two seasons – there were still some cold conditions though (-28 degrees celsius the overnight low), along with some heavy snowfalls (20 cm in one day) and some mild afternoons and heading south some fields showing that winter was over for the year. The result was an unusual array of opportunities that reflect just how nature begins to change as the season of Spring beckons.

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The Whooper Swan is Finland’s national bird, and one I spent a great deal of time working with in Japan earlier this year. These two were in a winter setting that immediately took me back there – along with their familiar calls.

They are however just returning here after wintering further south in Europe and so far more attractive to them were the fields and farmlands where Spring was already in place and they could look to refuel before the final push to the north of the country a few weeks later for breeding.  I really enjoyed photographing these beautiful birds in this different setting.

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These Spring like conditions also created opportunities to work with the light and colours in a forest hide in the Oulanka National Park too – subtle lighting around this Great Spotted Woodpecker and classic backlighting on this Siberian Jay among the highlights.

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In these conditions I wasn’t hopeful that the main target for the hide, Golden Eagle, would actually turn up.  With the weather this mild, the female will already be on the nest and the male less interested in visiting his winter feed site.  I needn’t have worried though as he did turn up: and again when returning to the hide a couple of days later when the weather had turned wintery again, falling snow completely changing the feel of the whole place as you can see from these images taken over the two days.

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This changeable couple of days also worked well when spending time with a pair of Black-bellied Dipper who were busy pairing up and checking out local nest boxes as they planned for the imminent season ahead.  Falling snow and slow shutter speeds all added to the variety of opportunity.

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A personal priority for the trip was to spend some quality time with one of my favourite birds – Black Grouse.  The lekking season had already started in earnest thanks to the mild spell and so I enjoyed a total of 6 mornings being settled into the hide by 5am in anticipation of their dawn arrival and displays. The first 3 of these were at a lek site near Kuusamo – just inside Lapland, and still very snowy and cold so it was no huge surprise when the first day was a no show.  The second was more successful but the birds chose to lek just a little over a large snow ridge: very enjoyable but only a few images were possible, the spraying snow from their wings as they squabbled particularly appealed to me.

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The final morning here was absolutely perfect in terms of light and conditions, but sadly another no show: quite a sunrise mind which more than made up for it!

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The final 3 mornings were a few hours south at a lek near Oulu and here the snow was patchy but clear; cold mornings meant heavy frost coverage and some fantastic light with which to photograph the amazing antics of these endearing birds as they strutted their stuff and undertook the occasion sparring match with a fellow lekker.

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A great experience, and one that was matched on my final evening in the Oulu area when quite by chance we happened across a Great Grey Owl hunting in some fields near the road.  It was late and the light was not fantastic but the high ISO capabilities of the 1Dx really helped out and again; although not award-winning images, it was a very special hour spent with this simply gorgeous bird, the first seen in the whole Oulu area for the last 30 days so a really fortunate find.

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The final leg of the trip took me across to the town of Lieksa near the Russian border to spend 3 long days (15 hours at a time) in a hide in the hope of seeing the extremely elusive and rare Wolverine.  Here the snow had very much taken a back seat and Spring was taking over and Wolverine females will already have young kits in their dens so any sightings are to be much appreciated given their increased wariness at this time.  We were blessed with a couple of good visits quite close to the hide, some climbing (which as you can see confirmed she was feeding young) and on the final day a flurry of snow which to me was a fitting end to the nature of my overall trip.

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I had had a whole load of pre-conceived images in my mind when planning to run these two trips. The more travelling with my camera I do though I have come not to expect anything and simply look to go with the flow – work hard on the decision making (and thanks to Antti and Era respectively on this front too) but leave nature to create the opportunities.  Once again she didn’t let me or my guests on the two trips down, revealing some very different images to those I had perhaps thought of some 12 months back.  Clearly she knows best after all!