Tag Archives: Norway

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.

 

 

Snow and Seabirds

I spent the week running up to Easter in the Varanger region of northern Norway.  I had gone in search of snow only to find that I needn’t have bothered as there was a major last dump of it here (almost as soon as I had left actually).  My target though was seabirds and in spite of being significantly further north than here in the usually gulf stream dominated Britain, the birds in this remote corner of Europe, well inside the arctic circle, had already started to come ashore such is the intense competition for the best breeding spots.

This was probably best demonstrated by the presence of the ever noisy, but nevertheless my personal favourite from the gull family – the Kittiwake.

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I have photographed these delicate birds on the ice and glaciers to be found even further north in Svalbard, but their nest-sites on the huge cliffs there are snow-free in the summer months.  Here though they were still going through the pairing and bonding rituals that always start their breeding season but doing so in locations that were clearly not ready for nest building yet: they just knew they would be in a few weeks time and were staking their claims now – generally in their usual noisy manner!

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Kittiwakes prefer narrow ledges for breeding and act as very independent couples, but Guillemots are much more social in their approach and during the day were gathering in vast numbers on the flatter more open areas of cliff – again though still covered in snow but increasingly compacted and dirtied by their presence.

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The late evening light and the presence of some deep icy blue shadows on the cliffs across the nearby inlet provided both the light and background to work on a few flight shots, but as you’ll see from the second of these images the sky was so full of birds it was really hard to pick any individuals out!

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The weather was typically variable and when some of the occasionally very squally arctic storms blew in from the north the birds were increasingly reluctant to come ashore and spent their time wheeling around and around the cliff faces.

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Other than the resident Shags that is who took it on themselves to sit out said atrocious weather (the wind whipping the snow around was a bit like having an army of kids armed with peashooters aiming at your face).  Mind you the idiot with a camera trying to take their picture was probably just as bedraggled by the time the conditions cleared!

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When conditions were calmer then the main reasons for my visit became increasingly comfortable setting foot ashore in isolation and these images of Razorbills sitting in pristine white snow were very much what I had in mind when venturing here.

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Some of you will be aware that I have been working on a Puffin focussed project for a number of summers now and when the chance to capture some of them in these really unusual conditions finally arose then for me the trip was made!

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My thanks to friend and colleague Paul Hobson for his company on this trip – one that in spite of the conditions here at home really did the miles to be travelled to find the unusual combination of seabirds and snow.

Arctic Highlights

Although the dramatic displays of the Northern Lights I shared in my last blog post were reason enough to head to the far north of Scandinavia this winter, truth be told they were always a potential bonus rather than the main reason for the visit.

As someone who has always been fascinated by the variety as well as individual characteristics of birds, there have always been certain species that I have long wanted to initially get the chance to see and also spend some time with photographically.  Last summer it was the Harlequin Ducks in Iceland that ticked that particular box but the other equally colourful and unusual member of the European duck family needs a trip to the far northern fjords of Norway in the winter months to find, and that is the King Eider.  Their heads are one of the most unusually shaped of any bird and the dramatic colours are instantly impactful too.  In the winter months they gather in large rafts, along with their close relations Common and Stellar’s Eider, in the harbours where there is a touch more shelter and also food to be found around the piers in the form of sea-urchins.

This particular image was one of only a handful I managed propelling myself around the harbour in one of the more unusual hides I have had the pleasure (if that’s the right word in this instance) of using: trying to steer this using a battery powered silent motor and photograph using a 500mm on a tripod while the tide and wind are doing their bit to hinder rather than help was an interesting hour or so! Thanks for the picture of my struggles Nigel!

We were spending the day with a local fisherman who has become quite an entrepreneur in the field of duck photography opportunities, and along with this trial hide, he also had a floating pontoon in calmer waters which allowed for some equally low profile images of  the Eiders and also Long-Tailed Duck: one of the few birds I actually think looks smarter in their winter plumage.

What a dramatic change that the presence of the lovely low winter sun can make when it appears too!  This floating pontoon also offered the opportunity to add some interesting colours to the water by virtue of the harbour buildings around, and they certainly created some additional impact to the images.

So much so that even when we were checking out other harbours for signs of duck rafts I found myself drawn to using the colours and patterns to add something different to an otherwise everyday image of this Kittiwake.

Back to the ducks though, and our last act with them consisted of some time in the boat attempting flight shots – fortunately when the sun was out as fast shutter speeds really do help when you’re bouncing around as much as we were for these as well as the fact it really does bring the richness of their colours out!

The harbour towns revealed another photographic opportunity too in the form of newly arrived Kittiwakes re-establishing their nest sites for the forthcoming breeding season: a bizarre sight given the temperatures and the fact that it was only early March, but I guess prime spots on buildings like these are much sought after: they also leant themselves to a black and white interpretation.

Away from the coast the other arctic highlights we had come to spend some time with were some of the harder to find let alone photograph birds of these northern reaches of the boreal forest, and especially Pine Grosbeak, also newly returned to the area for the season to come after wintering further south in the country.  Looking something like a large and chunky Crossbill I was genuinely surprised at just how big they actually were, but in that lovely arctic winter light the feeding station we had visited gave plenty of close-up opportunities for the equally colourful males and females.

As a reminder as to just how far north we were (and close to the Russian port of Murmansk) the other highlights of the time here were a rather windswept Siberian Jay and the incredibly quick and flighty Siberian Tit.  These plump but speedy birds barely sat still for a milli-second it seemed so it took some considerable time and setting up to finally achieve a couple of images that we were all happy with: well worth it though,and we were only ever a few seconds walk from the warmth of coffee on almost permanent tap where we were staying too!

Add those magnificent Northern Light displays into the mix and you can see why I can’t wait for another visit here again next winter running Natures Images Arctic Winter trip!

Night Lights

In some ways it feels a bit surreal finally getting the chance to catch up on some of this winter’s photography while it’s 20+ degrees outside and it’s only March, but when the weather was colder and I was further north in recent months one of the genres of photography that I found myself becoming increasingly engaged in was night and low light work.  Mind you with some of the settings and in particular Aurora Borealis opportunities I have just had it would be hard not too!

During the course of an excellent week in the Cairngorms in January we took full advantage of the fantastically clear conditions by engaging in some evening and dead of night photography.

Here you can see Nigel making the most of the clear conditions to capture an image that (had he turned his camera about 45 degrees to the right) might have looked something like this:

There are certain key elements to this type of night photography and if it’s clear pinpoints of stars that you are after as a rough guide on a 24-70mm lens you really don’t want an exposure of much more than 20 seconds or so. There is a precise calculation for this by the way but I’m all for simplicity of thinking!  What this means is that you need to trust the high ISO capability of your SLR and shoot reasonably wide open in terms of aperture (this was around f4). You must trust your histogram too as your camera’s screen will make things look much brighter than they have really been recorded given it’s the only real light source out there! A really good tripod, mirror lockup and cable release (or self-timer) are also key.

The same steadiness of hand came into play when we tried out some low light shots of the ice formations on one of the nearby streams as well.

Here though it was a question of looking for the right sort of slow shutter speed to give the level of blur in the water that looked most appealing (this was around 30 seconds or so) and in order to emphasise the coldness of the shot and setting a cool white balance was set manually. I just loved some of the detail that could be found in the ice here!

Earlier this month I spent a week in Northern Finland and Norway and stayed in a location that has to be one of the best I’ve been to for opportunities to photograph that wonderful spectacle that is the Aurora borealis or Northern Lights.  I was really pleased to have honed my approach to this type of photography already this winter as when the opportunities came (and boy did they come – we had 4 clear nights and some amazing displays) I wear able to slot into the groove and thinking straight away.

There has been a lot of media coverage and interest in this awesome phenomenon this year as it has been unusually visible in parts of Scotland too, but what makes northern Finland so special in my opinion is that not only is it so light pollution free but it’s weather systems are unaffected by maritime influence so the chances of the lights showing are increased.  All of these images were only on level 3 in terms of potential intensity – it goes up to 9 or 10 I believe.

What all of this meant was plenty of opportunity to experiment with looking for big sweeping motions, deciding if landscape or portrait orientation worked best and also playing around with white balance as well.

All of the images bar this last one were taken on a relatively cool white balance, this one however on the warmer setting I tend to use for my wildlife work – I like the greener effect it gives to the lights themselves but am not so keen on what it does to the snow. It’s a matter of preference though so good to be on your game enough to try things out and when you have found a style and approach that’s working then it’s simply a question of standing back and revelling in what nature has to throw at you too.

Although it’s not the main purpose of the trip (I’m not sure how Northern Lights really can be as it’s so weather dependant) I will be staying at the same place again for 4 nights as part of the new Arctic Winter trip with Natures Images next March so if you fancy the potential to practice your night light photography…..