Tag Archives: Spring

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!


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.



How do you define your Seasons?

The last week or so of warm weather, coming on the back of a really dry few weeks in this part of the world has really marked that Spring is definitely here now and Summer probably isn’t too far away.  It’s also got me thinking about just how as individuals we mark the passing of the seasons in an era when many of us are removed from nature generally.

For many it’s the simple things that impact on how they live their lives – brighter evenings at this time of the year and darker ones in the autumn certainly impact on our social activities.  For gardeners and farmers it’s where they are in terms of the years routines of planting, clearing, sowing, harvesting and so on.  For ornithologists it’s all about what’s on migration and what’s breeding or over-wintering dependent on where we are in the year.

As a wildlife photographer each year is full of projects.  This can be a combination of trips, research ventures, or working on specific species or habitats at certain times of the year when certain activites, behaviours or general presence is either at it’s optimum potential or offering something different. 

It’s all too easy to get into a far too regular cycle here though – and I hear many a conversation based around following the all too familiar path of photographic ventures as the seasons unfold, and whilst this is great if you haven’t worked on certain species before, have a specific set of images that you’re after or want to build on, or want to revisit something you did a while ago and feel you can improve on, then there’s a lot to be said for taking a different focus once in a while too.

This Spring, while I’ve never been too far away from my beloved Great Crested Grebes, and driven in part by the need for some images for a book project I’m working on for later this year, I’ve been getting up close and personal with some of our Spring wild flowers.  It’s been different, has given me the chance to well and truly think out of the normal box I work in, and although it’s not finished yet, there’s some images I’m pretty pleased with and that will round off my portfolio in a whole new area.

So look out for the Lesser Celandines, the Wood Anenomes, the Wild Garlic and Strawberries before they all disappear soon in this heatwave: they may well help you redefine your seasons photography.


Europe’s Great Migration

There’s a lot made on the television about the fantastic migrations that occur in Africa in particular, but there’s plenty of huge distances covered by species in Europe and on our own doorsteps as well, and the scale on which this takes place is probably at it’s most dramatic when it comes to the Common Crane.

Having wintered in Spain and other Mediterranean warmer spots, they head north in vast numbers in the Spring to breed on wetland areas throughout Northern Europe.  The UK was once a stronghold of these beautiful birds but drainage of our wetlands has reduced them now to re-introduction programme led groups in Cambridgeshire and Somerset principally, and a small group of recently returned birds in Norfolk.  If there’s a Cran… in your town or village name there’s a clue that it was a hotspot for Cranes in years past.

Lake Hornborga in Sweden is such a hotspot at this time of year though and I enjoyed a few days there last week to catch up with the birds, along with the coachloads of locals that seemed to be dropping in throughout every day.

The birds have visited the area for hundreds of years en masse – historically because it was an area of potato growing (for the manufacture of schnapps) but more recently beecause the Swedes have restored the wetland area around the lake and feed corn and other grain on a nightly basis.  It’s a national event and last week there were around 15,000 birds all gathered in one area so it’s understandable why: the ground was full of them, the sky too at the beginning and end of the days with several sorties throughout as well.

For me though with Cranes it’s all about the noise.  They are one of the most vocal birds I know, especially at this time of the year when they are celebrating a long journey north and getting ready for the breeding season.

The best place to really experience the noise and interaction of the birds though was to spend a full day in one of the small individual hides (well large coffins with sliding windows really) that are strategically placed away from view and we had booked last year.  Entering the hide at 4.30 am with camera gear, food, stool and bucket (yes…for that) and waiting for the birds to arrive, enjoying their noisy presence all day (along with good numbers of Whooper Swans and other wildfowl) and not leaving until 8.30 pm when they too have left for their roost, is certainly a long day but what an opportunity to get up close and personal with these fabulous birds and enjoy their grooming, feeding and interactive antics.


The intensity of it all around me for such a long time meant that I needed the occasional break to recharge the creative batteries: most of the time in a hide I’m waiting for things to happen or arrive, here it’s full on all day!  The birds too needed the odd rest after the slightly more frantic feedings of the morning were over, and this fellow even managed a yawn as he awoke from his slumbers!

At times I was convinced a head was going to appear in a window beside me so as well as portraits, grooming and profile shots I also enjoyed looking for smaller details to highlight some of the details of the birds – they really were that close! 

My abiding memory of the day and the whole experience though has to be the noise – when you’re sat blind to most of what’s around you and a Crane’s lungs fill up and emit the loudest of calls directly behind you (as happened on several occasions) it’s a good job the hide was small as it made me jump nearly every time!

The numbers here will fall over the next week or so as they split back up again into their breeding pairs, find some wetland to raise a family and then begin their journey south again this autumn.  It may not be the Masai Mara but it’s certainly a great migration.