Shall we dance?

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It’s -6 degrees outside and lying in my sleeping bag I’m woken by perhaps one of nature’s best alarm clocks. The unmistakable, musical bubbling and harsh hissing sounds just outside the hide announce the arrival of perhaps the most beautiful and striking member of the grouse family.

Black Grouse were one of our target species on a small private group trip I organised recently to Finland with the help of my great friend Danny Green. Joining us on the trip were RSPB Images Photographer Steve Knell and one of Danny’s clients, Nigel Spencer.

Black Grouse are birds of the forest edge. Once widespread throughout Britain, they have now declined in both range and numbers. It appears to be the same old sad story, habitat loss, predation and a bit of climate change perhaps thrown in. Of course it’s entirely possible still to photograph them here  in the UK (and there are some cracking images that have come from these shores), but for the truly spectacular,  watching blackcocks displaying in the snow there is no better place to come than Northern Finland.

It had been a while since I’d done a trip and I was really looking forward to it. I love to travel. At the same time I’m aware of the environmental cost and responsibilities that go with it. Hence I always look to do what I can to ensure I reduce my carbon footprint by offsetting the carbon emissions of our flight to Oulu through Climate Care ( http://www.jpmorganclimatecare.com/). It costs hardly anything to do it and is well worth checking out for anyone that flies regularly.

I digress though. We were privileged that our  guide for the first part of the trip was leading Finnish wildlife photographer Jari Peltomaki. We were very grateful to Jari for giving up his time for us as he was just about to launch his new book with Bence Mate (for further details, follow this link:  http://www.birdphoto.fi/store/lkk/index.html).

On arriving in Finland we’d  spent an enjoyable first evening in  Jari’s company at the guest house  where we were staying looking through some of his stunning images. Wonderful stuff and we went to bed duly inspired.

It seemed though that no sooner had my head hit the pillow it was time to wake up. We had to be up  and out by 4am  to drive to our destination. It was then a kilometre walk to the hides by the light of our head torches in deep snow, dragging our gear on sledges. We needed to be in the hides by 5am whilst it was  still dark and before the grouse  arrived.

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The hides themselves are low to the ground and built for two people. Just how low your angle is looking out from the hide very much depends on the amount of snow fall overnight.

At first light at this time of year, the male grouse (‘blackcocks’) gather to display to one another at gatherings termed  ‘leks’ (many of those reading this may already know all this but for those that don’t).

With their black and white plumage they give the appearance of gentlemen at a society ball; their dance floor in this case being a clearing on a forest margin blanketed knee deep in snow.  Research has shown that Black Grouse are tribal (birds in a group often being related) and generally groups have  a single lekking site within their territory that they use on a day to day basis.

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They  assembled at twilight, just as the sun started to come up, some walking to the lek across the snow , others flying. On each of the days that we were there we counted around12 blackcocks using this particular lek site,  which is just above average.

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We had timed our visit perfectly at the start of the lekking season so that the pecking order (literally)  as to who was boss, and therefore won the right to mate with the hens had yet to be decided.

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The sounds these birds make as they display resonate long in the memory. The sustained bubbling (or rookooing) signalling territorial defence and courtship and the more crowing, harsh hissing intended both as self-advertisment and threat.

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The displays often boil over into fights. Proper fights. You quickly work out that they follow a pattern. First the two warring combatants square up to each other before facing one another; scraping their feet with malevolent intent. One then takes the initiative, jumping  forward  towards the head of the other bird, who in turn jumps backwards in an attempt to avoid being pecked, before retaliating. Wild combat then ensues. Wings beating, sharp-toed feet kicking and feathers flying everywhere. The action is both thrilling and frenetic. It was a real challenge to keep them in the frame, let alone in focus!

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Before taking up an interest in wildlife photography,  I spent many years in a previous life studying and teaching wing chun kung fu, a style of martial arts from southern China. These guys though really are the true kung fu masters. Breaking down the action frame by frame you can really appreciate the anatomy of the  fight and their fighting skills. How they look for gaps to make direct strikes and use their wings to parry an attack. It’s no wonder that the ancient chinese took inspiration from the animal world when developing styles of martial arts.

Interestingly, the blackcocks use landmarks to fix their territorial boundaries. On the first day in the hides a lot of the action took place around a small tree sticking up out of the ground.

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We spent four days of the trip in total photographing at the lek. The first day the temperature was a comparatively  mild – 6 degrees Celsius. As a result of which the action was fast and furious.

The second morning it was a lot colder (down to -10 degrees). The blackcocks dropped in earlier in truly beautiful light. However there was very little  in the way of activity and frustratingly they stayed no more than twenty minutes. Still a good opportunity to try to get some portraits though.

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The adult blackcock is stunning to look at, particularly in such perfect light. It has a beautiful metallic blue sheen to it and lyre-shaped tail with the feathers on each side of it curving symmetrically outwards. A bar of white runs across the wing. The forehead and chin are more blue-green. Above the eye is a vivid comb of vermilion red. The toes are fringed on either side by a row of horny scales that grip and serve as effective snow-shoes.

On our third morning in the hides the temperature had dropped even further to -15. I quite like the cold (for some reason I’m more comfortable in it than the heat) so this didn’t bother me too unduly. As far as the grouse were concerned though it  really was too cold to get the blood going and trigger that impulse to display. In fact we didn’t see them at all. They probably had the right idea. It did feel significantly colder. A real shame though as the light was truly sublime that day.

At this point we were starting to count our blessings realising how lucky we had been on our first day in the hides. There are so many variables that have to fall into place, when photographing this species and behaviour. On balance, though we reflected that luck so far on this trip  had well and truly been on our side. Well I say luck, more getting our timings right. Which was really down to Danny and Steve’s knowledge and getting our dates for the trip exactly right.

For now at least, the time had come to bid the grouse farewell as we made the long journey further up to Oulanka National Park. We would return to them for once last morning right at the end of the trip.

A cracking start then. What we couldn’t have realised though was the best was yet to come.

Next time, some more iconic Birds of Northern Finland….

References

In putting this blog together, I’ve tried to  read as widely as possible about the ecology and behaviour of Black Grouse. Adam Watson and Robert Moss’s excellent book ‘Grouse’ is a particularly informative read (there’s a very reasonably priced electronic version available on Kindle in fact). Mark Cocker’s ‘Birds Britannica’ is also an invaluable resource. Both well worth checking out if, like me you like your grouse!

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7 Responses to Shall we dance?

  1. Simon Litten says:

    A cracking set of images – love those flying feathers!
    If the best was yet to come then I’m looking forward to your next blog entry. Top stuff!

    Simon

  2. Chris Kayler says:

    Hi Jules!

    The image of the two fighting with the feathers flying everywhere is just awesome! Congrats – what a great experience.

    Chris

  3. Absolutely beautiful. Stunning birds. Great captures and a wonderful collection.

  4. Superb work. The image with the flying feathers is brilliant!! Really enjoyed the blog entries – arrived there via ephotozine

    Dave

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