It's in my blood.
Since I was given my first camera, when I was a little kid, I have always been fascinated by capturing in a shot what my eyes were seeing around me. The beauty of nature or the smile of a friend, an event or an emotion... Precious pearls to be framed in a photo. Whether freezing a movement or moving the stillness, looking at normality through a different angle or portraying the exceptional, I can choose different perspectives, I can catch reality. I think this passion is in my blood, I inherited it from my Grandpa and then from my Dad, and it has always had a great influence in my life. Come and follow me in my journey searching impressions of life.

Monday, April 25, 2016

On the Black Grouse Lek - part 1

This is the time when the Black Grouse puts up that wonderful display of competitive action during the peak of the mating season. Last year, at this very same time, at the end of April, I went to visit Conny to experience  this wonderful moment in one of the large leks in northern Sweden.

The lek is the aggregation of the male birds during the courtship rituals, but also the term is used to refer to the arena where such display is performed. Apparently, the etymology of the word comes from a Swedish noun, so the choice of the place couldn't have been more appropriate, ha.

               75mm f/4.0 1/25sec ISO400 +0.33

The males gather here every year and start that long process of showing off their strength and look by displaying their plumage, puffing up the red eyebrows, the nice white tail feathers and keeping the wings semi-open on the sides. They are competing with the other males to attract the attention of the females which are visiting the lek from time to time.

               400mm f/5.6 1/500sec ISO4000 +1

Part of this competition is performed by confronting the adversary face to face, puffing up feathers and making a distinctive sound, like a continuous cooing. You can see the throat of the bird moving very clearly as it makes this sound. But even when there isn't a direct confrontation, the males continue walking at fast steps, neck down parallel to the ground, making that distinctive sound to establish their territory, sometimes making sort of circles around.

               400mm f/6.3 1/640sec ISO6400 +0.67

Their positions remind me of two Sumo wrestlers, one in front of the other, in the typical bent position, ready to launch the attack.
That doesn't always happen, sometimes the birds just confront each other, but they do not fight. But when they decide it's the moment, fights are much more violent than Sumo, as we'll see in part 2 of this post.

               400mm f/6.3 1/500sec ISO3200 +0.67

               400mm f/5.0 1/640sec ISO6400 +0.67

               560mm f/6.3 1/640sec ISO2500 +1

Once in a while there is a rest, and the birds stop cooing and start eating or simply looking around to check the situation. These are "dead" moments when the activity calms down. After all, they have been competing for the whole night.
That is when I take a few minutes to rest and close my eyes.
After a very early dinner and a few hours of sleep, every day we get up before 2:00AM to be ready to leave the house around 2:30AM. It takes a little more than one hour to get to the hide at the lek, so not much later than 3:30AM we are ready inside our tents.

The tent is very small, I can't stay stretched completely and I need to keep my knees bent and the shooting position is not very comfortable. So some rest is really nice, not only because of the early rise but also to rest your body. But I can't complain: if Conny can fit the tent (and that is still a mystery to me how he could actually fit, given how tall he is) I must be able to do it for sure!

I want to shoot from the lowest position possible, to get a nice perspective at the birds' level. But the bean bag makes it really too low to maneuver the camera properly. So there comes extremely handy the skimmer ground pod II from Naturescapes. That is a very simple tool, that allows to attach a gimbal head by adding a specific adaptor. It's extremely stable and you can easily turn your camera with a big lens mounted on. It stays on the ground so the camera is pretty low and you can still get a nice perspective. It also works as a dish where you can put your flash cards or extender, ready to be used.

After some time, I got used at clearly recognizing when the rituals started up again by hearing the sounds getting louder and frequent, and that was the signal to get back on, eyes to the camera.

               800mm f/8.0 1/500sec ISO640 +0.67

               560mm f/6.3 1/500sec ISO2500 +0.67

The ground is completely wet, and you need rubber boots to get to the hide. I had been photographing the black grouse for four days in a row and every day we had different kinds of weather, making it very interesting to take pictures. The first day it was raining, but we also had sunny days and a day with frost all over, with wonderful rainbowy reflections as soon as the sun rose.

At this latitude, light comes very early and around 3:30AM there is already enough light to take your shots. The birds are moving very fast, though, so when they fight, the shutter speed must be quite high, as much as you can go over 1/2000 of a second. So in the very early part of the day, the camera is put under a lot of high-ISO pressure until there is more light available. 

Once in a while, the male makes little jumps. Those are accompanied by a more screechy sound, made with the beak completely open. It seems the bird wants to be seen, raising over the grass level of the arena plane.
That is a very good moment to try and get a classic shot with the condensed breath showing in the cold morning air. The subject, though, must be slightly back-lit and the background needs to be dark to see the steam coming out of its mouth. Unfortunately, because of the angle of the camera, the dark forest background was not very low, so I could only take the "cloud" when the bird had already closed its mouth and the effect was not exactly the one I was looking for.

               400mm f/6.3 1/400sec ISO3200 +0.67

               400mm f/5.6 1/200sec ISO1250 +0.67

               400mm f/5.6 1/1000sec ISO3200 +1

               400mm f/6.3 1/400sec ISO3200 +0.67

Another exciting moment is when the birds take short flights over the lek arena. That happens especially when females are around. The birds need to show off and be seen and that is a great way to do it.

               400mm f/5.6 1/800sec ISO3200 +0.67

               400mm f/6.3 1/1000sec ISO2000 +1

               400mm f/5.6 1/2000sec ISO1250 +1.33

               400mm f/5.6 1/2500sec ISO1250 +1.33

               400mm f/5.6 1/1250sec ISO800 +1.33

               400mm f/5.0 1/320sec ISO3200 +0.67

               400mm f/5.0 1/640sec ISO6400 +0.67

               400mm f/6.3 1/250sec ISO1600 +0.67

               400mm f/6.3 1/160sec ISO1250 +0.67

               400mm f/6.3 11600sec ISO3200 +1

By 8:30AM or 9:00AM, everything is finished. The birds suddenly leave the lek to return only in the evening.

I hope you enjoyed this first part. Follow my blog and in the next post we'll see the exciting moments of the fights to conquer the attention of females. Ciao!

I leave you with a couple of short videos that despite the poor visual quality (especially when compressed for the blog), can give you an idea of the typical sounds the birds make during the mating rituals.