Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Spring Grouse

I want to wind the clock back now to the spring when I spent some time trying to photograph Black Grouse. At the start of each year and try to formulate some plans for some photography projects. This usually includes trying to get some photographs of a new species or two. For 2015 I decided I would try and photograph some Black Grouse, although not through the easy route of paying for a pre-set up hide.
Black Grouse, or 'Black cock' and 'Grey hens' as they are known in Scotland, are very enigmatic and beautiful moorlands birds. Each spring the birds gather at traditional display grounds known as leks at first light each day. On the leks the birds battle for dominance and to impress the females for mating. A Black Grouse lek is truly one of natures spectacles as the  males pumped up with hormones almost seem to vibrate as they square up to each other with fanned white and black lyre shaped tail feathers. Much of the action is display and posturing, such as frequent jumping up and down on the spot or strutting around with the head held low. However, quite frequently this will turn into a full on feet first battle.

The noise from the lek is also atmospheric, especially when combined with first light, with the low bubbling calls interspersed with hissing from the birds which sounds a bit like a tyre being deflated. Quite often there will be a moment of quiet and then some trigger suddenly bursts all the birds into life and a unison of sound rise up out of the lek.

Photographing Black Grouse does present a range of photography challenges. Firstly they will stand the sight of people which means typically you have to get up at some unearthly hour, particularly in mid-spring to arrive in the dark so they don't see you approach. It is fairly punishing getting up in the middle of the night and you really feel it later in the day. These birds are not big fans of staying on the lek long once the sun has risen and will usually all depart together soon after sunrise. I have noticed they do hang around longer on overcast days. Given their colouration of black, bright white and blue they do present some exposure challenges especially when in sun where they seem to quickly become  very contrast subject. My preferred conditions are actually bright overcast skies and it is under these conditions their rich dark colour combination really sings out.

I decided mainly to go for capturing some portrait photographs of the birds as the site does not lend itself particularly for battling shots. Action photos are a challenge given the birds preferences for low light conditions at dawn.
However, I did manage to get a few photos of the birds in flight.

Overall I was pleased how the few sessions went and have posted a small selection of images.

Having spent some time with the birds I now have a better understanding of the their behaviour and hope this puts me in a good position when I hopefully spend some more time on their 'battle grounds' next spring.

Sunday, October 04, 2015

Immersed In Iceland: Day 10 - Eider and Out

So the final day of our trip dawned with cold grey skies, a stiff icy wind and intermittent showers. The plan was to just wander around the south-west corner of Iceland, with no particular destination in mind, to see what birds we could find. The weather outside the 'campervan' could only be described as grim. We had not gone too far and we unexpectedly came across an area with huge colonies of Eider and Arctic Terns.  This place had a road running through the centre will low roadside fences to protect the colonies from the attentions of Arctic Foxes. We both smiled at the find as we could immediately see the potential with the added bonus that we could do it all without the need of stepping out of the 'campervan' into the pummelling wind. With a bit of careful positioning of the vehicle we would also be able to get a good variety of photographs.

I have always had a great fondness for Eider. The drakes are such striking looking birds in their black and white plumage, mustard yellow bill, rose tinged breast, and a splash of lime green in a patch at the back of the neck.

The females are also attractive but in a more subtle way with the intricate patterning of their brown feathers which provides superb camouflaged and protection when sat on their famous down nests. It is surprising when you look at a colony how you suddenly spot of female that has been sat quietly still and unnoticed in front of you. The colony was in an attractive setting of scattered rocks and low brown and red low growing vegetation. Given our slightly elevated position the sea provided a layer of blue to the back ground which would have some advantage for photographing the birds in low flight rather than against a grey-white sky

Given the conditions and the wealth of opportunities on offer, we would spend the majority of the day there moving between different promising looking spots along the road. To begin with we started getting a variety of portrait photographs of the birds. Often when photographing from an 'autohide' it is good to look for locations where birds are sat on raised areas of ground at the sides of the roads. This allows you to take photographs with the appearance of being at ground level without the need to go on some lengthy commando crawl. With thoughtful positioning and using a shallow depth of field you can get even achieve those 'birds in the mush' images.
Not forgetting the females of course. This one among the rapidly growing lupins.
After taking plenty of portrait images, we shifted our attention to trying to get some flight photographs. The frequent comings and goings of the birds offering plenty of opportunities.  Eider tend to fly fast and low but the stiff wind aided us by slowing them down a little.

Looking back we decided we had made the best decision, given the conditions, to stay with Eider for the majority of day as it produced a great selection of images of these striking ducks for us both.

We made our way back towards Keflavik, via an elongated route, just to see if we could pick up one or two last birds before calling it a day. Most birds seemed to be lying low given the conditions but we did come across a Whimbrel which quickly disappeared in to the undergrowth. There had been reports of a White-winged Scoter just off the promenade and we eventually spotted the dark bird battling through the rough seas with a pair of Eider. As the birds were pushed closer and closer with the strong onshore wind, the weather deteriorated. We attempted a couple of photographs but it was fairly hopeless in the conditions.

For our last bit moments of photography in Iceland we checked out the area around the docks. In a corner where the rough waters had pushed a load of flotsam and debris we found an juvenile Iceland Gull and a couple of Kittiwakes. Not the most scenic of locations to take the last photographs of the trip but it was good to get some Kittiwakes on water which was a first for us both.

We made our way back to the hotel and went through the motions of sorting the 'campervan' out for return to the hire company and packing all our kit and clothing back into order for the journey home on an early flight the next day.

It has been a superb trip spent in great company, wonderful scenery, 'special weather' and with some amazing birds. A visit that will be at the fore of memories for many years to come and no doubt will definitely not be my last trip to Iceland. If you want to see some of Steve's photographs from the trip then please pop over to his blog which is on this LINK . I hope you have enjoyed the journey and it has given an insight into the potential for bird photography that Iceland can provide in the late spring and early summer.

I apologise that reporting this trip has been so drawn out, it has been busy times. Rest assured I have plenty of photographs from this to summer to show you and hope 'normal service' will be resumed :).


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