Monday, July 25, 2016

Beyond 66.5 Degrees North - Day 5: Mission Accomplised

Before we went to sleep, I asked Adam what time he wanted to get up the following morning for our return to the Ruff lek,  'I will leave that decision to you' came the reply.  Something that he might not ask me to do again as I set the alarm to 2:30 am. On waking after a brief sleep, I looked outside to be surprised by seeing the warm soft glow of the low night time sun and light winds which was at odds with the forecast. Conditions looked ideal for our morning session.

We hit the road eastward and only paused briefly en route to the lek, to photograph a Willow Grouse next to the dirt track across the tundra. This was the first time I had managed to get one of these birds in front of the camera and also a first of photographing wildlife at 3 am! These birds are identical to the UK's Red Grouse except of course for the white feathers on the body.  A good start to the day.

Eventually our slow bumpy journey came to an end and we reached the end of the rough dirt track and despite our earlier start there were still three Ruff on the lek. We were slightly better prepared for this visit as we had use of a pop up dome hide but still slightly under-equipped for a comfortable hide session as we only had one chair and one monopod between us. We gathered our kit together, popped up the hide, got inside and with it balanced on our heads and slowly shuffled towards the lek. We kept an eye on the birds throughout move towards them and occasionally paused to allow them to get accustomed to the advancing 'shrub'. To someone viewing it would no doubt have been a comical sight. Our slightly raised position from the pop-up hide gave us a good view across the slightly undulating terrain of the lek.

I suppose this would be a good time to try describe a ruff lek in a bit more detail to give you a feeling of what was in front of us. The lek is a relatively small area where the male birds gather and display and fight to try and show their dominance and increase the number of females they breed with. The male ruff are all individual in the colour combination of their look but can be broadly divided into three types. Those with black or ginger coloured neck and head feathers tend to be territorial on the lek and hold and defend a small area of around 1 square metre.

Those with white coloured neck and head plumage are known as satellite males and are non-territorial on the lek.

Also about 10 years ago it was discovered there is a third type of male that resembles a female. The white satellite birds are tolerated by the darker territorial birds as the great number of birds present on the lek the great number of females that will generally visit. Not all mating occurs on the lek and only a small proportion of the males attend the lek site, the birds also employ other strategies including direct pursuit of females or wait for them at good feeding sites.

With ruff it is all about visuals with the males and they go through a wide range of elaborate posturing to each other which includes jumping, standing upright, wing fluttering, lunging and crouching all of which is generally performed in an eerie silence.

Sometimes a male will crouch and another will go up to it and they will be literally head to head.

For a lot of the time the lek will be relatively quiet with males stood around, occasionally there will be some fluttering and posturing as one of the satellite males moves around. It is when a female arrives at the lek that everything bursts into life and frenzied activity of display. An incoming female will often have two or three males in pursuit. Fights between males are infrequent, short in duration, ferocious and messy affairs. The fights are also difficult to photograph as they can erupt anywhere across the frenzied activity going on across the whole lek.  They were made more difficult to capture as we had camera in silent mode to reduce potential for disturbance with the corresponding reduced frame rate.

During the session Adam said he had seen a photograph in a book of a Ruff which had a purple iridescence around its dark collar and that was one he would love to see. He named this bird 'The Purple Prince'. There was no sign of such a bird on the lek and after humming 'Purple Rain' a couple of times I suggested that 'The Purple Prince' was prehaps a myth. A few more photographs below to finish off from the many we took that morning. I make no apologies for the number of photos in this post of these fascinating, beautiful and flamboyant birds.

A ruff lek is truly one of nature's spectacles and a honour to witness at close quarters. Our primary goal of the trip was well and truly mission accomplished. The memories of that morning session with the ruff will stay with me forever.

With the morning progressing and activity subsiding we decided bring the session to an end and backed away under the hide. Back at the car it was good to get out of the confines of the hide. While battling with packing the springy hide away into its bag, I heard a Bluethroat singing in the willow scrub near the car. This was another species high on my list to photograph whilst in Norway. So I spent the next 30 minutes trying to get some images of what proved to be a very mobile bird but managed to get a few images in the end.

The early start and intensity of the morning session were starting to take their toll and fatigue was setting in rapidly, so we decided we would make our way back to the hotel for some rest and try and catch up on some missing sleep. It was probably nearly lunchtime, after the usual image download and back-up process before my head hit the pillow. We re-emerged late afternoon and decided we would get some food in Vadso before heading out for a local evening session on the nature reserve next to the hotel. As we were  at the restaurant before 6 pm it meant we had a wide choice of food available beyond the post-6pm pizza only menu. We both settled for a huge steaming bowl of pasta.

After dinner, we took a drive up around the hills and lakes to the north of Vadso to see if there was much photography potential up there but it was relatively quiet. So we headed back to Vadsoya Island and the nature reserve.  Once on the reserve, we headed our  separate ways. Adam decided to make the use of the remaining pop up hide hire and try and  photograph some Hooded Crows, albeit unsuccessfully as it turned out, and I spent my time stalking the Mountain Hares on foot which went reasonably well. The Mountain Hares proved to be typically tricky to approach and I did have one lucky moment when one came right by me and I managed to get some full frame images.

During that evening session the weather was already starting to deteriorate with the a freshening wind developing from the north. The forecast for the next day was looking very grim with 40 mph winds and heavy rain forecast and photography prospects looking very poor. Would the generally unreliable weather forecast be right? All would be revealed when we rolled up the black out blinds in the morning.


Ed Rosack said...

Wonderful photos and information on a very interesting bird. Thanks for posting.

Paul Sorrell said...

Completely fabulous – like a fashion show!

Dave Williams said...

Amazing shots and an interesting account. Bluethroat was possibly top of my to see wish list...not any more!!

Jacquelin Cangro said...

Wonderful photos! I had no idea about the variety of colors and patterns of the ruff plumage.
Do the satellite males "help" the other males? Or are they tagging along to learn for future mating seasons?


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