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.

Monday, July 04, 2016

Beyond 66.5 Degrees North - Day 4: Ruffin' It

The alarm burst into life at 3:30 am. After a bit of stumbling around, 15 minutes later we were on the road and rapidly heading eastward along the road that hugs the north shore of the Varanger peninsula. We were not to be diverted by any roadside birds as we headed on our mission straight to the Ruff lek area we had checked out the previous day. After an hour of travel, half of which was spent negotiating the rough dirt track, we had arrived.

The pummelling icy wind from the previous day had eased down to a moderate cold breeze and above was a mix of cloud with the occasional small break through which hopefully a little sun might appear.

On the lek we could see three male Ruff. We were hoping that our early start would allow us to get in position before the birds arrived for their daily displaying. When it is 24 hour daylight it is difficult to work out when the quiet and active periods in the day are for the birds. From what we saw during the week generally there seemed to be the usual lunch time lull and from around 8pm through to midnight.
Our first challenge of the day was how would we get close in on the lek without disturbing the birds. We had one throw-over hide with us which was not really going to help, especially with the wind that was blowing through across the tundra that would cause the light fabric to flap around and probably cause more problems than it would solve. The lek site was located very close to the edge of the lake. So given the lack of cover the only possible approach would be to wade through the margins of the lake in the chest waders we brought with us. Along this route we would be hidden from the birds by the raised bank and then we could very slowly slither up into position by the lek. The final part of the approach was undertaken very slowly and carefully with frequent pauses and constantly watching for any response from the birds. Finally, after crawling up a shallow peaty gully we were in position with no apparent disturbance to the birds.

While we were on our manoeuvres the weather began to rapidly deteriorate. The distant hills has disappeared in a rapidly advancing low grey gloom. It looked like we were going to be in for some weather. About 10 minutes later it started snowing, heavily at first before turning to a sleet and light drizzle. There was nothing we could do but lay there and take what the weather was throwing at us. At least the chest waders offered an extra layer of insulation between us and the cold ground.

Despite the weather it was great to finally be up very close to  male Ruff in full breeding plumage. Such amazing looking birds and it is only when you up are close that your realise the degree of iridescent sheen the feathers have with hints of purple, blue and turquoise but we needed some sun for these to light up.  There were only three birds present, a dark headed bird with a mottled black and grey neck parasol of feathers, a mottled ginger coloured bird and a white collared bird. It soon became obvious that the dark headed bird was the dominant bird of those present and was occupying a small raised patch of ground on the lek. He was also the closest bird to us.
We soon realised that our laying down position was actually going to be quite limiting given the undulating terrain of the lek site and it was difficult to get anything more than head photographs of the other two birds set behind the 'King of the Hill'.

Sometimes you can be too low and we didn't want to move or raise ourselves which may have disturbed the birds and so I spent the majority of the session photographing the dominant dark bird in different poses and weather!.

The sun did break through briefly and it was then that the metallic sheens on the birds feathers really started to light up.

This as my first time on a Ruff lek and I was not sure what to expect, as it happened very little occurred that morning, as we were to find out the following day when we go the real measure of what it was all about. For the majority of the time it was just the three birds and occasionally one would appear at the lake edge nearby which would cause the three to ruffle up and start posturing. In my next blog post I will try and describe how these leks work.

I am not sure how long we had been laying there barely daring to move but it had been a few hours. With the the early drenching and lack of activity we were starting to feel the cold and decided to leave  in a slow and careful reverse of the of our approach, leaving all three birds undisturbed on the lek. Back at the car we discussed the morning events and general lack of expected activity. Had we arrived too late in the day or too late in the season? We decided we would make a return visit the following day.

We made our way back along the dirt track, smiles on the faces of both photographers after our Ruff encounter and before we arrived back at the main road we spotted two male Lapland Bunting shuffling through the low vegetation and feeding on Bilberry.

Back on the main road we headed west and thought we would try another dirt track before heading back to Vadso. Here we picked up another Golden Plover and after another 'skua crawl' a further Long-tailed Skua.

Back at the hotel and exhausted, we decided to catch up on some sleep, making the room cleaners daily task a little shorter. We both emerged late afternoon and decided we would head out again for a short while before heading back into Vadso for some food.  This time we decided to visit the Kittiwake cliffs at Ekkeroy where I was hoping we might find some Ravens but it was not to be with only the usual comings and goings of the noisy seabirds. Interestingly last time I visited all the Kittiwake nests had well grown chicks on this occasion none could be seen and the beaches were virtually devoid of waders. It looked like breeding was running late this year.

We had a funny moment on the way. Whilst looking for some birds I spotted what I initially thought were two foxes in the distance but on close view with the binoculars turned out to be cats. Looking at their leopard like markings, apparent size and not knowing if there were any wild cats in this area, we managed to convince ourselves we were looking at a pair of some type of wild cat.
After quite a bit of sneaking around and making our best imitation of a rodent squeaking we finally got close to them. Firstly they didn't look as big as originally appeared and secondly they didn't look too wild, although they weren't behaving like your average tame domestic cat.

A quick Google and our wild cat dream was shattered. We had spent quite a long time trying to photograph what seemed to be the Bengal breed of domestic cat albeit this pair seemed to be feral. We had a good laugh about it later.

Back in Vadso we hit the restaurant over the road from the Indian Restaurant and had a very tasty pizza before heading back to the hotel. We managed to hire one of the hotels pop-up Doghouse hides for use on the lek the next day which was a good result as it would give us a bit more elevation and a better view over the lek.  After the normal battery recharge download back-up routine we decided to call it a day. Checking the weather and it looked as if the wind would be easing right down the next day but would mainly be cloudy.  The alarm clock was wound back for an even earlier start on the Ruff lek in the morning.


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