It's midnight and I am in position, finally. All the camera equipment is arranged around me with what I think are the correct lenses poking out of various orifices (in the hide), and all the basics required for spending a cold night on the high windswept moors of northern England in early spring. It's like doing my D of E expedition all over again, yay!
The ergonomics in here, however, leave a lot to be desired, especially as I have to get into two sleeping bags and settle down for some kip amongst all this stuff. The hide is six feet long and I am six feet tall. Hmm. This means that the end of my sleeping bag will be sticking out into the bog, or my head has to go directly underneath the tripod, between the legs. I didn't see that one coming. I only hope that heavy lens doesn't snap off the ball-head in the cold, and come down on top of me. It's going to be quite a contortion to get under it, and I can't roll over either if I start snoring. But wait, there's nobody next to me to give me a kick if I do, hurrah! The logistics of getting up for a pee in the small hours though gives me slight cause for concern, but I have got round worse conundrums and as long as I can get to my bottle in time I should be OK. I am sure I'll manage. So, I get snug, pour a coffee from the flask, and just sit and listen to the silence for a while, contemplating the days events.
Six months earlier..........................
Having well and truly caught the black grouse bug in April 2016 when I photographed them in the snow from the comfort of my fathers car, I decided that I simply had to return to spend some time down by the main lek to get up close to the action. My problems were numerous; I didn't have a hide, couldn't get time off from work for extended periods, didn't have permission to put up a hide in the first place, and didn't know who to approach about it. This was clearly going to take some planning.
This area is obviously driven grouse shooting moorland. So, I contacted the local Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust officer who put me in touch with the office of the Estate of the landowner. I then had to wait till January till the permission came through from 'on high', and as luck would have it they said yes! I was amazed actually as apparently they don't just dish out access to everyone who asks.
So now, I was going to need to get my first hide. I had to get this right because if I was to spend several nights up there potentially in weather from hell, it needed to be up to the job. So, I did lots of research and finally came up with a long and low hide, with a sewn in groundsheet, and a high and a low port on each side.
Here's a grouse-eye view of it, all set up in the back garden. The pointy thing taped to the lens hood of the lower lens is an external microphone - I was also hoping to get some video and audio too.
The day dawned and I set off on a long drive 'up North'. I was due to meet the gamekeeper on site so he could help me get my hide in the right place. However, not five miles from the lek site, my car suddenly began to scream at me from somewhere under the bonnet. It got louder, and louder until heads started turning towards me as I drove through the villages. I could not believe it. I stopped at a local garage where they tried to be as helpful as possible (everyone has time for you up there - human nature at its best), but it was no good, the trouble seemed serious. I limped the car back to my parents house in Appleby, called up the Gamekeeper and apologised for wasting his time and called the whole thing off. The RAC were duly called and a recovery vehicle arranged for the following day. So near, and yet so far.
Now just wait a darned minute my boy. I am up here and yes, my car is bust and nothing is going to change that, and it looks like I will have a difficult journey home. But my dads car is on the drive and that works as far as I know. So asking him nicely, and promising to look after it, I managed to secure some wheels, and the gig was back on! An hour later we were on site and I was using the help from the gamekeeper and the Photographers Ephemeris app (really good for seeing where the sun will be tracking) to orientate the hide. Here it is on the site, facing kind of North.
The ground was basically sphagnum moss and sopping wet too. Imagine camping on a giant wet sponge and your'e about right. It was also blowing a mini gale, so the long pegs I had brought with me were going to come in very handy - no mallet required here, they could easily be pushed into the moss with little resistance. I just hoped the groundsheet was waterproof otherwise I would be in for a wet night. At least I would have a comfy natural mattress!
Now I was all set and really getting quite excited at the prospect of what was to come. We secured the hide, and left the site, with my plan to return again at about midnight.
The moors are desolate barren places at the best of times but in the dark they can be very foreboding indeed. I parked up, and headed across over the moor, weighed down by heavy cameras and lenses. I really hoped I wasn't going to end up bog-snorkelling - that would have been very unpleasant.
I began to get concerned. It was pitch black with no moon to guide me. My head torch was pretty good for walking by but didn't throw out much of a search beam, and the visual clues from the landscape to tell me where my hide was, which seemed so clear during the daylight, where now obscured by inky blackness. I searched around for about half an hour, wondering all the time whether the wind had ripped it out and it was now in the river at the bottom of the valley. This was another low point and I was wondering just how many gods were against me, but eventually after widening the search, I found it. Next time I'll attach a glow stick to it I think.
The action starts very early, at about 5am, way before first light and completely beyond the capability of my cameras sensor, so it was best to just sit, peer into the semi darkness, listen, and wonder.
First to come was the sound. A gentle murmur in the distance, faint initially, but gradually building as the birds came in until there was quite a cacophany of cooing, and wierd bubbling noises. Many birds were flying in too. The gamekeeper had told me there were up to 30 birds plus females in this lek and I reckon he was about right with that as the bright white tail fans were quite conspicuous even in the semi dark. I could see them running to and fro at great speed as they chased each other, and then, a new sound, a long, rasping hiss.
These excitable birds were scooting all over the place, going round in circles and jumping up and down, which was superb to observe but very frustrating from the photography point of view. I normally don't go over ISO 1600 on my camera but I couldn't help but jumping in at 3200, manually focusing as the AF couldn't cope with the lack of contrast, and hoping for the best. There was a low mist in the valley which frankly didn't help at all, but the birds were close and they didn't appear to be fazed by my hide so as long as I was patient I figured the light might eventually come to me.
To begin with though, I had to contend with dim cold, rather blue light, so I selected a few of the more still subjects to focus upon. The younger blackcock, rather elegant looking birds lacking the obvious bulk of the big boys, were hanging around the edge of the lek in the long grass, straining their long thin necks to see the action, which was coming along nicely in the central area..........
The face-off is great to observe. Its similar to what boxers do before the big fight. Two birds come to within a few inches of each other and stare each other out and inflate their red pompoms (properly called 'wattles'). One plays submissive and crouches down while the other rears up with the lyre tail held high. Then they seem to exchange roles and play it out again. The superior bird hisses during this face-off. This is going on all around but you are entirely dependent upon the whim of the birds to get a good photographic angle so it can be a bit hit and miss.
The face off sometimes peters out and they wander off, but other times rises to a snapping point whereupon the jumping and kicking happens. Its over in a flash and isn't easy to capture. This was the only shot I got of them kick boxing unfortunately and to do better will definitely remain on my list of things to do next time. The jumping lasts a split second and is very difficult to predict, and requires a fast shutter speed which was impossible to get so early on.
Sometimes there is a mismatch and the superior bird chases after the weaker one with wings held out to add to the intimidation........
This is all about sexual selection of course and I could see quite a number of females furtively lurking in the reeds at the edge of the lek watching and sussing out whom to accept as a mate. That tail fan certainly grabs their attention!
The light was now beginning to improve though I also sensed a dropping off in lekking activity. Some were still at it though so I kept going. As if by magic, the clouds then parted and I had lovely golden sun pouring in from behind me on the right. This is the low crouching position which the birds assume to make the bubbling noise. Again I waited till his head was turned and into the light to capture the details and colour.
When the sun catches the plumage just right, the black neck feathers take on an irridescent blue colour. You really do need some sun to catch the details. if he turns his head the other way, everything goes black.
I suppose this is the classic BG pose where you can see everything, the fan, the wattles and the lyre. Hard to get a clean shot though with the grass shoots getting in the way.
Here is the boss - a real brute who was jealously guarding the tallest biggest moss mound in the centre of the lek. He stood there, chest puffed out and wings held open just hissing away for ages and no other bird dared to come close.
.....and if they did, they got a faceful of this.
One of my favourites. Other stuff comes and goes during the morning including lapwing. Again, the sun brought out a rainbow of structural colours in its otherwise dark plumage, and the north wind was blowing under the feathers to add contrasting areas of shadow.
The drama was over by 8 am and the birds gradually dispersed and flew off, leaving me to pack up and head on home. I will finish with a flurry of other images from the morning. It was an incredible experience, a real privilege to be there to witness it and a joy to be able to come away with some great shots. Hope you have enjoyed the blog.