Wednesday, 15 April 2015

Highlands Again, The Return Of The Lek

I must be starting to sound like a scratched record now, with my trips north of the border, but after spending a week there recently, I was due to return for just a long weekend, mainly to take in the black grouse lek for real. As the break was limited in terms of time, we (Kate and I) chose to fly up instead of driving and, after a mere 75 minutes, we touched down in Inverness, to be met by Andy at the airport.

With clear skies and a warm breeze, Andy suggested that we waste no time, and head up to the Cairngorms, and after a quick cuppa, a change of clothes, we were soon parking up near the ski centre, and looking up the hills, or should I say mountains, to where the ptarmigan live. Unlike last time, I could see the paths as most of the snow had gone, with just small pockets remaining in dips or shaded areas of the slopes. And, an added benefit was actually having Andy with us this time, to help guide along the way.

Just as well too, as he spotted a pair of ptarmigan near the path well before the usual area, which neither Kate nor I had seen. We skirted around the pair, and then slowly approached. Andy was right, the birds' attitude had changed remarkably since even my last visit, and this pair seemed very settled and allowed us to get very close indeed. My last visits had been prior to, and then during the pairing up phases of the season, and the ptarmigan were a lot more unsettled or flighty, flying off at any sudden or unusual movement nearby.

Keeping low to the ground, we moved around the birds to get shots at the angles we desired, and often just sat back to watch them as they fed on the fresh shoots of heather starting to appear from between the rocks, or through the snow.

Moving up the slopes, it wasn't long before we saw more ptarmigan and one of the female birds amazed us at how well she blended into the surroundings. Sat on a boulder, she was almost invisible to the untrained eye, only taking shape when she chose to move.

The afternoon flew by as we followed various birds around, and in sheltered spots we were actually too warm having to refill our drinks container with mountain water. Andy seemed to be getting into the whole sampling nature a bit too much, when he decided he wanted to taste some red grouse poo, commenting that it tasted like a popular shredded breakfast cereal. Maybe he was suffering from altitude sickness?!

As the sun sank down, the difference in temperature between being in the sunshine and the shade was stark, and we chased the light down the slopes, only stopping to photograph red grouse, when they were perched in suitable locations.

Back to Andy's place, where we enjoyed a meal from Lyndsey and tried to work out timings for the next day's early start... for the lek.

We were supposed to be up at 1:30am, but by the time I'd sorted out what I was going to take along, and how I would carry it, it had gone 11, and I failed to sleep at all, choosing to get up at 1am and wait. By 2am we were on the roads to the lek site, and were treated to a fabulous display of the Aurora, though we couldn't stop alas, to photograph it.

By the time we'd hiked to the hides, the lights in the skies had all but faded, so we just settled into position, set the cameras up, and began to wait. It was pretty calm but chilly with clear skies. As before, it was a case of waiting for the birds to arrive, then listening to the sounds of the moors, with snipe drumming, before the light crawled across the lek site, and turned the sounds of the grouse into strutting and posturing birds.

After the previous visit, I chose to rig up my old 7D on the 500mm, and have the Mk2 on my 100-400mm lens, resting on a bean bag. This I hoped would allow me to compose shots better, to take in not only more than one of the grouse in a shot, but also capture some of the breathtaking views behind.

With its ability to handle low light, at a high ISO setting, I was taking pics as soon as I could see the grouse, and unlike the previous visit, the grouse seemed far more aggressive to one another, with them taking turns to face each other up, threaten, pose and occasionally launch an attack.

Predicting this is tricky, as sometimes the birds would almost touch beaks, then back away, and walk around one another, before, without any warning signs, dive into an attack, which would be over almost before it began. I guess with Andy's previous experience of a number of leks he was more familiar with this, and I often missed the action, but heard his 1DX machine-gunning away.

I managed some shots though, as the lek progressed, and as it did, and the light improved, I kept a watchful eye on the light readings, adjusting the ISO down, whenever possible.

Mark Hamblin who manages the site, had mentioned some hens visiting the site on the day before, but these failed to show during our session, though one smaller, perhaps younger male did briefly appear, caused a bit of confusion before being chased away by several of the established brawlers on the site.

By the time the sun had risen fully and bathed the area in golden light, the action had mostly finished, and the grouse generally preened and pecked at the heather. Some seemed to take a few seconds to snooze, maybe enjoying the warmth of the sun. Then, one by one they fluttered off. This was our cue to exit, and have a look around the site at the feathers left from the fights.

It was also Andy's cue to grab my hat, and boot it into the heather, pretending to be taking part in the lek himself, which was amusingly captured on camera by Kate, who was giggling at his daft antics nearby. Strolling down the hills, Kate spotted some common lizards sunbathing, and after a short chat with the gamekeepers, we headed back north, to spend the rest of the day at Chanonry Point. Stopping along the way for a coffee and slice of cake, of course!

Initially there wasn't much to see at the Point, and this was expected as the salmon run hasn't really started yet. But, it was worth a wait Andy said, as anything can happen there. Besides, we were all too shattered to do much else, other than sit on the shingle and watch the tide come in.

Then a disturbance in the water some way out, and a few gulls circling gave away the location of a pair of dolphins. Nothing spectacular in terms of views, with just glimpses of the heads, but mainly dorsal fins and the tail being visible, though pretty close in as the tide reached turning point.

Another dolphin briefly joined them, before they all headed further out, and we opted to head back home.

I didn't need much encouragement to sleep that evening, awakening to the plan of a later start, but a return to RSPB Troup Head on the Aberdeenshire coast. Lyndsey was free today too, so the four of us set off east, calling into an ice cream parlour along the way. All of us though, had been fooled by the bright conditions, and chosen to wear lighter clothes, only to reach the cliffs and discover that the gusts of wind were icy cold! It was bright though, and the windy weather meant the gannets would be up at eye-level for the visit.

I've been to Bempton Cliffs a few times, but the number of gannets here was astonishing. It was like being in a snow-globe, with them circling round in waves with the gusts of wind. Quite literally at times too, when the hailstorms rolled in from the sea, and battered us as we crouched on the grassy slopes. These birds are made of hardy stuff, we all thought.

Perched near the edge of the cliffs, we were treated to exceptionally close views as the gannets masterfully glided by on the breeze, occasionally looking across at us as they went.

The long grass covering the cliffs was popular as nesting material, and we saw a couple of gannets land, to tear clumps of it away, before lifting off effortlessly again, to return to their piece of real estate on a cliff ledge somewhere.

I took the opportunity to try a few of the multi-point focus modes out on the new camera, and found that the group modes are very good at picking up flying birds, even against the rocks and sea as backdrops. Not perfect, but probably locked on 9 times out of 10.

And with my UniqBall tripod head, I was able to get shots most of the time with the horizon level, something that was a rare treat with my old head, had luck been on my side with setting things up.

I love gannets, but I also wanted to try for some shots of fulmars, as I often seem to forget to photograph them. Walking along the cliffs, I found a cove where a few pairs were nesting, and watched as they flew to and from the cliffs.

Unlike the gannets that soar around, and brake last minute to thump on to the rocks, the fulmars bob around on the gusts of wind, like a cork on choppy seas, with their legs dangling below, seemingly without control. But they were so skillful with their flights, timing the updrafts perfectly to simply step on to their nest sites.

We had all planned and hoped for a good sunset, but as usual with weather and wildlife, it didn't quite work out. The sun was obscured by clouds just as it was reaching the horizon and the only gannet we had to photo, decided to head off fishing anyway.

Fish & chips on the way home, and another most welcome night's sleep. The final day had been planned as one spent on the hills with the hares, but we encountered blizzard conditions along the way, and had to divert to pick up something Kate had dropped at the lek site, from Mark. Then the fuel light pinged on and Andy chose not to risk it, and to be honest, I didn't fancy getting soaked and cold on the final morning, for the flight back. We ended up touring round in the hope of seeing something, taking in Lochindorb eventually to grab some last red grouse shots. Always welcome, even if I have about a thousand of them already!

Mere hours later, I was dropping Kate off back home, after leaving Andy and Lynsdey at Inverness airport. It seems so much closer when you can fly up, and I am missing the glorious scenery, not to mention the wildlife and company already. Roll on the next trip...

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