How to Photograph the Black Grouse Lek
The month of April is a busy time for many bird photographers in the northern hemisphere, especially for those wanting to photograph the black grouse lek.
With Spring underway, most birds are actively preparing to breed. The black grouse (Tetrao tetrix) along with a few other birds, have evolved a particularly exciting and often ferocious way of deciding who mates.
Throughout the year, though peaking in April and early May, the males meet up at a predetermined area known as a lek to display and often fight to show dominance in order to mate with females.
The displays and fighting make for an incredible natural spectacle to photograph, and in this tutorial, I’ll give some tips on how to photograph this incredible behavioural phenomenon, known as the black grouse lek.
The black grouse
The black grouse is a member of the Phasianidae family and is found throughout much of the Palearctic, stretching from the Atlantic coast and northern Eurasia to south-eastern Siberia.
The preferred habitat of the black grouse is the transition between woodland and open heath. In Perthshire, Scotland, where I take people out to photograph black grouse, they are usually found on moorland with a few trees nearby, and associated farmland.
Besides putting on a fantastic display, the black grouse is also a great species to photograph because they are predictable and will usually return to the same lek again and again.
Once you know where a lek is, you can show up before the birds arrive in the morning and hide, but first, you need to locate the lek.
Read more: How to Photograph Animals in Their Habitat
How to find a black grouse lek
Some research online will give you a good idea of local ranges for black grouse, and there are some apps and guides that can give you very localised areas.
Pick a wind-still day in early April and go for a pre-dawn hike in the area you’ve identified and listen; with little wind, their calls can travel quite far.
I remember one frosty April morning in the eastern Cairngorms in Scotland. I had a fairly large area to search, but arriving an hour before sunrise, I sat down on a hillside and listened.
I decided to walk a bit closer so I could properly identify exactly where the lek was, but I made sure to stop further than 200m from the lek as the birds can easily be disturbed.
Here, I watched through my scope and made notes on the features of the landscape nearby. A few hours later when they finished up for the morning, I walked over, and I could see the signs of them; lots of grouse droppings and feathers lost in battle.
In order to be close to the birds and photograph them, it is imperative to use blinds so as not to cause any disturbance. The black grouse are extremely sensitive to noise and movement.
In many areas, they are in decline, so if you are pursuing this photographic venture, then the welfare of the birds must be of utmost importance. I would recommend going with a reputable guide at least the first time you photograph at a lek so that you can learn the ways to minimize your impact.
How to use a blind to photograph the lek
I use Tragopan photography blinds and find either the Hokki or the V7 with additional room ideal for this type of photography. This is because you can lie down in them and get that perfect low-angle view of the birds, which usually looks best for ground birds in a photo.
The blinds shouldn’t be positioned too close to the birds, and the lekking area can spread out, so when you watch from a distance, it can be a good idea to try to determine the edges of the lek so you can position the blind even further away.
At the lek that I photograph in Perthshire, I’m lucky that I get the first light in the morning (it’s not obstructed by a hill), and I can choose to position the blinds to photograph front-lit or back-lit.
The idea behind the blind is that the birds don’t see you go in or out; you need to arrive early in the morning so you can hide before they arrive.
In my experience, predicting the time that the birds will arrive in the morning can vary from lek to lek and day to day.
Once, I arrived at a lek an hour and forty minutes before sunrise, and the birds were already there, so I had to leave and come back another day – no photos are worth the welfare of the birds.
The first time you are visiting a new lek, I would recommend arriving closer to two hours before sunrise so that you can safely set up and get inside your blind well before the birds arrive.
At the lek that I photograph, the birds usually don’t arrive until about an hour and twenty minutes before sunrise. I like to set up the blinds and leave them there in advance so that I can just show up and get in.
Once you are actually inside the blinds, you need to be quiet, especially if the birds go quiet. The grouse are constantly hissing and rookooing, so when they go silent, it’s usually because something has made them nervous.
It could be a predator or something they’re not sure of, but at this time, they are particularly sensitive to disturbance, and it’s best to stay completely still and not even try to get an image until they start calling again. It usually doesn’t take very long, so be patient!
Read more: How to Build a Photography Hide
Comfort in the blind
When it comes to being comfortable in the hide, I’d like to recommend bringing a few items so that you’re happy to stay until the birds fly away; bear in mind that this could be anything from three to five hours, or possibly even longer.
A ground mat
A blow-up one can get noisy, so I like a foldable one. It’s essential for comfort and to keep warm – the cold, hard ground will seep up into your clothes faster than you think!
Bring a hat, gloves, etc. If it’s likely to get cold, I also like to bring a sleeping bag and some hand warmers. I’ve sat through some particularly cold mornings in the past, and I’d rather be prepared.
Finally, I don’t like to drink coffee or other diuretics before a potentially long blind session, but I always bring an empty bottle just in case. A quick Google search will find some better solutions for women!
Photographing black grouse
Once you have found the black grouse lek, here are my top tips for taking stand-out photographs.
As for camera gear, one long telephoto prime or zoom lens is usually good, though I also like to have a shorter-range zoom on a second camera body. As the grouse can move about quite a bit, I tend to favour a zoom lens over a prime lens as it’s more flexible.
My setup is two OM System OM-1 bodies with the M.Zuiko 150-400mm with a built-in 1.25x extender on one body and the M.Zuiko 40-150 f/2.8 on the other body. A bean bag or small tripod is good to bring to support your camera and lens.
As I also film a lot, I prefer a small tripod, and I find that the “mini tripod,” which is the upper part of the HEIPI tripod, is ideal for this.
Managing exposure settings
Because the males have black body feathers and white tail feathers, they can make for a tricky subject to expose properly.
With my OM-1 and other mirrorless cameras, it’s quite easy to achieve this by having the highlight alerts set up. This way you’ll see immediately if anything is overexposed, and you can make adjustments accordingly.
For older DSLRs, it helps to know your metering mode well and check the histogram after some test shots to make sure you’re not clipping the highlights.
Read more: How to Harness Light in Bird Photography
Camera settings for the black grouse Lek
Since I’ll be at the lek long before there’s enough light to take a photo, I prefer to spend the early hours lying down and just listening to the birds and the surrounding nature.
I don’t recommend fighting against the light – so don’t try for high shutter speed, ‘freezing the action’ kind of images until there is enough light for that type of shot.
However, that doesn’t always mean that you must wait until the sun has risen before you start shooting.
The light can be absolutely fantastic a little before the sun has come up. I often use a slow shutter speed of 1/15s or less, the lowest f-stop, and the lowest ISO I can get away with to get some nice portraits of the birds before sunrise.
Early on I’ll sometimes photograph action with a slow shutter speed to see if I can get a blurry action image that still has a pleasing composition, often using a shutter of 1/25s for the male’s fight.
Most of these images don’t look very good, but every now and then I get a keeper that is quite unique.
Black grouse behaviour
If it’s a cold morning and I’m shooting backlit, I often try to photograph the breath of the grouse. In order to see the breath well in a photo, I need to be shooting into the sun, and the breath shows best when there’s a dark background.
When the sun has come up and more light is available, I recommend trying to get more action images.
There are several behaviours to look out for here that can make for great images.
The males often do a small jump as they call. These are fairly easy to see coming, and once you see a male do it once, it will often do it a few more times soon after, and you can be ready.
The fighting happens fast, and it’s best to have your settings ready for the action. I prefer to get my shutter speed up to 1/1600s or higher if there’s enough light; I find this usually freezes most of the action.
Usually, it’s only after looking through the images you can actually see how vicious these fights can get.
If you get lucky, you might also see the female black grouse make an appearance, and they can make for a fantastic bird to photograph as well.
Sometimes when females arrive on the lek, the males will go absolutely bananas and start to intensify their calls, but occasionally they also start to take short bursts of flight.
Even though you might get a heads-up by seeing females arrive, these short bursts of flight can be difficult to photograph.
Top Tip: On the OM-1, I’m lucky that I have reliable AI bird autofocus, so my approach is often to watch all the birds close to me, and as soon as I see one take flight, much like in a western, I draw, focus, and take a burst of images. The other approach is to aim at one male in particular and wait for it to take flight.
I would recommend anyone with an interest in wildlife photography to photograph black grouse on a lek.
Through those early morning hours, you get to experience one of nature’s great spectacles and come away with an experience you’ll remember for a lifetime, not to mention the amazing photo opportunities.
So, mark your calendars, consider finding a reputable guide, and be sure you don’t miss one of spring’s wildlife photography highlights this year!