How to Photograph Black Grouse
Over the last 30 years I’ve lost count of how many times in spring I have traipsed through forest and over bogs and moorlands in the dark to reach a black grouse lek. The experience is still as exciting now as it was when I first photographed a lek in the Scottish Highlands in the late 1980s.
Photographing a black grouse lek requires a very early start. Over the years, I have continuously rolled out of bed not long after 2 or 3am to ensure I’m in the hide long before the first birds arrive.
What to expect when photographing black grouse
The male grouse, often referred to as blackcock, gather when there may only be the faintest hint of light in the sky. A rush of wings announces their arrival. A few seconds of silence follow before the most extraordinary sounds fill the chilled dawn air.
Bubbling, hisses, and cackles combine to form a primeval soundtrack that turbocharges your anticipation for the action ahead. It can feel a bit frustrating hearing the action unfold and hardly being able to make out the shapes of the birds in the gloom, but this is a good time to sit back and soak up the special atmosphere of a black grouse lek.
Individuals have their own display areas. They occupy a few metres of turf on which they strut their stuff. Fanning lyre-shaped tails, they walk, run, jump, and call. Occasionally, two males may meet at the border of their invisible territorial lines where stand-offs can lead to spectacular fights.
Tensions increase when females (grey hens) arrive. Standing on the edge of the lek checking out the males, they are looking for the fittest and best condition males to mate with. Their presence heats up activity on the lek, prompting males to flutter jump in excitement.
There will be times when suddenly they all stop and all goes quiet, perhaps because a distant raptor has been spotted. When this happens, it’s best to keep quiet and not move your lens – they may be ready to fly if they sense danger. If they do disappear due to a raptor, they are likely to return again once the danger has passed.
Every morning is likely to offer a different experience. Sometimes lekking birds may start to drift off soon after sunrise; on other occasions they may lek to well past 8am. Late afternoons and evenings can see another wave of activity, although this can be quite half-hearted.
If your fieldcraft is good, black grouse can come very close to your hide – perfect for allowing your creativity to flow. There will be opportunities to take pictures focusing in on details of tails and heads, as well as capturing action including fights, mating or calling.
Some sites allow opportunities to photograph lekking birds backlit. This can offer some really atmospheric images of birds calling on cold, bright mornings as their breath rises into the air.
Because lekking usually starts while it is still getting light, high ISO speeds may be needed for your early shots. But, once the sun is up, then care with exposures is needed. Black grouse have a beautiful, deep blue sheen to their plumage. I always attempt to expose for this, which means avoiding under exposing too much.
However, they also have bright white tails with fine feather detail and so care is needed to ensure you don’t blow out the highlights and lose detail in their white tail feathers.
Read more: How to Rescue Over and Underexposed Photos
Therefore, exposure can be a bit of a balancing act and so I am never disappointed if the day reveals dull lighting as getting a perfect exposure is easier. Of course, some of this can be improved and rectified in post processing, however it’s always better to get it right in camera. So I always check my histogram for the first few shots.
Care also needs to be taken over shutter speeds. Black grouse move their heads a lot when they are walking (much more than it often appears) and so a fast shutter speed is advisable to freeze this movement.
When males clash, their sparring may result in combat as both birds launch themselves at each other. This can happen with little warning, so having a fast shutter speed set already can be a good idea. Something upwards of 1/1000th sec – but ideally 1/1600th – will be enough to freeze the action.
There are times when you can go for motion blur shots and create images with lots of movement. If this is your cup of tea, then you might want to use shutter speeds as low as an 1/8th of a second.
Because of the range of opportunities available during a black grouse lek, a wide-ranging telephoto zoom is ideal. If you’re working in a hide with one-way glass, however, then changing lens might be possible without disturbing the birds. Having a fast f/2.8 or f/4 lens of 300mmm or 400mm can be ideal to take advantage of low light. So there is something of a trade-off to consider here, and you need to consider lens speed vs flexibility in compositions.
If your lens is protruding from the hide, withdrawing it and changing lenses could end your session prematurely. So, being set up with a lens that you are happy with for the whole session is necessary.
Where to photograph black grouse
Black grouse in the UK, as with many of our upland species, are struggling. Consequently, leks are very vulnerable to disturbance. It is essential to get into the hide whilst it is still dark – well before first light – so that you are in position before the birds arrive. You should leave only once the lek is deserted for the day.
The good news is that there are a number of highly experienced operators offering black grouse photography opportunities at established hides where disturbance is kept to a minimum for the welfare of the birds which must always come first. These exist both here in the UK and in Scandinavia.
A visit to Finland in March can offer great opportunities to photograph grouse lekking in the snow. In Britain, some Scottish estates are now offering opportunities – and some photography tour operators run black grouse workshops.
Find photo workshops: Explore the Nature TTL Hub
Few experiences photographing European birds are as memorable as a session at a black grouse lek.
The photography is brilliant, and the is soundtrack one of the best nature has to offer. It’s an experience that you won’t forget very easily.