His eyes were locked on his opponent.
A cold, unyielding stare.
He meant business. But, so did his opponent. He pawed the ground aggressively, impatiently, like a bull in a bull ring, sending small showers of snow around him.
His opponent was in no mood to concede any ground. He stared back implacably.
Their bodies were taut, ready to spring into action...and there was an explosion of action!
We were in Norway to photograph the Black Grouse during the famous ‘lekking’ season.
( The word ‘lek’ comes from the Old Norse meaning ‘play’, in more common usage – this was the mating season. )
It was April and the time that the males will all gather at the lekking site and get ready to battle for dominance and fight to occupy the central location at the site. That is the place that the hens look at most favorably and I guess, if that’s the case, a male has to do, what a male has to do. Which is, fight, in this case.
But before we get into their aggressive and colourful display and their fights, lets talk about these birds.
A black grouse, isn’t just black, it has a lovely bluish sheen, and looks a bit like an oversize hen in size.
They have are two distinctive features – the first is the bright red slashes above their eyes, almost looking like bushy eyebrows. During the mating season these red slashes ( called wattles ) become swollen and engorged with blood as they are linked to testosterone levels and contrast superbly against the black.
Pretty impressive, ain't he ?
The second is visible when they fan their feathers. Their undertail feathers are brilliant in their whiteness and when they are raised vertically, it adds a rather stately touch to their bulk.
How does nature design its creations ? Don't you wonder ?
Now, while it was great to be able to watch these birds at this time, the whole process of getting there is also a little different from the usual experiences.
Black grouses are notoriously sensitive and get spooked easily. Worse, if they get disturbed, there are chances that they might not breed at all that year, which is of greater concern than usual, as their numbers are dwindling.
These lekking sites are on open fields and the birds reach there before sunrise. If we need to be close enough to get a good photograph, we need to spend the night in the tents near the site. We can’t plan to be there in the morning as that might disturb the birds who might be in the vicinity even if not at the site.
By around midnight we start the longish walk from the road to the lekking site, past a not so dense tree line, through the snow covered fields upto where the tents are. Pretty soon we would be inside , in our sleeping bags, muttering about the cold. Maintaining absolute silence was critical, all the time but especially so once the birds arrive.
To give you an example of the care that needs to be taken, if it snowed during the night, we need to poke the tent from inside and ensure that all the snow that is lying on the tents fall off. The reason ? If the snow falls off later, when the birds are around, the noise of the snow falling off the tent material, could spook them and they will fly off. You get the idea. These are birds that get spooked fast.
Now, to the actual action.
The birds land at the lekking site and would soon start eyeing their territories and marking out its boundaries through elaborate display rituals.
Watching them walk around reminded me of a Friar Tuck sort of a figure, a portly school principal in priestly robes walking up and down his office, arms clasped behind his back, head down, muttering all the time, furiously wrestling with a problem that a particularly errant school boy has posed.
Then, all of a sudden, one of the birds will see another bird and identify him as THE enemy. The enemy that needs to be vanquished at all costs. The single biggest threat to his kingdom. And off he will go, full of purpose and clarity of mission, zooming in the direction of his arch foe of the moment.
Alert !! An enemy has been sighted !!
However, if you were expecting immediate and furious action to take place, you are in for a disappointment.
There is a rather elaborate eyeball to eyeball confrontation, one playing Krushchev to the other’s Kennedy, as they circle each other for long minutes, like oversized Sumo warriors, sizing each other up. I guess one of them blinks, since the other walks away. You never really get to know who won the round, since both of them strut away with the air of being the obvious winner, occasionally stopping to stretch out their necks, do a little hop and let out a victorious war whoop.
You Krushchev, me Kennedy
I totally love this little hop and the victorious whoop !
While this Battle of Deathly Stares is at its peak, occasionally, one of them will veer sharply away and charge at an unsuspecting third grouse who would have been peacefully minding his own business thinking that he is the king of that little square.
I wonder what this meant.
Did the guy who veered away, decide that the new guy was the bigger threat ? OR did he win the eyeball confrontation and then has decided to expand his territory by going off against the next kingdom ? Or did he lose and thought he should win someone else’s territory to safeguard his position when the females arrive ?
It really is rather perplexing :)
Occasionally, the staring isn’t decisive. They pirouette on their claws looking momentarily like a dainty ballet dancer and suddenly there is an eruption of flying feathers, bared claws and open beaks.
Wait for it...the action is about to start !
When one male jumps up in the air, the other often crouches with its head almost touching the ground as it awaits the descent. Or, both decide to take to the air, looking quite similar to the famous kalari payattu fighters of Kerala.
Crouching tiger, leaping dragon ?
These fights can be a visual delight, with pretty moves and acrobatic leaps, but it can get pretty vicious too. Some of the thrusts and jabs seem quite brutal and often a fight gets over with the feathers of one or both males littered on the ground.
But, boy, can it get violent
And, suddenly, its all over.
On some mysterious signal, all the birds, bitter foes uptill now, agree that its time that they bury their hatchet and fly away.
And, after waiting for about half an hour to make sure that they are not returning, it is time for us to get out of our tents and stretch our aching limbs and bless our stars that we were witness to this rather amazing rituals of these fascinating looking endangered birds.
Adieu and all the best...
A word of thanks.
This part of our trip was organized by Floris Smeets (check his mind blowing images here https://www.phototoursnorway.com ).
He and his team, Maija ( Insta : @ab.maija ) and Lars ( Insta : @larskorzelius ), were absolutely fantastic. Not only were they fussy about ensuring that we were comfortable ( well, as much as the conditions allow !! ) and prepared in every small and seemingly insignificant detail but they were simply darn good company.
If you want to photograph these wonderful birds ( and you simply must ), then Floris and his team are the ones you should reach out to !
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