Beginning a new project is always a daunting time. A blank page opens up before you and you realise you will have to fill it. It is difficult not to feel a faint sense of panic, and so it is with me at the moment.
I’ve been moving away from photographing landscape recently towards what might be described as birds within the landscape. It’s a very different regime; the subject matter is typically very small, moving erratically and much too far away. So one needs to master a whole range of new equipment and techniques, and I wouldn’t suggest that I’m even part way there yet. However it gives me a new challenge and from time to time we all need that.
Perhaps typically I decide to go for the one photograph first that I never thought would be possible. The black grouse is a rare bird in Wales but there is an apparently thriving population in a small part of the north, thanks to the activities of the conservation organisations. Particularly in April and May, male black grouse perform a “lekking” display – a series of postures, movements and sounds designed to show off their plumage and prove to watching females what successful fathers they could be. It takes place at traditional sites known as leks. By a stroke of good fortune I got to speak to an ornithologist based in that area who agreed to tell me where I might go to photograph this phenomenon, using my van as a hide. I knew that the birds could be seen from a moorland road but he would check out some exact locations and let me know.
I hadn’t yet heard from him but in early April I decided to have a crack at it. It’s about a two-hour drive from Aberystwyth and on the journey I discovered I had left behind my crate full of household necessities and food. Tea bags? Who needs them? An urgent purchase of supplies and equipment followed………… On arrival I discovered that the moorland road was blocked by snow. Not really what one expects at this time of year! Making the best of a bad job I took a walk along the road through the snowdrifts and could see and hear the grouse doing their thing.
My second attempt followed over the recent bank holiday weekend. The road was open this time and I could see the birds but they really were too far away to photograph. I considered the possibility of dragging my sleeping bag and photographic gear up onto the hillside and sleeping under a bush, so that I would be there at first light when the lekking began. A minor problem revealed itself when I looked at the site again…….there was no bush. It really was a completely open location with no possible hiding place for the photographer. A very dismal day of waiting followed. The landscape itself looked and felt as if it were still winter. All I felt capable of doing was eating and sleeping.
The next morning dawned windy with low cloud – this really wasn’t going well. As the fog lifted I could see the grouse posturing and strutting in the distance but this was definitely not the photo-op that I had been hoping for. By coincidence an early morning programme on Radio Wales contained an item about watching black grouse lekking at Llandegla, not far away, but this was no consolation at all. I drove home.
I had been back about an hour when the phone rang. It was my contact from north Wales. Would photographing a lek from a distance of twenty-five yards be good enough? You bet it would! “So where exactly is the location?” I asked him. I ran to fetch the large scale map from my van. He described a site about half a mile further up the moorland road than I had ventured before turning round!
While it was incredibly frustrating to find out how close I had been to success, it also meant that success could eventually be possible. Third time lucky? I certainly hope it will be………..
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