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Dirty Dancing in Finland

Those hoping to see images of people dancing in a provocative way from my title then Im sorry to disappoint you in that sense. But I have something much more beautiful; the dance of the Black Grouse during their Lek from their breeding grounds in Finland that is both beautiful but at times can be violent.

The males or cocks as they’re better known as compete with each other for best display sites within the lek, with dominant individuals occupying central sites. The bubbling calls and the posturing of the cocks attract the females, who choose their mate. The dominant males in the central part of the lek obtain most of the copulation’s and are the lucky ones.

Strangely once this is over and the cock birds have mated with their female there is no pair bond between the two sexes, with males having no part in the nesting process or rearing of young. There is only one brood raised each year making the Lek the only time the males get chance to breed.

As soon as our flight touched down, we were picked up and driven to our base camp, a former forest workers residence close to the border with Russia. Surrounded by the lake of Kuikka as well as by boreal forest.  The smell of the pine needles, the crisp air and pure silence of this place is just beautiful and something I can’t find the words to explain.

Our pattern for the week was the same from that first night, entering the purpose built hides around 7pm, staying all night until the following morning. Entering these hides, getting into our sleeping bags and setting your alarm call for an hour or so before first light and then setting your camera gear up and listening to the forest awake around you.

I can’t and won’t even try to explain how wonderful it was to be in the wilderness and for it to be so silence you could hear anything from miles away. Once the dawn broke and the Black grouse did their displaying it was just amazing to see and witness it truly was.

Watching how their sized each the up, facing each other, then without warning they’d jump up and forward towards each other in an act to warn the other off all the time their bubbling calls rang out.

Once the Black Grouse had finished their Lek and disappeared back into the forests we’d would then be picked up by our host and driven back for breakfast and then to rest throughout the day and then the same again the following night.

The following images capture some of those wonderful moments from the week. I truly hope along with my words that they transport you there and show you this amazing event that happens once year in natures calendar, one of nature’s most spectacular events.

An hour or so before first light, over a period of around 20 mins the male Black Grouse start to land around you with an almighty thud as they hit the ground. They then burst into their snog and the silence is broke with many males all singing and posturing feet away from your tiny mobile hide, its unbelievable.

If you haven’t witnessed a Black grouse Lek is hard for me to explain is just so beautiful and one of natures most amazing events that happen once a year. The strongest male(s) then attract the ladies and breed carrying on the strongest gene pool. Before that point the Black Grouse can “Lek” for weeks.

Often once the threats and posturing doesn’t work they smash into each other by taking flight and picking away at the other with their beaks and feet if can be very violent to watch but that’s nature and the course of natural selection that all males in some way live by and adhere too.

I’ve underexposed a great deal to bring out their red wattles or eyelashes that fill with testosterone during these leks. These birds are very shy and private and it’s been a privilege to be so close and watch these birds over the last week.

On one night on the lead up to sunset two Brown bears ventured out and walked through a wide open space known as “no man’s land” they were very jumpy and left, a few weeks ago they had been still in hibernation and have woken slightly early. Once its dark you then leave the bigger hides for the much smaller Black Grouse hides that are in the middle of the plains here. Walking through a small wood and path that you’d just seen two bears use an hour or so earlier gets the heart racing as you travel from one hide to the other I can tell you.

For the last few days and nights of the trip my client went to the Black grouse hides once more and got the images of the trip really with some amazing light, he also wanted to see the Wolverines that live in this part of Finland. I went to the Capercallie hides for the last few days hoping to see this amazing bird go through their own Lek.

Each night around 3.30 I would hear the males call- a tic-toc-tic-toc-tic-toc for around a few minutes. When he’s using this call he’s trying to detect any movement or anything around. Then his call changes to a – raspppping-hissing call which is hard to explain but like no other birdcall.

My home for the last few days on this trip you can see above, deep inside a Finish wood, it’s a bit of a tight fit I must say. I enter this tiny dwelling at night with my sleeping bag, flask, camera gear and a sandwich for breakfast. It’s when he’s calling the second time you can take your images as the first call if you do he will move. Watching, learning and seeing this amazing bird so close to my hide over those last few days of this amazing week has been a great honour.

I had some mixed luck over those nights as these birds are masters of hide and seek once they are silent. True specialists of this environment too, I was lucky enough to see the females too. The male came out at around 3.30am most mornings and the light was very poor almost still dark really and it was often very hard to get my camera to focus or to even take an image. I have posted some of the images as I saw him below, where the only light was that from the moon. It was truly special to see though and the following images are my favourites from those days I spent in this tiny hide.

This trip not only offers Black grouse and Capercallie its one of the only places in Europe where you can see Brown Bear, Wolf, Wolverine and many more.  Lassi has been here since 1998 and works with the Finish government in helping to monitor the Wolves, Brown bears and other animals. He works with great passion for all the creatures here and in an very ethical manner, caring for the wildlife in this amazing pat of Europe.

The weather was a mixed bag throughout the time there, freezing temperatures, overnight frosts and fresh snow then slight rain. I have to trust the gear I use and wear and having used Sealskinz products for many years now I can only say yet again they kept me warm, dry and completely confident in the walks to the hides in deep snow and rain. The Ultra Grip Gloves allow me to work my cameras controls at the same time they offer me 100% waterproofing and warmth.

The Trekking socks are 100% waterproof and amazing once you fall into the snow or flooded marsh where our hides were at keeping your feet completely dry as wet feet aren’t good. I also used their Drysacks that add another level of protection to my camera gear. All their products for the outdoors are the best on the market and trust me I’ve used many other brands over the years and none stack up to Sealskinz. I am an Ambassador for them not for the free gear but because they truly work in real life conditions and I trust their products in all the conditions that I take my photographs of wildlife in, so a big thanks to the team from Sealskinz.

It’s been an amazing week here in Finland, firstly I'd like to thank Bernd my client from London on this bespoke trip and then Lassi and Sami- father and son for all your help and looking after us there. If you’d like to join me on my trip next year then please see this link. If you’d like to book this trip on your own or any other trips I do for yourself where I look everything then please see this link. I’m heading back there in July with clients on my Wolves, Bears and Wolverines trip and if you’d like to join me in 2017 for this trip I run and lead then please see this link, many thanks.




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