Sage Grouse -- Early Mornings, Hard Work, and a Happy Accident
The Greater Sage Grouse is North America's largest grouse and, in my opinion, has the most dynamic courtship display. Sage Grouse are extremely endangered in Canada where they have dwindled to very few individuals. In the Northwestern U.S. prairies, they are still very threatened due to habitat loss but their numbers are greater. I have always wanted to photograph these dramatic birds and a couple of years ago a few friends and I finally got an opportunity. The Sage Grouse congregate on historical natural prairie dancing grounds, or leks, every spring. On these leks, the males strut their stuff and the females feign indifference! It means extremely early mornings, as you need to set up a photo blind near the lek the night before, and sneak into the blind in the dark so you don't flush the birds. You then wait 2 hours until 6:00 am sunrise and hope that things will be great. In May 2013, we had the opportunity to photograph these birds for the third year in a row. You know how it goes - sometimes it's too cloudy, sometimes it's too windy and sometimes the birds decide to leave a few minutes before sunrise! Over the last few years, we've been able to garner a number of very good images. The shot opening this blog was on our final morning this year.
The light was brutally low but the grouse performed wonderfully. I took this shot with a Nikon 600 f4 VR lens on the Nikon D800e camera at ISO 5000!!! What! ISO 5000 on the 36 megapixel D800e? Yes. When the image is not underexposed the D800 is a very good high iso camera. Oh yeah, this is also a vertical crop from a horizontal frame and the resulting file is still equivalent to 18 megapixels - and looks great as a 20x30 print! Sure, some noise reduction is necessary, but nothing elaborate and really, post processing is all part of the final image.
BUT, that's not really what I wanted to talk about. The Sage Grouse shot I always wanted was a backlit image at sunrise that lit up their spiky tails. The problem is that you'd need to setup the blind for that backlit shot and after the first few minutes you'd have backlit birds with nasty shadows. And we all know that birds are usually backlit enough without actually trying for it! I'd thought about this and decided that if I was shooting by myself I'd set up for this but as a group, it's tough to set up for only one shot. On the evening we arrived this year, we had to set up the blind by somewhat guessing where their prime dancing ground was. You'd think it would be easy - but I missed it. We snuck into the blind the first morning and heard the grouse vocalizing behind us. You can't move the blinds, but fortunately, they have back doors. We turned around and aimed our lenses at the dancing birds. The morning dawned with heavy overcast as usual and actually remained that way for most of the day - except for 5 glorious minutes!
The shot I'd dreamed of - because we set the blind up in the wrong place! A lot of things can go wrong in wildlife photography, as we can't choreograph our subjects or the weather or pretty much anything else. But, even when good fortune shines, you still have to be there to get the shot and this was the 9th morning in three years of being there. D800e & 600f4vr iso 1600
Thanks for the reminder that we make our own luck by getting out there time and time again. That said, I look forward to the next time we get to photograph these magnificent birds. I am very thankful we have been allowed on the land where the lek is located. I also feel very honoured that the rancher trusts we will respect the fragile land and mating ritual that is so vital to the preservation of the few remaining Sage Grouse.
Sometimes we're just dealt a lucky hand. I'm really happy with the backlit images we got on that shoot. Each time down there has brought about unique circumstances that make the trip well worth the time.
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