……. meet Mr Brown, Mr Black, Mr White, Mr Blond, Mr Grey but alas no Mr Pink.
I have just returned from a trip to Varanger in northern Norway where I have been photographing this spectacular bird at a traditional Lek. My reference is to the classic Quentin Tarrantino movie and as I got to know these birds they just reminded me of the characters in the film. The Ruff has a western Palearctic distribution but this beautiful bird has undergone a serious decline over the past 25 years and strongholds can now only be found in some of the more remote corners of northern Europe.
I went on this trip with my good friend Edwin Kats and our main target was the spectacular displaying of male Ruffs during their courtship ritual. I have been to Varanger before but only during the winter months so this trip has been high on my agenda for many years. The Varanger peninsular is a great place for wildlife photography and during the early spring some classic Arctic Tundra birds can be found. Varanger can still boast of good population of Ruffs and because this was our main target we didn’t really get to grips with this wonderful location.
The male Ruffs start to migrate from their West African wintering grounds during April and arrive back at their traditional lekking arena’s around mid may. As soon as they arrive they get down to the business of establishing their hierarchy. The complex social behaviour amongst the males is fascinating and this courtship behaviour is unique among wading birds. The males at the Lek are made up of three different types; the typical dominant males are usually slightly duller in plumage and at this lek that I worked at were mainly brown or black. These males were constantly patrolling the lek and would only briefly leave to feed or follow a female.
The other main type of male that patrols the lek are the satellite males. These males are usually more elaborate with beautiful white plumes. When these males drop into the lek it is fascinating to watch the other males displaying and stamping their dominance over these males.
When a satellite male or female is flying overhead then the dominant males start to perform their elaborate display. This involves a fluttering of the wings and also short jumps into the air. They also get very excited and the plumes become much more erect.
When a reeve (female) is spotted then all hell breaks loose and lots of posturing and display flights occur. When a female lands and is showing more interest it then becomes a free for all and lots of bouts of fighting breaks out. This behaviour was so difficult to record in the camera as it is so fast but I did manage to get a few half decent ones.
The most fascinating behaviour is how the dominant males react to the satellite males. When there are no females around these males display to the satellites and really seek their attention. The satelites attract the females but once they have landed the posturing by the dominant males become much more aggressive and on a couple of occasions I witnessed a dominant male more or less lying on top of male with white plumes and not letting him move. Then other dominant males would do the same, amazing stuff.
Most of the time we were in Varanger the weather was so good and we got to work in some amazing light. All of these images were taken during the night as the sun never sets at this time of the year this far north. We became so engrossed in photographing the Ruff lek that we didn’t get much chance for other species but I will go back. We did get the chance to photograph Bar tailed Godwit and a stunning Lapland Bunting.
I have photographed many species over the years and I have to say that photographing and witnessing this spectacular display by this beautiful wading bird has certainly been one of the highlights. So here are just a few images of one my favourite males. We called him Mr Ginger; he was a brave boy but would always get a bit of beating from the other males.
I will be heading even further north this weekend as I am going to Svalbard for three weeks to hopefully encounter some iconic Arctic species like Polar Bear and Walrus. This will be my third trip to this beautiful archipelago and I am really looking forward to another adventure in this pristine environment. I will update the blog on my return but thanks for reading the blog and I hope you have enjoyed the antics of this beautiful bird.