I am very fortunate to live just an hour away from the Yorkshire Dales National Park which is at its beautiful best in late summer when the heather is in full bloom. This wild habitat supports a wide variety of flora and fauna but perhaps the most iconic is the red grouse. I have visited these upland moors each summer for several years now hoping to capture the grouse amongst the flowering heather. I’d built up a nice portfolio of images but felt some shots were missing or could be improved upon. As with most of my subjects, I see the grouse as a long-term project and believe the more time you invest the better the results in the end.
The red grouse is endemic to the British Isles and is herbivorous feeding mainly on the shoots, seeds, and flowers of heather. It is considered a game bird and many are killed during the shooting season which traditionally starts on the twelfth of August. Unfortunately, this coincides with the heather bloom which peaks towards the end of August and this can be restrictive if you go on the wrong day.
Due to unsettled weather and other commitments I was only able to visit once last summer and decided to stay at a local campsite so I could maximise my time with the grouse and make the most of the best light at either end of the day. I got a distant glimpse of the moor en route to the location and my anticipation increased as I realised large areas were carpeted with vibrant pink flowers.
The heather was in superb condition, the best I’d seen, and there were plenty of grouse dotted along the roadside. I have tried various ways to photograph these birds, including stalking and lying in ambush, but by far the best approach is to use your vehicle as a mobile hide. This can be a bit precarious if you’re alone and is much easier with more than one person so the driver can focus on the road.
I start by preparing my gear, which includes a bean bag and scrim net, and laying this on the passenger seat. I tend to drive the full length of the little road that bisects the moor, taking note of where the grouse are and also considering the light and backgrounds. Then I drive back, carefully stopping at good spots and hoping I do not spook the birds.
The first day went by with some nice encounters and decent images but nothing special. There was quite a lot of traffic on the road and the grouse seemed more wary than usual. I stayed out until the light became unusable and made a hasty retreat to pitch my tent. The forecast for the following morning was perfect so I set my alarm and got an early night.
I woke and packed up well before dawn and was back on the road by first light. As I drove across a wonderfully desolate landscape I sensed a calmer atmosphere and a change in the mood of the grouse. Several were resting on an area of dense heather and did not seem remotely bothered as I pulled up nearby.
I lowered my window, positioned the beanbag and eased my gear into place. The closest bird, a pretty female, hunkered down so only the top of her head was visible. I turned my camera on and adjusted some settings, looking into the viewfinder and using AF point selection to precompose the scene.
The sun, rising behind me, had now bathed the landscape in a magical soft golden light but the bird was still hiding. I waited a moment longer and then fired off two frames, she raised her head instinctively and I had the shot I wanted, a gorgeous grouse floating in a sea of pink.