Tag Archives: arctic

Arctic Adventure…Part 2

Although the landscape, the general environment and simply the sense of wonder of the place is a huge part of Svalbard’s attraction, the wildlife (although requiring a fair bit of work to find in good situations) is as dramatic and enjoyable to photograph as anywhere I’ve been.

Such is my love for seabirds that when I first visited here these Little Auk’s were as high on my personal priority list as Polar Bears, and it was a pleasure to once again spend an enjoyable evening in their presence such is their personality and character.

We were slightly earlier this year and they were earlier in their breeding cycle and as a consequence even more chilled out in terms of their behaviour!  They nest under the rocks of the many scree slopes here, and some of the patterns on the rocks themselves were worthy of images in their own right.

We managed to enjoy a number of walks around the beautiful early summer tundra too, and here the lichens and flowers were just beginning to take a hold and announce their presence.

One of the highlights of this habitat here is the stunning Grey Phalarope (confusing called Red Phalarope by the rest of the world it seems) who had just arrived to beginning their short breeding season, unusual in that the colourful male does all the work of nest-building, egg incubating and chick feeding/tending: the even more showy female simply provides the eggs and then returns south, so we were in a very narrow window of time to enjoy the presence of both genders.

For most though Svalbard and the arctic is all about a couple of large mammals, and whether it be swimming, sleeping or playing there is no getting away from the larger than life personalities of the Atlantic Walrus – thankfully making good increases in population here after it’s almost devastation in the whaling era.

Among the highlights of a number of engagements with these bulky beasts was a more tender moment spent with a young mother and calf, resting and feeding on a large ice floe in front of a glacier: the youngster was almost certainly just a few days old and hadn’t grown into his wrinkles yet!

No trip here though, and certainly no blog recounting one, would be complete without Polar Bear – this truly is their domain here.  Finding them is always exciting but doing so in a setting that really does them justice rather than the snow and ice free beaches that many of them are left to spend the summer scavenging on, is somewhat harder.  Our plan had been to head up to the pack ice to look for such settings but the weather and winds conspired against us on this occasion but we had no sooner returned to the one bay we had found with a covering of ice than an adult make successfully caught a seal – an amazing hunting feat and a privilege to watch.  It was clear this was a good area to spend some time so we duly anchored up and spent 3 days there and were reward with some of the most relaxed and absorbing behaviour in front of us during that time, the highlight of which was a young male, probably 3 years old and enjoying his first summer away from Mum!

He spent an entire afternoon parading around the ice, hunting and even playing with some of the bits of seal left behind by the larger male the day before!

Wandering off that evening we settled down for some sleep and planning to move on the next day, only to awaken to the fact that he had returned and he too had gone to sleep on the ice beside the boat!

The advantages of a small yacht had really come to the fore – by being moored up where we were for so long we had effectively become part of his environment in the same way as a hide, and he was truly relaxed in our presence treating us to some truly engaging images and an experience I for one will never forget.

A fitting highlight of another great adventure in this wonderful part of the world and an iconic image to close that for me sums up this magnificent mammal in his kingdom.

Arctic Adventure…Part 1

I’m a few days back from an enjoyable, challenging and ultimately rewarding 3 week trip to the Arctic archipelago of Svalbard.  It seems that it’s done nothing but rain back here while I’ve been away (and since my return too) and compared to the sustained spells of high pressure that this remote location in the far north normally enjoys and has when I’ve been in the past, the weather gods were looking equally angrily on us.

That said I’d decided to place a lot more emphasis on capturing images that really gave a feel for the location rather than simply concentrating on the wildlife to be found there on this particular trip, and the grey skies leant themselves to a monochrome approach, whether enhanced through processing to that format like above, or left to the natural shades as below.

I was also keen to work on some stitched panoramics too – I know they won’t look their best on the size constraints of the web but it’s a format that really helps to get the size and nature of the mountains and glaciers across in my view – jagged peaks that caused the first Dutch explorers to name the main island here Spitsbergen.

When we did have some occasion to enjoy the beautiful tones that the midnight sun (it never sets here) has to offer we were always keen to take full advantage and the evening spent with this group of young male Walrus in front of a beautiful glacier will long remain with me – it’s an image I think really sums this place up.

We had timed this visit a few weeks earlier this year to give us a better chance of finding the areas in front of the glaciers still frozen over and increasing our chances of Polar Bear sitings, but as here in the UK it had been an unusually mild winter in Svalbard and already this ice had gone.  This process does however leave some beautifully shaped and colourful icebergs behind though and they are another key landscape feature I was keen to work with: this is the same ‘berg from  different angles and demonstrates just how the angle of lighting here can dramatically change an image.

A close look at this last image will show some signs of the seabird life that takes full advantage of their presence – either as a resting place or simply because they can act as a magnet for their food in the surrounding seas: we would regularly look to explore them for Kittiwakes and Fulmar especially.

The colours at times were simply stunning and leaving the subject small in the frame really allowed the landscape to dominate, and the same approach worked well when we spent a beautiful evening on a true gem of an island, full of tundra-based breeding birds including the elegant Red-Throated Diver.

It was also an approach I enjoyed trying out with the main target for the trip Polar Bears as well and this very simple composition is one that I particularly like.

I begun by saying it was a challenging trip because the weather wasn’t on our side, and this came to a real head when for the basis of comfort, safety and also in an attempt to ensure we could maximise photographic time we had to give up our original goal of heading to the pack ice that residers to the north of the archipelago.  It is traditionally the best place to see Bears, but with a combination of good luck, perseverance and patience we ended up enjoying some amazing encounters with in particular this extremely relaxed young male, and I’ll look to share some more images of him and also some more of the wildlife in a Part 2 to follow next week: there’s just too much to share in one post from a 3 week trip!!

Arctic Highlights

Although the dramatic displays of the Northern Lights I shared in my last blog post were reason enough to head to the far north of Scandinavia this winter, truth be told they were always a potential bonus rather than the main reason for the visit.

As someone who has always been fascinated by the variety as well as individual characteristics of birds, there have always been certain species that I have long wanted to initially get the chance to see and also spend some time with photographically.  Last summer it was the Harlequin Ducks in Iceland that ticked that particular box but the other equally colourful and unusual member of the European duck family needs a trip to the far northern fjords of Norway in the winter months to find, and that is the King Eider.  Their heads are one of the most unusually shaped of any bird and the dramatic colours are instantly impactful too.  In the winter months they gather in large rafts, along with their close relations Common and Stellar’s Eider, in the harbours where there is a touch more shelter and also food to be found around the piers in the form of sea-urchins.

This particular image was one of only a handful I managed propelling myself around the harbour in one of the more unusual hides I have had the pleasure (if that’s the right word in this instance) of using: trying to steer this using a battery powered silent motor and photograph using a 500mm on a tripod while the tide and wind are doing their bit to hinder rather than help was an interesting hour or so! Thanks for the picture of my struggles Nigel!

We were spending the day with a local fisherman who has become quite an entrepreneur in the field of duck photography opportunities, and along with this trial hide, he also had a floating pontoon in calmer waters which allowed for some equally low profile images of  the Eiders and also Long-Tailed Duck: one of the few birds I actually think looks smarter in their winter plumage.

What a dramatic change that the presence of the lovely low winter sun can make when it appears too!  This floating pontoon also offered the opportunity to add some interesting colours to the water by virtue of the harbour buildings around, and they certainly created some additional impact to the images.

So much so that even when we were checking out other harbours for signs of duck rafts I found myself drawn to using the colours and patterns to add something different to an otherwise everyday image of this Kittiwake.

Back to the ducks though, and our last act with them consisted of some time in the boat attempting flight shots – fortunately when the sun was out as fast shutter speeds really do help when you’re bouncing around as much as we were for these as well as the fact it really does bring the richness of their colours out!

The harbour towns revealed another photographic opportunity too in the form of newly arrived Kittiwakes re-establishing their nest sites for the forthcoming breeding season: a bizarre sight given the temperatures and the fact that it was only early March, but I guess prime spots on buildings like these are much sought after: they also leant themselves to a black and white interpretation.

Away from the coast the other arctic highlights we had come to spend some time with were some of the harder to find let alone photograph birds of these northern reaches of the boreal forest, and especially Pine Grosbeak, also newly returned to the area for the season to come after wintering further south in the country.  Looking something like a large and chunky Crossbill I was genuinely surprised at just how big they actually were, but in that lovely arctic winter light the feeding station we had visited gave plenty of close-up opportunities for the equally colourful males and females.

As a reminder as to just how far north we were (and close to the Russian port of Murmansk) the other highlights of the time here were a rather windswept Siberian Jay and the incredibly quick and flighty Siberian Tit.  These plump but speedy birds barely sat still for a milli-second it seemed so it took some considerable time and setting up to finally achieve a couple of images that we were all happy with: well worth it though,and we were only ever a few seconds walk from the warmth of coffee on almost permanent tap where we were staying too!

Add those magnificent Northern Light displays into the mix and you can see why I can’t wait for another visit here again next winter running Natures Images Arctic Winter trip!

Night Lights

In some ways it feels a bit surreal finally getting the chance to catch up on some of this winter’s photography while it’s 20+ degrees outside and it’s only March, but when the weather was colder and I was further north in recent months one of the genres of photography that I found myself becoming increasingly engaged in was night and low light work.  Mind you with some of the settings and in particular Aurora Borealis opportunities I have just had it would be hard not too!

During the course of an excellent week in the Cairngorms in January we took full advantage of the fantastically clear conditions by engaging in some evening and dead of night photography.

Here you can see Nigel making the most of the clear conditions to capture an image that (had he turned his camera about 45 degrees to the right) might have looked something like this:

There are certain key elements to this type of night photography and if it’s clear pinpoints of stars that you are after as a rough guide on a 24-70mm lens you really don’t want an exposure of much more than 20 seconds or so. There is a precise calculation for this by the way but I’m all for simplicity of thinking!  What this means is that you need to trust the high ISO capability of your SLR and shoot reasonably wide open in terms of aperture (this was around f4). You must trust your histogram too as your camera’s screen will make things look much brighter than they have really been recorded given it’s the only real light source out there! A really good tripod, mirror lockup and cable release (or self-timer) are also key.

The same steadiness of hand came into play when we tried out some low light shots of the ice formations on one of the nearby streams as well.

Here though it was a question of looking for the right sort of slow shutter speed to give the level of blur in the water that looked most appealing (this was around 30 seconds or so) and in order to emphasise the coldness of the shot and setting a cool white balance was set manually. I just loved some of the detail that could be found in the ice here!

Earlier this month I spent a week in Northern Finland and Norway and stayed in a location that has to be one of the best I’ve been to for opportunities to photograph that wonderful spectacle that is the Aurora borealis or Northern Lights.  I was really pleased to have honed my approach to this type of photography already this winter as when the opportunities came (and boy did they come – we had 4 clear nights and some amazing displays) I wear able to slot into the groove and thinking straight away.

There has been a lot of media coverage and interest in this awesome phenomenon this year as it has been unusually visible in parts of Scotland too, but what makes northern Finland so special in my opinion is that not only is it so light pollution free but it’s weather systems are unaffected by maritime influence so the chances of the lights showing are increased.  All of these images were only on level 3 in terms of potential intensity – it goes up to 9 or 10 I believe.

What all of this meant was plenty of opportunity to experiment with looking for big sweeping motions, deciding if landscape or portrait orientation worked best and also playing around with white balance as well.

All of the images bar this last one were taken on a relatively cool white balance, this one however on the warmer setting I tend to use for my wildlife work – I like the greener effect it gives to the lights themselves but am not so keen on what it does to the snow. It’s a matter of preference though so good to be on your game enough to try things out and when you have found a style and approach that’s working then it’s simply a question of standing back and revelling in what nature has to throw at you too.

Although it’s not the main purpose of the trip (I’m not sure how Northern Lights really can be as it’s so weather dependant) I will be staying at the same place again for 4 nights as part of the new Arctic Winter trip with Natures Images next March so if you fancy the potential to practice your night light photography…..

Ducking and diving..and a grebe or two as well

I’m just back from a hectic but rewarding trip to Iceland and I have managed to lay some ghosts to rest in the process.  As a teenage birdwatcher my identification bible was the Collins Guide by Heinzel, Fitter and Parslow.  Many a rainy evening I would look through it and find myself drawn to the beautiful looking Harlequin Duck that had a remote green blob in the north-west of Europe indicating the only place to see it outside of a wildfowl collection.  I finally went to Iceland 5 years ago and whilst the trip was rewarding on many fronts and I certainly saw and photographed these stunningly colourful ducks, things didn’t quite work out image wise beyond some decent record shots so it felt a bit like unfinished business when I returned this time. Fortunately all fell into place both at a coastal site where a drake in clear glacial waters and early morning light was a welcome sight after a 4.00 am departure from my bed.

The Lake Myvatan area in the north of the country is the main place to find and see these birds in their real element though as they swim and feed in the fast flowing waters of the river Laxa and a couple of long sessions waiting by some rapids gave some great opportunities to show just how strong and agile they are as swimmers as well as a chance to try some more creative interpretations of their efforts in the fast flowing waters.

Harlequins aren’t the only Icelandic speciality on the duck front though and Barrow’s Goldeneye is also unique to the island from a European perspective – a morning spent with 4 males though saw little activity other than sleeping and gliding, so beautiful as they were (and the light was pretty decent as well) they will have to be one of the reasons to warrant a future return for some action.

There never seems to be much to worry about on the action front when it comes to Long-Tailed Ducks though.  They were pretty much paired up by the time of this trip and gathering on many of the little pools to be found around the main lake, and the noisy and very characteristic call of the males was an almost constant sound in some places as they looked to protect their less colourful but equally pretty female partners from the attentions of others.

This constant calling and occasional but ever watchful sleeping would be broken on fairly regular intervals though with a mad dash across the pond to see off a rival male who’d swam a bit too close, and once seen off a little shake of the wings to regain composure would be necessary before normal service was resumed.

I always look forward to going back to good sites as there are always new and different opportunities that present themselves, and my previous trip proved disappointing as far as one of the most beautiful families of water based birds, namely the Divers.  Great Northern sadly eluded me once again but an evening and early morning session with a family of Red Throated Divers was particularly special – what a magnificent call to listen to close up, what an elegant bird when it glides by like a battleship, what a powerful bird when it takes to the air across the still morning waters of the pool and what a gentle bird too as a parent.

The pretty breeding water based birds though all have to give way to the elegant and dainty Slavonian Grebe when it comes to charm and cuteness.  I spent most of the Spring photographing a local pair of Great Crested Grebes at home this year so it was fascinating to watch and capture some of the antics of these smaller relatives who are only now at the beginning of their breeding cycle, a full 2 months after the chicks in Shropshire were on the verge of fledging. It’s a reminder of the temperature variances and the very brief nature of summer as you head further north.

Ducking, diving and grebeing (if there is such a word) besides there is and was a lot more that this remote, harsh, challenging and beautiful country had to offer so I’ll be looking to cover some of this in an additional blog next week before I head south this time in search of Mediterranean butterflies by way of contrast! As a taster though here’s a Whooper Swan family who probably wintered at Caerlaverock or Martin Mere where my photographic year so often begins: they certainly have a long trip south ahead of them as well once their  summer is over.