Tag Archives: kittiwake

Snow and Seabirds

I spent the week running up to Easter in the Varanger region of northern Norway.  I had gone in search of snow only to find that I needn’t have bothered as there was a major last dump of it here (almost as soon as I had left actually).  My target though was seabirds and in spite of being significantly further north than here in the usually gulf stream dominated Britain, the birds in this remote corner of Europe, well inside the arctic circle, had already started to come ashore such is the intense competition for the best breeding spots.

This was probably best demonstrated by the presence of the ever noisy, but nevertheless my personal favourite from the gull family – the Kittiwake.

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I have photographed these delicate birds on the ice and glaciers to be found even further north in Svalbard, but their nest-sites on the huge cliffs there are snow-free in the summer months.  Here though they were still going through the pairing and bonding rituals that always start their breeding season but doing so in locations that were clearly not ready for nest building yet: they just knew they would be in a few weeks time and were staking their claims now – generally in their usual noisy manner!

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Kittiwakes prefer narrow ledges for breeding and act as very independent couples, but Guillemots are much more social in their approach and during the day were gathering in vast numbers on the flatter more open areas of cliff – again though still covered in snow but increasingly compacted and dirtied by their presence.

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The late evening light and the presence of some deep icy blue shadows on the cliffs across the nearby inlet provided both the light and background to work on a few flight shots, but as you’ll see from the second of these images the sky was so full of birds it was really hard to pick any individuals out!

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The weather was typically variable and when some of the occasionally very squally arctic storms blew in from the north the birds were increasingly reluctant to come ashore and spent their time wheeling around and around the cliff faces.

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Other than the resident Shags that is who took it on themselves to sit out said atrocious weather (the wind whipping the snow around was a bit like having an army of kids armed with peashooters aiming at your face).  Mind you the idiot with a camera trying to take their picture was probably just as bedraggled by the time the conditions cleared!

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When conditions were calmer then the main reasons for my visit became increasingly comfortable setting foot ashore in isolation and these images of Razorbills sitting in pristine white snow were very much what I had in mind when venturing here.

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Some of you will be aware that I have been working on a Puffin focussed project for a number of summers now and when the chance to capture some of them in these really unusual conditions finally arose then for me the trip was made!

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My thanks to friend and colleague Paul Hobson for his company on this trip – one that in spite of the conditions here at home really did the miles to be travelled to find the unusual combination of seabirds and snow.

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!!

Looking Forward to Going Back

It might sound like a bit of an oxymoron, but there’s times when looking forward to going back is very apt.  I’m very fortunate in that I get to travel quite a bit with my work, and whether that be locally, around the country or further afield I can honestly say that I look forward to revisiting locations, regions, and countries that I have been to before with my camera just as much as I get enthused about visiting and working somewhere new.  In a week or so I’ll be off to Skomer once again, the first of 2 overnight trips once more this year, this first visit as part of a Natures Images trip I’m running but the second with personal project goals in mind. I think this will be the 6th summer on the trot that I have stayed there this many times, and it’s not simply because I love my Seabirds or that I can’t define my seasons any other way either!

I’ve tried to rationalise it and it’s definitely more than just the familiar or safe that appeals to me; I think it’s more like a birder working or knowing their “patch”, except for me they are multiple and varied in terms of thier location and often visited at certain times of the year only. With the familiar comes complacency though and it’s one of the easiest traps to fall into in wildlife photography as it leads to similar material routinely captured, and I think this is what keeps me on my toes and why I enjoy re-visiting places time and again: I know them well, I know how they work and as a consequence I look for and can spot the subtle changes that inevitably occur over time and can respond accordingly.  As a result fresh material is nearly always achieved, fresh experiences are added to my life and that little bit more understanding of how certain habitats and species work achieved.

One place I am really looking forward to going back to next year is Svalbard.  Last summer I enjoyed an amazing 3 and a bit weeks co-running a trip on the tough ocean-going yacht Jonathan 4.  The habitat and species were all I could have expected and more, and some of the interactions will live long in the memory as well as on the hard drive I filled up from the trip too! We’re running a similar Arctic Adventure trip there again next year and I’m absolutely certain that this too will fall into the Skomer camp in terms of finding the new based on the experience of the old as well, and now that the initial planning is done and places beginning to sell then I find myself looking further forward for sure, but still relishing going back.