Tag Archives: long-tailed duck

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!

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.