Tag Archives: seabirds

Black-browed beauties

In my last post here I talked about my high levels of excitement when spending a number of days photographing King Penguins during the course of my visit to the Falklands last year. They were only half of the story though in terms of my anticipation – the other half belonging fairly and squarely with the chance to spend some time in and among breeding Albatross.

There are 22 species of albatross, some 17 of which are classified as globally threatened.  They are the ultimate sea-faring birds, spending huge amounts of their lives flying across the roughest seas of the planet, those that wrap themselves above the continent of Antarctica.  They are the stuff of legends (think Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner) and for a long-term bird lover before taking it up professionally photographically, a further rite of passage.

During the 3 week trip, I had planned for us to visit two colonies of Black-browed Albatross, the predominant species of the Falklands and where some 70% of the worlds population actually breed. The first of these, the ice-breaker if you like, was a reasonably small colony but nicely located one and planned on a day when there would be no other visitors so we had the place completely to ourselves; it was on the island of West Point.  After a short walk from the landing point with the local warden we reached the brow of a hill and looked down to the gathering below, perched almost perfectly on top of a dramatic coast line.

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Like a white scar cutting through the surrounding tussock grass, an array of birds were perched on their cone-like nests, intermingled with Rockhopper Penguins filling in the spaces it seemed, all seemingly calling or clacking their beaks at each other; looking up the perfect early summer sky was full of gliding birds as well – all in all a truly uplifting sight.

After initially taking the scene in I felt I really needed some time to simply soak up what I had come to experience – we were going to be here all day so there was no rush – and so I made my way through some of the tunnels in the tussock grass to an extreme edge of the colony and found a single bird sitting patiently and simply sat down.  My camera stayed in the bag for a full 30 minutes or so as I simply absorbed where I was and just how special it felt to be sharing this small corner of a remote island in the south Atlantic with this stunning bird.  Who knows how far it had flown in its life to date – countless thousands of miles no doubt – or what weather and conditions it had experienced too; for now it was just the two of us here on the cliff top and both seemingly totally at ease with each other too. The camera dod come out of the bag eventually and I was treated to some great wide-angle images, an attempt on my part to really give a sense of just what it felt like to share this time and space.

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As with all of the birdlife here, fear of human presence didn’t really seem to come into play so providing I showed respect and acted sensibly all the birds here remained very relaxed at all times.

The skies above were full of birds gliding too and fro and given a combination of their low flight paths and huge wing spans of some 2.5 metres I found myself in the unusual position of using a wide-angle lens to photograph them in flight too!

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Throughout the day I found myself watching as much as photographing, enjoying the opportunity to capture simple portraits, little aspects of behaviour such as grooming, and given the incredible bonds that these birds have once they have committed to being a pair for life, the high levels of affection they demonstrated towards each other too.

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West Point was an amazing place to spend the day with these beautiful birds – their naming extremely clear given the subtle striping across their eyes.  It was though just the appetiser, because 24 hours later, given the opening in the weather that I had planned in hope for basing us at this western edge of the Falklands for a number of days to allow it to come, I was again on a boat and headed to the far north-west of the archipelago, a journey of some 6 or 7 hours, and to the remote and uninhabited island of Steeple Jason.  This is a place that has long been very high indeed on my bucket list; it’s a challenge to get to (the boat journey is pretty much head on into the prevailing winds and they most certainly can blow down here, although local boatman Michael Clarke did a great job of getting us there and back safely – thanks) and totally uninhabited.  With permission and accompanied by Rob McGill, the warden responsible for it though, we had a 48 hour opportunity to visit what is home to the largest colony of Black-browed Albatross in the world – some 200,000 pairs.

The shape of the island is testament to its location and the weather it has to cope with, it’s narrow high escarpment cutting down its centre like the scales standing proud on a dinosaurs spine.

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Head to its westerly end though and after battling through the surrounding tussock grass, the sight (and sound)  of the colony is simply breathtaking.

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There are birds here as far as you can see – all of the white in the above shots are birds on the ground and in the same density as those in the foreground.  A walk around the edge of the tussock grass you can see edging the colony here simply revealed more and more over the horizon and wrapping off towards the far side of the crags.

When faced with monumental choice like this it is very easy to be overwhelmed photographically.  My first thoughts, and appreciating just how lucky we clearly were being in terms of the clear blue skies, was to capture the bigger picture – the setting and scale of these first two images.  Sticking with the setting which is equally as breathtaking I then concentrated on some contextual portraits as well as looking to isolate individual birds with both long and short lenses, looking to work as creatively as I could with the light and angles available.

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Before I knew it the sun was starting to set, warming the light but also casting shadows across the colony too so after one last set of shots it was time to retire briefly to the research hut and among the food that we had brought out with us the somewhat surreal option of Waitress frozen cheesecakes among the fare!

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Sleep for me was brief, such was the level of adrenalin still flowing, and as the sun rose a few short hours later, we made our way round to the other side of the island to work with the new days light direction – effectively the other end of the colony.  Again it involved a walk through the tussock grass (it is mostly over 3 metres high so a tussle to get through in places) and as this cleared and the rest of the colony was revealed the true scale of this place really hit home.

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The white stripe here that is stretching out and round the far distant point is all breeding Albatross.  The previous afternoon had been spent round the corner and none of these birds had been visible at all – they are all additional!  The total colony stretches some two and a half miles around the coast here, and look in the far distance and you can see how it is starting to stretch up the side of the hill too.  I have been lucky enough to visit some amazing seabird colonies in my life but nothing like this!

As the sun crept up into the sky, gradually lighting the colony, it was back to work with the combination of lenses looking to capture place, work with said light and isolate behaviour.

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The interaction process is not only a reinforcement of the bonds of a relationship, but for the first season ashore in adulthood it is actually a process birds go through in terms of finding and selecting a life-long partner so it is a serious business of courtship too and a joy to watch.

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Before I knew it it was mid-day (time flies so fast when you are completely absorbed) and time to leave: my 24 hours here was done and the long boat trip back awaited.  After one last shot of the truly amazing scene the return journey was one full of reflection – what an experience, what a sight, what a stunning spectacle of the natural world and more than that what a privilege to have been able to experience it.  Now I just can’t wait to go back: the birds will be returning to their colonies about now but for me it’ll be another 12 months until I get to go back but it’s most certainly worth waiting for.

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A Happy Half Dozen

Although I didn’t realise it at the time I think I had some withdrawal symptoms last summer.  It was the first summer in over a dozen years that has not involved at least one days visit to a Puffin colony.  I had made a trip to one in the early Spring to find them in a snowy setting  but the summer itself was bereft of their company although they were never far from my mind as the last stages of The Secret Lives of Puffins book came to fruition.

Well I am just back from nearly 2 weeks in the Shetlands and one of my favourite colonies on Fair Isle, and I have well and truly had my Puffin fix once again and although time is brief as I head off once again tomorrow to the boreal swamps and forests of Finland, I have just had time to process a happy half dozen of my favourite images from the time I spent there.

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I am not short of images of these charismatic birds, and their characteristics are forever to be found on all the social media sharing sites at this time of the year so it is hard to find “different” images of them for sure, but one aspect I have been consciously looking to work on this year is rather than the uniform defocussed background long lenses bring is rather to look for one where different tones and the resultant shapes can compliment the subject such as the image above and below.

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As for the rest of the images in this necessarily brief post – well they are what they are and hopefully reflective of some of the further approaches I try to adopt to working with the well photographed: they also helped make sure that the withdrawal symptoms are no more!!

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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.

Heavenly Hermaness

There are few places in Britain for which it’s really worth sleeping in my car for, especially for a number of nights.  Situated at the top of Unst, the most northerly of the Shetland Isles, Hermaness is one of those.  Dozing off in the passenger seat with the call of Red-Throated Divers flying overhead and waking a few hours later the gentle call of a Golden Plover I would even say that just being there can be a genuine pleasure.

It can be harsh though – on my last visit the mist was so thick I could hardly see more than 10 feet in front of me and the long walk across the classic peat moorland that sits between the car park and the distant cliffs was a very grim and foreboding place indeed: and not much good for photography.

This time conditions were generally helpful though and the deep dark pools that intersperse the cotton grass speckled moorland were at their most picturesque.

It’s a habitat that houses the largest breeding population of Great Skua’s (or Bonxies as the locals call them, a name that has stuck with most birdwatchers) and at this time of the year, then end of the breeding season parental birds in ones or twos were to be seen dotted all around, making their usual loud calls as a warning to each other.

Every time another bird would fly anywhere close to their spot then up would go the wings in a threatening display and 90% of the time this would suffice although the occasional scuffle did occur, birds thudding into each other with great power.

Although they were still small in comparison even the youngsters seemed well practised in wing-raising behaviour too!

The real drama of Hermaness comes at the end of the moorland walk though, and the cliffs that lie there are among the most dramatic to be found in Britain: I’ve already left instruction for some of my ashes to spread there when I pass away so much does this place inspire me!  Nestling at the far northerly end of the sweeping coastline the lighthouse on the small island of Muckle Flugga represents the furthest north you can go in Britain.

Here other seabirds dominate proceedings and the large white areas on these outlying rocks represent huge and seemingly ever-expanding colonies of Gannets.  Getting closer to some of these on a bleak and windy evening really gives a sense of drama, the power of the sea and the fantastic isolation of this fabulous place – the streaks in the images are the constantly gliding Gannets moving through the slow shutter speed taken shots.

All of this was a magnificent bonus for me as I was really there for this summers last burst of Puffin photography – regular readers of the blog will know it’s been a project focus this year.  They were there in great numbers too and spending the early mornings and evenings alone with them in this dramatic location really does make Hermaness feel like a little bit of heaven.

Puffin Fun

I’m spending every spare couple of days I have this summer working with Puffins – one of my favourite birds – for a specific project I have on the go at the moment.

Alongside picking up some decent images I also thought this short video which I took on a wet grey evening on Skomer last weekend (remember the cold and wet?) was a bit of fun that really sums up the inquisitive personality of these characterful birds.

Hope you enjoy it!