Tag Archives: Whooper Swan

Seasons change in their scenery

Those of you who are Simon and Garfunkel fans (or even The Bangles as they did their own cover version as well) might recognise this line from their song A Hazy Shade of Winter.  I am not long back from a fortnight in Finland, a trip that was very much planned with some winter imagery in mind.  Finland however had a mild spell in February and as a consequence things were just that bit further ahead than normal, and as a result this became a trip of two seasons – there were still some cold conditions though (-28 degrees celsius the overnight low), along with some heavy snowfalls (20 cm in one day) and some mild afternoons and heading south some fields showing that winter was over for the year. The result was an unusual array of opportunities that reflect just how nature begins to change as the season of Spring beckons.

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The Whooper Swan is Finland’s national bird, and one I spent a great deal of time working with in Japan earlier this year. These two were in a winter setting that immediately took me back there – along with their familiar calls.

They are however just returning here after wintering further south in Europe and so far more attractive to them were the fields and farmlands where Spring was already in place and they could look to refuel before the final push to the north of the country a few weeks later for breeding.  I really enjoyed photographing these beautiful birds in this different setting.

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These Spring like conditions also created opportunities to work with the light and colours in a forest hide in the Oulanka National Park too – subtle lighting around this Great Spotted Woodpecker and classic backlighting on this Siberian Jay among the highlights.

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In these conditions I wasn’t hopeful that the main target for the hide, Golden Eagle, would actually turn up.  With the weather this mild, the female will already be on the nest and the male less interested in visiting his winter feed site.  I needn’t have worried though as he did turn up: and again when returning to the hide a couple of days later when the weather had turned wintery again, falling snow completely changing the feel of the whole place as you can see from these images taken over the two days.

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This changeable couple of days also worked well when spending time with a pair of Black-bellied Dipper who were busy pairing up and checking out local nest boxes as they planned for the imminent season ahead.  Falling snow and slow shutter speeds all added to the variety of opportunity.

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A personal priority for the trip was to spend some quality time with one of my favourite birds – Black Grouse.  The lekking season had already started in earnest thanks to the mild spell and so I enjoyed a total of 6 mornings being settled into the hide by 5am in anticipation of their dawn arrival and displays. The first 3 of these were at a lek site near Kuusamo – just inside Lapland, and still very snowy and cold so it was no huge surprise when the first day was a no show.  The second was more successful but the birds chose to lek just a little over a large snow ridge: very enjoyable but only a few images were possible, the spraying snow from their wings as they squabbled particularly appealed to me.

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The final morning here was absolutely perfect in terms of light and conditions, but sadly another no show: quite a sunrise mind which more than made up for it!

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The final 3 mornings were a few hours south at a lek near Oulu and here the snow was patchy but clear; cold mornings meant heavy frost coverage and some fantastic light with which to photograph the amazing antics of these endearing birds as they strutted their stuff and undertook the occasion sparring match with a fellow lekker.

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A great experience, and one that was matched on my final evening in the Oulu area when quite by chance we happened across a Great Grey Owl hunting in some fields near the road.  It was late and the light was not fantastic but the high ISO capabilities of the 1Dx really helped out and again; although not award-winning images, it was a very special hour spent with this simply gorgeous bird, the first seen in the whole Oulu area for the last 30 days so a really fortunate find.

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The final leg of the trip took me across to the town of Lieksa near the Russian border to spend 3 long days (15 hours at a time) in a hide in the hope of seeing the extremely elusive and rare Wolverine.  Here the snow had very much taken a back seat and Spring was taking over and Wolverine females will already have young kits in their dens so any sightings are to be much appreciated given their increased wariness at this time.  We were blessed with a couple of good visits quite close to the hide, some climbing (which as you can see confirmed she was feeding young) and on the final day a flurry of snow which to me was a fitting end to the nature of my overall trip.

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I had had a whole load of pre-conceived images in my mind when planning to run these two trips. The more travelling with my camera I do though I have come not to expect anything and simply look to go with the flow – work hard on the decision making (and thanks to Antti and Era respectively on this front too) but leave nature to create the opportunities.  Once again she didn’t let me or my guests on the two trips down, revealing some very different images to those I had perhaps thought of some 12 months back.  Clearly she knows best after all!

Whooper Heaven

I’m just back from a few days on the Solway estuary, home in the winter months to large numbers of wintering wildfowl with particularly large numbers of Barnacle Geese and Whooper Swans.

Having spent an amazing evening with a Whooper Swan family and their cygnets in Iceland last summer I was keen to get some more close up time with these long-distance travellers and wasn’t to be disappointed.

You can see from this very simple profile image just how elegant they are but spend some time watching them after they’ve fed and they start to preen their feathers then their grace really comes on show.

Mixed in with all the preening and a huge amount of socialising there’s also time for what seems to me when watching it as if it’s just pure fun – and this comes in the form of a good splash and bathe!

Caerlaverock Wildfowl and wetlands Trust reserve provides a regular daily feed for any birds in the area which is particularly useful to them when any cold snaps come and food becomes harder to find in the frozen fields, just like that this last weekend when I was up there.

This provides an opportunity to look for another aspect of swan behaviour that is always a joy to see and listen too in the form of their incredibly powerful and noisy wing beats, which interspersed with the occasional honk to a nearby flight partner was very much in evidence as either feed time, dawn or dusk approached.

Interspersed with the visiting Whoopers and taking full advantage of the feeding and socialising on offer were good numbers of native Mute Swans and some time spent watching and photographing them was equally enjoyable and rewarding too.

Caerlaverock and the Solway are by no means unique in their gatherings of wintering wildfowl – any of the main WWT reserves can offer good numbers of close up opportunities with these wonderful wanderers.  Add some stunning light and cold conditions to the mix like we’ve just enjoyed though and this reserve very soon becomes it’s own photographic version of Swan Lake – and with a rendition on ice at times too!

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.