Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Beyond 66.5 Degrees North - Day 3: Battling the Elements

Before we made our trip to Norway, both and Adam and I both made a list of species we wished to see and try to photograph. Top of both our lists were probably the most magnificent of wading birds, the Ruff. This was followed on our lists by Dotterel, a personal bogey bird of mine in the UK, and third on my list was Bluethroat. However, top priority was Ruff and we would be disappointed if we didn't manage to get some in front of us and the camera. So this species deserved a concerted effort.

Our plan  for the third day, was to rise early and explore the nature reserve at eastern end of Vadsoya Island where the hotel was located, before hitting the road and winding our way eastward along the north shore of the fjord. Our final destination for the day was to be a reconnaissance visit of a known ruff lek site which we planned to check out for hopefully our first session with the birds the following day.

As the blackout roller blinds zipped upwards, after an early alarm, the view out the window of the shaking scrub bushes showed a strong wind was blowing in from the north. The sky a mix of clouds, with the occasional blue clear patch, being whisked along quickly overhead by the brisk wind. Temperature outside was about 3 degrees C before taking account of any wind chill. Stepping out the front door of the hotel, the strong wind's sharp icy edge that cut right in to you, became very apparent. Any small birds would definitely be lying low in these conditions. Fortunately the forecast, which to be frank is not too reliable, showed that the wind would ease down the next day. We would just have to try and make the best of the prevailing conditions.

We headed out on foot into the biting wind onto the Vadsoya Island nature reserve. We decided to head off in opposite directions and meet up later by the pond. My first stop was near the entrance with a Hooded Crow hanging on to the top of some scrub in the wind.

I headed off round the island in a clockwise direction. It seemed very quiet for birds and during my wander I came across a group of half a dozen of the island's resident mountain hares in a tight group. Creeping up on single mountain hares is difficult enough but the problem is multiplied when there are six pairs of eyes on look-out duty. Fortunately between me and the hares was a line of scrub that I could use as cover to get close and a few photos of them. They varied quite a bit in colour as a result of their change from winter to summer coat.
As you might know I do have a bit of a hare obsession so it was good to have some on the 'doorstep' of the hotel and I made a mental note to have another try for them later in the week.

As I came around to the pond, I was surprised to find very low numbers of Red-necked Phalarope with only half a dozen female birds present. During my last visit the island supported good numbers of birds across a range of species but this seemed not to be the case now. The Arctic Tern colony at the eastern end of the island was completely empty and few birds were present on the beaches.

As the sun was appearing intermittently I thought I would spend a bit of time with the Phalarope. Typically oblivious to my presence, the photography of these hyperactive birds was made tricky by the large waves rolling across the pond. It felt a bit like trying to photograph a cork being tossed around on a North Sea storm. One moment it was there and the next it had gone over the crest of the next wave and dropped into the trough.
Thought the photo below would give some impression of the size of the waves rolling across the pond.
Adam had picked up a few birds in his wander around the other side of the nature reserve including the odd Knot, Oystercatcher and Turnstone on the beach and a Red-throated pipit on  a fence line post. We decided to head back to the hotel for breakfast. Over breakfast we started chatting with a couple of birdwatchers who had been in the area for a while and commented on the general lack of birds from what they had found on previous trips. There were two theories proposed over the continental style breakfast, either birds were very late arriving or had started breeding early. We would have to try and work it out.

After a long, slow breakfast, we left the hotel and into the sabre-toothed wind once more. This time we got in the car crossed the bridge into Vadso and headed along the coast road eastward to see what we could find. The first birds we encountered that could be put in front of the camera were some Red Throated Pipit. These are attractive birds with their brick red throat patch.


This location  we subsequently nicknamed 'Pipit Bowl'. I often find when abroad that particularly productive places are given nicknames as it easy to refer to them when making plans than using the local place name. With that said the next place we stopped off at became known as 'Temmincks Dunes'. We decided to stop off for some DIY lunch from our Finnish food supplies in the car boot, where the coastal landscape suddenly changed to sand dunes adjacent to the river estuary at Skallelv. I spotted a small bird fluttering up and down like a giant butterfly, despite the strong winds, accompanied by a rapid, loud and high pitched trill and immediately knew it was a Temmnicks Stint. This was Adam's first encounter with one and I think he was impressed with the aerial antics of this tiny wader. We found a very confiding bird and it was lovely to watch both on the ground and in the air  at close quarters.  Down at ground level you appreciate how tiny these birds are.
Brace position against the wind.

Time to move on, passing by some distant White-tailed Eagle loafing around the beach and a very long furred red fox heading over a ridge. By this time the sun has burst through the rushing clouds above. Its always good to have some sunlight for photography but in these cold climates it comes at a cost which it almost an instant development of heat haze. I have mentioned this before and the devastating effect it can on photography should not be underestimated.  Basically it makes it nearly impossible to get a sharp image and the only thing you can do is take a lot of photographs and minimise the wobbling air between the camera and subject. We suffered this problem with the next pair of birds we tried to photograph which was a pair of dark phase Arctic Skua. We spent a very brief time with them, as the red mist typically descended with these birds as we approached and they initiated their characteristic swooping attacks. This meant the female had got up off the two eggs on the ground and we were concerned the effect that the bitter wind may have on them if left uncovered for any period. We backed off rapidly and she quickly returned to incubation duties. Off the  photographs taken, I only kept one which was just about passable, with the rest ruined by heat haze.
Finally we reached the track that cuts in land leading to the ruff lek site. This is a 7.5km dirt track in poor condition and took quite a while to get the hire car along in one piece. The progress along the track was slowed by a couple of birds we encountered. By now the sun had departed and drizzle had started. Rapid changes in weather conditions are common at these latitudes but the one persistent feature that was constant was the driving cold wind. I decided for this solitary Skua to do the 'Skua crawl'. This is basically doing a commando crawl up to the bird which seems to work well with these birds. I was soon getting full frame images with the main problem being getting a decent composition which is always tricky for birds with long tails.

We continued our bumpy and uncomfortable journey along the track and soon came across a Golden Plover for which we stopped to take a few photographs. The short tundra vegetation always makes for a colourful and attractive setting.

Eventually we came to the end of the track and the ruff lek site next to a medium sized lake. There were ruff present but mainly as heads popping up through the vegetation of a marshy area at the southern end of the lake. Across the lake we could see a distant nesting Black-throated Diver with the male holding station in open water close by. Occasionally they would let out their wailing call which is one of my favourite bird sounds as it seems to encapsulate the essence of these remote places. It was difficult to say with any certainty where the ruff lek was going to be but a relatively flat area of short vegetation close to where we were parked looked like a strong possibility. We would find out when we returned the next morning.

We made our way back along the bumpy track and picked up a solitary Whimbrel to photograph before we reached the main road.
Time was moving on be now and we decided we would start to make tracks towards our hotel in Vadso. However, before heading there we thought we would check out another dirt track heading in-land from the coast.  We saw a few Golden Plover  along this track but all remained distant occasionally piping out their plaintive call note. The occasional Ruff was seen flying over. Just before we got back to the main road I spotted a solitary male Ruff. A fine looking male with a ginger orange collar. This was our first opportunity to put one in front of the camera and as this was the last bird of the day to be photographed, then hopefully its was a good omen for a successful Ruff session the following day.

We headed back to Vadso. We had worked hard that day in the the challenging icy wind and it had produced a good variety of interesting birds species but all in low numbers. There just strangely seemed to be relatively few birds around. Back at Vadso,  and with it being Sunday evening , we struggled to find any food and ended up having some weird kebab made with a folded nan bread stuffed with meat and sauce from a take away at the back of the Indian. More fuel than food really. This seemed to be the only place open in town that was selling food. Back at the hotel the daily battery charging, photo downloading and back up ritual was gone through before hitting bed relatively early. The alarm was set to stun mode at 3:30 am with the exciting prospect of attempting to photograph Ruff on a lek. This was the main objective of our trip but would we succeed?

Thursday, June 16, 2016

Beyond 66.5 Degrees North - Days 1 and 2: Into the Circle

It took me a while to decide where to head to this year for my annual overseas trip. My initial thoughts were to travel up to the Outer Herbrides in mid-May but the more I considered it the more I felt the need to travel further north. After some deliberation I decided to plan a return trip to Arctic Norway which had been my first overseas photography trip back in 2010. I had fond memories of the place and certainly had some unfinished business with some of the birds up there, particularly the Ruff and Bluethroat.

On this trip I would be going with my friend Adam who lives in France and runs the Sanctuary Fishery. I met Adam because of skylarks (its a long story) and when I mentioned the trip to Arctic Norway he jumped at the opportunity. Adam has a profound love and understanding of the wildlife which is skillful reflected in his artwork and talents with pencil, pen and brush. He is also keen to learn photography and so the trip would be a good opportunity to show him the way around a camera and some of the techniques of bird photography.

Flights, accommodation and car hire was booked and so all we had to do was wait a few months until Friday 3rd June. The plan was for us both to fly up to Helsinki where we would meet and then take the connecting flight up to Ivalo in Lapland which would take us inside the Arctic Circle (Latitude 66.5 Degrees North) . From there we would drive up to the Varanger Peninsula in Arctic Norway.

Packing for a trip in a cold climate is always a challenge in terms of luggage weight allowance due to the need for carrying lots of clothing. The particular difficulty on this trip would be the very meagre hand luggage allowance of 8kg given that I would be taking wildlife camera equipment for two people.  As a back-up measure I purchased a photographers vest just before the trip into which I could load equipment if I ran into to difficulties at check-in. Travelling abroad with camera equipment is a constant nightmare for wildlife photographers. I do wish the airlines would take this into account as they do for people with sporting equipment and musical instruments. I am sure most photographers would happily pay a supplement to guarantee they could take the inevitably overweight hand luggage on to the plane. The equipment going into the aeroplane hold is just not an option.

For information on the kit used on the trip, I predominantly used the Canon 1DX mk2 with 600mm F4 Mk 2 lens both with and without the 1.4 extender.

As the date of departure arrived conditions in France were looking potentially difficult for Adam's journey with a series of violent storms and air traffic control and train strikes. Would we both make the connecting flight? In case of problems we hatched a back-up plan as on these trips it is always good to have a contingency to cover all bases. My passage through Manchester airport was smooth and text's from Adam indicated all was going to plan and schedule at his end. I boarded the plane only for the captain to announce that there was a going to be a 30 minute delay until departure. Given that I only had a 40 minute interval between flights at Helsinki as you can imagine I was starting to get concerned whether I could make the connecting flight. The plane touched down at 15.35 and the next flight was due to board at 15:50! The plane landed away from the terminal for a coach collection of the passengers. The coach then drove to the far end of the terminal, in fact about as far away from my departure gate as possible. I rushed in, through passport control, and on exiting there was a sign saying my departure gate was 15 minutes walk away and the plane was now boarding.

I am sure the next few minute of airport CCTV footage would make a classic comedy clip showing a frenzied run by me through the  airport with my heavy hand luggage. Through areas of duty free and against a sea people coming in the opposite direction. I just made it, arriving at the departure gate and a waiting Adam, in a sweaty heap under my heavy fleece which was too heavy to put in the case. It was a very close call but we had both made it. My only concern now was whether my suitcase would make the connecting flight which fortunately it did. Time to finally relax.

There was a noticeable temperature drop as we stepped off the plane into light drizzle at Ivalo. We were quickly through the tiny airport, collecting our hire car and heading north to our first destination which was an overnight stay at the Neljan Tuulen Tupa accommodation in Kaamanen. En route, we made a quick stop at a supermarket in Ivalo to buy some food supplies for lunches, figuring that the temperature in the car would act as a giant coolbox most of the time.

The Neljan Tuulen Tupa accommodation is a well known destination for bird watchers and photographers as the feeding station around the back of this log cabin style motel is probably one of the most reliable places to easily see Pine Grosbeak. We arrived around 20:00 and decided to get some food which gave us a view over the bird feeders with the first bird seen being a beautiful raspberry colour male Grosbeak munching its way through sunflower seeds. With our steak dinner polished off we headed round to the back to check out the feeders. Interestingly the large numbers of Redpoll present during my previous trip were noticeably absent. Given the weather was fairly miserable and the birds heading into their quiet period under the perpetual daylight, we decided to leave the photography until the morning.

Before going to bed, I end up having a very long conversation in reception with a Finnish Bird Ringer. He was on a 3 month trip to the area and from the look in his eye looked like he had been out in the wilds and under too much daylight for a little too long. However, it was an interesting conversation as he reeled off various facts and figures and confirmed there were very few redpoll in the area this year. He said if we had time he would show us some Hawk Owl and Smew nest boxes he was working with the following day.

We were up early the next morning for a session with the birds behind the motel before breakfast under some overcast skies. This is awkward place to photograph the birds as it is designed for feeding rather than photography. Located immediately behind the back wall of the motel at the top of a slope in a small clearing in the surrounding woodland. The ground is completely covered in the sunflower seed husks and so any bird on the ground such as Brambling tends to be surrounded by seed shells,  there are very few perches associated with the feeders so the birds tend to go directly to feeding tables and it is difficult to find an angle where can get a bird on a perch of the surrounding vegetation with a clean image background. After a while we decided to attach a perch to one of the table supports with some table ties for the Grosbeak. We selected an old weather silver grey piece of conifer in a hope that this would compliment the grey areas of plumage on the birds. In hindsight I am not sure this was the best perch choice but it had the desired effect of stopping the birds flying directly to the feeding table.

Birds coming into feed included Greenfinch, Great Tit, Siberian Tit, a good number of male and female Brambling, a solitary male Pied Flycatcher and both female and male Pine Grosbeak. All accompanied by some very active red squirrels.  I concentrated my efforts on the Brambling, Gosbeak and Flycatcher a selection of which are below. The hyperactive Siberian tit proved tricky but amusing as it would announce its arrival with a strange squeaking that sounded like a plastic toy.

The male Brambling looked amazing in their summer colours and a marked difference to the faded birds we see in the UK in the winter,


You can see in this last photograph the problem with photographing the birds feeding on the ground.
The male Pied Flycatcher was relatively obliging.

The Pine Grosbeak is the bird that draws many people to this place and this heavyweight finch is an impressive bird that is about the size of starling. The males with their raspberry coloured plumage are both impressive and attractive. A selection of Pine Grosbeak images are below from both the surrounding trees, the ground and our set up perch. Excuse the number of images but this bird was the main star of the show.








I came away from the feeding area feeling slightly frustrated and imagining the images that could be achieved if it was properly set up. It had been wonderful to see Pine Grosbeak again and we intended to make a return visit on the homebound journey.  However, it had been a good place for Adam to start gaining an understanding of the interrelationship between ISO, aperture and shutter speed on the camera.

After a good breakfast and given the long journey ahead, we packed up, checked out and hit the road northward. About 15km up the E75 we got flagged down by the Finnish Bird Ringer, from the previous evening, who was at the side of the road and asked if we would like to see a hawk owl nest. We followed him a short distance into a birch wood where there was a nest box and a female hawk owl sat on a telegraph wire alarm calling. Against a grey sky the owl on a wire was not going to make a good photograph. He then said he needed to check the chicks, and climbed a ladder to the nest box with full head visor to defend himself from the by now both angry and swooping parents. He took both chicks from the box, which both Adam and I thought was unnecessary particularly given the cold weather conditions, to show us.

We then followed him a short distance where he showed us a female Smew sitting on eggs in another of his nest boxes. I was keen to get moving and we both thanked him and hit the road once more.

Driving through Finland is not the most exciting journey for those looking out for wildlife as generally there is very little to be seen as most tends to be tucked inside the apparently endless expanses of birch and coniferous forests bordering the road. The only noticeable change as you head northwards past mile upon mile of lake and forest is that the trees start getting small and the birch more twisted and black stemmed, particularly as you cross the border into Norway. After a few hours driving we arrived at the western end of Varangerfjord and decided to have a break and call into the area around the back of the museum at Varangerboten where there are two hides overlooking some mud flats at low tide. Looking out of both hides all seemed to quiet with the only bird of note being a distance White-tailed Eagle on the beach trying to eat a large stranded fish whilst being harassed by parties of gulls. Returning back to the car along the boardwalk through the blackened birch wood we found a male Pied Flycatcher to photograph.


Back at the car, noisy Fieldfare loudly chattered in the scrub areas and perched on the top of the buildings. We continued eastward along the north coast of the fjord towards our final destination of Vadso, and stopped off by Nesseby Church to see if there were any birds around to photograph. This produced some Ringed Plover on the beach, after a bit of crawling around some Golden Plover and I also found a pair of very mobile Snow Bunting in the summer plumage moving around the rocky edge of the peninsula. I was particularly pleased to get the latter in front of the camera given the complete failure to find any last year in Iceland.
These Golden Plover are the northern race with their darker coloured heads.
The orange patches in the background of this photograph is one of the strange coloured lichens that grows on the rocks in the area.
Female Snow Bunting
 A very attractive male in his summer plumage.


We departed from Nesseby and continued on to Vadso, acorss the bridge onto Vadsoya Island, where our accommodation for the week, the Vadso Fjordhotell was waiting. This is now a main place for birdwatchers and photographers to stay while visiting the area and we met with a warm welcome. It looks much better on the inside than outside!!
However, the hotel does not offer an evening meal so after checking in we headed straight back out and across the bridge in to Vadso to find some food. We settled on a costly but tasty curry in the Indigo  which is reputed to be one of the most northerly Indian restaurants in the world. Back at the hotel we went through the daily routine of downloading the day's images, backing them up on to hard drives and charging batteries before heading for some well earned sleep after a long day. The black out blinds behind the curtains doing a half decent job of keeping out the perpetual daylight. Both of us were looking forward to following morning and our first proper full day of photography of the trip.

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