Having enjoyed a few days in Senja as an appetiser, it was time for my main course, a week in Lofoten, my photography heaven. Before heading to Reine I went to Haukland to take a walk along the long flat sandy white beach. There were no other people there at the time, but I was not alone, a juvenile White Tailed Eagle passed over my head on its way into the mountains beyond. This was a most helpful bird, calling repeatedly to announce its impending arrival and make it easy for me to be ready to shoot. I captured a long sequence of frames as it flew overhead, three of which are shown in a montage below.
The beautiful mountains and picturesque fishing villages of Lofoten tend to steal most of the attention (they are truly spectacular) but the many beaches of the area are a major attraction in their own right . The violent waves and huge boulders of Uttakleiv, the calm serenity of Haukland and the unexpected paradise for arctic surfers at Unstad are all very easy to reach but some of the more scenic ones require some hiking or even camping in order to visit.
After spending a couple of hours at Haukland I made my way towards Reine (my home for the rest of the trip), stopping at Skagsanden beach (perhaps my favourite of them all) for another walk on the way. I checked into Reine Rorbuer, my Lofoten accomodation of choice, and headed out to check the local sights as the sun went down. It was too cloudy for any useful sunset pictures but it felt good to be back in Lofoten once again and I stayed out to shoot some long exposures in the dark.
Those who have followed my blog for a while will start to be familiar with the magical triangle of villages - Reine, Hamnøy and Sakrisøy - all of which are right next to each other in this remote part of the world. They start to be extremely familiar locations for me but I never seem to tire of shooting them (hopefully you are not fed up of seeing the results).
The next morning I climbed the very wet, muddy, slippery hill on Olenilsoy in order to catch the moment when the sun's rays first hit the yellow cabins of Sakrisøy. There are no bad times to capture this amazing view, but I think that the time of Sakrisøy's personal sunrise (usually many tens of minutes after the actual sunrise) is one of the best times. This time I was rewarded with a day where there was plenty of cloud, but high enough cloud to preserve full visibility of the mountains behind.
Sakrisøy is also a great photography target from sea level, the yellow rorbuer (fisherman's cabins) and mountain background make it a distinctive subject from many angles.
I sometimes feel like I haven't seen a good sunrise or sunset for months, despite many tens of very early starts to be in position to take advantage of the best parts of the day. Days like this one are maybe not the perfect one that you dream of, but there is at least enough richness to the light and drama in the clouds to make it feel like it is worth it to keep setting your alarm clock.
When staying in Reine, the Bringen Cafe is a vital part of my morning routine. Great coffee, delicious cakes and snacks, and friendly helpful service makes it a perfect place to recover from early mornings and cold weather. It also provides pleasant surroundings while you make a first review of the photos from the morning.
Refreshed, I headed for a location I have not visited before, a waterfall near to Sørvågen.
The weather was a bit variable, but I continued to the village of Å, the end of the line in Lofoten.
While the road (highway E10) ends in Å, the Lofoten islands continue as mountains and fjords for some 10-15 kilometres and then beyond that there are a number of decent sized islands as you head south towards Røst, a set of islands which are even more remote than Lofoten. I walked away from the town towards some cliffs, allowing a distant glimpse of Røst and also scouting the area near the cliffs where I was able to observe some black guillemots and cormorants flying around.
The daytime is not usually an ideal time for photography, but it is a very important part of the day for getting to know different possible places you might like to return to at sunset, at night or for sunrise. If you are familiar with your spot and how to get there then it makes things 100 times easier when you are fumbling around in the darkness trying to shoot a few hours or days later.
After investing some time into this area I headed back to Reine to have some food and some rest before the evening session. Once again the sunset was quite a non-event from the point of view of interesting colours in the sky, there was significant cloud cover, but the clouds were well defined (rather than being a shapeless mass) and that provided at least some interest in the sky as I went to shoot at Hamnøy.
As the blue hour progressed the cloud cover started to disappear and the light was very nice as I drove back towards Reine.
The aurora conditions now seemed rather promising (only a few clouds plus a Kp index of 3) and I headed back towards Å to see what I could capture at two locations that I had scouted earlier in the day.
The first idea that I had was to use one of the lakes near to the waterfall to capture aurora reflections, but that turned out to be spoiled as a possibility by the street lights which ran all the way round the lake (which I had brilliantly failed to notice earlier). When shooting auroras you would ideally like to get away from all artificial light. My second idea, using a very small pond near to Å as my reflector, worked a lot better.
The lights were still dancing for me as I left Å, so all thoughts of sleep were put on hold, I decided to stay out as long as the auroras were active.
As is often the case during an aurora evening the lights were coming and going in phases, appearing in different shapes and in different parts of the sky. As I got to Sakrisøy the auroras were tracing a wide highway across a huge area of the sky, far too big and high to fit into any picture I might have planned.
One of the fun things about photography is that, no matter how much planning you have done, it is still very often necessary to improvise and react to the light. The unpredictability and impermanence of auroras really emphasises that need.
I continued through the night towards Skagsanden beach, about a 30 minute drive from Sakrisøy, hoping that the auroras would still cooperate and that the clouds would not be winning the battle. I arrived at Skagsanden about 2am, one advantage of that was that the beach was not crowded, although my arrival in a car with all associated light and sound was probably not that popular with all the people sleeping in their camper vans at the Skagsanden car park.
The auroras were still present but no longer very active, there was some low cloud in the distance over the town of Leknes which amplified the effect of the lights of the town, making it almost look like there was a fire on the horizon. Normally you want to avoid all light pollution if you can but this time the effect looked interesting to me.
By now I was getting a bit tired and the auroras were not doing much, so i headed back towards Reine. As is so often the case I have a hard time driving past Hamnøy without stopping to shoot... even in the dark at 0330 it seemed like a good idea to stop... so I did.
After a late night I did not have much enthusiasm for chasing the sunrise 3 hours later... a quick look out the window confirmed that the forecast was correct (miserable rain) and I went back to sleep. This depressing weather was set to continue for a couple of days.
When you are inside the Arctic circle you have to expect that at least some part of your time is going to be disturbed by the weather, this is part of the deal... but it is still frustrating when it happens. I guess I must have been pretty bored at this point... it is not often that I even consider taking a selfie...
Having spent most fo the day resting and sheltering, I decided to go exploring the following day even thought the weather was still horrible. I drove along the very beautiful road 815 which follows the eastern coast of Lofoten from Leknes before joining up with the main highway (E10) a bit further north. The weather prevented any mountain views and any useful photography. I continued along E10 with the idea to end up at the fishing village of Henningsvaer... but then the increasingly awful storm clouds ahead of me caused a change of mind and I started to retreat.
This turned out to be a fortuitous decision. As I was approaching Bøstad from the north I spotted a magnificent Elk (Alces Alces, known as a Moose to those in North America where there is a different animal they call an Elk) splashing though a wet field. I stopped my car as soon as it was safe to do so and grabbed my camera.
This adult male had a tremendous set of antlers - I believe (based on studying my pictures from different angles) that there were 20 points in total on this impressive set of weapons. This was a sizeable animal, probably weighing about 450 kilos and standing around 2m tall.
The antlers are used to determine dominance among rivals, either just by display (this specimen would have intimidated many others) or if necessary by using them in battle, and are also key in their mission to impress the Elk females. The displaying, fighting and breeding seasoon is in the autumn so at this time the antlers would have been at their peak.
This confident beast wondered out of sight behind some trees, still about 100m from the road (the above photographs were taken from that range). This was such a great sight that I wanted to try and get more pictures. I walked up the road a bit and saw a wooded hill which I thought might give me another distant sighting if the Elk continued on its last known course.
I jumped over a stream and stomped up the slightly boggy hill. About half way up the hill I heard a noise to my left and turned to see the Elk about 25-30m away from me. From a photography point of view this was great... but from other points of view it might not have been ideal - usually these animals are not aggressive without cause, but in the mating season they can be more agitated than usual. The Elk and I spent maybe 20 seconds just looking at each other, while I took some pictures but otherwise tried not to do anything to irritate it, before he decided (correctly) that I was harmless and left the scene. He headed to his right and walked slowly (and safely) across the main highway before disappearing into the scrub on the other side of the road. This was a most unusual encounter!
Well, that's it for this time... the story from my Norwegian road trip will be continued and completed in my next post.
Thanks for reading, and thanks a lot for your shares, likes and comments in Facebook.
As autumn began I decided to make an arctic road trip, returning to Norway, one of my favourite countries, and heading further north than on any of my previous travels.
I had initially planned this as just a Lofoten trip but I was able to leave a few days earlier in order to spend some time in the Senja area which is just to the south of Tromsø in the far north of Norway. My route took me north through almost the entire length of Finland before crossing to Norway near to Kilpisjärvi and heading to my accomodation at Hamn i Senja. At the northern extremes it is possible to cross directly from Finland to Norway, missing out Sweden entirely. The 1430km journey took about 17 hours of driving time.
The journey was not a difficult one at this time of year (mid-September) with the temperatures above zero and the roads in good condition. The main hazard was provided by the reindeer which became an increasingly common site after crossing the Arctic Circle at around the half way point of the journey. The terrain was made more beautiful by the autumn colours, at the cost of providing better camouflage for any large mammals that might loiter near the margins of the highway. Slowing down, or stopping completely, was required on 6 or 7 occasions to ensure safe passage for car and for animal.
Eventually I arrived at Hamn i Senja sometime after dark.
One major attraction of being so far north in such a sparsely populated area is the greatly enhanced possibilities to see the northern lights, aurora borealis. If you have not spent your time chasing the northern lights before then you might not know that there is an aurora forecast that you can follow, based on geomagnetic activity. This forecast is expressed as a number (between 0 and 9) known as the Kp index. The "normal" level of activity ranges from Kp 1-4 with 5 or higher indicating increasing levels of geomagnetic storm.
The further north you are (south in the case of the southern lights, aurora australis) the more likely you are to be able to see auroras. In order to have a good chance of seeing auroras in France or Germany you would need an exceptional Kp index of 8 or 9, whereas from the north of Scotland or the south of Finland you have possibilities when the Kp index is around 5 (maybe once or twice per month).
Hamn i Senja, at a latitude of nearly 69.5 degrees, is in the zone where a Kp index of 1 or 2 already brings aurora opportunities, hugely increasing your chances to see those magical lights.
Although I was a bit tired from my drive, I never like to pass up an aurora opportunity, so out I went, happy to find that the auroras were already dancing across the sky.
Aurora photography is something of a challenge, and it pays to have done it a few times before. It is such a stunning sight when you first see bright and well defined auroras in the sky, the associated excitement and feeling of wonder easily leads to pointing your camera at the auroras without any regard for how you compose the frame overall - leading to ratehr poor pictures which just happen to have some green lights in them. It pays off to think of auroras as an enhancement for a composition which would work without them.
Usually I like to scout for a few possible aurora enhanced composiitons during the day to be prepared for whatever happens in the evening, but on this occasion I had just arrived so I had no idea where would be best. I decided to just see what I could do with the immediate area of my hotel rather than searching randomly in the dark for new places.
Eventually I tore myself away from the show and got some much needed sleep. At this time of year the shooting schedule is quite demanding as ideally you need to be in position for sunrise (before 0600), sunset (around 2000) and auroras (2200-0300) which rather cuts into the times when sensible people like to sleep.
After a few hours of rest it was back to business for the sunrise and I headed for the the rocks near to the Tungeneset picnic area from where there is a good angle to photograph the peaks of Oksehornan ("the Devil's Teeth"). I found a rock pool which provided good reflections.
My exercise for the day came from a climb up Segla mountain, a sail shaped peak with a sheer 600m drop on one side. Here my research had failed me slightly, I had seen many great pictures from Segla but had not realised that in order to get the best view of Segla you should climb the neighbouring peak of Hesten... by the time I was on top of the wrong mountain I did not have time or energy to climb the right one.
It was a very beautiful day and it was great to be able to admire the views to various directions... without ever getting remotely close to the edge of the cliff.
The trail up to Segla was quite steep but not particularly difficult, although it was easy to see that it could be a bit more dangerous in slippery conditions. Even though it was the wrong mountain when it comes to getting the more famous view it is a popular and attractive hike and I recommend it to anyone who happens to be passing through Arctic Norway.
After safely descending and remembering to eat (sometimes difficult to remember when I am on a trip, far too easy to remember at all other times) I headed back towards Hamn i Senja, checking out some possible evening aurora compositions and other points of interest on the way.
As I waited for the evening I was keeping half an eye on both the weather forecast and the aurora forecast, both of which can be easily followed on any smartphone. I use an app called My Aurora Forecast to check the Kp index and AccuWeather to guess whether the skies will be clear enough, there are dozens of other apps which probably do just as good a job. It is important to follow both forecasts because even with the strongest auroras you are not going to see much when the sky is completely overcast.
On this occasion the aurora forecast looked good but the weather forecast was indicating only a small window of clear skies. I set out to try and be in position if an opportunity came my way. I usually look for reflection opportunities when considering possible aurora locations, and I still feel that to be a good route to strong aurora photographs, but on this occasion I took a different approach and headed for the nearby Senjatrollet amusement park... an attraction based on trolls, as we all know trolls are terrifying man-eating monsters that come out at night.
I managed to survive my encounter with the trolls and drove along a mountain road to the beach at Ersfjord where I had seen some tidal pools earlier in the day that might be used for aurora reflections, but by this time the auroras were fading away and the clouds were gathering, there were no further opportunities on this occasion.
The following day it was time to leave Senja behind and head south to Lofoten, a distance of a bit over 200km as the crow flies but over 500km by road (those pesky mountains and fjords!).
The weather was highly variable during this part of the journey, ranging from beautiful blue sky to fully miserable overcast and rainy conditions. As usual there were many temptations to stop, one of which came at this waterfall framed by autumn colours which I was able to spot from the road and then navigate towards on foot through a wood.
There is a certain electricity pylon, near to a certain bridge, some kilometres before reaching the town of Svolvaer, where I have seen a white-tailed eagle perching almost every time I have driven past. On this occasion there was a change in that situation, but to a positive direction, there were two white-tailed eagles sitting there!
In a now familiar routine I parked in a lay-by and tried to find a good position to photograph these magnificent birds without unduly disturbing them, all the while looking out for the moment when one or both decided to fly off to other parts of their territory. They were both sitting rather close together and when one upped and left the other had to take evasive action to avoid getting a wing in the face.
It seems like this "flapping in the personal space of another avian" would be a breach of etiquette in polite eagle society but the other eagle did not seem unduly concerned as it smoothly handled the situation.
With that eagle excitement behind me I continued into Lofoten, that magical chain of islands which is becoming quite familiar to me these days, this being the 4th trip there in less than 20 months. I would stay the first night in Leknes before continuing to my usual accomodation in Reine. I chose Leknes as an intermediate base as it is the closest town to the spectacular beaches at Haukland and Uttakleiv and would make it easier for me to be at one of those for the trio of active times (sunrise, sunset, auroras). After checking in to my accomodation I headed for Uttakleiv.
The sunset on this evening was quite an attractive one, cycling through a wide selection from the colour palette as the day came to an end.
Each time I have visited this dramatic beach I have found some better ideas for how to photograph it, but it is still a bit of a difficult location.
The auroras were still visible on this evening but they were not that strong and not in the right place in the sky for my chosen spots, I did a bit of searching for alternatives without any huge success.
After a good night's sleep, skipping the sunrise based on the (weather) forecast and resting up ready for the rest of my trip, I was ready to leave Leknes and continue towards Reine. I shall leave the rest of this trip until my next post, but before I sign off here is one final picture from a small lake near to Leknes.
Until next time!
My recent schedule has been rather hectic, and I am a bit behind in processing the results, so my blogs and my trips are a little out of sync... my last 4 trips have been the Dolomites, then Utö, then Lofoten, then Utö again, and I write this from a guesthouse in Vik, Iceland while the strong wind is whipping the heavy rain against my window. Today is a day for blogging rather than photography. This blog covers the second of those trips to Utö, a tiny island in the Baltic Sea which is something of a Mecca for Finnish bird photographers and bird watchers.
As usual on my bird photography trips, I was accompanied by my friend Mika Grönroos who is an excellent bird photographer and an active poster on Instagram... why not click his name above and follow him on Instagram!
The first thing we noticed was that there were a lot more small birds on the island than there had been last time, but that didn't necessarily mean that they would make themselves available for our photographs. We spent a considerable amount of time trying to get a shot of one of the wrens that we could hear, and occasionally see for a few milliseconds, near to our accommodation. Patience, persistence and luck are all needed in order to get opportunities for a decent bird picture, and then of course you need to get the shot when your opportunity arises.
As well as small birds, there were regular chances to see harriers flying over the meadow area in the east of the island and the scrub land on the south an south east.
It is always interesting to watch these large raptors hunt, even if they are usually a bit too far away to allow really good photographs. They fly low over the ground looking for their victims, and then undertake some mid-air acrobatics in order to quickly change their horizontal cruise into a vertical strike.
One pleasing thing about Utö is that despite it being such a tiny island (0.81 square kilometres) it has some recognisably different habitats in which you might photograph birds. Back in the village we encountered what is either a rare and interesting visitor or a boring and commonplace bird. A juvenile gull had been causing some interest in Utö for a few days as it appeared that it might be a Caspian Gull, a very rare find in these parts having never been seen in Utö before and only rarely in the whole of Finland. The national rarities committee will decide in due course if this individual was a Caspian Gull... or not.
This is obviously the "bird perching on a roof looking to my left" section of the blog post so now I can also mention that there were many pipits on the island during our visit, including this Meadow Pipit which struck some poses in the wind for us.
Pipits were not the only small brown birds that could be found hanging around near the village, this Bunting (I think it is a Reed Bunting but I am not 100% confident) sat nicely on the rocks.
The village was also serving as a resting point for a number of Robins, one of the more universally known bird species and also one of the easier ones to recognise even to casual observers thanks to it's distinctive red breast.
Our Friday afternoon activities were rather limited as it began to rain gently and then gradually increased in intensity to a level that could be described as deeply unpleasant. By the time we realised that it would be better to seek shelter it was already too late, we were pretty wet. The storm continued through the night.
The next morning we explored the island once again, thankful for a slightly brighter and drier day. The village was still full of small birds, including finches of many varieties.
Another well represented species was the Common Redstart, a few of these were very active in posing on different perches near to the harbour.
I always like to see Redstarts, and it has been very welcome that they have been visible on many of my trips this year.
One Redstart started to lie down on the beam of a boat trailer, rather than standing or squatting on its feet as you would usually see. It looked rather funny. I later noticed that a Robin had also made its way into one of the frames, this is not an unusual event, but 999 times out of a 1000 an unexpected second bird will not manage to get itself into focus as the focal plane with commonly used settings is only a few centimetres deep... unfortunately the Robin's leap took it slightly out of frame in this case, you can't have everything.
After leaving the village behind we set out to patrol the east meadow where we heard and then saw some Golden Plovers resting nearby in a rocky area.
I was particularly happy to see the Golden Plover as I had not photographed that species before, it increased my species count to 190 (or 191 if the Caspian Gull is a Caspian Gull).
We walked towards the south east of the island, together with Jouni Mäkelä and his friend, photographing a co-operative Coal Tit on the way.
After the Coal Tit became reluctant to continue the show we decided to head back towards the meadow following a path through the rocks and juniper bushes. As we made our way, there was a flash of colour and movement a few metres ahead of us, we had approached the hiding place of a Short-Eared Owl and it had decided to relocate itself.
Almost exactly two years earlier I had a similar experience in a different part of the island while on a trip with Pasi Kaunisto (another good one to follow on Instagram!) when a Short-Eared Owl burst out of the grass right in front of my nose. On that occasion I was so shocked that I just stared at the bird in amazement as it flew off, not managing to take a single photo, but on this occasion I had a more useful instinctive reaction, managing to capture at least a few successful frames before it disappeared again.
This kind of encounter is all over in just a few seconds and it is always likely that it happens at the wrong moment, the camera settings might be wrong for the situation or you might be facing in the wrong direction or you just might not realise what is going on until it is too late... but on this occasion any such difficulties were not fatal to my chances. The part where practice really pays off is translating the rapidly moving bird that you see with your eyes into the needed physical actions to raise the heavy camera and lens to your eye precisely enough so that your target is visible in the viewfinder, allowing you to focus and shoot. For a frustratingly long time - when learning to use a long telephoto lens - I would miss at least 90% of these split-second opportunities due to not being able to do this accurately and quickly enough... nowadays I guess my odds are improved a bit but still it is just as likely to fail as it is to succeed in these surprise occurrences.
The following morning was our last opportunity of this trip, M/S Eivor would leave for the mainland at about lunch time, leaving us about 3.5 hours of photography after breakfast. There were rumours once again of the Short Eared Owl and we searched in the meadow hoping for another glimpse of it... but we would not get a second chance this time.
There was however still time for another bonus species. On more than one of our previous Utö trips we bumped into other photographers who told all about seeing a Red-Breasted Flycatcher. Try as we might, and we did try a lot, we never managed to find one... but on this morning we finally put that right as a juvenile Red Breasted Flycatcher spent it's morning foraging for insects in the area near to the Utö shop.
This was a nice way to end another excursion to Utö, thanks again to Mika for a successful and enjoyable trip!
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