The Nutcracker. Sweet!
This week I continued my 2017 bird photography project, after a bit of a break, as I went in search of the interesting looking Siberian Nutcracker in the capital area of Finland. As is often the case in my nature photography I was accompanied by my friend Mika. I have nearly photographed this bird previously, having seen it already in January this year but been unable to get a recognisable photograph.
It is often the case, even when having a good idea where a certain bird might be, that you can spend many hours in the location without finding what you are looking for. On this occasion however, we were fortunate, and we quickly spotted a number of individuals, or perhaps it was the case that they spotted us and the 2kg bag of peanuts we are carrying.
The nutcracker is a medium sized bird, a relative of the crow family, and feeds mainly (surprise, surprise) on nuts. On this day those nuts were the peanuts that we had brought with us but usually they would be the nuts from fir trees. As far as I can tell from the internet, each individual may collect tens of thousands of nuts during each year, eating some but storing the rest in hidden caches which they can revisit in times of food shortage. It is thought that the recovery rate for these hidden stores is very high (about 80%), with the unrecovered portion playing an important role in spreading and regenerating the forests that sustain these birds.
When observing the nutcrackers eating our peanuts it seemed like they were being super greedy... stuffing many nuts to their mouths at once... reading about them afterwards indicated that they would probably have been storing them in their throat pouches for transport to a suitable storage place.
We were lucky enough to see a number of Nutcrackers on this day, and each was always looking to establish control of the food supply. Mostly the pecking order was established by minor intimidation, with the smaller or less aggressive birds giving way, but occasionally a minor scuffle was required in order for evenly matched individuals to work things out.
More often than not a Nutcracker would just sit nearby, waiting his or her turn to feed, close enough to indicate that it was next in line but not close enough to cause a fight.
Apart from the nutcrackers, the peanuts also attracted the attention of a number of other birds including a great spotted woodpecker and a variety of different tits. The great tits and blue tits are such common sights that I did not photograph them on this occasion, but it was good to see both coal tits and willow tits. To me these two species look similar when they are in motion but in the photographs it becomes a lot easier to see the differences.
While the great tits and blue tits are commonplace, and the coal tits and willow tits are interesting, the crested tit is for sure the coolest of the bunch, at least the coolest of the ones you are likely to find in the south of Finland. We were lucky to see a crested tit on this occasion, you really could not miss it as it was constantly singing its distinctive song. I guess that if I looked that cool I might be shouting about it also.
This was a fun day, and also a successful one as I was able to take my species count for 2017 to 165 with the addition of the nutcracker.
Thanks to Mika for another good day!
After visiting a number of exciting destinations during the last months, and having a couple of tough recent trips from weather point of view, the last week has been one of little energy.
The weather here in Finland has not been very inspiring, and the days were in danger of starting to just drift by, so I forced myself out to have a look at some parts of the newly opened Länsimetro - a 14km extension of the Helsinki area underground.
City photography is somewhat different to my usual subject area, and I had trouble summoning the requisite enthusiasm for the task, stopping for coffee, then pizza, then coffee again in the 800m walk between parking my car and entering the metro, but eventually I got to the job in hand, travelling from Helsinki central station to have a look at the new stations at Lauttasaari and Koivusaari.
At Lauttasaari, there were still a noticeable amount of passengers, a few tens of people with each arriving train, but at Koivusaari I almost had the place to myself - the shiny new station, was rather lacking customers. This made my ongoing mission to have no people visible in my pictures rather easier to achieve than I expected.
The platforms themselves were interesting, sharing some common design elements, but also differing from each other, for instance in the lighting design. At Lauttasaari there was a myriad of small lights, almost like stars in the sky, while at Koivusaari there were very large cylindrical light fixtures as well as a number of smaller lights.
The final excitement for this journey was to experience Finland's longest escalator (the way to and from the platform at Koivusaari). I tested it out, in both directions, and found it to be just like a normal escalator, but a bit longer. The lack of passengers at Koivusaari allowed me to capture the record breaking people conveyor without any humans getting in the way.
Just a short shooting trip this time, so just a short blog post to go with it. Next I am hoping for good light and cooperative wildlife at the weekend as I try to find and photograph bird species 163 of the year (164, 165, 166,... would also be welcome)... and then I need to decide where to go next.
The southern Finland weather is killing my mood, autumn is dead but winter has not yet properly arrived, so either I need to go north to get real winter, south to get a last taste of autumn or west to visit my homeland.
Back to the beginning...
My latest trip, to the Berchtesgaden area of Germany, was a return to the beginning in a number of ways. This magical area, with spectacular alpine scenery and the vertical elements that I always look for in my landscape photography, was the venue for my first ever photography trip back in April 2016. I was so taken with the place that it was also the venue for my second ever photography trip back in May 2016. Germany itself has long been a favourite country of mine. I lived there for about three years when I was very young, leaving when I was three and a half, which may have something to do with it, but I also spent a lot of time there while working with great colleagues from our Ulm site in the Nokia days. For whatever reason, the country as a whole is a comfortable destination for me, and the southern part of Germany is somewhere that I just love to be.
The town of Berchtesgaden, at an elevation of about 700m, rests in a valley surrounded by spectacular hills and mountains. The area has rich salt deposits which made it an important town, changing hands between various countries in the conflicts of the 19th century. For my purposes it is a perfect base for a photography trip as it is in the middle of an area which is filled with amazing sights. Within 15 minutes you can be on the shore of the beautiful lakes at Königsee or Hintersee, at the foot of the cable car to Jenner (1876m), looking at the beautiful Maria Gern Chapel, exploring the gorges at Wimbachklamm or Almbachklamm, or driving up Rossfeldpanoramastrasse for amazing views of the surrounding scenery.
Visiting the area in November is something of a gamble when it comes to the weather. I had been watching the forecasts closely and it seemed that the weather would be a mixture of cloudy and clear days with temperatures fluctuating either side of zero. This sounded pretty good to me, there may be a chance to capture the area covered in the first snow of the winter and there could be a balance between periods of capturing new shots and other periods of going through the results. It was definitely the off-season for the locals, the hiking and summer tourism season was well and truly over, but the skiing activities were not yet up to speed, and that also showed in some of the attractions - the Jenner cable car was out of action for maintenance and the gorges were just open routes rather than being staffed as they are in summer.
My biggest hope for the trip was to get an updated and improved shot of the Maria Gern chapel. This has been one of my favourite places to photograph since the moment I first visited it in April 2016. The beautiful chapel, perched on a hillside, with the road curling round it in an s-bend, and the crowning glory of the iconic Watzmann mountain in the background. My best picture from there in 2016 was taken at night, capturing the headlight trails with a long exposure.
I hoped that during the trip I might be able to enhance this shot with snow, stars, more headlight trails, sunset/sunrise colours or many of those. Getting such an opportunity would require some persistence and also some cooperation from the weather.
On the afternoon of my arrival I headed for Hintersee, a fairly small lake surrounded by mountains, with a level path winding its way around the shore, a fantastic place to go for a walk in any season. On this occasion, in a pattern that was to persist through the whole trip, the clouds were almost constantly too low for the mountains to be visible. I had to make do with occasional glimpses of mountain through the clouds.
My accommodation for the trip was the fantastic Hotel Edelweiss in Berchtesgaden. I have stayed there three times now and it is just about perfect. The family run hotel is in a prime location in the middle of Berchtesgaden and has direct access from the very convenient and not very expensive underground parking. The rooms are generous, clean and well taken care of. The breakfast is sensational. The service is always polite and helpful, and there is a great pool and spa area. Considering all these things, the price is very reasonable. I would highly recommend it to anyone, but please don't all go there in case the prices go up and it makes it harder for me to get a room next time.
While Maria Gern might be my favourite place to photograph in Berchtesgaden, my favourite place to be might be Rossfeldpanoramastrasse - a toll road which lets you ascend from the valley floor (700m elevation) all the way up to the top of Rossfeld (just under 1600m elevation) via a series of hairpin bends. This is a real pleasure to drive, and it offers spectacular views, to all directions, both of Germany and across the border into Austria. On a clear day you can easily see Dachstein in the distance, some 70km away. On this trip however, the visibility was often closer to 70m than 70km.
Over the next days, the weather failed to live up to the forecast, the clear spells did not arrive and the temperature did not go low enough to allow snow at the level of the valley floor (there was however an abundance of rain). I tried to find some breaks in the weather, moving between places and also changing elevation in case there was a way to get under or over the clouds, but it seemed like there was no relief. I realised that all the things I had in my mind to photograph on the trip were impossible without visibility of the mountains. This was pretty frustrating... but all I could do was keep trying and hope for a break in the weather.
On the third evening, there was finally a short window of opportunity, as the clouds lifted higher than the mountains for about 25 minutes in the period after sunset. Luckily I was ready for this at Maria Gern, and tried to capture a longer exposure image with the headlights of multiple vehicles coming and going.
This was at least something... but the dark and moody weather makes it very hard to get attractive colours to an image like this.
The following day there was another short weather break, this time while I was near the summit of Rossfeld. The clouds were split, below 1400m there was no visibility and there was also cloud cover above the mountains, but in-between there was a window of partial clarity and the impressive Göll massif (the highest peak being Hoher Göll at 2522m) was visible from Rossfeld for the first time during the trip.
At Hintersee there was an improvement in visibility also as the surrounding peaks came into at least partial view, but still the featureless grey skies were ever present. Those characterless expanses of grey do rather limit your options for making beautiful images.
That evening another small weather window opened after sunset, and it was possible to see through the cloud blanket at Maria Gern for the first time in the trip, for about 25 minutes before the clouds gathered again.
That night, finally, the first snow of the winter arrived to the lower elevations in the Berchtesgaden area. As usual on these trips, I was up and out at about 0530 - around 90 minutes before the sunrise. I headed for Maria Gern, for maybe the 10th time in the trip, hoping to find it blanketed in perfect fresh snow and also dreaming that the Watzmann mountain would be visible. As many in Finland can recognise, the day of the first snow is the trigger for everyone to forget how to drive, this manifests in many ways but the main ones are to drive far too cautiously and to drive nowhere near cautiously enough... both things being relative, each of us has the luxury to place ourselves somewhere in-between at the "just right" point and observe how everyone else gets it wrong.
Early that evening, back at Maria Gern for the umpteenth time, the skies were at least more interesting, with many shades of grey instead of one, but the mountains were still not visible.
At this stage, the trip was starting to feel like a disappointment from photography point of view, the mountains had been visible for a total of about 90 minutes during the past 120 hours, and I had not really been able to make much progress. There was one night left, and then possibilities to shoot until lunch time before heading back to the airport. Last chance.
The final morning was a a beautiful one, but the world was still shrouded in cloud - the cloud was however white rather than grey and looked like it might burn off as the morning progressed. I headed to Maria Gern once again, hoping that the sky would clear to reveal the mountains as the sunrise approached. Once again this was a frustrating morning... 2 hours on top of a hill in temperatures below zero... above me I could see clear blue sky, behind me I could see the first rays of the sun hitting the Untersberg mountain but ahead of me a bank of cloud obscured the view behind the Maria Gern chapel. Disappointed, I headed back for breakfast.
The Edelweiss breakfast lifted my spirits somewhat as I sat with my back to the window and thought about what time I would need to leave to get back to Munich airport. After eating an enormous breakfast I turned to check the weather - it was stunning. The clouds has burned away and it was a beautiful day. I hurried to pack my things and checked out in a terrible rush before making my final visit to Maria Gern where a fairytale scene awaited me.
After drinking in the beautiful view for a while, and taking many photographs, I realised that my wallet was not in it's usual place. I guessed it would be in the car and carried on. Returning to the car, it became apparent that my wallet was gone... along with my credit card, drivers license, etc. This was not good. I retraced my steps... fortunately it was not a long trail. I had the wallet when checking out of the hotel, then I went to the lift (10m walk) and descended to the car park before driving to Maria Gern. I double checked my route at Maria Gern and also triple checked the car before calling the hotel and driving back to the car park... where I found my wallet and all its contents. It had been lost for about 80 minutes. No harm done, but I do not recommend anyone else to try this experience.
After this unplanned detour I had about 2 hours before I had to leave for the airport. I returned to the summit of Rossfeld where the fresh snow and beautiful blue sky combined to make it a place of amazing beauty. There is no better place to be than in the mountains when the weather is like that.
It was a fantastic way to conclude my trip, in such beautiful conditions at one of my favourite places.
As with my other November trip, to Iceland, it had been a pretty challenging trip, with a lot of time and effort needed to squeeze out comparatively few good photographic opportunities, but once again I loved being in Berchtesgaden despite the difficulties. It is usually the case when dealing with landscape photography, that you are at the mercy of the weather conditions to some extent... occasionally you hit the jackpot, but often you are limited in your options. All you can do is be in position and ready to take advantage of any opportunities that come your way, and keep your eyes open for possibilities that you didn't consider in advance.
Now I need to try staying in Finland for a little while, at least long enough to sort out the insurance claim from my Iceland trip equipment accident, and then consider what my best options are for this time of year, I need to find destinations that are less weather dependant and subjects that are possible to work with regardless of poor visibility, the 2017 mountain photography season seems to be done.
Until next time!
An Icelandic Adventure
Normally I prefer to be flexible in my arrangements, and don't require much pre-planning... but even for me deciding to go to Iceland with less than 20 hours notice was a bit last minute. The weather in Finland was depressing, and not having made an early appointment for changing to winter tyres meant that I was somehow limited in what I could do... so I decided that it was time for another trip. Flights and accommodation were checked for a number of places that were on my to-visit list and the decision was made - I left for Iceland the following morning.
I have seen many pictures from Iceland, and some of my photographer friends speak about it in the same terms that I refer to Lofoten, as a photographic paradise, but I had been holding off on booking a trip there... somehow unsure about how (and when) best to do it. I decided that it would be best to stop procrastinating and just go there, thinking of it as a scouting trip, with an intention to learn as much as possible so that I could make a proper plan for the next time. The first time visiting a new location has the benefit of maximum excitement due to everything being new, but the penalty of a lot of time spent finding out which places best capture your imagination and how things work in that destination... the second time often delivers the best results from photography point of view, at least for me.
My plan for the trip was to follow highway 1 round the entire southern coast of the country as far as the town of Höfn (about 450km), and then return by the same route, stopping overnight on the way at Vik and Hali and at Hali and Selfoss on the way back.
As I landed in Reykjavik, the weather was pretty disgusting... extremely windy and pretty wet. The temperature was about 5 degrees, but with the wind and the moisture in the air it was really cold. Soon enough I was on the road, stopping at the spectacular waterfall of Seljalandfoss on the way to Vik.
Seljalandfoss is the first of many spectacular cascades that you can see from the highway as you make your way around the island, and it was absolutely packed with tourists, even on this rather ugly day in the off season. It may look deserted in the picture above, but that is due to the magic of a very long exposure... as long as the people are moving it is possible to turn them into ghosts with an exposure of many tens of seconds. One special feature of this waterfall is that you can walk behind it, opening up some great angles for photography, but in this kind of weather, with the wind blowing all the spray towards you, it was impossible to make any use of those possibilities.
The town of Vik, with the nearby Reynisfjara beach, was my next stop. Reynisfjara is a beautiful but dangerous location, the black sands, basalt columns and interesting sea stacks providing the beauty, while the possibility of "sneaker" waves (suddenly coming 10-15m further up the beach than all other waves) provided the danger. After a gently sloping start to the beach, it drops away very rapidly, and if one of those waves catches you there is no getting back... the next landmass to the south is Antarctica. By this time the weather was truly horrible, and the sea was wild, the chances for any sunset colours were replaced with a selection of thunderous greys.
The next day was brighter, but no less windy. The wind was strong enough to be a real problem for photography, even a comparatively heavy tripod could not keep the camera still reliably and many attempted pictures were ruined by the vibrations. I had studied the weather forecast before leaving, but had been more interested in the the rain and cloud than I had about the wind. The geography of the southern coast of Iceland is such that the mountains, volcanoes and glaciers that make up the interior of the country are bordered by extremely flat and exposed plains, and there is very little natural shelter.
After leaving Vik, I started on the journey towards one of my most anticipated locations, the glacier lagoon at Jökulsárlón. I expected the journey to take a couple of hours, but it is quite difficult to make good speed on the Icelandic roads because you end up stopping every few kilometres when the next amazing sight catches your eye. The 90km/h speed limit and occasional one-way-at-a-time bridges on the highway also limit your progress. I alternated between stopping (and feeling like I should get going again) and driving on (wishing I had stopped) for much of the morning, the waterfall at Foss á Siðu being one of the places where I was happy that I did stop.
Thankfully I managed to keep going forward sufficiently to arrive at Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon with a couple of hours to spare before sunset. This is a truly "out of this world" destination, a place that takes your breath away. The massive Breiðamerkurjökull Glacier deposits its building-sized iceberg offspring into this lagoon, from which there is a relatively narrow and shallow passage to the ocean. The icebergs therefore need to melt significantly before they can escape to the ocean, and form an amazing iceberg traffic jam in the waters of the lagoon. These huge and impressive objects come in all shapes and sizes, and colours that range from clear or white through all different shades of blue, with some that are more dominated by dark residue that has been picked up during the relentless progress of the glacier.
As well as the slowly melting masses in the lagoon, the shores of the lagoon, the channel to the ocean, and the sea shore itself are littered with smaller ice sculptures, some of which are extremely beautiful. Each visit yields a different view as the magical structures are constantly melting, changing and being replaced with new versions.
The following morning, I spent a long time and walked a number of kilometres in search of icebergs that would meet my criteria. They should be stationary, interesting looking and far enough away from other objects that it would be possible to isolate them in the frame. After a couple of disappointments (one iceberg, which I thought would work well, catastrophically degraded, splitting into two pieces, during a 10 minute exposure... ruining my shot), I found a trio of ice sculptures, about 20 metres off shore, grounded on the bottom of the lagoon, and eroded by the tides to create an interesting illusion that they were balancing on the surface of the water. One 306 second exposure later (I aimed for 300 and got a bit sloppy with my timing) I had the shot I was after, by far my favourite shot from the trip.
After departing from Jökulsárlón, I headed for the less famous Fjallsárlón Glacier Lagoon a few kilometres up the road. This was also a spectacular location, with possibilities for better views of the glacier that fed the lagoon and also greater proximity to the mountains.
My journey continued towards Höfn where my intention was to photograph the iconic Vestrahorn mountain, a set of jagged peaks that were conveniently located such that you can picture them with many different interesting foregrounds. When viewing pictures from Iceland I had always been most taken with the Vestrahorn as a subject, the most classic views from there being with the grassy volcanic sand in the foreground, or with a reflection in the waters of the bay. I spent two days at the Vestrahorn, but was not very lucky with the light at any point.
Leaving the Vestrahorn behind it was time to re-trace my steps back towards Reykjavik. During my travels I had seen a large number of swans and based on their size I thought that they might be Bewick's swans, a species that I have not photographed before, so I was excited at the opportunity to photograph some at the roadside. A quick google, and a look at the pictures, soon told that they were in fact Whooper Swans (Finland's national bird), so I was denied the possibility for species number 166 of 2017. Nevertheless, it was nice to be able to photograph the Whoopers in typical Icelandic autumn colours (even though the longest lens I had with me, at 85mm, was not ideal for the task).
My next stop on the journey was to revisit the glacier lagoon, and it was there that things took a turn sharply for the worse. I was on the beach, trying to find the right composition for a coastline picture. I thought that I had a good idea of the look I was aiming for, but the best angle was proving elusive. I took the following picture...
... and then decided that it would look better if I moved a couple of steps to the right. I repositioned my tripod and was about ready to take the picture when I managed to bump into the tripod, sending the whole package (camera + lens + tripod) tumbling into the surf, the sea having decided to take a couple of steps to the left while I took a couple of steps to the right. The camera was submerged for less than a second... but that was enough... it seems to be totally dead. The picture above was it's final act. I did what I could to try and dry the equipment, and I did have a second camera with me, but the incident was a bit of a shock and it rather reduced my enthusiasm for the rest of the day.
The next day, the wind was once again really howling, making photography into a real challenge. The waterfall at Foss á Siðu had no idea of it was coming or going.
A quick stop at Vik allowed for one final shot of the sea stacks and cliffs as the afternoon sun got lower in the sky before I continued around the coast towards Selfoss.
The last destination on the busy itinerary was the mighty waterfall at Skogafoss, where I hoped to see a rainbow in the spray before the sun disappeared behind the horizon. Once again there were hundreds of people to contend with, but I got there with a few minutes to spare and was treated to a double rainbow.
Overall Iceland was a spectacular and fascinating destination, and the trip was extremely memorable, but it was also a very difficult trip. The weather absolutely refused to cooperate (ok... it was November... what did I expect) with the extreme wind being a challenge that I was not able to deal with easily. The accident on the beach, killing my camera and damaging a lens and a tripod was a real low point, and now I get the unwelcome new experience of dealing with insurance claims.
I learned a lot on this trip, and it will be much easier to go to Iceland next time. One thing that I would definitely do differently is to lower my ambitions for covering so many kilometres. There are such a lot of additional attractions between the attractions that you know about that you cannot do justice to the locations when trying to cover too much, especially at this time of year when the days are already quite short.
Well, that's it for this time, thanks a lot for your interest in my blog, any comments are most welcome.
Enter your email address to receive notifications of new blog posts