Last year I was lucky enough to visit the small Finnish island of Utö on multiple occasions, on the lookout for interesting birds during the annual migrations in spring and autumn. In 2018 I missed out on the spring opportunity but hope to make up for that in the autumn. My friend Mika and I planned short visits to Utö at both the start and the end of September, this post covers the first of those trips.
Utö is a tiny island (0.81 square kilometres) but it holds a special interest as a bird watching destination as it is the first (spring) or last (autumn) piece of land for a while on a number of migration routes between northern Europe and warmer parts to the south. It is also sparseley populated enough and with enough unspoilt territory that it appears as an attractive and safe stopping place for passing birds. There are no guarantees with this kind of activity, but on Utö you have at least a reasonable chance to see some interesting birds on any given day.
As has become our tradition on these Utö visits I collected Mika from his house and we drove (with the help of a short ferry crossing) to Nauvo where we would have a chance to do some "warm-up" photography before making the 5 hour boat trip to Utö on the good ship M/S Eivor.
The trip started well enough with a few smaller birds to photograph.
Last year I split my time roughly equally between my "normal" photography (landscapes and occasional city or architecture shots) and my "backup hobby" of wildlife photography, using one to get a break from the other. It might seem odd to turn to photography to give me time off from photography, but the activities and equipment are different enough to provide a refreshing change.
This year I have spent a lot less time doing pure wildlife photography with my Canon camera and long telephoto lenses and most of the bird photography that you have seen in some of my blog posts has been done with the Sony cameras and smaller lenses which I usually travel with.
I find it surprisingly easy to swap between the equipment from different manufacturers, possibly helped by using Canon and Sony for such different purposes, but I was happy to have this warm-up period before the real trip started.
When you see a bird you want to photograph, you then have to - as quickly as possible - aim your camera so that the bird is visible in the viewfinder. The bird may be flying, otherwise moving or partially concealed by leaves or branches, and may be tens of metres away. The camera + lens weighs over 6kg. You also have to get the bird in focus... while having the right settings for the (often rapidly changing) light. I find that the accuracy and speed of carrying out these precise motions and calculations decreases noticeably if you have not been practicing recently.
The challenges of bird photography are considerable.
The highlight of this pre-trip session came when we heard some calls that we did not immediately recognise. As you spend time observing different birds their sounds start to be familiar and often you know what you will see before your eyes can confirm it, but on this occasion the sounds just helped with "where to look". As we got clear of some trees beside a path we were walking on we were able to observe a pair of juvenile white tailed eagles having an animated discussion high above.
We took a coffee break after this encounter and made our way to M/S Eivor which left for Utö soon after. It was well after dark when we finally arrived so there would be no more bird photography until the following morning. Mika had been following the weather forecasts from multiple sources and the concensus seemed to be that it would be a bit changeable so we just had to hope that there would be enough light... as well as something interesting to photograph.
In the morning we were greeted by grey skies, a threat of rain, a lack of light and an island that was much more empty of birdlife than on any of our previous visits. Much of the island is covered with small boulders and juniper bushes, with occasional rowan trees - in busier times any one of these might provide an attractive perching place for smaller birds but on this occasion almost every vantage point was unoccupied.
Breakfast restored our spirits and we set out to explore once again. The day remained quite dark until close to to lunch time but at least we were able to see some occasional birds during our search.
We could tell from the constant calling that the juniper bushes were infested with goldcrests (Finland's smallest bird, weighing only 6.5g) in many places but they were even less willing than usual to show themselves.
The most common sightings during the day were birds of prey with many tens of sightings of both sparrowhawks and kestrels, often with multiple individuals of either species in sight simultaneously.
We also saw a Hobby on multiple occasions and a single Osprey which passed overhead on its way to wintering grounds which are probably in Africa.
After lunch the weather started to brighten up a bit and we continued our search during the afternoon, racking up over 20,000 steps for the day despite being on such a small piece of land in the middle of the Baltic Sea.
As the afternoon progressed the pattern remained pretty much the same, regular sightings of birds of prey with only occasional opportunities to photograph smaller birds.
When you did spot movement from the corner of your eye it was more likely to be a butterly or a dragonfly than a bird, both were present in good numbers all over the island.
We had hoped to see a few different Harriers during the trip, there had been sightings of Pallid Harriers on a nearby island, and in the afternoon we were rewarded with a good view of a Marsh Harrier as it patrolled the eastern part of the island.
For a day's bird watching on the mainland it could be considered a success to see a Hobby, a Sparrowhawk, and Osprey, a Kestrel and a Marsh Harrier as well as a few small birds but for a day on Utö the overall feeling was one of slight disappointment - there were no sightings of particularly uncommon birds and the overall amount of bird activity was very low, while the light was not that great for photography and there were no opportunities to get exceptionally close to any birds or to observe them in particularly nice positions.
The following morning we would only have about 4 daylight hours for photography before heading back to the mainland, but of course we hoped for a change in fortunes. As it turned out, both the weather and the bird situation were very similar to the previous day.
We noticed that Kestrels had a habit of perching on top of the buildings at the garbage station and tried to set ourselves up out of sight for a mini stakeout in that area. They really are beautiful birds.
The Sparrowhawk fly-bys also continued at regular intervals.
The village remained rather quiet apart from the constant circling of Barn Swallows who did their best to keep the local insect population under control and the occasional wagtail.
I always enjoy visiting Utö, there is something satisfying about the simple rhythm of my days there where sleeping and eating are the only things to disturb the hunt for photogenic birds. Thanks once again to Mika for another good trip, hopefully we will have a bit better luck and a bit better light when we return there in 4 weeks time.
Until next time,
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