At the beginning of 2017 I started a new bird photography project with the aim of increasing my knowledge of our feathered friends. A few weeks ago I photographed my 200th different species of wild birds which seems like a suitable milestone to celebrate with a blog post so I will share some of my favourites here.
Before starting this project I did occasionally photograph birds, but my knowledge, my skills and my equipment were just not up to the task and I wished to improve in all those areas.
My approach to this project was fairly simple, I went to many different places, mostly locally here in Finland, looking for birds to photograph. When I got home again I used a combination of books and the internet to try and identify the birds that I had photographed. To start with this task was very difficult, to the untrained eye many different species look "the same" and there is the added complication of the significant changes in appearance that birds can undergo at different stages of life and during different seasons of the year.
As time has passed I have become a lot more familiar with an increasing amount of different bird species but I think that it would still take a decade or more of concentrated effort before I could approach any real level of expertise. Despite still being a relative novice in this area I now know enough to get a great deal more enjoyment when out and about in nature, it has really enhanced my experience to be able to recognise a reasonable amount of the birds that are all around us.
In bird photography, perhaps more than any other kind of photography, your equipment can make a significant difference to your results. Your chances of catching the best moments are greatly increased by a high frame rate and lightning fast focusing, a lens with a very long focal length is a huge advantage in order to capture the finer details of wild birds while a very wide aperture helps to gather as much light as possible when using the very fast shutter speeds that are necessary to freeze the motion of moving birds.
Despite the benefits of specialised camera equipment the skills (or lack thereof) of the photographer are a more decisive factor. When you first get a lens with a longer focal length (e.g. 500mm or more full frame equivalent) it takes a bit of practice to be able to keep a flying bird in the frame well enough to be able to focus and shoot but over time you develop sufficiently good hand-eye coordination to manage this task reasonably well. Knowing your camera well enough to be able to make any needed changes to the settings "on the fly" without looking and while shooting is also a big advantage. A familiarity with the typical behaviour of different birds is also invaluable, having an occasional feeling for what might happen before it happens is extremely helpful.
In bird photography it can also be helpful to make full use of your senses. Sight is of course extremely important but hearing may come a close second in many situations, once you start to be familiar with some of the calls that different birds make it can really inform your search. When you recognise a bird call it can tell you both what to look for and where to look for it, in some cases the birds are so well camouflaged in their surroundings that without this kind of hint your chances of finding them are close to zero.
More than 85% of the different species I have photographed so far are ones that I have found in Finland but I have occasionally spent some time focusing on birds while on one of my landscape photography trips. A whale watching boat trip in the North Atlantic (while visiting Iceland) allowed me to photograph Northern Fulmars while my visits to the UK have included journeys to photograph colonies of Puffins and Gannets in the North Sea, slowly building my collection of images.
One thing which can be a bit surprising when starting to pay attention to birds is the amount of interesting details, there is a whole world of colour that they display in their plumage and a lot of interesting shapes and forms.
Although birds are not my main photographic focus I find it very relaxing and interesting spend some of my time with this kind of photography. The challenges are quite different as it is often an extremely instantaneous and reactive kind of activity rather than a carefully planned one, while many of the fundamentals remain the same.
Below you can see a full list of the bird species I have managed to photograph so far, I hope that I can add more to it over time.
Before I leave this topic I would like to mention my friend Mika Grönroos who has accompanied me on many bird related excursions over the past couple of years and has also had to put up with quite a few "what kind of bird is this?" questions as I tried to find my way round this topic. Thanks for the help Mika!
Until next time,
Here in Finland the winter finally starts to be over, the snow is pretty much gone and the air is alive with birdsong as our feathered friends start to think about their mating season. I took a short trip with my friend Mika Grönroos to the small Finnish island of Utö, which is often a fantastic destination for bird photography as it is the first opportunity for migrating birds to land after crossing the Baltic Sea from Central Europe.
On this occasion the wind, coming from the North, was not in our favour as it discouraged potential new arrivals from starting their migration into the wind. When we arrived the island was fairly full of birds and the wind was strong enough to keep them there... but by the next morning the wind was lighter, still discouraging the long journey over the sea but not strong enough to prevent birds leaving Utö for the Finnish mainland. This meant that the island gradually emptied during our visit.
On these trips the hope would be to see some of the less commonly seen species and also to have a chance to capture some birds in particularly nice surroundings, this is usually a target rich environment so there should be at least a few good opportunities, even if they only last for a few milliseconds.
On this occasion the most numerous residents of the island were starlings and chaffinches, not the most unusual of creatures... but there were also a decent number of dunnocks which are a bit harder to spot in normal circumstances.
A couple of dunnocks were always hanging around near a jetty, we knew this as whenever we walked past (which happened about 12 times a day... its a very small island) we were able to see them darting away before we could take their picture. It happened so often that it really seemed that they were toying with us.
There were also a good number of robins on the island. Robins are always nice birds to photograph and they have an agreeable habit of regularly perching on things (fences, tree stumps, posts, etc) which helps your chances.
The skies above the island were somewhat empty compared to previous trips, but there were some occasional interesting sights, such as this raven which flew over with the bloody remains of it's recent meal still in evidence.
There were very few waders staying on the island (although many were seen passing by) but there were some ringed plovers to be found.
One of the nice things about photographing birds in the spring is that the birds are at their most colourful at this time, anxious to impress prospective mates.
We spent quite a long time trying to get decent shots of a wren, a small and elusive bird which doesn't seem to stay still out in the open for too many nanoseconds at a time.
When walking through the eastern meadow the sound of sky larks could often be heard, sky larks are surely one of the more joyful and enthusiastic of singers, taking to the air to broadcast their message.
We enjoyed some very pleasant weather for the first part of the trip, it wasn't exactly warm but the sky was clear and there were beautiful colours at sunrise and sunset times.
We received an excellent hint from local bird authority Jorma Tenovuo that we might be able to find a black redstart near to our accomodation at the western end of the island, and his advice was very good indeed. We were able to find this beautiful bird within about 20 seconds of getting to the general area.
My final picture from this trip perhaps fittingly shows a dunnock, the bird we spent the most time photographing.
Althought this was just a short trip, it was refreshing to take a break from landscape photography and it was a pleasure to be back in Utö once again. Thanks a lot to Mika for another good trip!
Until next time,
Skagsanden beach in Lofoten is a favourite spot of mine for landscapes and auroras, an interesting place to observe the activities of birds and also a place for more adventurous humans to enjoy some arctic watersports.
On my September trip to Norway I visited Skagsanden 6 or 7 times, it always seems to be on the way to places and it is a nother of those very tempting places to stop. On one of these occasions I was wandering along the beach on a rather windy day, following the tracks of a horse which had obviously walked there since the tide last went out. I noticed movement ahead and saw that some small waders (birds that live along the shoreline... not chest length waterproof boots) were sheltering in the hoof prints.
After fetching my binoculars and the camera I use for wildlife from the car I investigated further, identifying a number of juvenile Ringed Plovers.
It is fun to watch these birds alternating between looking for delicious morsels and running away from incoming waves as they take advantage of the "surf sushi" buffet. After a while I realised that the Ringed Plovers were not alone. The plovers are rather small and fast moving waders but there were some even more tiny and rapid birds which were scooting nervously around at the edge of the surf, I believe they were Little Stints.
The Little Stint was a new species for me, I now have photographs of 193 different species - closing in on 200! There is something very amusing about watching very small birds running extremely fast along the ground, their short legs pumping at a remarkable rate. I assume that is a faster and more economical way to travel distances up to a few metres, the overheads in time and energy of taking off and landing making flight a worse option for such journeys.
Some larger waders were also in attendance, a number of Dunlin were also patrolling the shore.
The markings of these two birds, Little Stint and Dunlin, are somewhat similar, but the Dunlin has the black patch on its belly and also has a significantly longer beak. In cases where both can be seen together (not an unusual occurrence) then the size difference is also very obvious.
The shore birds and the photographers were not alone at this location, there was also a significant population of people who were enjoying their day out in the chilly waters of the bay - surfing and kayaking.
I have watched surfers here and at Unstad beach (also in Lofoten) previously but this was the first time I have seen kayakers at either location. I imaging that being in a kayak makes it a lot easier to propel yourself out into position to catch the waves, and maybe gives you more control, but maybe with surfing you feel more like it is really just you and the ocean.
Watching from the shore, my impression was that neither of these activities were very easy, there must be quite an art to understanding which of the waves was really going to turn into a good one and which was going to fizzle out.
When the waves finally broke, they did so in spectacular fashion, foam everywhere.
No matter the results, all the participants appeared to be having a fantastic time in their Arctic watersport adventures and it was enjoyable to watch them.
Back on the shore, the waders continued their opportunistic snacking, completely oblivious to the action on the water.
Even when you are busy trying to feed yourself, it is important to keep your feathers in order. I captured one Ringed Plover performing such maintenance.
Well, that's it for this time from Skagsanden beach. I have no idea who the people are in the surfing and kayaking pictures, but if anyone shown here would like to have a copy of the relevant pictures, or would like their picture to be removed, then please contact me using the contact form on the site and I will take care of that as fast as I can.
Thanks for reading!
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!
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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