Holy Cow, it's Switzerland!
Normally my photography travelling is done solo, but a couple of weeks ago I spent 5 days in the Appenzell Canton of Switzerland as a guest of Robert Juvet and his family.
Robert and I have competed against each other in some photography competitions on GuruShots and we have become friends through some photography related facebook groups - meeting in person for the first time earlier this year in Budapest. When he invited me to come and shoot with him in his home country of Switzerland for a few days I was very happy to accept.
The Finnair link from Helsinki to Zurich is another perfectly planned route, you can leave early in the morning and return late in the evening, allowing you to make the best of both travel days as well as enjoing the days inbetween, and I met up with Rob and his family by lunchtime.
Our first location was the Thur waterfall, a 10 minute walk from the village of Unterwasser.
The waterfall is at the end of a winding path which follows the downstream progress of the water, ending up in a cave like area in front of the waterfall itself. You can also follow a path up above the waterfall and view the spectacle from different angles. This was an excellent place, kind of hidden away near to a small village in the middle of nowhere, perfect.
One feature of this trip was the prominence of interesting bird life. On the relatively short drive from Zurich I had seen red kites circling over the motorway on at least a dozen occasions and here at the waterfall I watched a pair of common buzzards wheeling around overhead.
From Thur we continued the waterfall tour, following a steep, overgrown and vaguely unsafe path from a roadside car park down to Ober Glessenfall.
Our third waterfall of the day was Glessenfall II, but that scene did not really get my attention and I found myself a lot more interested in identifying the small birds that were flitting around the area, one of which was a grey wagtail - a species I had not photographed before. It is always nice to photograph a new species, even if - like this time - it is too far away and in too dark a place to get a good shot.
It always seems a bit unfair that the Grey Wagtail, a striking bird which is about 40% yellow, is called the Grey Wagtail... but it is a victim of the existence of the even brighter Yellow Wagtail and the stunningly yellow Citrine Wagtail.
The following morning it was time to head for the mountains. We took the cable car up to Ebenalp. I have been on a number of cable cars... and I guess I will be on a number more in future... but it never feels like a particularly safe way to travel.
We survived the cable car journey and were rewarded with fantastic panoramic views of the surrounding peaks and valleys, including the summit of Säntis (the highest point in the Alpstein massif) and the beautiful alpine lake of Seealpsee.
The area at the top of the Ebenalp cable car ride is a starting point for a number of different hiking trails and the route was a very popular one, people were crammed into the cable car in scenes reminiscent of the Tokyo subway.
Hiking, and photography were not the only activities taking place on Ebenalp, the area near the cable car station is a very popular launching point for paragliding. The considerable updrafts made for superb conditions for that activity and it seemed that the skilful paragliders were able to gain a couple of hundred metres of additional altidute and spend many hours swooping around.
The paragliding was hugely impressive to watch, but the fascination was not universal... the cows that were summering on the high pastures seemed completely uninterested.
After purchasing ice cream to combat the considerable heat we followed a hiking trail which led down and round the mountain side with the first notable stop being at Wildkirchli, a series of three interconnected caves with a small chapel inside the lowest cave.
The trail continued to wind its way around the mountain face to the remarkable Gasthaus Aesher, a tavern situated under a huge overhanging cliff. There were too many people there for me to take a decent picture but the place was certainly an interesting one.
Although we had already descended a few hundred metres from the cable car station, the views were still fantastic to many directions. While my kind host continued to capture landscapes, I was distracted by the presence, once again, of a black redstart, the bird species that has been following me around Europe, presumably to make up for always eluding me in Finland.
After hiking back up to the cable car station, and descending once more to the car park, we found an impossibly cute (and very tiny) kitten nervously exploring it's surroundings.
After sensibly restricting ourselves to less than 1500 kitten pictures each, we were able to break away and head for the next location, the Leuenfall waterfall. As we made our way towards the trail which led down to the waterfall, I got interested in how the light was filtering through the trees in the area of a small steam, and I ended up preferring that picture to any that I took at the waterfall itself.
The following day we visited the same area once again, but instead of heading up the mountain by cable car, we set off on foot on the steep climb to the beautiful Seealpsee lake. The trek to Seealpsee takes about one hour and, although the road has a good surface (it acts as a service road to the guesthouses and restaurants at Seealpsee), it is significantly uphill all the way. When the temperature is in the 30's and you are carrying 10-15kg of camera stuff (as well as any extra kilos that you might keep inside your body) then it is a hard slog. The effort however, is certainly worth it - Seealpsee is very beautiful.
After the strenuous climb, the walk around the lake is a very pleasant one. There are beautiful views to all directions and there is always the possiblity to use the lake for reflections. The alpine cows are ever present, happily chewing their way through their day surrounded by the beautiful scenery.
The lake itself features a number of different territories that are patrolled and defended vigorously by Eurasian Coots. These birds are a lot of fun to watch, especially if it is anywhere near the breeding season when they are likely to feel territorial.
When a "rival" (i.e. any unsuspecting bird of any species that just happens to be within 40m) happens to catch their attention then they launch their attack from a very long way away, running quickly and comically across the surface of the water to chase them away or start a vicious fight. When the rival is also a coot then there is the prospect of them both running after each other which looks even funnier.
Anyway... on this occasion the coots were comparatively calm.
Before long we were making our way back down the steep service road and heading to our next destination, the cable car journey to the summit of Hoher Kasten.
This cable car journey was much like any other - looking forward to the view at the destination while slightly concerned about the possibility of falling to your death during the journey. This one had one unexpected difference, it stopped for a while, without explanation, a bit more than half way up... while you dangled about 100m above the ground. I guess it was intended to help you admire the amazing panoramic view... but without knowing that it was going to happen the first thought was that something had gone wrong.
When you arrive at the top of the mountain you are rewarded with views over 4 countries (Austria, Germany, Liechtenstein and back into Switzerland).
At the right time of the right day this place would be an unbelievable photography destination, but on this day the light was very strong and direct and there was a considerable haze over the mountains, so no amount of post-processing could really rescue the pictures.
Another welcome feature at the summit is the large refreshment area with great viewing windows, perfect to get yourself together after the cable car journey.
The mountain section of this trip was now over and for the remaining days we would concentrate on other things, so I suppose this is a good place to call an end to this post... we certainly packed a lot into these couple of days.
As a final offering I will leave you with this picture of the moon at its First Quarter phase, halfway between a new moon and a full moon.
My report will continue with a new installment in a few days time. Huge thanks to Robert Juvet and his family for their amazing hospitality on this trip!
The long and winding road
So.... where were we... ah yes, I signed off last time on my way from the Grmecica waterfall back to my car in Nomenj.
I always enjoy it when i feel like the first shooting destination of the day has been a success. On a trip like this I usually end up with a handful of pictures that I am satisfied with and if I am lucky then maybe one that I really like... so when I feel like the day has started well then it means that anything good from the rest of the day feels like a bonus. Of course the opposite is also true... an uninspiring beginning increases the pressure on the rest of the day. Just a little something for any psychologists out there.
I decided to head for the mountains to continue my day. I drove to Lake Jasna in Kranjska Gora. Lake Jasna is actually made up of two artificial interconnected lakes and is usually a lovely place to catch your breath before continuing into the mountains. On this occasion however dark clouds were gathering overhead and rain was starting to fall.
It did not seem very promising weather for landscapes so I turned my attention to wildlife where the well diffused light was an advantage and the dark skies were not a disadvantage. The first bird I spotted was a black redstart... a really beautiful bird and a relatively difficult one to find in Finland, but I have been lucky enough to see one in Germany, Austria and now Slovenia as well as Finland this year.
As you proceed from Lake Jasna the road takes you up into the mountains through the Vršič Pass, a wonderful road which connects Kranjska Gora to Trenta via the 1611m high mountain pass. This is quite an experience to drive with 24 hairpin bends on the way up and 26 hairpins on the descent towards Trenta. The present day road was built on the route of an earlier track during the first world war by approximately 10,000 Russian prisoners of war, their work and their losses (in a major avalanche which swept aside the avalanche fences) are commemorated by the wooden Russian Chapel which stands about half way up the mountain on the Kranjska Gora side.
As you approach the highest point of the pass you can find the starting points of a number of hiking or climbing routes and marvel at spectacular views of the nearby mountain peaks. The huge face of the Prisank mountain provides two points of interest which can be clearly seen from one of the roadside parking areas - the Prisank Window and the Pagan Girl.
The Prisank Window is a 80m high, 40m wide hole which goes right through the mountain, one of the largest and best known mountain windows in the Julian Alps. The Pagan Girl is a pretty good attempt at a human face looking back at you from the rock wall, formed by erosion and rock falls, I remember reading at the site that the face was 120m high, but I cannot find confirmation of that from any other source so it may not be correct.
In order to appreciate the sheer scale of these cliffs I think that the following picture which I took in 2017 might help - the three tiny ants you can see on the top of the ridge are mountaineers.
At the highest point of the pass there are a number of restaurants, a good amount of parking space and the possibility to follow many hiking trails. On this occasion I just looked at the view and headed back to base.
The following afternoon England were playing Sweden in the World Cup quarter final and I wanted to watch the match... but I also wanted to take pictures... so I decided upon an early start and an ambitious road trip.
I left the hotel at 0400 and was in position at Lake Jasna shortly after 0500. The water level was remarkably higher than the previous day and the sunrise was a total non-event... I moved on shortly after 0600.
By 0700 I had negotiated the 24 ascending and 26 descending hairpins of the Vršič Pass and was following the path of the very beautiful Soca river through the valleys.
I stopped to stretch my legs at the Great Soca River Gorge before 0800, this is a section of river which has carved out a steep sided canyon for itself, it is a beautiful and dangerous place with an unguarded drop to the raging water and rocks below. The section of river downstream from the gorge is a bit more open and gentle and a popular spot for sun worshippers and people in need of the refreshing experience of leaping into pools of cool water from the less high and less dangerous rocky banks. Although I enjoyed being there I did not find good ideas for photographs.
By 0900 I was having a latte in the hotel near to the Boka waterfall. After a steep uphilll climb it was possible to observe this mighty waterfall, with an initial vertical drop of 106m and a secondary drop of 30m before feeding into Boka creek. The creek is one of the shortest in Slovenia, joining the Soca river after only a few hundred metres. The waterfall has the highest flow of any in Slovenia, reaching upwards of 100 cubic metres per second in the wettest season. On this occasion the flow was significantly less.
The scale of the waterfall is difficult to communicate in a photograph due to the scale of the surroundings... a 106m waterfall does not look so impressive when it is set in a 400m high rock face. You need such a wide angle lens to communicate the whole scene that the waterfall itself is reduced to a miniature size in the frame.
I had understood that there was an even higher viewpoint from where the view could be further improved but after ascending for another 15 minutes or so I began to feel that the downward journey would be a bit too hazardous if I continued upwards, there was quite a lot of loose rock and stones underfoot and it was a bit slippery. With no other people around I thought that the possibilities of having an unnoticed accident were higher than I would like.
Anyway, this was a great place to visit and I recommend it for anyone who is in the area. It was possible to see the high water mark from the rocks at the base of the waterfall, I believe that it would be absolutely spectacular when viewed in peak flow.
Onwards... my next stop was supposed to be Kozjak waterfall... but a difficulty with navigation brought me instead to a lovely hillside in the middle of nowhere... after ascending a large hill by a series of hairpins on a road which was not very wide.
Here, on this beautiful hillside, battalions of insects were going about their most important business - pollinating left, right and centre.
I once again negotiated the hairpins on the way down the hill and found the spot I was aiming for in the first place, eventually managing to park in a "not big enough for all the cars" car park - a task which was complicated by some "its too hot and I already had enough of this and the kids are getting on my nerves" driving from some other visitors. Onwards... to Kozjak waterfall.
The waterfall is easy to find by following the signs, and the crowds, as the path winds its way up the hill and along a wide canyon. The final 40m or so is on a narrow, wet, raised wooden ledge on one of the canyon walls into a cave like area where the waterfall is situated. This area requires attention and care - the wooden boards are generously sized for proceeding in single file but they have to carry two way traffic and passing is already a bit hazardous. The drop to the rocks and water below is only 4-5 metres, but a fall from that height to the rocks would already be a serious matter. I imagine that in the times of heaviest traffic there could be some unsafe situations there.
In order to get a great photo at this waterfall I think it would be best to time your visit to avoid the crowds (including the crowds of cavers arriving on ropes from above the waterfall) and also to consider wading along the bed of the stream instead of following the raised platform, that would have been a practical alternative on the day I visited but may become less practical if the water flow or water level was significantly higher.
I had planned to visit the Tolmin Gorge next, but time was ticking and after being sent in another wrong direction by the navigation system I decided that I continue my circuit towards the hotel and get there in plenty time, maybe having a swim before the game. This proved to be a good decision, as the navigation system in the rental car took me on an extreme cross country route winding up and down hills, finally getting to a place where the road I needed to take was closed for maintenance. The detour was extensive and added nearly an hour to my journey. I arrived 3 minutes before kick-off. Still, a good day.
The following morning I headed for Jamnik once again, hoping to get an interesting sunrise. The period before the dawn was perfectly pleasant, but not that interesting. No nice colours to be seen, no interesting clouds, no mist... just plain. I decided to wait around for the moment when the sun first cleared the mountains in the background.
After leaving Jamnik, an impractically located church in the middle of nowhere on the top of a steep hill in front of the mountains, I decided to scout a new location. I drove towards St. Tomaz - a totally different impractically located church in the middle of nowhere on the top of a steep hill in front of the mountains. Variety is the spice of life.
While proceeding towards St. Tomaz I had a number of navigation related mishaps. In Slovenia it seems that you have perfect motorways and the roads to major towns are very good, but outside that the road quality degenerates very quickly. The navigation data is very noticeably worse than in other European countries, no matter which mapping data you rely on (I saw no difference between Here maps and Google maps). It seems that context data is totally absent. Yes there is technically a road, yes the limit might be 90km/h on that road... but in practice a normal car should not attempt it at all and if you do have an offroad vehicle then it would still not be sensible to try and drive faster than 30km/h. This means that the "what is the best route" decision making is very, very poor.
Eventually, after more than an hour of detours and circles, I arrived at St Tomaz, and it was a fantastic place.
Having found the church itself I tried to make my way to a good viewpoint, this church is better viewed in context, from a distance (in my opinion). Here the navigation outdid itself once again. From my parking space it sent me down the hill again, a couple of kilometres of steep, winding, single lane road... and then had me turn right, right and right again before proceeding back up the hill via the same road to where I had started... in order to continue along a dirt track located 30m from where I had been parked in the first place. The ruts were so deep that the vegetation in the middle of the overgrown track was scraping the bottom of the car... there is no way I was going to commit my rental car to 11km of this before the next turn... so it was back down the same damn hill again to find a different route.
Eventually I got the the place I was looking for, on a nearby hill close to Rantovse.
This was a good scouting mission, finding the best angles to shoot the sunrise the following morning. Now there was the simple matter of just driving back to the hotel. Once again the navigation system sent me on a tour of the worst possible roads. After 40 minutes I saw a church and stopped to allow my frustration level to settle down... maybe a prayer would have been helpful also. I saw St Tomaz from the church... it should have been 40 minutes behind me but I could see it sitting there a few kilometres away. Great. The butterflies fluttering around the church garden cheered me up.
Taking personal responsibility for all navigation decisions, I made my way back towards the hotel using the "largest road is quickest even though it says it is not" principle.
After a short rest another failed attempt was made to find interesting sunset light at Lake Jasna... once again nothing much happened.
A somewhat trying day... but no matter. The following morning I was up at 0315 to make my way back to St Tomaz for the sunrise... and it was almost a success but not quite. There were some nice colours in the sky but the clouds were too big and too dark only starting to thin out when the sun was already well above the mountains.
In the right conditions this could be a truly magical place for a photograph, but all you can do is make the best of whatever conditions you happen to get. Sometimes you are lucky, but 95% of the time you just have to make do with something which is not quite what you hoped. In such situations you can anyway enjoy just being in such beautiful places, safe in the knowledge that all the people who are sleeping instead of standing on a remote hill before 0500 are missing the whole thing completely.
For my final hours on this trip I returned to Bled and had a last walk around that beautiful lake, pausing to visit St. Martins church before heading back to the car.
Overall this was a really enjoyable trip to a magical country. I hope to return to Slovenia sometime in the future.
Thanks for reading!
Restart with a Redstart
As 2017 came to an end, my project to photograph as many bird species as I could in 2017 also concluded. The red-legged partridge from Kilmuir in Scotland was the final addition to the 2017 list, the 169th species I captured during the year. Overall this was a pretty good result, my initial target had been 100 species which seemed ambitious enough in January last year, but ended up being fairly easy. Some relatively common species escaped my attention (e.g. rook, rough-legged buzzard, black woodpecker, hawfinch) but on the other hand I was able to photograph some rarer species (e.g. pallid harrier, red kite, stonechat, Tengmalm's owl).
With the new year I need a new count, and suddenly I am all the way back to zero. I think I will keep track of my count for 2018 also but I won't give it such a focus as I did last year, preferring to concentrate on learning to recognise new species that I have never photographed before and getting as good pictures as I can of whatever species, even if I have photographed them before.
My 2018 account got off to a very nice start yesterday as I went in search of the Black Redstart which had been spotted a number of times over the festive period in the capital area (of Finland).
Wait a minute, you are probably saying, that doesn't look exactly like I was expecting... and you would be right, the consensus amongst those who know better than me seems to be that this is a central asian subspecies of the black redstart - phoenicurus phoenicuroides for all you latin speakers. Quite what such a specimen would be doing in these parts is a bit of a mystery,
It might be that those who know even better than those who know better than me can still come to an updated conclusion about what the bird is, if so then I will update this post with any subsequent developments... but for now I will assume it is this "eastern black redstart".
The weather in southern Finland has been typically disgusting over the past weeks, temperatures fluctuating around zero rather than providing a proper winter experience, instead we are treated to grey, wet, cold, slippery, muddy and dark days and only get to see the sun for some brief moments every 4th or 5th day. This creates quite a challenge for bird photography where you would ideally use fast shutter speeds (1/1000s or faster) to freeze the action. In order to get enough light to fall on the camera sensor in dark conditions it is sometimes necessary to gamble on much longer exposures... and as with any gamble there is a possibility to lose and that leads to blurred images... but once in a while you can snatch victory from the jaws of defeat if they happen to be blurred interestingly.
This was a marvellous looking bird, and a rarity, so it was a really nice way to start 2018 and very much worth tramping through some luxurious mud and navigating through a swampy area in order to find it. Spotting the bird itself was easy on this occasion, the half a dozen humans pointing telephoto lenses or binoculars at a particular bush gave a strong hint as to it's location.
The bird was also very well behaved as a subject, happy to stay relatively close to it's interested observers while regularly changing positions to allow some variety in the pictures. I don't think that it was entirely healthy however, it made constant head and neck movements over the 20 minutes that I observed it, as if it was trying to swallow something, so perhaps it has something stuck in its throat. I hope that it recovers from whatever is ailing it and manages to find a way to survive the winter.
When searching for birds, particularly when searching for one certain species, it is very often the case that your effort ends in a disappointment, it is not an exact science or an easy task, so it is very satisfying when you get one of these good days and find what you are looking for. I hope there are more such days to come as the year progresses.
That's it for this time, hopefully I will soon have something to share with you again. I hope that 2018 has started well for you.
Until next time,
Enter your email address to receive notifications of new blog posts