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,
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,
In the last few days it was my great pleasure to return to Utajärvi, a small village in the Northern Ostrobothnia region of Finland, to photograph Golden Eagles from a hide in the middle of the forest. I have been to Utajärvi on three previous occasions for the same purpose, it is surely the best location in Finland to photograph these rare and magnificent birds.
The Golden Eagle is one of the best known birds of prey and is present across a large area of the Northern Hemisphere. The global population has been estimated to be approximately a quarter of a million individuals. That does not however make it easy to find! The Golden Eagle has sensibly learned to be cautious around humans and in order to have a reasonable chance to spot one from reasonably close range you need to be in a hide.
On this trip I joined a Golden Eagle photography course organised by Finnature, in association with Olympus, and led by Jari Peltomäki, a well known Finnish professional photographer who is currently an "Olympus visionary" and uses their equipment for his photography.
In order to maximise the chances to see the eagles, the day in the hide starts before 0700. We arrived in the dark in order to be set up and ready to be silent and still during the hours of daylight, waiting and hoping that the eagles would come to visit the area. In order to lure the eagles into range of our cameras some suitable bait (for instance foxes, squirrels or racoon dogs which have met their end in accidents on the local roads) is left for them to find.
The new Finnature hide at Utajärvi (constructed last summer) is larger and more comfortable than the older ones but the most important difference in my opinion is the improved visibility which it offers. It is now possible to have a much wider field of view without having to change your position and that offers greatly increased chances to see all the activity. The eagles tend to approach in stages. Firstly you might see them doing a fly-by overhead, before they settle in the trees at the back of the area for a period of observation, possibly accompanied by some calling.
This period of observation seems to typically last for many minutes, or even tens of minutes, but can also be very brief. One of the challenges of this kind of photography is that while you spend 10 or more hours in the hide, the important action of the day may only last for 10 seconds in total. You have to be ready all the time... and inevitably you sometimes choose the wrong moment to take care of something else (eating, changing batteries, having a toilet break) after concentrating for a prolonged period without getting a reward. All you can do is try to be as ready as possible and as focused as possible for as much of the time as possible. Sooner or later, the eagle may decide that it is safe to come and feed.
This is a very sensitive time, if the eagle notices anything alarming, such as a moving camera lens, then it may decide to leave the area and not return... your day can effectively be over (although you still have to sit in the hide until nightfall). The practice is to remain silent and still until the eagle has started feeding, and then begin shooting. Some cameras have the possibility to shoot completely silently with an electronic shutter, this gives the possibility to aim the camera where you expect the eagle to land and silently capture its arrival without lens movements or disturbing noises.
Once the eagle has landed shooting is also done cautiously, starting with single shots and gauging the reaction over a number of minutes before moving on to longer bursts. The ultimate goal is to encourage the eagle to stay for long enough that there is a chance for a second eagle to arrive. On the occasion shown in the video below, the eagle got spooked before another eagle had a chance to arrive on the scene.
Should you be lucky enough to see it, the most interesting and valuable pictures are likely to come when a number of individuals start squabbling over the available food. Capturing these interactions is extremely challenging, the second eagle can arrive from any direction and as they come together the action can continue in unpredictable ways. The wings of these glorious animals are enormous, the wingspan can be well over 2 metres, and during a scuffle a wing can suddenly stick out to any direction... easily disappearing from the frame.
In trying to capture these interactions, the choice of lens or the choice of focal length, is something to pay particular attention to. The longer the focal length, the more detail you can capture... but the harder it is to keep the birds in the frame. My thoughts for the trip were to use 800mm focal length for eagle portraits and around 400mm for action and interactions... but this plan was undermined by a problem with the weather sealing on my 100-400mm lens. Trying to shoot the interactions with 800mm focal length was something of a challenge.
During the three days I spent with the eagles, I would say that the weather conditions were more favourable than average. Each day had periods where the clouds and the sun were battling for supremacy and this gave some beautifully soft golden light... but unfortunately that light rarely coincided with the best periods of eagle action.
The snow was also an interesting variable with periods of heavier snow as well as moments where tiny individual snow crystals drifted slowly towards the ground as if gravity was turned down to a minimum and would travel horizontally instead of vertically at the slightest hint of a breeze.
"Winter is coming" said the weather forecast, as it has been saying for a few weeks here in southern Finland... but the problem is that winter never arrived. Finally I got fed up of waiting and decided to head north for a few days in search of deep snow and real winter rather than grey wet depression. My destination was Ruka, a skiing resort about 25km north of Kuusamo and about 40km south of the Arctic Circle... about an 850km drive from my home.
On my way I stopped for the night in the small city of Kajaani to break up the long drive, finding the interesting old church as I explored the city in the late evening. The following day I eventually completed the journey to Ruka and was happy to see that there was a good amount of snow in the area. It was already obvious from the drive that the trees, covered in an unfeasible amount of snow, would provide interesting subjects for photography. The days are very short at this time of year at this latitude but the light for photography is rather good, even when the sun is at its highest the light is not very harsh and the sunrise/sunset and the blue hours last for a long time.
Another bonus from photography point of view was the way the ski slopes were lit, the artificial lighting which is used for that purpose was not the harsh orange sodium lighting that you usually see in town centres but a much softer and slightly more pink light which resembled sunset colours, extending the sunset mood for many hours after the sun had departed.
I spent quite some time wondering around the area near the ski slopes as the twilight and the light from the ski slopes were made even nicer by thin low cloud. I had found the winter I was looking for.
The magical trees also looked great once it was truly dark, I ventured to the village again in the late evening after taking a dinner break.
One difficulty caused by the short days is that there is not much time available to scout for good shooting locations. In summer photography trips you have a total of 3-4 hours per day of good light to shoot in with a 10 hour scouting gap in-between - this makes it quite easy to find new locations and travel to them ready for the action periods. In winter that gap just disappears and it is not so easy to get to know a new location.
On the second day (and first morning) of my short stay in Ruka I headed out on foot a couple of hours before the sunrise, picked a direction in which to walk and hoped for the best... I was at least treated to a beautiful morning walk.
My idea for the day was to visit Oulanka National Park, about 25 minutes drive north of Ruka, where I hoped that one of the trails would be passable without needing skis or snowshoes. My goal was to get to the rather photogenic rapids at Myllykoski and shoot them in full winter conditions.
The path to Myllykoski was passable, but not very easy. There is a fair amount of traffic on this route so a very narrow path through the snow was kept open, but if you put a foot to the side your leg was quickly enveloped in snow up to your knee. The main hazard was the occasional very steep sections. There are steps in place for these sections in the summer but they were in a curious condition, smooth icy slopes with a rail beside them. I wondered how they got to this state until I saw someone approaching in the other direction sliding down the slope using the rail to keep the speed to a minimum. All very clever... but for people wanting to go up the same steep slope this was quite a pain in the ass.
The other interesting part of the route was the narrow rope bridges that allow you to cross over the Kitkajoki river. These were also quite hazardous as they were only just wide enough for a person, covered with snow and ice, and very wobbly... with a raging river below.
When starting the trail from the car park in Juuma, the first bridge over the river was a great spot to see white throated dippers. There were 2 of them fishing there when I went past on the way to Myllykoski, and 5 of them as I passed the same spot on the way back. Dippers are always interesting birds to shoot... but I did not have a suitable lens for that job on this occasion.
After a couple of kilometres I found my way to the Myllykoski area, a bend in the river where the water suddenly speeds up and becomes agitated, with a lovely old mill on the apex of the bend. After looking around for a few minutes it became clear that the best vantage point would be from another wobbly rope bridge.
After making my way round to the bridge, an even shakier one than the previous one, I was able to get some shots of the Myllykoski mill. The wobbly bridge presented quite a challenge from photography point of view, in order to handle the rushing water you would usually aim for a rather long exposure... but in order to keep the shots sharp on the unstable bridge the exposure could not be too long. Some experimentation was needed to discover the longest safe shutter speed for shooting from the bridge.
As I was in unfamiliar territory, with the light fading, and with the path not being easy to traverse, I didn't want to go too much further along the trail - returning in darkness would have been a bit difficult. I followed the trail through the forest and around the next bend where I found a nice view of another cabin in the forest as the sun went down, and then started back to the car.
I could not resist taking a few more shots of the mill at Myllykoski on my way back, this time using a bit longer focal length to make the mill take up more of the frame.
This was a really nice location to visit, and would be worth returning to in different seasons. There is an extensive network of trails through Oulanka National Park and they would be a great hiking destination in the summer months.
On the following morning I started for home, my idea was to drive a far as I (safely) could as I needed to be home by midday the following day at the latest, but in the end I made the whole journey home in one day. According to my car I drove 851 kilometres and the driving time was 10 hours and 31 minutes. I did however stop a couple of times to take photographs of the forests at the roadside.
This was an enjoyable little trip, and helped to blow away the depression of the grey days in southern Finland. The new year is well under way, the nights are getting lighter and I hope that I have some interesting trips ahead of me.
Until the next time,
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