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,
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,
Hi everyone, and apologies for a period of inactivity in my blog. First I was travelling, then I was a bit unwell, then it was Christmas... and all of a sudden it has been four weeks since my last post. Now that I have made my excuses, perhaps I can tell about my trip to Scotland for 12 days in December. As some of you will realise, this trip took me to my country of origin. My intention this time was to split my days between exploring with my camera and catching up with friends and family - my parents, brothers, sisters-in-law, nieces and nephews all still live in Scotland and it was high time for a visit.
My journey to Inverness was somewhat more complicated than it should have been due to unfavourable weather conditions. Firstly my flight from Helsinki to Amsterdam had to divert to a small military airport in Groningen for refuelling, Amsterdam was reduced to a single operating runway by fog and wind and we did not have enough fuel to go round in circles waiting our turn. After a 2 hour wait in the plane on the tarmac in Groningen we finally made the short hop to Amsterdam. My second flight, from Amsterdam to Inverness, went without incident until we were above Inverness, at which point the captain informed us that the airport was currently closed due to heavy snow... so we went round in circles overhead for 90 minutes while they cleared the runways. This did however offer some great views of the snow-covered city.
The weather which disrupted my flights, would also disrupt many of my other plans. Living in Finland I am very used to freezing conditions and driving on snowy or icy roads, but I felt like it was wise to be a bit more cautious when driving an unfamiliar car on unfamiliar roads without the benefit of winter tyres. I had hoped to travel all around the north and west of Scotland, including the Isle of Skye, but instead I stayed within a couple of hours drive of my parents house near to Inverness for most of my trip. Luckily there was plenty of interesting things to point my camera at without travelling more widely.
I decided to visit the lighthouse at Tarbat Ness, an impressive 53m tall specimen built in 1830 by Robert Stevenson (the grandfather of Robert Louis Stevenson) as part of the response to a great storm in 1826 which had resulted in the loss of 16 vessels in the Moray Firth. The lighthouse still operates today, fully automated, and it's light can be seen for over 40 kilometres (on the rare clear days in this part of the world). The location is somewhat remote on the end of a peninsula, ideal lighthouse locations are not always the most convenient to journey to.
Tarbat Ness was also a good place to observe birds, I spotted chaffinches, robins, dunnocks, rock pipits and blue tits as well as being almost continually accompanied by the sound of wrens as a I explored the area. There were noticeably more birds than there are in Finland at this time of year.
Over the course of the following few days I spent some time walking with my camera near to Kilmuir, in search of bird species that I had not previously photographed. There were two particular prizes that I was seeking, the red kite (a bird of prey which is rather hard to find in Finland) and the red-legged partridge (a small game bird that can't be found in Finland at all). The red kite is historically a native bird in Scotland but had disappeared from these parts until a successful effort to reintroduce it at the end of the last century, relocating 93 birds from Sweden for the purpose. Thankfully, nowadays, it is possible to see these beautiful birds more regularly, I was able to see one or more of them at least every second day during my trip.
When it comes to the red-legged partridge, my hunt for that prize was not so straight-forward, every time I went out with my camera I would come back empty handed. After one such failed search I sat at the kitchen table having coffee, only for a red legged partridge to walk slowly past on the street outside, about 1 metre away... unfortunately my camera was not with me. Sometimes that's how things go.
My next lighthouse was at Chanonry Point, a narrow spit of land in-between the villages of Fortrose and Rosemarkie which is one of the best places in the world to observe dolphins from the shore. This lighthouse was also built by a Stevenson, this time Alan Stevenson (son of Robert, uncle of Robert Louis), and it was completed in 1846. It still operates, fully automated since 1984.
I was not lucky enough to see any dolphins while at Chanonry Point but there were many birds in the immediate area including oystercatchers, robins, dunnocks, sparrows and a goldcrest - but the most interesting species I saw was a stonechat, the 167th species I have photographed this year.
From Chanonry Point I continued round the coast to Rosemarkie where I spotted a flock of Brent Geese on the beach... species 168.
From Rosemarkie beach I followed a path through the forest to some fairy pools. The sign promised that it was 500m to my destination so after walking up a hill for 25 minutes I started to have some doubts about whether I was on the right path, but when turning the next corner they were right in front of me.
It was a bit curious that this area was almost free of snow while lower down in the valley there was a thick white blanket covering everything.
The lighthouse project continued as my father and I took a day trip, following the Moray coast east to the town of Lossiemouth where the impressive Covesea Skerries lighthouse can be found. Another Stevenson design (Alan once again), this lighthouse was built in 1846 as another part of the recommended response to the storm of 1826, it's light was finally extinguished in 2012 but the iconic structure remains.
From Lossiemouth we continued east to the town of Portknockie where the quartzite rock that makes up the local coastline has eroded into interesting shapes, the most famous of which is Bow Fiddle Rock, an interesting protrusion about 50 metres away from the coastal cliffs.
As we returned from our trip to Portknockie I was again taunted by the elusive red-legged partridge. This time there were a pair of them sitting on the neighbours doorstep. They were very close and not that concerned by our presence... but it was about 2 hours after sunset and way too dark to take bird photographs.
On the second weekend of my trip I headed south to Leven, near Edinburgh, to visit my nephews. It was a particular highlight to be able to watch the new Star Wars movie with them in St Andrews after visiting their favourite bookshop.
After returning to Kilmuir again the red-legged partridge was on my mind. Time was running short to get a photograph. Wondering around with my camera brought all kinds of birds into view, but not the one I was looking for... as compensation I was at least treated to a nice sunset.
Although I didn't find the partridge, I had a lucky encounter with another Kilmuir resident who gave me a tip about where I might see some partridges early the next morning, before my flight back to Finland. A dawn stakeout, hiding under some tall bushes, was finally rewarded (after 80 cold minutes) with the sight of a pair of nervous red-legged partridges. They were a bit smaller than I expected, about the size of a pigeon, and behaved in a similar way to pheasants, preferring to walk or run away from any perceived danger instead of using their wings and taking to the air. The bird was a bit distant and the sun was below the horizon so the picture is no masterpiece, but at least it gives an idea how these distinctive birds look, and also takes my 2017 photographed species count to 169.
Thanks to all who have shown an interest in my blog and my photographs during 2017, I wish you a happy new year and a great 2018.
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!
This week's trip was to the remote island of Utö in the Archipelago Sea off the south-west coast of Finland, my friend Mika Grönroos joined me once again as we continued our bird photography efforts.
Utö is the southern-most inhabited part of the territory of Finland and is accessible by a daily boat service which departs from Pernas. The journey takes 4-5 hours depending on how many stops the boat makes on its way through the archipelago (the route includes Nötö, Aspö, Jurmo and sometimes Berghamn).
The scenery of the surrounding area is typical for the archipelago with many small islands and protruding rocks, sometimes populated with sea birds, sometimes hosting signs to mark traffic routes or impart other helpful information to help ships and boats pass through these waters.
This was my third visit to Utö (I was there in October 2016 and May 2017) and it starts to be a familiar place for me. The days there fall into a predictable rhythm where the search for birds to photograph is only interrupted by certain regular events, those being breakfast in the Utö hotel, lunch in the Utö hotel, the inevitable onset of darkness and the occasional need to shelter from unpleasant weather.
On each of my visits to Utö there has been a noticeable population of other bird enthusiasts and photographers on the island at the same time and on this trip it was no different. Up to a certain point this small community of similarly focused people can be very helpful as news of any interesting sightings quickly spreads, but when the amount of people gets too large it can also become counter-productive. If you have carefully and stealthily positioned yourself, over a number of minutes, to a shadowy area within sight of rowan tree in the hope that a red-breasted flycatcher might show itself on the outer branches with the light at the best angle then it is slightly disappointing when a party of 15-20 approaches that tree from the other direction engaged in loud discussions... it might as well have been a herd of elephants or a brass band passing through, any small birds within 50 metres quickly exit the area.
With most bird photography efforts, pure luck and the lottery of circumstances play a huge part in what opportunities you do and do not get. There is also a major role for skill and technique in the activity, those determine how well you notice the opportunities that are there and how well you manage to capture those.
One pleasant surprise was the variety of birds of prey that we were able to see during our time in Utö. A population of at least 10 common kestrels were conducting merciless and continuous hunting operations against small insects such as Bush Crickets during the entirety of our stay. The kestrel is such a beautiful bird and has a very distinctive hunting style, hovering perfectly in place about ten metres above the ground before swooping down to grab it's prey. The kestrels were a constant presence around the island, including in the village, and it was possible to observe and photograph them every few minutes when out and about with the camera.
In addition to the ubiquitous kestrels, the small bird population was being regularly terrorised by a sparrowhawk (or by a number of sparrowhawks) which would periodically arrive (and depart again) at very high speed when you were least expecting it, creating opportunities and challenges in equal measure for the photographer. Many times this did not result in successful pictures, partly because the needed exposure and focus settings for photographing small birds against darker backgrounds are totally different to those needed to photograph flying hawks against the afternoon sky... the bird is not usually kind enough to wait around while you adjust the settings. Over time you can get extremely fast at making the needed modifications, but in many cases the optimal moment does not last long enough for even the most rapid of adjustments. For a couple of days I kept messing up any sparrowhawk opportunities but finally I got some rewards as the week went on.
Although the kestrel and sparrowhawk were the most regular bird of prey sightings, they were far from the only ones. On the first day we saw and photographed a marsh harrier patrolling the eastern meadow and also photographed a hobby and a distant merlin in the same area. As the week went on we could add further raptors to the list, a northern goshawk, a honey buzzard and a common buzzard were all photographed by the second afternoon. In the middle of the week we had some additional excitement as the wind direction changed and provided us with a predator rush hour on Wednesday afternoon. The ever present kestrels and sparrowhawks increased their activity level and were also joined by some new arrivals, at least two female hen harriers and perhaps most interestingly a male pallid harrier. During this period it was quite usual for another raptor to arrive while you were in the middle of photographing the first one... it was quite amazing to have such intensive activity when the practice of observing these animals frequently involves a great deal of waiting around for something to happen.
The final chapter in our raptor rapture was to come on Thursday afternoon as we walked around the rocky mounds at the eastern end of the island. Fortune smiled upon us for a few minutes as a white tailed eagle flew confidently overhead on it's way towards the neighbouring islands. The white tailed eagle is Finland's biggest bird with a wing span of well over 2 metres and it makes for an imposing sight whenever you are lucky enough to see one. This specimen was not yet old enough to have the pure white tail feathers of an elderly individual and I am not sure that I can say that it is very beautiful at this stage in its life... but it is certainly impressive.
Something a bit smaller
While the eagles and hawks are always very exciting to discover, there is also a lot to interest observers when paying attention to birds of a somewhat smaller size. While the white tailed eagle might weigh 6 kilos or more, the tiny goldcrest weighs in at 6 grams or less!
These cute little warblers, the smallest bird in Finland, were present in good numbers on Utö and their distinctive high pitched chirping could be heard all over the island. Just because you could hear the goldcrests doesn't mean you could easily find and photograph them, they were extremely cautious and secretive, staying hidden inside bushes and trees and always on the move, nervously relocating themselves every couple of seconds. This movement was the key to finally being able to see them... but also made it very difficult to keep them in the viewfinder long enough to get a good shot.
There were many other small birds present on the island, including chaffinches, siskins, spotted flycatchers, pied flycatchers, willow warblers, northern wheatears, whinchats, blue tits and red backed shrikes... but there were also three that I was particularly hoping to photograph - redstart, red breasted flycatcher and yellow browed warbler. I have photographed redstarts earlier this year but from some distance away and the quality was poor, they are a very cool looking bird and I wanted to have a suitable picture. The red breasted flycatcher and yellow browed warbler were both species that I had never photographed before... and unfortunately that remains the case after the trip. Maybe next time...
With redstarts however I had better luck, managing to photograph them on a number of occasions and certainly improving on the shots I had of these beautiful creatures earlier. A really good shot of the more special looking male redstart remains elusive... as does the even better looking black redstart... but still I am pleased to get pictures of female or juvenile redstarts.
Starry starry night
Finally on our last night in Utö, the skies were clear and we also had energy to go out once more after doing the usual 15-20 thousand steps during the day. This combination had not been in place on any of the previous 5 nights... so out we went for some night time shooting. The equipment and settings needed for such pursuits is rather different to that which is required for bird photography. The exposure times for single shots could be tens of seconds instead of less than a thousandth of a second and the focal length of the lens 12-14mm instead of 500-1000mm.
On Utö, away from the artificial light pollution of major habitations, the first thing that you notice is the night sky. Billions upon billions of points of light, clearly visible with the naked eye.. and beautiful beyond belief. Wow. At this time of year a decent amount of the milky way galaxy is also visible and potentially provides additional interest for photographs.
My third visit to Utö was just as memorable as my previous visits, with each visit having delivered a bit of a different experience. It was once again very comfortable to be on the island, the local residents were all most welcoming despite seeing their peaceful home invaded on a regular basis by "outsiders" and there is always a good sense of fellowship among the visiting bird enthusiasts. New species (within 2017) for the trip were Merlin, Honey Buzzard, Common Crossbill, Hen Harrier and Pallid Harrier, taking my 2017 total to 157.
I would like to extend special thanks to Jorma Tenovuo for his part in making me feel especially welcome as well as keeping Mika and I up to date with any emerging bird sightings during our visit and providing expert judgements on bird identification (e.g. whether or not the Pallid Harrier that we photographed was a Pallid Harrier, a Hen Harrier or a hybrid between the two - currently and possibly finally, it is a Pallid Harrier). Jorma keeps an excellent blog (written in Finnish) detailing the various species that have been sighted in Utö from week to week, for anyone that is interested it can be found here.
Final thanks go to Mika Grönroos for another good trip!
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