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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