This week I found myself once again heading for the remote island of Utö, along with fellow photographer Mika Grönroos, as we made our third pilgrimage of 2017 (my fourth visit in total) to this Mecca for Finnish bird photography. This was a short trip of 2.5 days, so I should be able to use fewer words to describe it... last week's post from Lofoten turned into something of an epic.
In September, on our previous trip, we saw a remarkable amount of large birds of prey (buzzards, hawks, falcons, eagles and harriers) but on this occasion it was the tiniest of birds that got most of our attention. One exception to this was to be the highlight of the trip after we received an alert (thanks to Jorma Tenovuo!) about a Tengmalm's Owl (also known as a Boreal Owl in North America) which was sitting in the upper branches of a fir tree near to the old post office.
Owls have to be among my favourite birds, their huge faces are very expressive and they are great fun to photograph, if only you can find them. The rarity of spotting an owl adds to their attraction. The Tengmalm's owl is a relatively small variety of owl and this individual was in a bit of a challenging spot as it was sitting in shadows, surrounded by branches, with strong back-lighting. This picture was taken while lying on the ground in order to get an angle to shoot upwards with the minimum amount of obstructions.
On the same morning we had a close (or closer than usual) encounter with another large hunter when a juvenile Hen Harrier flew directly towards us as we walked in the south of the island. The bird seemed not to notice our presence until it was about 25 metres away which gave some nice opportunities but it was a real challenge to focus on the fast-moving, low-flying bird against the background of rocks and bushes. Luckily I managed to get it in focus and capture a few frames just before it disappeared behind a large rock.
While these larger predators were not so plentiful this time, smaller birds were present in large numbers. The meadow in the middle of the village was full of European Robins and Common Redpolls and there were good possibilities for photographs of each in the pleasant afternoon light on Friday.
Another common sight was a Brambling, a member of the finch family, whose plumage seems perfectly adapted for hiding in bushes at this time of year.
Another new sighting for me was a Great Grey Shrike, an attractive little black white and grey predator. This bird was comparatively easy to spot due to it's habit of perching on top of things, such as in this case, a rowan bush, but it was not easy to creep close enough to get a good picture.
The majority of our time was spent hunting for birds that were even smaller still... the elusive wren and the tiny goldcrest (Europe's smallest bird).
Trying to get pictures of a wren is a challenging business, they are a bit unusual in that they seem to prefer to hide rather than flying away, but they are so brilliant at hiding that it is very hard to get a picture of them even though you might know almost exactly where they are. During the trip we spent a number of hours staring at different juniper bushes waiting for a wren to reappear after it had darted into the shadowy interior... but we ended up with only very few wren pictures.
I don't know how many Goldcrests there were on the island, but it must at least have been in the hundreds. Their enthusiastic high pitched tweeting could be heard almost constantly throughout the island and their presence is much easier to detect (compared to a wren) as they are tiny bundles of nervous energy, always on the move. They are a challenge to photograph nonetheless as they are tiny, fast moving and spend a good deal of their time obscured by branches and undergrowth.
On Saturday night, the final night of the trip, a cloudy and rainy day had given way to a clear night and a myriad of stars were once again easily visible in a way that those who spend their nights in cities could never imagine. The lighthouse at Utö is a great landmark and once again I had to include it in my photos from the island.
Well, that's it for this time. Another really enjoyable trip to Utö, by now a very familiar and comfortable destination for me. I hope to be there again before too long.
Thanks to Mika Grönroos for another good trip, and to Jorma Tenovuo for alerting us to rarities and interesting sightings.
PS - In order to read a bit more about where Utö is and how to get there you can have a look at the blog post from my previous Utö trip in September.
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