Svalbard: The villain of the piece

20 08 2013

Every good story needs a villain, and filling this less than desirable role in the Svalbard story, is the glaucus gull. On several occasions, I witnessed these large birds preying on some of the smaller birds that headed (very far) north to breed in the arctic summer.

The eider ducks were the main target during most of my sightings.  The brave ducks did their best to fight back, and for a while it seemed to work, but eventually, the patience, wise and guile of the bigger bird prevailed, and the ducks lost a chick.  There is no rest however, no matter how high you are up on the food chain, especially when the rest of your species thinks the same way you do.  Once the chick had been caught, it hadn’t even been swallowed yet (amazingly hole, and in one quick gulp), and the nearest of the gulls’ colleagues was onto him, challenging for the remains of the little chick.  During one attack on the slightly defenceless ducks, a gull made a cool approach to some nesting ducks, and swooped in to try grabbing a chick, but missed and got a beak-full of the treasured down feather that have made eider ducks so famous.  It spat the feathers out with a look of disgust, and flew off to try a different group of nesting females.

Things don’t always go the way of the gulls though – a very brave, and very irritating arctic tern was able to encourage the gull to move on. It was a matter of minutes however, before a second gull was onto the tern’s nesting site, and the performance started again.  All of this provided some incredible photographic opportunities!

To join me on safari, click here!

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Svalbard: Unbelievable scenes

2 08 2013

I recently spent 10 awesome days on a photographic safari in Svalbard; the land of the midnight sun (well, this time of year anyway; there are also 4 months where it is the land of complete darkness).  There was so much to see and do, so many spectacular scenes, that I have decided to break up my arctic tales into a number of separate blogs.  The first of these adventures was an incredible trip to a bird cliff.

This was not just any bird cliff, this would be more accurately described as ‘the’ bird cliff – sixty thousand pairs of breeding Brunnich’s Guillemots!  For those of you who struggle with math, that is one hundred and twenty thousand birds (these are only the breeding birds, not any other hanging around) on one cliff face!  It truly is a feast for the senses.

Photographing them from the bow of our ship proved to be interesting…  The hardest part was without a doubt, trying to single out a single scene or bird to aim at.  There is so much commotion both on the cliff face, and flying around you, that it is very tricky trying to pick up the rhythm.   After I had closed my gob-smacked jaw, I did work out the general comings and goings of the birds, and managed to get some great images.  The rocking of the boat did not help either, for two reasons.  Firstly, because it makes aiming the camera very difficult, and secondly, because it does not allow you to use a tripod, so for the duration of the three hour continuous shoot, you are holding your (at this stage very heavy) camera, which will test even the buffest biceps!

At a number of points throughout the experience, I found myself standing back just looking up at that impressive cliff, trying to comprehend everything in front of me.  Even harder was thinking how on earth do I explain this to people who have never seen it – I surely would not have believed it if someone had try to describe it to me.  The only sure fire way to fully understand this marvelous phenomenon, is to head up to the arctic, and see it for yourself!

 

To join me on safari, click here!