Aerial Acrobatics

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Image: Black-Legged Kittiwakes flying in Ekkerøy, Norway; Nikon D500, Nikkor 200-500mm at 200mm, f/5.6, 1/1000 sec, ISO 1600, hand-held

While observing the Black-Legged Kittiwakes on the bird cliffs of Ekkerøy, we had the opportunity to practice photographing birds in flight. The gulls were constantly leaving their nests to collect vegetation, to scream their signature call, and to battle with each other mid-air.  I changed my camera settings from AF “Single” shot to “Group” to improve my ability to focus on a fast moving subject.

I started with practicing tracking a single bird in flight that was moving in a straight line. When the gulls were collecting vegetation for their nests or heading back out, they were streamlined a bit and had a predictable flight pattern.  After watching this behavior for awhile, I could roughly predict their movements to allow me to grab focus of one of the birds as I was tracking it.

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Image: Black-Legged Kittiwake flying in Ekkerøy, Norway; Nikon D500, Nikkor 200-500mm at 300mm, f/5.6, 1/1600 sec, ISO 1250, hand-held

The longer we stayed at the cliffs, the more we saw interactions between two or more gulls.  Many screeched at each other and began little spats in the air that changed their flight patterns. 

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Image: Black-Legged Kittiwakes flying in Ekkerøy, Norway; Nikon D500, Nikkor 200-500mm at 240 mm, f/5.6, 1/1000 sec, ISO 1600, hand-held

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Image: Black-Legged Kittiwakes flying in Ekkerøy, Norway; Nikon D500, Nikkor 200-500mm at 200mm, f/5.6, 1/1000 sec, ISO 1600, hand-held

This led to great aerial interactions and action shots. The different contortions of their bodies during these spats made for great lines in the images when considering the artistic aspect of compositions.

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Image: Black-Legged Kittiwakes flying in Ekkerøy, Norway; Nikon D500, Nikkor 200-500mm at 200mm, f/5.6, 1/1000 sec, ISO 1600, hand-held

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Image: Black-Legged Kittiwakes flying in Ekkerøy, Norway; Nikon D500, Nikkor 200-500mm at 270mm, f/5.6, 1/1000 sec, ISO 1600, hand-held

Most of the time, it was two birds fighting mid-air.  However, a couple times I was lucky enough to capture three kittiwakes screeching at each other. 

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Image: Black-Legged Kittiwakes flying in Ekkerøy, Norway; Nikon D500, Nikkor 200-500mm at 240mm, f/5.6, 1/1000 sec, ISO 1600, hand-held

I could have spent several more hours at these cliffs watching and photographing these birds.  After two hours there, luckily my memory cards were almost full since my arm was dead after hand-holding the camera and lens for that long!

Bird Cliffs of Ekkerøy

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Image: Black-Legged Kittiwakes in Ekkerøy, Norway; Nikon D500, Nikkor 200-500 mm at 220 mm, f/6.3, 1/1000 sec, ISO 800, hand-held

Fruda, the owner of our hotel in Vadsø, was a wealth of information about the Varanger Peninsula and various birding sites. He told us about a small town 15 kilometers east of Vadsø called Ekkerøy whose claim to fame is the kittiwake bird cliffs. The town itself is an old fishing village consisting of a few houses on a peninsula and the connecting land. A large hill on the southeastern part of the peninsula gives way to cliffs dropping into the sea. We headed out to visit this area one afternoon and I was shocked by the number of gulls flying about.

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Image: Black-Legged Kittiwake cliffs in Ekkerøy, Norway; Nikon D500, Nikkor 200-500 mm at 200 mm, f/5.6, 1/1000 sec, ISO 800, hand-held

These types of gulls are the Black-Legged Kittiwakes, a smaller cliff-dwelling gull named after the high-pitched sound it makes.

These birds nest together, often in the thousands, as we saw in Ekkerøy.

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Image: Black-Legged Kittiwake cliffs in Ekkerøy, Norway; Nikon D500, Nikkor 200-500 mm at 200 mm, f/5.6, 1/1000 sec, ISO 1600, hand-held

We were able to practice a variety of bird photography skills at these cliffs. For the images below, I was focusing on capturing the nesting behavior of the kittiwakes.

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Image: Black-Legged Kittiwake nesting on a cliff in Ekkerøy, Norway; Nikon D500, Nikkor 200-500 mm at 500 mm, f/5.6, 1/1000 sec, ISO 1600, hand-held

The nests are on the edges of the rocky cliffs, built up over time by seaweed and other vegetation. In the image below, the green on the kittiwake’s chest is evident of a recent seaweed collection.

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Image: Black-Legged Kittiwake nesting in Ekkerøy, Norway; Nikon D500, Nikkor 200-500 mm at 500 mm, f/5.6, 1/1000 sec, ISO 1600, hand-held

The nests are often very close to each other but that doesn’t seem to bother the gulls as they rest peacefully. Eggs are laid typically between mid May to June, but we did not see any, possibly because most of the nests were above us and the gulls were sitting on them or they had not yet laid eggs.

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Image: Black-Legged Kittiwakes nesting on cliffs in Ekkerøy, Norway; Nikon D500, Nikkor 200-500 mm at 500 mm, f/5.6, 1/5000 sec, ISO 1600, hand-held

Some mating pairs seemed particularly affectionate at times as they huddled together.

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Image: Black-Legged Kittiwake pair nesting in Ekkerøy, Norway; Nikon D500, Nikkor 200-500 mm at 500 mm, f/5.6, 1/640 sec, ISO 800, hand-held

Other pairs were in nest-building mode. One gull sat on the nest while the other flew away to find vegetation and bring it back.

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Image: Black-Legged Kittiwake bringing back nesting material in Ekkerøy, Norway; Nikon D500, Nikkor 200-500 mm at 300 mm, f/5.6, 1/1600 sec, ISO 1250, hand-held

At times, I spotted gulls resting on big boulders jutting up from the sea.  Evidence of years of perching on this boulder gives a nice coloration to the rocks. The rest was short-lived though as they soon returned to the task of collecting sticks, twigs, seaweed or other vegetation for their mate.

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Image: Black-Legged Kittiwake bringing back nesting material in Ekkerøy, Norway; Nikon D500, Nikkor 200-500 mm at 500 mm, f/5.6, 1/1600 sec, ISO 1600, hand-held

Coming up in a future post will be some images of these birds in flight, definitely a hard skill that requires some practice.

 

Photographing Phalaropes

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Image: A male Red-Necked Phalarope coming up from a head dunk, Nikon D500, Nikkor 200-500mm at 500mm, f/5.6, 1/1000 sec, ISO 1250, on tripod

As we began to explore Vadsøya Island more, we found a small pond along the eastern end of the island. The whole island is about 3-3.5 miles in circumference (based on my running app as I ran along the edge of it) and the eastern half is wilderness tundra. The western winds have been present most mornings, but on Saturday morning, there was an area of calm waters at one edge of the pond where Artie spotted some Red-Necked Phalaropes. I was unfamiliar with this bird but I soon learned more. 

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Image: A male Red-Necked Phalarope creating a vortex in the water, Nikon D500, Nikkor 200-500mm at 380mm, f/5.6, 1/1000 sec, ISO 1250, on tripod

Red-necked Phalaropes are small wading birds with a duck-like appearance when swimming in a pond although they are not ducks. They were easily spotted for Artie, as they swim quickly in small circles, creating a vortex.  This allows them to stick their bills in the middle of the vortex to feed off tiny insects and crustaceans that have come up into the swirl.  It looks quite comical at first and reminded me of a little kids spinning circles in the playground. Here is a video of their behavior with Artie describing some of their biology and behavior.

The phalaropes were surprisingly tame. As we approached the water’s edge, we moved slowly, not only to avoid scaring them but also to make sure we didn’t fall as we trudged through 6-8 inches of wet marsh. I was able to photograph a series of images below of a phalarope sticking his head into the water and eating a small insect.

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Image: A male phalarope dipping his head for food, Nikon D500, Nikkor 200-500mm at 500mm, f/5.6, 1/1000 sec, ISO 1100, on tripod

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Image: A male phalarope lifting his head from the water with an aquatic insect at the end of his bill, Nikon D500, Nikkor 200-500mm at 500mm, f/5.6, 1/1000 sec, ISO 1250, on tripod

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Image: A male phalarope eating his catch (small yellow insect at the back of his beak, Nikon D500, Nikkor 200-500mm at 500mm, f/5.6, 1/1000 sec, ISO 1800, on tripod

I was surprised to learn about the sex role reversals in which the females are larger than the males and have the more vibrant colors in their feathers with red spreading further down their chests.  They pursue the males and after copulation, the males incubate the eggs and raise the young. 

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Image: A female Red-Necked Phalarope swimming, Nikon D500, Nikkor 200-500mm at 500mm, f/5.6, 1/1000 sec, ISO 1600, on tripod

Most of the birds we saw happened to be male but there were a few females and we caught a few pairs copulating. It happened fairly quickly and I had about 5-10 seconds to capture a few shots. 

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Image: A pair of Red-Necked Phalaropes copulating, Nikon D500, Nikkor 200-500mm at 500mm, f/5.6, 1/1000 sec, ISO 1600, on tripod

For these shots, all were taken on tripod since the birds were smaller, I was standing in 6-8 inches of cold water, and the birds were spinning so quickly.  Timing was hard and when they were facing away from me in the spin, I started pushing down on the shutter button to try to catch one facing sideways with the eye looking at me.  I really enjoyed these charming birds and watching them spin.

 
More Info:
Red-Necked Phalarope

 

Angels in the Sky

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Image: Arctic Tern kiting in the sky, Nikon D500, Nikkor 200-500mm at 240mm, f/6.3, 1/1250 sec, ISO 800, hand-held

The shoreline of Vadsøya Island has turned out be a great location for bird photography. Flocks of Common Gulls and Arctic Terns congregate along the rocky beaches that butt up against the grasses and tundra. Late spring has perfect light due to the cloudy skies and the position of the sun, creating long muted daylight hours. I went out for a run the first morning on the island and spotted a couple large boulders on the shore with gulls covering them. 

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Image: Common Gulls on boulders on Vadsoya Island, iPhone 7 Plus image by Amy Novotny

If I walked slowly towards them, they remained on the rock and didn’t fly off. 

Excited, I ran back to the hotel and returned with camera gear. I have been fascinated by gulls after growing up in the desert, but I know they are not always admired for their beauty since they are commonly found in beach towns or in cities near water. I learned from Artie that there are many species of gulls but calling them “seagulls” is incorrect since there is no true “seagull.” The species I captured below is the Common Gull.

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Image: Common Gull landing, Nikon D500, Nikkor 200-500mm at 310mm, f/5.6, 1/1600 sec, ISO 800,  hand-held

The following day, I took Artie out to this location and the gulls had moved down the shoreline a bit to the north. Much to my delight, a flock of Arctic Terns had appeared and I learned a little about their behavior in flight. Besides the typical soaring through the air to get from one location to another, they also hover and flap their wings in a beautiful display. The top image and the one below are a couple photos of these terns against a cloudy sky. 

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Image: Arctic Tern hovering in the sky, Nikon D500, Nikkor 200-500mm at 240mm, f/6.3, 1/1250 sec, ISO 800,  hand-held

The cloudy skies of both days allowed for similar camera settings. I was able to keep my ISO at 800 for these images, but in the past couple days of shooting, it ranged from 800 to 1600, depending on the light. Ideally, I wanted an aperture of f/6.3 and a shutter speed of at least 1/1000, as I preferred to stop or slow the wings. 

The variety of birds in this area is astounding.  As we explore more of the area, I will continue to post about the various species.

Arrival in Norway

The drive from Finland to Norway was full of beauty as the landscape and scenery changed the farther north we went. I used my iPhone to capture images from the van to document what we saw.  The pine and birch trees of the Finnish taiga gave way to lower lying shrubbery and tundra. 

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Image: iPhone photo of coastal Arctic Norway

More little villages began popping up in the countryside with red farmhouses and barns. We saw small herds of reindeer, both tan and albino, scattered throughout the wilderness, sometimes grazing and sometimes resting among the grasslands. 

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Image: iPhone photo of reindeer along the road in Finland

We came upon a small national cultural historical site in Utsjoki at the northern end of Finland called Kirkkotuvat Girkostobut.  We stopped to explore it and got some photos of the grassy roofed houses.  I wasn’t able to read the Finnish to get all the history of the area but when I looked it up online, it was described as the old church courtyard dwellings from the 1700-1800’s. 

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Image: iPhone photo of Utsjoki church and the old church dwellings

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Image: iPhone photo of a grassy roofed house in the historical cultural site.

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Image: iPhone photo of a grassy roofed house in the historical cultural site.

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Image: iPhone panoramic photo of the church historical cultural site.

When we crossed the border into Norway, it was a bit inconsequential. There was a small building and a bridge over the river, but we were surprised that we didn’t have to stop or be screened.  I was disappointed that I couldn’t get another passport stamp. 😊

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Image: iPhone photo of the Norway border crossing.

We continued on and noticed a quick change in the villages. The roads and houses seemed better maintained. More farms scattered about the countryside up but the houses were often painted yellow with green trim while the barns remained the classic red with white trim.

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Image: iPhone photo of the houses along the Varanger Peninsula.

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Image: iPhone photo of the houses along the Varanger Peninsula.

We drove along the southern Varanger Peninsula. The water looked glacial with its bluish tint and we began seeing a variety of gulls and other shorebirds. The temperature seemed to get cooler as the wind picked up. Here is a video of the drive along the area. 

Coastal drive of the Varanger Peninsula

We made it to our new home for the next three weeks on Vadsøya Island in Vadso along the southern edge of the peninsula. Here is a video of our arrival:

Drive to Vadso

Half of the island had houses and some industrial buildings but the other half was Arctic tundra with a small pond and plenty of wildlife! The next few days will be spent exploring this area and the birds inhabiting this area. 

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Image: iPhone photo of the bridge from Vadso to Vadsoya Island.

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Image: iPhone photo of the docks in Vadso.

Coming up soon will be the birds of the Vadsoya Island.

What is a Ruff???

I finally got a glimpse of the main purpose of the Norwegian and Finnish leg of our great European adventure–the male Ruff.  Artie and Anita wanted to photograph these beauties during the mating season, and after having one chance to photograph these birds so far, I can understand why.

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Image: Nikon D500, Nikkor 200-500mm at 500mm, f/5.6, 1/800 sec, ISO 1600, hand-held from vehicle

Ruffs and reeves (the females) are considered medium-sized wading birds that breed in marshes and wet meadows across northern Europe and Asia.  During breeding season, the male plumage is a variety of colors that is used to attract a mate.

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Image: Nikon D500, Nikkor 200-500mm at 500mm, f/5.6, 1/800 sec, ISO 1600, hand-held from vehicle

The males parade in front of females and fluff up the ring of feathers around their necks like a ruffle.  Hence their name!  The males display the the ring of feathers in front of the females, hoping to encourage copulation.

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Image: Nikon D500, Nikkor 200-500mm at 500mm, f/5.6, 1/500 sec, ISO 1000, hand-held from vehicle

If there is more than one male in an area with a female, the males begin fighting, putting on a display of jumping, crouching and flaring up their feathers.  Unfortunately, I haven’t seen much of this behavior yet, but Anita made it out shooting that first afternoon (while Artie and I were napping) and was able to capture two birds fighting in an amazing photo!  You can see two of her images on Artie’s blog, here.

When the males are not displaying their feathers, they are rather calm and I even caught one resting.

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Image: Nikon D500, Nikkor 200-500mm at 500mm, f/5.6, 1/500 sec, ISO 1000, hand-held from vehicle

All of these images were taken near Kaamanen, Finland alongside a road.  I have learned that these birds are very skittish and fly away in the close proximity of people.  However, they prefer certain spots and often go back to that same exact location.  Artie described it to me as a microhabitat that meets their needs for a breeding location.  Typically, the open grassy area where the males display their feathers is called a lek.  In this case in Kaamanen, the display was along the edge of this road.

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Image: iPhone 7 Plus, hand-held from vehicle

The Ruffs pranced just on the other side of the gravel and when a truck drove by, they often flew to the edge of the water several hundred yards away, only to return to the exact same location after some time.  Because of this, we photographed these birds from the van (stationary), so as not to disturb their mating rituals.

Because this is the migration season, the Ruffs and reeves are on their way north, as were we.  We then began our journey north to Norway in hopes of seeing and photographing more of this species.

Info about Ruffs: Ruff website