February was a very busy month which saw me leading two tours, one to Poland and the other to Finland. The focus for both was predominantly wildlife though we did manage to squeeze a little landscape in too.
Traditionally, February is a pretty reliable month, weather wise, where you’d expect snow cover and minus temperatures but this, sadly, no longer seems to be the case. I think most of us will acknowledge that the planet goes through cycles. Indeed it has been doing so for over four billion years but it’s the acceleration over the last 3-5 years that has surprised most and is clearly affecting nature. In the past, wildlife would evolve as the conditions changed (which would, perhaps, be over many thousands of years) but it seems to be happening with such speed that many species simply cannot keep up. The polar bear is a prime example where the sea ice is breaking up much earlier (it relies on sea ice for catching seal prey) which, as a result, leads to starvation, infant mortality and even cannibalism.
My first trip was to northeast Poland to ‘potentially’ (nothing in nature is ever guaranteed!) photograph European bison, elk, birds of prey (especially white-tailed eagle) and smaller birds such as woodpeckers, tits and finches. The region experienced wonderful winter conditions a couple of weeks before with eagles visiting regularly but as time went on the temperature rose, melting all snow and the eagles disappeared. All but two members of the group had been with me the previous year (for some this was their third trip) with high hopes of photographing the eagles on this occasion. Alas, this wasn’t to be the case and although it was a little disappointing not to have had the conditions and eagles that were hoped for we did get some marvellous wildlife encounters. Three 12-hour days were spent in hides in the hope of photographing eagles but such was the group’s upbeat nature that if they were ever to have felt despondent it didn’t show – though for all I knew they could have been crying in their pillows in the privacy of their rooms! I hope I speak for us all that, regardless of the conditions (though we did get a light dusting, sunshine and frost on the final morning), we still did pretty darn well in photographing a wide range of species including bison, common buzzard, raven, elk, wild boar, red deer, grey-headed woodpecker, great-spotted woodpecker, middle-spotted woodpecker, nuthatch, greenfinch, hawfinch, tits, jay, siskin and even mink! Moreover, aside from the photography aspect, the group (as always) got along marvelously and our incredibly obliging and warm hosts made our mornings and evenings very special indeed with their fabulous home-cooked meals and occasional(!) vodka.
For the wildlife images I used either the 200-400mm f/4 or 70-200mm f/2.8 lens on a Nikon D7200 which, more often than not, was mounted onto a Manfrotto tripod with video head attached. Occasionally, when the situation required it, I would hand-hold the camera – especially when photographing elk – as often there was very little time to set up a tripod and it enabled me to remain flexible both in terms of viewpoint and composition.
While in the hide waiting for eagles, in failing light, we observed and photographed this American mink as it went back and forth from underneath the hide (where it had made its home) to the bait. The ravens, as you can see, took umbrage to this and attempted to scare it off but with little success.
The highlight of the trip was encountering this extremely obliging elk which fed and drank in this flooded forest (carr) for a considerable period allowing us all to get some ‘once in a lifetime’ images of this, very often, shy and difficult to approach species.
We had a few hours to spare on our final morning before leaving for Warsaw airport so we headed out at dawn in the hope of photographing elk. The conditions were glorious with a heavy frost and light dusting of snow but, alas, aside from this very skittish individual we couldn’t find any that would allow sufficient time for us all to get some images. We probably used up all our luck with the elk the previous day!
Not wanting to waste the morning chasing shadows we stopped and photographed the rising sun over the marsh and sun rays as they penetrated a pine forest which, I have to say, was a very nice way to end the trip.
One week later and I was in the far north – Kuusamo – in central eastern Finland which lies just south of the Arctic Circle. A stunning region of unending views and crisp, cold air, we arrived with 70cm of snow and below zero temperatures. A real contrast, conditions wise, to Poland where, as the week progressed, the temperature slowly dropped from around -5 to, on the last day, -20. We photographed everything we could hope for except the great grey owl but owls in winter, anyway, are very hit and miss as it is largely dependent on prey availability. Instead, we got some wonderful views (and images) of pygmy and hawk owl both of which tested our reflexes to the max and I don’t think I have ever photographed a bird so fast and unpredictable in its flight path as these! There was an awful lot of deleting upon my return home, I can tell you.
Aside from the owls, over the four days of photography we photographed frozen landscapes, dipper, golden eagle, siberian jay, willow, siberian, great and blue tit, great-spotted woodpecker, eurasian jay, red squirrel and, for some, a rather distant ural owl. En-route to the eagle hide we had a fantastic encounter with a calf and female elk that were standing beside one another in deep snow just 15 metres or so from the road. They didn’t stay long enough for us to get a photograph but it was great to see nonetheless.
Among the most colourful and characterful of all Finland’s birds is the siberian jay which kept us entertained on three of the four days where trying to come up with something a little different to the norm was quite a challenge.
A visit to a mill adjacent to some rapids gave everyone an opportunity to divulge in some landscape photography and, also, to give them a sense of this wonderful place in winter.
A suspension footbridge crossing the river provided a great perspective. Before crossing it was essential to double check that the camera was firmly attached to the tripod – for obvious reasons!
And in the other direction…..
Two days were then spent in hides deep in the Finnish wilderness to photograph golden eagles.
The beauty of a siberian jay can only truly be revealed when captured in flight.
A male golden eagle did turn up and fed long enough for everyone to get some nice images before flying to a tree at the far end of the clearing, gathering twigs to present to the female for nest building.
Both are full frame and shows the flexibility of a 200-400mm when working from a hide.
The following day more small bird images were in order prior to the main course.
The eagles didn’t disappoint and the male arrived at 1.15pm.
Once they feed they often fly to a nearby perch, for a short while, to clean their bill. With this in mind, while he was feeding, I composed the image below and simply waited with cable-release in hand for him to leave and fly to the branch.
Exactly two hours later they both arrived and fed for almost an hour.
Once the male had had his fill he left and, once again, perched on the tree at the far end leaving the female (which hadn’t fed for two days) alone at the carcase.
Word had it that there was an obliging hawk owl and pygmy owl and so we devoted much of that day ‘attempting’ to photograph these incredibly quick and unpredicatable birds. the success rate was low but it was jolly good fun trying!
I thought it would be a great shame not to show my clients the wonderfully surreal landscape of a nearby fell-top where due to heavy snowfall and moisture you get these amazing snow sculptures known as tykky (pronounced duurker). We were very fortunate in that during some of our time there there was a steely-grey sky which provided a nice contrast to the pure white snow. As we left, mist enveloped the area.
With a few hours to spare on our final morning we took to the road for one last go at the pygmy owl and what a stunning morning it was too: minus 20, blue sky and thick frost.
My thanks go to my guides Marek, Paavo and Olli for all their help in ensuring the tours ran so smoothly and, of course, to both groups for making them such a joy to lead.9 Comments