Sometimes, I come up with crazy plans, like spending the weekend 300km away, sleeping in the car during the day, and driving around during the night.
Yep, I did that in the very beginning of June, when I wanted to see Siikalahti, the so-called “best bird lake of Finland”. The name seemed oddly familiar, and I wondered whether I had visited the place during my first trip to Finland, in 2003. I had to make sure. So I drove east and north, past Kotka, Lappeenranta and Imatra, and arrived late in the night in Parikkala, under a deluge. I say “night” because of this very downpour; otherwise, nights are very bright in Finland in this period, and brighter as you go further north.
Given the weather, I had no other option than just sleep… which wasn’t as easy as it sounds like! Mind you, a Skoda Fabia is a small car, and it’s surprisingly not meant to be used as a bedroom. I struggled to find a comfortable position in the passenger seat (I didn’t find any), until exhaustion pushed me to oblivion.
I woke up under a cloudy sky. It was windy, cold, and utterly unmotivating. Also, the best bird lake of Finland didn’t really live up to its reputation. Based on the info signs I read there, it would have been better slightly earlier, during migration, or in autumn. While I was there, it was rather quiet… but I can confirm I visited the place with my family in 2003! I recognized the path to the bird hide, on the eastern part of the peninsula, duckboards enclosed in wooden walls to access the observatory without being seen by the birds.
Well that actually works only if the birds do not stand on the walls! Later that day, I came back and found a Common tern (Sterna hirundo) sitting up there. I started to take pictures from a distance, and slowly made my way closer. As I closed the gap, the tern still refused to move away. It shouted loud, communicating with its mate flying around, but remained perched. Once I reached the duckboards, I lowered myself to my knees and got even closer, very slowly… it still didn’t leave.
At that moment, my greatest fear was a careless human walking in and scaring the bird away. My knees hurt, my arms hurt (telelenses are heavy), and I was too close to have a clear line of sight from my lowered position. I stood up, and still the tern didn’t move.
I walked carefully in front of it and beyond, to see it from the other side and have another background to work with. It was an incredible experience to be so close. It created concerns I had rarely felt before: how much of the bird should I put in my frame? Should I focus solely on the head, or should I include the breast as well?
In the end, I’m not quite happy with the results, I think the feathers on the body often look muddy, blurry… but I’m still happy! I learnt a lot. I think I should have favoured a greater depth of field, but the scene was rather dark, so it would have required higher ISO. The real treat would have been to have a tripod/monopod at hand, to stabilize my hand and allow for lower shutter speed.
The Common tern really was my bird of the weekend, because before that encounter, I enjoyed its typical ballet along the reeds, scanning the water, hovering and then diving, sometimes coming up with a fish in the bill.
Recently, I’ve improved my post-processing skills and, more important, vision. I’ve tried to aim at more artistic results, with more contrast and drama, especially for birds, an area where I was quite hesitant when it came to strong contrasts. This doesn’t work with every image, and many still sport a more conventional look, but I find those experiments absolutely fascinating.
I rested a bit during the day, and as the evening came, the sky cleared. I drove to Savonlinna, 60km away, and arrived in the “night”. I found myself surrounded by youngsters celebrating the end of the school year in a park… not really in my element, I backed up and found a more tranquil parking lot. From there, I walked with my tripod to the fortress. Another place we had visited 14 years before! I saw the Eurasian wigeons (Anas penelope) we had seen back then, a striking memory I couldn’t forget, as I was not used to seeing this species in France.
It was too dark for bird photography, but just right for long exposure. I don’t have any ND filter that would enable me to do this during the light, so I have to rely on the night for this (see here for instance). The castle, Olavinlinna, was nicely lit, but not too much. As an example, the shutter speed is 3.2s on the following shot, whereas the tern in-flight was shot at 1/2000s or faster.
I walked around the town, curiously immune to tiredness. When I was done, I drove back to Siikalahti. Now I was no longer immune to tiredness, and I had to make a couple of breaks on the way not to fall asleep while driving. I was particularly wary about two things: mooses (I still have to see one) and speed traps (The Finnish police absolutely loves those vicious grey boxes).
In Punkaharju, I turned right into the esker nature reserve. Eskers are ridges of sediments formed at the end of the Ice Age, when melt water from glaciers flowed under them. This area is remarkable because it has long been considered a tourist attraction, and has been preserved since 1843, first as a crown-owned park in Sweden-owned Finland. I drove the road down the reserve, going up and down, following its winding path. I stopped at the many parking spots, shooting a picture or two before warming up inside the car.
The sky to the north was blue, a deep but persistent hue, already a herald of dawn before the evening was even finished. The wind was blowing but the place felt incredibly peaceful.
Eventually, I made it back to Siikalahti. The sky was slowly starting to turn yellow, but I was tired. All clouds had disappeared, so I absolutely wanted to see the sun rise. I stayed in the car for some time, forcing myself to stay awake, but finally getting out for a walk during golden hour.
It was lovely, so quiet… but I was so, so tired! I walked around, listened to the reed birds singing, took advantage of the bright yellow light for some forest pictures, and then went back to my car to sleep. Later, believe it or not, I awoke boiling in my sleeping bag, in the greenhouse the vehicle had become under the sun.
At the reserve’s entrance, a map of the region showed all the bird towers and remarkable areas. I embarked on a tour between the main road and the Russian border, on dirt tracks sometimes, through forests of spruce or birch. It was a lovely, sunny day… it was almost warm 🙂
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