When I planned my latest holidays, I knew they would revolve around taiga birds. The main target, for my friends and I, was the northern lights, but we also needed some activity during the day (it’s difficult to stay outside all night when it’s twenty degrees below the freezing point). I’m not much into husky-this or reindeer-that (because of the price, mainly), so I did some birdwatching. Surprised, aren’t you?
What does a birder think about when they hear “taiga birds”? Well, probably something along the lines of Pine grosbeak (Pinicola enucleator), Siberian tit (Poecile cinctus), Siberian jay (Perisoreus infaustus)… or maybe Willow grouse (Lagopus lagopus) or Black grouse (Lyrurus tetrix).
The former are easier, because they come to feeders during winter, and they are also more iconic because they can only be found (far) in the north. That said, I’m no stranger to these species. My first encounter with the tit happened during a hike in Pallas-Yllästunturi National Park with my friend Vincent; in Varanger, in March, I saw it again, and was really impressed by the grosbeak, which I dubbed Prince of the Woods; finally the infamous kuukkeli was caught in autumn this year. The thrill of the lifer gone, remained the need for more/better pictures, or any picture at all in the tit’s case; luckily, I had good addresses to visit 😉
In Ivalo, I went to visit my friends again. There was a lot of activity at the feeder, and all the specialties offered good views. Cherry on the cake (that’s how we say it in French 😉 ), a small flock of Bohemian waxwings (Bombycilla garrulus) came to say hi and devour some mashed peanuts. That has to be the funniest bird in Europe, with its punk crest and burglar mask.
Conditions were difficult: the birds stood in the house’s shadow, but the background was brightly lit by the winter sun, finally reigning supreme in Finland after months of gloom. I did my best, and I think it turned out pretty well. I had never been able to make any picture of Sib’ tit or waxwing, and the female grosbeak had eluded me in Norway as well, but now I had them all. It was a good start for the trip.
I know our last night was in a place renowned for its birds, but in the meantime we had booked three nights in Giellajohka, and I expected nothing there. Well, as I wrote in my first article this year better “expect the unexpected”!
Of course, of course there was a feeder there as well, and of course many species were visible! Huge perk, the spot was well exposed for sunset light, so I didn’t even have to wake up early to enjoy it.
I tried to place myself correctly: I noticed a cool-looking branch emerging from the snow, so I set my tripod in order to have a kinda-clean background behind it. The good thing with this is that I would be able to make good pictures if the birds perched on it; the bad thing is that I was not very flexible: if I wanted to shoot somewhere else, chances were high that there would be ugly out-of-focus branches at the back. Only a few other branches nearby were clean as well, and I also had a good shot at the birds that roamed on the snow, to my left.
Apart from the background, there was another rationale behind my choice: these birds, especially the tits, are lightning-fast. I never had time to 1) aim 2) focus 3) fire before they had moved away. The only moment I could do that was either when they were eating fat from the hanging feeder (that’s an ugly setting) or when they were opening their sunflower seed, in the tree (expect lots of twigs in the frame). If I am ready for the shot, then I can skip step 1 (aiming), and even step 2 if I feel confident (spoiler alert: I didn’t… but that’s another story).
Of course, the birds had to come to this very perch I had elected, otherwise I wouldn’t manage a single shot.
After a few hours, three days in a row, half-sitting half-standing in the least confortable setting one can imagine, I can confidently say I didn’t do so well with my perch.
Actually, when I look at the photographs I kept and edited, not a single one shows the setting as I imagined it. OK, there’s one, but it was before I set myself up correctly, on the first evening.
So what? Well, it turned out they didn’t use this spot so much to get to the food, or they were too fast, or I wasn’t ready when I needed to be, or it was in the shadows, or… well, there are tons of explanations why it didn’t work. However, I felt it was a good approach, and at least a different one from which I learnt a lot, and I also made some nice pics in other spots! So fear not, and enjoy instead 🙂
I loved spending my sunsets like this, watching birds, hearing the grosbeaks sing from the top of spruce trees, and snatching a few photos here and there. Shadows moved as the sun dipped towards the hills, but still the birds came. In the end, when darkness had fallen, I could finally extend my legs again and move back to our house, to get ready for a good dinner and a night of auroras.
Hey, wait, that’s not the end of the story!
As I mentioned, our last stop was a good one for birds too. After a long but fruitful drive through the forest, we settled for the night in Neljän Tuulen Tupa. The inn is located by the main road that goes to Utsjoki, but do not let this deter you from booking a night there: traffic is reduced to a strict minimum in this remote territory, and it did not trouble our sleep.
I was the only one to wake up early in the morning, apart from our birding neighbours from Norway. There a mound of snow with food and a few branches artifically planted for the birds to perch on. That’s where I made all my pictures. That morning was grey and it snowed a little, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing for bird photography.
A few words about the redpolls: it’s quite possible that, in the photos I show you, there are Arctic redpolls (Acanthis hornemanni). The difference with the Common redpoll (Acanthis flammea) is tenuous at best, and their taxonomy is unclear anyway. I didn’t try very hard to look at the few ID criteria, as I was mostly focused on photography. I hope you can forgive me for this approximation 🙂
It made for an agreeable end of trip, for in the evening we flew back to Helsinki.