Spring alcids

What would be a trip to Varanger like without a visit to Hornøya? Well, I have birder friends who do that because they are more interested in the tundra, but for the photographer in me, it’s difficult to pass on such an opportunity.

This time, there was no snow on the cliff, but no sun either, most of the day at least. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, for I didn’t really like the light we had in March last year. Instead, a grey ceiling hung above, but the vegetation provided a welcome contrast.

Atlantic puffin (Fratercula arctica)

Unlike last time, I used my three lenses during this visit. The telelens is the obvious choice, but because the birds are so tame, one can create interesting images with wider angles. I started with the standard zoom (24-70mm), trying to include the birds’ environment.

In the distance, Vardø and its radars loomed, a constant in this ceaselessly evolving wild.

Black-legged kittiwake (Rissa tridactyla)

Unfortunately, visitors were confined to the lower part of the island, below the cliff; huge boulders had crashed on the path, completely blocking it. That spelled doom on my plans, because my favourite area was then off-limits, but there was no shortage of birds within reach, and in the end, I wished I had elected to spend more than five hours on the island.

Common guillemot (Uria aalge)

Because of the closed path, it was much more difficult to catch guillemots in flight. On the other hand, by climbing to the edge of the protected area, I had many Atlantic puffins (Fratercula arctica) flying by en route to their burrows.

Atlantic puffin
Atlantic puffin

Now that I look at my pictures, I realize I focused a lot on group pictures, with often three or more birds in the frame. The trick with these, in my opinion, is to have a clear subject, that would be worth a “solo” pic, with secondary subjects complementing it, not distracting from it.
In the first picture below, the little guy with the spread wings is funny, but the fact that its mates look at it from both sides really directs the gaze towards it, the main subject. On the opposite, its attitude in the second pic is even better, but because one wing overlaps another puffins face while the one on the left looks away, I think it’s a worse picture than the first one.

Atlantic puffin
Atlantic puffin

Another powerful case would be images where all the birds do the same, for instance look in the same direction or take-off at the same moment.
In the picture below, I also like that the three Common guillemots (Uria aalge) show three different plumage variations: from left to right, “classic”, bridled and “not complete” (a younger bird, or one that hasn’t completed its moult to mating plumage).

Common guillemot

On the other hand, I worked hard with Europen shags (Phalacrocorax aristotelis) alone in the frame. My main goal was to have one against a pitch-black background, for I had seen such pictures in a Facebook group and I thought they looked awesome. I found one in the appropriate position; with a bit of post-processing, I made sure there was no distraction in the frame, and it ended up like this.

European shag (Phalacrocorax aristotelis)
European shag
European shag
European shag

Seems like shags fit a portrait aspect ratio nicely!

European shag

After my first visit, I was disappointed with my Razorbill (Alca torda) pictures. I had very few, and they were not very interesting. This time again, it was difficult to find willing subjects. I salvaged two shots. On the second one, I was very close, looking at the birds from below, and I realized how delicate and elegant their white markings on a black canvas were. So I aimed for a tight portrait focusing on this pattern.

Razorbill (Alca torda)

Finally, I remembered I had no picture of a Brünnich’s guillemot (Uria lomvia) to show you last time, so I took a distant one. They are at the bottom of the picture. It’s not a very interesting shot artistically speaking, but you can clearly see the white stripe on the bill. They like to hang on the most exposed ledges, and with only 600 pairs in a 50,000 strong colony, they are “rare” there 😉

Brünnich’s guillemot (Uria lomvia)

Oh! In the beginning, I mentioned I used my three lenses that day. At last, I worked with the wide angle (10-22 mm)… I needed to be very close to the birds, and to achieve that, I had to crawl on the rocks. The problem is that, in a seabird colony, everything is covered, to a certain extent, by guano (bird poo). Between bird and reindeer poo, I don’t know which one is the most disgusting, but I can tell you, I washed my clothes when I got to my accommodation in the evening!

Common guillemot and European shag

Atlantic puffin
Atlantic puffin

That’s it for Hornøya this time. Maybe there will be another visit one day, but I can’t see that happening in the close future! 😀
If you want to see some more pictures, you can check Jessica’s article. She was there in August, and saw different things (in French).

Previously in this series:

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7 thoughts on “Spring alcids

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