Free Content • Why You Should Photograph Arctic Birdlife

Great light, superb settings and almost all night shootings. Mark Sisson explains why all these factors are his inspiration and passion for photographing the arctic birdlife at the north of our continent

When I was young, the first bird guide I had (and one that will be familiar to many of my generation) was Collins Guide to the Birds of Europe by Heinzel, Fitter and Parslow. As I lay in bed skimming through its illustrations and associated maps of distribution, I regularly found my eye drawn to one of the showiest of the duck species, even more appealing given that the map only showed any sign of colour in the extreme northwest of the continent on the island of Iceland. At that tender age it was just a dream in terms of ever getting to see one, but many years later I have been fortunate enough to photograph and just enjoy watching the dramatic lifestyle of the hardy Harlequin Duck, either battling through the rapids where it feeds or gliding by in the serenity of a glacial lagoon, on a number of occasions now: for me it remains a strong icon of the birdlife to be found in the arctic and sub-arctic regions of Europe where I have spent many weeks and months over the last few years.

Harlequin duck Mark Sisson

Harsh habitats
Talk with many about this region though, and visions of Polar Bear and Walrus come to mind – those and the stunning vistas that glacier, sea-ice, and the associated harsh habitats conjure up. But whether it be a northern Norwegian harbour offering shelter and food in the winter months, or the Gulf Stream-enriched seas of Svalbard that pull in huge numbers of summer breeding seabirds to take advantage of this short season of plenty, the birdlife to be found and photographed here offers its own attractions; I have tried to distill just what these attractions are.

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In the summer months, birds here are in their breeding plumage. Time it right and visit early in the season, and the colours and feather condition that this consists of show them at their absolute best. Red-necked Phalarope do breed here in the UK (in very small numbers indeed in the Shetlands), but mostly are to be found here in their significantly more drab winter plumage. Although their extraordinary antics - battling away in the water looking for insects near the surface to snaffle into their probing beaks or by stirring up the mud underneath the shallow waters to disturb them in their characteristic turning circle - can be enjoyed whatever the season, there’s little doubt that the striking colours of summer show this and the closely related Grey Phalarope (confusingly called Red Phalarope in North America) at their absolute best.

grey phalarope mark sisson

Winter visitors
Phalaropes are not especially common winter visitors here, though, unlike Whooper Swans. Visit Wildfowl and Wetland Trust reserves such as Welney or Caerlaverock, and these long distance travellers can be seen in significant numbers, close-up and enjoying the feeding handouts on offer there during this leaner season: as a result they are a familiar species. Head north in the summer though, and, although their plumage doesn’t change, the context in which they can be experienced becomes very different – they breed here and finding them bringing up their broods of cygnets is not simply “aah-inducing” but also an opportunity to complete their life-cycle story from a photographic point of view, an approach I like to work on generally.

Whooper swan Mark Sisson

Golden hour
So, we have perfect plumage and familiarity of species with a new seasonal context to their behaviour as reasons for heading north. In the summer though, the key ingredient that is the outdoor photographer’s greatest friend is the light, and that is also at its absolute best. The days are long (in Svalbard it’s 24 hour daylight) but the low trajectory of the sun in the evening, during the night and early morning means that the golden hour becomes more like the golden 5, 6 or 7 hours. In wildlife photography terms, this makes an enormous difference – time to wait with and for a subject, time to spend watching, observing and waiting for that behavioural nuance that might just lift an image to another level.

This Red-throated Diver portrait was taken at around 06:00; nothing unusual, but I had been up with this particular bird until around 01:00, grabbed a couple of hours sleep and back for 04:00 - tiring if the light is good for several consecutive days.

Red throated diver Mark Sisson

Once you fall into the pattern and have an understanding of the fact that the light can be so good for so long, then it adds a whole new dimension to planning. The seabird cliffs at Alkerfjellet in Svalbard are justifiably high on the itinerary list for many of the tours that travel round the archipelago. They face north-east, though, so visit them during the daytime and they will be in shade: given it is often shrouded in cloud, this isn’t necessarily an issue (and there are plenty of dramatic images to be taken there in those conditions), but when the sun is out, then you really want to be there about 03:00. Then it is not just the breathtaking scale of the cliffs and the simply vast numbers of Brunnich’s Guillemots that breed there that take your breath away (it is one of the largest, noisiest and smelliest seabird colonies I have ever been to), but also the chance to do so in the gorgeous light of the early morning hours.

alkerfjellet mark sisson

Creating context
Settings such as this are genuinely dramatic in their own right. The fact that it is a context within which you can work with birds from a photographic point of view, is yet another reason why photographing in these remoter parts of the continent enthralls me so much.
Fulmars are a reasonably common and successful seabird in the UK and can be found on cliffs around much of our coastline, often in and around seaside resorts such as Scarborough. Photograph them gliding in front of a glacier or feeding on the concentrations of food that gather in the water around a stunningly blue iceberg, and, as much as I enjoy working with them wherever they may be, everything just lifts another notch – once again in terms of working with the habitat as an integral part of the image.

Fulmar Mark Sisson

The final element that keeps me captivated in terms of bird photography here, though, is the chance for the unusual and unpredictable image – especially for those that know the species and their life cycles generally.

On a recent summer trip to Iceland I found myself enjoying a short but sharp afternoon blizzard, even though it was June. With both falling and settling snow, the photographic attraction was obvious, but finding a confiding Golden Plover (in summer plumage no less) in a snowy moorland setting was an opportunity and experience that could never have been expected.

Golden plover mark sisson

What can be planned for with a marginally greater amount of certainty is to visit the seabird colonies of northern Norway. At the beginning of what might be considered the normal summer seabird season elsewhere, very often still see cliffs and surrounding areas are covered with snow. The result is that Kittiwakes are looking to establish their nesting sites even though the cliff isn’t even visible yet and, colonies of Shag are simply sitting it out as another storm passes through. Familiar species once again but a whole new context and setting that you just can’t find closer to the heart of the continent. Great light, great settings, pristine plumage and some habitat and seasonal twists to what you might find closer to home – in my book, a great set of reasons to head to the far north for your bird photography.

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About Author

Mark Sisson

Mark is a widely published and award-winning nature photographer. As a Director of Natures Images, the leading wildlife photography holiday and workshop business, he has many opportunities to travel with his camera, as well as the opportunity to share his passion and knowledge for nature photography.

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