Article published in Issue 27 of Wild Planet Photo Magazine, January 2016
A stiff wind, heavy with salt spray and the sour odour of bird guano, smacked me in the face as I crossed the tundra towards the ocean, laden with camera gear. As I neared the cliffs, a clamour of bird voices – braying, wailing, trilling – mingled with the sound of the wind and waves pummelling the rocks far below. A high grassy promontory took me out beyond the immense rocky wall, with little but grey water between myself and Russia.
Turning around, I discovered a bird photographer’s smorgasbord: hundreds of seabirds –puffins, murres, auklets, kittiwakes and cormorants – crowded onto every ledge and crevice and swirling through the air. It was late July, and I had joined a group of other photographers on St. Paul Island, the largest and most accessible of Alaska’s Pribilof Islands. Volcanic in origin, this tiny four-island group sits far out in the Bering Sea, north of the Aleutian archipelago and some 300 miles (480 km) west of Anchorage, Alaska’s mainland capital. It had long been my dream to visit this seabird photography mecca, legendary for its vast numbers of approachable birds. Especially exciting was the prospect of seeing two puffin species, horned and tufted, through my lens. Within a couple of hours of the group landing at St. Paul’s airport and meeting our guide, I was doing that very thing!
Best Photography Hotspots
The high point of any St Paul visit is Reef Point, the closest seabird cliff to the village of St Paul. Tufted and horned puffins, crested and parakeet auklets, thick-billed murres, red-faced cormorants and black-legged kittiwakes can all be seen at close range and the photo opportunities are unparalleled. A short path hugs the cliff side, sweeping steeply upward to a high rocky outcrop, a favourite hangout of tufted puffins.
Notches in the cliff reveal clown-faced horned puffins on lichen-covered rocks and orange-billed parakeet auklet pairs duetting outside their nests among the rocks. Wide views of the open ocean let you photograph the constant stream of birds flying between feeding areas out at sea and their nests or roosts on the cliff face. I revelled in capturing puffins flying straight at me with outspread wings, webbed feet splayed ready for landing.
One cliff cut-out had a waist-high rock shelf over which I leaned to shoot a birds-eye view of snoozing puffins below. (Caveat: secure yourself and your gear before you try this. I had my camera on a cross-body strap, and braced my legs against solid ground for safety). Most birds at Reef Point are tolerant of close approach – my most-used lens here was the Canon 100-400mm IS II USM – but photographers should still practice caution, moving slowly and quietly, to avoid flushing birds off their perches or nests.
Another must-go spot where from a high promontory you have face-on views of dramatic 100-foot cliffs of dark volcanic rock dotted with hundreds of murres, puffins, kittiwakes, and auklets. You’ll need your longest lens (mine is a 500mm f/4 usually with 1.4x converter), for perched birds since they are not as close here as at Reef Point. Huddled throngs of thick-billed and common murres cling to tiny ledges, some cradling a single turquoise egg on top of their webbed feet. Northern fulmars soar past at eye level or skim the waves. Black-legged and red-legged kittiwakes stand out in stunning contrast against the black rocks or wheel through the air with wailing calls.
These white birds need special exposure consideration: dark surroundings can fool in-camera meters into overexposing white or light tones. I prefer to use manual rather than auto- exposure. Instead of metering the dark cliffs, I meter a middle-toned subject in the same light, such as green vegetation nearby, lock-in the resulting exposure settings, and then recompose. If the light changes I check the meter and adjust camera settings as necessary.
ZAPADNI POINT & ANTONE WALL
Whoever coined the term wall here wasn't joking. The path quickly disintegrates under a swath of giant boulders, leading to the steep cliffs of Zapadni Point. It’s challenging walking, especially carrying heavy camera gear, but the reward for your trek is St. Paul’s largest breeding colony of least auklets. These tiny, gregarious birds become more numerous as you approach the base of the cliffs and can be easily photographed perched on rocks, sometimes in groups of a dozen or more. If you can drag yourself away from seabirds on St Paul, look out for northern fur seal rookeries full of bulls bellowing and pups bleating and dens of photogenic Arctic fox kits, sometimes right next to the road.
Bad weather, creative opportunities
Don’t let windy conditions or fog put the dampers on your enthusiasm. Bad weather often breeds opportunities for creative imagery. One extremely windy day I noticed swirling patterns of kelp and wind- whipped sea foam far below me. Murres and puffins flying low over the ocean often crossed these ever- changing designs. I zoomed my lens back to portray the ocean’s pattern as the main subject leaving the birds just a small part of the composition.
Another time I became fascinated with a dramatic line of rocks, that changed in appearance every few seconds as the waves ebbed and flowed over them. After many tries, I captured a pair of murres flying through this scene, which I framed as a vertical. Images like these involve an element of luck – bird and surroundings have to occur together in a way that works as a composition – but with seemingly endless opportunities, your creativity will evolve the more time you spend trying, so keep shooting.
One afternoon, fog rolled in threatening to obscure the coastline. The cliffs, now robbed of detail, became pleasing abstract shapes. Zooming back my 100-400mm lens to the short end of its focal range, I framed the puffins off-centre in the foreground, showing the fog-shrouded sweep of the coastline fading into the distance beyond them. As expected, the original capture was very low contrast, so in post-processing I selectively increased contrast and saturation of the puffins and their cliffs, leaving the background low contrast.
Windy conditions can be a benefit if you’re shooting birds in flight. Battling a headwind slows flying birds down, while intense updrafts along cliff edges sweep birds upward as they fly along the coastline. Consequently, you may have puffins and murres winging their way past at eye-level while fulmars and kittiwakes hang in the wind with barely a flap. At Ridge Wall or the still taller cliffs at Southwest Point, you can photograph birds flying directly below, providing an unusual top view of their wings.
Even slowed somewhat by the wind, birds in flight need a fast shutter speed to ensure sharpness. For speedy fliers like puffins I prefer shutter speeds from 1/1250sec to 1/2000sec, which meant an ISO as high as 1600-2000 under St. Paul’s grey skies. A little high for my preference, but image sharpness is critical and noise from high ISO can be dealt with during post-processing.
My strategy for birds in flight is to focus on the bird when it’s still some distance away, positioning my selected autofocus point on the bird’s head or neck, and then panning with it as it approaches. (AF point expansion helps: I use a 5 or 9 AF point pattern). Once the bird fills the frame to my liking I start shooting a burst of shots. This maximizes the chance of getting a pleasing wing position (I happen to prefer wings-down).
I travel a lot for photography, and my trip to the Pribilofs was one of my most productive ever, netting many great close-ups as well as the kinds of behaviour and natural history shots that I’m known for. But I made sure to take the time to explore more evocative and abstract imagery too. The most memorable occurred on my last evening, coinciding with some of the very few hours of sunshine on the entire trip. Mesmerized by the ever-moving ocean, I became fascinated by a shimmering pattern of reflected sunlight and sky to the west. Beautiful in its own right, the abstract scene just needed a bird to fly through it. Most of the birds that obliged me looked too insignificant in the frame, but a large cormorant did the job perfectly. Its reflection was icing on the cake!
Working from cliff tops is dangerous. Sudden wind gusts may knock you or your tripod-mounted gear off balance. Cliff edges may not be as solid as they seem and rock falls are frequent, although the guides assured me they hadn’t lost a human yet. They recommended leaving one body-length between yourself and any cliff edge.
Expect bad weather and dress accordingly. We had fog every morning, and overcast skies throughout most days, usually brightening up by midday. It’s nearly always windy and can be rainy, although we never had rain heavy enough to prevent us shooting. Even in late summer, the daytime temperature barely reached the mid- 50s F (around 15°C), dipping into the mid-40s F (about 7°C) overnight. During my nine days on St. Paul, the last afternoon was the first and only time there was sunshine and blue sky.
WHAT TO WEAR
I dressed in layers: long sleeved shirt (sometimes two), fleece jacket, hooded raincoat and rain pants, waterproof hiking boots, fleece hat, and sometimes thin gloves. My rain gear adequately blocked wind as well as rain and mist, so I didn’t need the heavier coat I’d packed.
Gear protection from the elements is equally important. I outfitted my 500mm lens and EOS 5D Mk III with a Lenscoat Raincoat Pro. I used a plastic bag to protect my 100-400mm on a 7D Mk II body, carried on a Black Rapid camera strap. Salt spray was a constant problem. I learned this the hard way by walking away from my tripod-mounted 500mm lens to use a shorter lens. Later I returned to use the long lens, only to find I could barely see through it. The front element was covered with partially dried, sticky spray that proved impossible to clean off with a dry lens cloth. In the end I used a cloth moistened with fresh water. After that, when not shooting I made sure to point my lens away from the prevailing wind and angled downward to prevent spray from contacting the front glass. Every night back at the hotel I cleaned each piece of equipment, including all exposed lens surfaces, with a wet cloth and then dried it all with a dry soft towel.
ESSENTIAL TRAVEL INFORMATION
Whether travelling alone or with an organized photo tour, travel is arranged through St Paul Island Tours, run by the native Alaskan corporation, TDX. Package deals are priced by the number of days you stay on the island and the price includes round-trip flight from Anchorage, lodging and meals, ground transportation on the island, and guiding service. Guides, who tend to be serious birders, are very knowledgeable and helpful. Very few rental cars are available and no public transport. I went with an independent tour group for seven days, then stayed an extra two days.
WHEN TO GO
For bird photography, the best time of year is mid-June through to mid-August. My trip started the third week of July, toward the end of breeding season when birds are feeding young but still in breeding plumage. TDX tours run from May through to mid-October, but photographers should be aware that during spring and fall migration tours fill with serious birders in search of rarities. The tour guides are very accommodating though and make every effort to give photographers the time they need by grouping them on separate tours from birders.
Travel to the Pribilofs is by small plane from Anchorage. Pen Air makes the three hour flight to St Paul several times a week. There may be a refueling stop on the way, and flights are often delayed or even cancelled because of bad weather (especially fog) in the Pribilofs. Some flights also go to St. George, smaller than St. Paul with even larger seabird colonies, but with more frequent weather delays and far fewer facilities for visitors.
St Paul’s little airport also doubles as the island’s only hotel. Don’t be deceived by its humble appearance – rooms are comfortable and well serviced. Meals are taken in the cafeteria of the seafood factory in the village of St. Paul, a few miles from the airport/hotel. Again, the surroundings seem ramshackle, but the food is excellent, fresh and well prepared. There is a well stocked, if expensive, grocery store with an ATM. Internet service is slow and cell phone coverage limited (the hotel has public phones). St. Paul also has a medical clinic.
WHAT TO PACK
Pen Air’s severely limited overhead space requires careful packing. Be warned that the airline occasionally delays visitors’ checked bags until the next night if supplies fill the payload. As a precaution, take onto the plane anything you’ll need for a couple of days if you’re minus some of your gear. That includes waterproof footwear and warm clothing. I checked two large bags. My carry-on camera pack held my 500mm lens and main camera body, memory cards, extra batteries, spare socks and underwear, medicines and toothbrush. To be sure I had a handheld system to work with if the checked bag containing my tripod was delayed, I carried my 100-400mm lens on board the plane, in addition to my laptop computer. Fortunately, nothing was delayed on my trip.
Book tours through St Paul Island Tours/TDX website (Note: prices quoted may not be up to date) http://www.alaskabirding.com Email for current information: firstname.lastname@example.org