Great bird photography comes from a successful collaboration of the right location, the right equipment, good technique, plenty of patience and an ounce of luck. If you approach a target-rich environment with the right lens and practice your technique enough — you will get lucky. (I paraphrase my husband’s motto: luck comes to the well prepared.)
The nesting arctic terns on Vigur Island in Iceland (a target rich environment) are very strong, fast and quick. They are busy catching small fish and delivering the fish to their chicks on the island. They also have an instinct to attack your head, so it helps to have an assistant guard your head with a stick.
Set your camera this way: fast shutter speed to freeze action, and all other settings to support that choice: higher ISO, wide open lens, spot meter, and maybe continuous shooting. Then, my technique was very quick action: pan/focus/shoot.
Puffins are camera shy, as they flee when they see you coming — unlike many seabirds that I’m accustomed to in Florida. As soon as I spotted one, tried to creep a bit closer, framed the shot and focused — off it went. Most of my photos that afternoon on Vigur Island were shot a second too late. Charlie and I were a persistent team; he was holding high sticks to ward off the Arctic Terns who are apt to attack your head. He was watching the long grass in the hillside for puffin nests where the puffins briefly land to feed their chicks, and acting as my spotter.
“Over there,” Charlie whispered to me, pointing. I crept closer with camera poised, hoping to focus and shoot before the puffins took flight.
I kept my shutter speed high and my lens wide open, trying to freeze action on a flying puffin at the very least. I was working hard to get a good puffin shot before leaving Iceland. Having seen puffin photos in all the shops, I knew how cute the little birds are!
At last our teamwork paid off, and I captured this image of a puffin with a beak full of fresh fish for the chicks. The Nikon D800 with 70-200 lens and a 1.4 teleconverter gave me a sharp image even though we were about 10 meters away.
Vigur Island in the north of Iceland is a dynamic place to observe Arctic Terns and Puffins nesting. Talk about isolation? Only one farmer lives on the island with his family and his own electric generator. In the summer he hosts small groups of visitors coming from nearby Islafjordur.
We were among those lucky visitors last week, and we spent all our time meeting the great challenge of photographing these quick birds in flight. Both the arctic terns and puffins would catch some small fish in the sea, and then swoop onto the thick grass to feed their tiny chicks. Since the arctic terns have a way of attacking the heads of nearby humans, my husband held two yard sticks over our heads with little blue flags on the end, to deter any incoming attacks. He was successful, and so was I — getting a few action photos of these beautiful birds.
While traveling, we learned an amazing fact about the Arctic Tern. It is the longest migrating creature on Earth — traveling from nesting grounds here by the Arctic Circle 44,100 miles to the north Antarctic every year — in search of endless summer. I had to hear that fact more than once before I believed it. That’s a long distance to cover with just those two wings!
Here is a close-up of an Arctic Tern chick. The chicks had no fear of us, and luckily no instinct yet to attack our heads.
Stay tuned to this blog for some very cute Puffin photos coming soon!