Updated: May 29
Its difficult when you get overwhelmed.
Your mind gets crowded up, you are unable to think straight, you are looking for opportunities where none exist and because you are constantly, desperately searching for opportunities, you end up missing some obvious ones too.
I should know.
Ten months back I was at the bird cliff of Alkefjellet while at Svalbard. Alkefjellet is a bird cliff which is the home for around 60,000 pairs of swooping, screaming, fighting guillemots, kittiwakes and seagulls.
Alkefjellet is no ordinary cliff. It’s a 300 + feet of sheer, vertical rock face.
When you get close to these cliffs on a Zodiac and up close, these cliffs look even more intimidating. The birds are either sitting impassively on precious millimetres of horizontal rock face or swooping all around you. The air is filled with their raucous cries. You are struggling to figure out how to take a half decent , sharp, photograph in a constantly rocking and moving Zodiac as the waves get fairly choppy as you near the cliff. There’s so much happening all around that you are struggling to get a handle on what you want to do, what you can do.
I don’t think I have posted a single image of Alkefjellet. I just couldn’t do justice to the impressiveness of that sight.
I thought of Alkefjellet as we headed towards Hornoya.
Hornoya is a small 0.4 sq km island at the easternmost point of Norway. It’s the home to an estimated 80,000 birds – the Puffins and the razor bills are the prime attractions along with the guillemots and the shags ( cormorant ) with the sea gulls frequently dropping in to provide variety. You also have the odd raptor occasionally serenely flying overhead immediately sending the thousands of birds below in a tizzy.
But…how do you try to show 80,000 birds !??
How do you show the enormity of Hornoya's offering ?
If you are staying at Hornoya – and the only place to stay is a cottage with a few bedrooms right next to the lighthouse –this abundance doesn’t stare at you in your face all the time.
You get out of your cottage and pause to smell the sea air and feel the crispy bite in the wind. You then begin a careful descent down a snow covered slope, and you bless your stars for having bought a pair of crampons just before reaching Hornoya. The crampons help get a good grip on these slopes, without which these daily walks would have been a tad more worrying. After a few hundred yards of descent, you have a slight climb to your right, before you bend under a cable and slowly, you crunch your way through the snow around the island.
It’s as you make the first bend that you see your first puffins and in the next few minutes get a hint of the sheer number of birds on the island. The guillemots and the puffins leave the island at night to sleep in the sea. They return to the island in the morning, and as you turn around the bend, you can see thousands of birds madly circling over the island, and when they fly low over the sea, they look like those World War I fighter planes making their sorties you have seen in the old war movies.
The first puffins you see will be inevitably one that is looking at the sea as if wondering at its wisdom of coming over to land !
You get down a part down a few steps and where a railing has been helpfully provided. However, the steps are covered with snow which often is in the process of melting as it gets the sunlight directly which makes things a little tricky. The fact that the railing doesn’t really inspire great confidence makes that bit of descent an anxious one.
By then, you are really getting into the thick of it. Birds are perched all around you, often just a couple of feet away. Above them, the sky is littered with rapidly moving black spots.
The birds look like zooming space ships in a sci fi movie
You complete that tricky descent and it is after you make the final turn that the enormity of the task on hand really hits you. There are birds everywhere. Birds are on the rocks next to you, they walk past you, they come close enough to you for you to use a wide angle lens.
On your left the island tapers down to the sea, and on the right, it slopes up to the cliffs.
And…did I say that there are birds everywhere ?
However, the two distinct advantages Hornoya provides over Alkefjellet are that, firstly, you are on land and not on a rocky Zodiac and two, there is a generous expanse of land where the birds land to stroll around, woo, fight or simply contemplate about life in general.
Of course, there were the cliffs with those imperceptible horizontal surfaces for the thousands of the birds to perch on. However, with the memories of Alkefjellet still raw, I didn’t spend too much time on trying to capture its scale.
Every now and then, there appears to be a decision that is taken through some unknown mysterious signal, or maybe its just herd behavior and a rather large number of birds decide to take off. You would be standing looking at some other place and you hear a rather loud Phhhrrrrrr sound and just a nano second later, feel the gush of air as the birds take off. It’s a fascinating feeling and though this happened numerous times each day, I never quite lost the thrill of it.
The sudden take off of hundreds of birds flying just above us was always a fascinating experience
The abundance of Hornoya is not limited to the number of birds. Its also the number of opportunities that are spread out in front of you.
When there are so many birds around you, all of whom are singularly focused on getting a mate, mating and preparing to nest, you are bound to witness a lot of interaction.
There’s the wooing.
I swear my everlasting, undying love to you and only you...
There’s the mating.
It was still early day mating season but the odd pair could be found
There’s the househunting.
This pair found themselves a cosy burrow and seemed rather thrilled about it and engaged in many a fight to save it
There’s the fighting, of course.
These fights are serious business
Or you can wait to isolate birds and indulge in a bit of minimalistic or creative composition.
Razor bills are ideal for attempting creative shots
More minimalism needed ?...here you go
Or you could lie down on the snow and use that little bit of snow in front of you to blur out the foreground and make the European shag look a tad artistic in its self obsession.
I must confess I have never attempted as many shots of the cormorant or the shag as I did here
The birds are also close enough for you to zoom in for some interesting closeups.
Some puffin love
And if you turn around, you can see the sea winking at you mischievously, inviting you to try out different experiments.
The sun is setting and the guillemots are trying to decide if its time to leave
I was delighted with the crop of images I returned with...but at the same time I knew that I had left opportunities on the table.
The problem with all this abundance is that it can get to you. There is non stop action happening around you and you are constantly trying to figure out what should be your next attempt.
By the last day, I was mentally tired. I had ticked off most, if not all, of the images that I had set in my goals and it was exhausting to be sharp and look out for more opportunities. Pretty soon, I just had enough and walked back to the cottage.
When there are so many interactions happening around you, there always is the chance of something different, something interesting taking place. I know that I would have missed quite a few opportunities. Not that I am complaining about my results – as I said, am delighted with my images – but it’s more a personal note for the future. One has to take advantage of the time one has and I missed that here.
The lesson, I guess, is not to rush into taking too many photographs. You don’t need to get crazy with the shutter button. What you need to do, is to take it slow, to soak in the place, understand the place. The birds are not going anywhere. The interactions are going to happen again. And again. As you understand the place, you think better, you create better. Slow and deliberate, should be the mantra.
So, in a slightly contradictory way, my lesson was that I should have taken slightly fewer photographs initially to have been able to have taken more and better photographs.
Did that make sense ? :)