Well, just back from a couple of weeks with Danny Green in Svalbard – I won’t (& my wife certainly won’t) call it a “holiday”. More what my son would describe as “travelling”. SAS failed to organize the pissup in the brewery & changed our flights from direct to Oslo, to via Copenhagen, leaving very tight transfers, before delaying our departure, so we were overnight in Oslo. Not the best way to “bond” with the rest of the group! There were 10 “guests” & some serious kit & experience – most of the others had organized their own tours or guided for Danny’s company previously. Lots of very fancy glass from Canon’s zoom fisheye & 11-24, to Nikon’s new 180-400 1.4x (two of them!), sveral 600’s & an 800.
We were on the Havsel, nice small & low, but largely unmodified “fishing” (actually SEALING) vessel. I think it’s the first time on the tourist trail, but had been used previously for commercial filming including the BBC’s “The Hunt”. Until the skipper fixed it, there was one shower between 16 & our cabin was half the size of my bathroom.
We didn’t start well, & had one day of lovely sunshine in the fjords, some seals & walruses with a calf, but NO BEARS for 6 days. We pulled off into some fast ice & the skipper Bjorn dropped a rope-ladder over the side to stretch his legs. “Come on down” he said, “it’s impossible to fall through”. Danny said “NO!”, but down some of us went. It’s a very disconcerting experience, walking on the ice with some crunching, compressing snow/ice on the surface & some sea water coming through. My time working in A&E came back to me & reminded me of physiological responses like the diving reflex (which saves some kids’ lives under cold water for hours), but also the gasp reflex. When you go through ice into freezing water, there is an involuntary gasp of deep breath & the inhaled sea water does absolutely nothing whatever either for your oxygen transport or buoyancy. Falling through the ice would mean a very rapid death. Only some time later did he actually measure the ice depth & concede that it wasn’t quite as thick as he thought.
Getting a bit down about it, we decided to head out far North into the polar pack ice to have a further look. Nothing. We pulled of into the ice to get a closer look at a dull brownish-looking bird or some kind. Some sort of unusual Skua which did nothing for me, when someone said “BEAR”. Awaaaaaay in the distance in the ice. I couldn’t even see it with binos. Well of course, off we went, bludgeoning our way into the ice. Very frustrating, it looked as though the bear would be out of range & we wouldn’t get close enough for pics. As we got nearer “there are TWO bears”. “There are SEVEN bears”….. well after 2 hours, back & forth battering through, we had twenty one bears on a whale carcass – so that was where they all were! We stayed there for a couple of days & some of the bears came right over to see us & have a sniff. Some photos with my Olympus held upside down on the end of a monopod over the side of the boat.
Because I had a “Sherpa”, I had brought my little drone & I flew this a few times, but it really, really, REALLY didn’t like it. Normally, it’s dead easy & almost flies itself, but up there, I’ve never seen error messages like it. I could hardly see the screen – “GPS error”, “Compass error”, “IMU conflict”…. It wouldn’t fly itself, so was very difficult to get good pictures. I’m still not sure of it was the cold or the wind, flying from a big chunk of iron, or that we were 83 degrees North. Anyway, it was challenging. Only after I landed OK in the end did Bjorn tell me that he had had 3 drones on previous trips. Two had crashed & one had disaapeared over the horizon never to be seen again.
It was even harder to get out of the ice than in. Over 24 hours including overnight to give the engine a rest, breaking the four miles out into open Arctic Ocean. Only as we left did Bjorn admit that he had once been stuck for eight days unable to get out of the ice. The first mate easily trumped that having once been stuck in the pack ice for FIFTY SIX days! Back to Lonyearbyen via Alkhornet (where they filmed the fledging Guillemots getting picked off by arctic foxes).
Checked in at midnight, but the incoming flight hit a goose, so needed a new plane flown in – 8 more hours in the airport – entertained by another arctic fox on the runway.
Well, not a holiday, but an adventure. Do it again? I’m going on Danny’s snow mobile trip for polar bears in April & taking the Sherpa to Kamchatka next Summer. You’re a very long time dead.
I've been up to Lunt Meadows (North Merseyside) a few times looking for short eared owls, never with much success, but went up yesterday (30th Nov) since I had a free afternoon & good (if bloody cold) weather was forecast. As ever, it's difficult to know where to stand - they've been showing best backlit by the setting sun right at the far end of the reserve, but can be anywhere. As ever, they also tend to appear just as the auto-ISO says "go home". Anyway, here's a few I got yesterday ISO 3200 to 16000 all of them pretty big crops.
It's great to find some properly "wild" animals. This was the first time I'd ever had a good look at SEOs & it was a great half hour after 3.30 until dusk.
I'd never been to the Bird Fair, but went this year & added on a long day of photography for Ospreys & with Tom Robinson just up the road near Bourne. Early start (only 5am this time of year) at HornMill. They seem pretty straight up & volunteer I think that they've had over 20 blank days this year. The Aviemore guys keep their cards close to their chests. The River Gwash is not as good as Aviemore. A bit higher position & unpredictable splash point, & I think all the birds are ringed. This was the very last day of the season & many birds had flown, preceded by two blank days, we only had one dive, but at least it came towards us!
So, all done by 8.30 & over to Tom Robinson's pond hide. Tom's got all sorts of ideas for pay & display, so it's a bit of a building site at the moment. The pond hide is fine - nice & low, near the action. There were a few kingfishers for bird-on-a-stick portraits, but not really any good for diving. The light was a bit flat, but they were reasonably close with plenty of visits, but no photos to go on the wall! The herons were more obliging, stalking & fishing for quite a while. A couple of buzzards also came past.
Anyway, better than working for a living! Then after a quick curry in Bourne, off to Tom's night owl hide. He regularly gets Tawny & BaBarn. Not this time! Not a thing. Sat in the hide listening to Manchester City try to lose to Everton, I called it a day at about 12.30 (call me a lightweight, but I had been up at 4am) for the drive home. This was the best (only) photo I got in the evening...
Maybe next time!
Half an hour in Helsinki airport, so thought I would upload a few pics from the trip with Jari Peltomaki where I met up with a couple of buzzers, both of whom keep their heads down on this site - David white (who anyone who came to the FB conference a couple of years ago will remember from his farm buzzer hide pics) & Phil Dennison. First Oulu, then Kuusamo for the Black Grouse Lek, but also some eagles. Bit chilly!
To Jari's home for some waxwings
Some rather dark red squirrels with the biggest ear tufts I've ever seen. Easier for the eagles to spot them.
Spring hasn't yet really sprung in Finland & we were too early for the bears to have woken up properly, so we have a couple of quite thin nights in the hides, which are quite comfortable (& heated).
Finally, out in the open, but it needed some patience!
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Simon Roberts - sr at snjr.co.uk