Northern Lights

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Curtains of dancing light swirl before me across the night sky. Whites, greens and reds. Dim, then bright; slow then fast as though the sky is breathing. It’s hauntingly beautiful and moving. Then as suddenly as they appear they fade and only the stars remain.

At the end of February this year I travelled to Northern Lapland. This was a private trip organised by my good friends Danny Green and Steve Knell (superb photographer top guy) .  Also joining us were Mark Sisson and Nigel Spencer.

The Aurora Borealis or Northern Lights as they are sometimes, more poetically referred to, were high on everyone’s  wish list for the trip. Ten years ago in Tromso, Norway I had been fortunate to catch a glimpse of the Northern Lights. This time though we were a lot further North.  Our timing was perfect, coming at the peak of the solar activity and on a clear forecast, affording us five nights of spectacular light shows.

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The Aurora Borealis is one of nature’s greatest spectacles.  Explosions on the surface of the sun produce charged particles which are carried on solar winds through space to Earth. There they collide with gases in our atmosphere producing the light we see as Aurora.

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This natural light phenomena has fascinated and bewitched the indigenous peoples of the North since ancient times. According to Sami folklore, aurora are created by  the swish of a giant fox’s tail as it runs across  fields striking the snow, sending a trail of sparks into the night’s sky. The Finnish name for the lights (‘revontulet’) comes from the Sami legend and literally means “foxfire”.

Click on image to enlarge (image (c) Nigel Spencer)

This next image was taken by Nigel (cheers Nigel), of me photographing the Northern Lights. In the background is the guest house where we were staying. As you can see we didn’t have to travel far for activity! Each night the light show would begin just as we finished our evening meal which was very considerate and convenient. Photographing from the road added an additional element of excitement and danger. On several occasions we were left willing ten to twenty second exposures to finish before being taken out by a hurtling juggernaught. Aurora Borealis frogger!

This next image comes from our first display on the first night of the trip as we drove the ten hour trip North to our guest house. Our designated driver Steve needed to stop for a comfort break and as we got out to stretch our legs this is what we saw.

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What you don’t get a sense of  from this image of course is the blind panic and  swearing in the background as camera gear was unpacked. In Mark’s case he also had to change into his warm weather gear. With the temperature showing as – 25 degrees itt was all a bit of a shock to the system for Mark in particular, who had only just arrived back from Florida and was wearing a Hawaiian shirt and sporting a very nice tan.

Mark and Steve had joined us out in Finland and we’d met them at Oulu airport. Danny, Nigel and myself were already there as part of Natures Images Finnish Winter trip the previous week. It was a trip that just a few days before seemed like I wouldn’t be able to make due to a family sadness. I’m really grateful to Danny, Jari and the guys at Finnature helping with the arrangements for me to join the rest of the group towards  the end of the first week.  The next few images come from the Nature’s Images part of the trip.

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One of our targets were Boreal Owls. The Hawk Owl is one of the most beautiful Owls in the Kuusamo region. They really are stunning birds. The speed at which they fly is unbelievable. We had a lot of opportunities with this particular bird but in the end I only got two sharp images I was happy with. This is one of them.

Afterwards I learnt from Danny they are about three times faster than a Puffin. Which made me feel a lot better. I’m kind of glad I didn’t know that at the time as I probably wouldn’t have come away with any images at all of this fast and deadly silent hunter.

This next image is of a different Hawk Owl , again taken from our little guest house where we were staying for the second part of the trip. He sat there by the side of the road perched in beautiful afternoon light. Each time the shutter went off he would tilt his head quizzically

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One of my favourite birds is the Golden Eagle. I’d first photographed this most regal of raptors in Norway two years previously and was really looking forward to doing so again. I really love the setting in this next image.

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This  image below is a simple portrait of an adult bird. I particularly like the sprinkling of snow on its back.

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We were really luck to have an adult pair drop in. I’ve never photographed an female before. They are such big birds. The falling snow was another stroke of luck. We were close to mating season and got to see some really lovely courtship behaviour. At one point it looked very much as though they might mate in front of us, but it wasn’t to be. Not all the luck went our way.

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Returning to the second week of the trip, the guest house where we were staying had feeders set up , Throughout the day we spent our time photographing around the feeding stations. Good numbers of Pine Grosbeak visited throughout the day. They have to be one of the most beautiful birds of the boreal forest. . I love the vivid red colouring of the male in particular.

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As anyone who follows this blog regularly will know I make no admissions regarding my small bird photography skills and capabilities. Perhaps because it’s not something that interests me that much it’s not something I’ve done a lot of.  I’ll admit though that I  was really starting to get into it  after a week of it. A lot of our time was spent concentrating on trying (I use that word advisedly!) on Siberian Tits. Siberian Tits are one of the smallest birds of the Northern taiga forests. They aren’t as  common as Pine Grosbeaks and only a couple of pairs visit the feeding station. They are unbelievably fast so it was a real challenge for me and one that caused the rest of the group no end of amusement. In the end though I  managed to get an image or two I was pleased with.

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Standing outside all day photographing in temperatures of minus 20 degree  made it a feet of endurance. The coffee runs weren’t much help as the contents froze within five minutes. The biscuits were always welcome though.

Next we headed even further north and visited the fishing port of Batsfjord  on the Varanger Peninsula . There we had organised a boat trip with a local Norweagian fisherman in the hope of photographing sea ducks.

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Click on image to enlarge

Our guide had built a floating hide powered by a small outboard motor. Several of the group gamely volunteered to have a go in this. Nigel managed to get himself stuck in the ice in scenes strangely reminiscent of Titanic. The image below is of Mark in the ‘tub’. I think that was the last we saw of him!

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The King Eider was perhaps the species I wanted to see  most on the entire trip.  These images were taken from a floating hide in a small harbour.  It was such a privilege then to be only a few feet away from this spectacular sea duck. I love their stunning colouring and the scapular triangular erect ‘sails’  they display as they paddle

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King Eider are a high arctic breeding species and can be found along the coast throughout Siberia. During the winter these stretches of coastline freeze and so good numbers head towards the large fjords of northern Norway to shelter.

This next image is of the adult female. Whilst the drake is undoubtedly beautiful with its vivid markings there is something about the deep chestnut colouring of the female I also love. In many ways they look very much like female common Eider.

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Other Arctic species can be found here too like Long Tailed Duck and Steller’s Eider. Both look equally beautiful in their winter breeding plumage.

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Click on image to enlarge

For me though it was the King Eider that was undoubtedly the show stealer. So I thought I’d finish with another image of this most beautiful of sea ducks.

With Northern lights, King Eider, Hawk Owl, Golden Eagle and so much more besides (I’ve left out a lot!) it was a memorable trip. All the more moving for me because of events back home. I am so glad I was able to make the trip in the end. I would like to say a special thank you to  Danny, Mark, Nigel and Steve for their camaraderie and getting me through a difficult time personally. Thank you guys. It’s always a privilege to travel with you. This blog is for my better half (in every way), Preslava. Next year I’ll return with you to see the Northern Lights together :)

In a couple of weeks time from 20th to 22nd April I’m going to be running a series of Wildlife Photography Master classes for London Wild Bird Watch Live and Amateur Photographer magazine. I hope to see some of you there. After that  I’ve got a couple of personal projects before returning to Finland in the summer with Danny to try for European wolves (hopefully, if there is one species there are absolutely no guarantees with it’s wolves!). This will  probably be my next blog entry, meaning it’s going to be quiet around here for a  little while.

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11 Responses to Northern Lights

  1. Hi Jules, I found you when I was looking for a decent web hosting company would you believe. Then spent many hours drooling over your images rather than sorting my webs out ! Have since followed you on Twitter (Sadly I’m new at Twitter & Facebook – you have my permission to chuckle!) Have now drooled over your Northern Lights images yet again plus more! Just thought I would let you know. Hope to meet you at the Bird Fair in April.

    Regards

    Carol

  2. Hello Jules.

    Wonderful blog spanning a number of species on what was was clearly a successful trip. Did you use fill-in flash on the Grosbeak?
    The duck photos are pure colour magic. Well done.and thanks for sharing

    Wayne

    • jcoxfoto says:

      Cheers Wayne! No fill in flash on the Grosbeak. The winter light that morning was beautiful. To be honest I don’t know what I’m doing with flash so in respect of all my images what you’re looking at is natural light :)

  3. Mark hamblin says:

    Great set of images Jules. Love that hide!

  4. rosie green says:

    Great blog entry! Saw one of your presentations at the London Birdfair! Totally agree with your comment on Steve Knell, having just spent a week with him in Hungary. Terrific photographer and huge fun.

    • jcoxfoto says:

      Hey Rosie. Lovely to hear from you. Thank you for the kind comments about the blog. You should have come to say hello at LWBW. Hope you enjoyed the presentation. Steve’s a legend isnt he. One of Britain’s best wildlife photographers and probably the most knowledgeable when it comes to the natural world

  5. rosie green says:

    Thanks, Jules. Nag Steve to get a website or some kind of connectivity! He wants to but needs encouragement!! I’ve stupidly managed to leave him without his email address (despite sharing a series of “boxes” with him for about 70 hours!!). Next time you’re in contact with him can you ask him to send me a mail (bet he’s lost the card I gave him!!) ? You’re right, top photographer but hides his light under a bushel !
    Next time I see you, I’ll come and say hello….

    • jcoxfoto says:

      Website? I’m not even sure he has an e mail address. I’ll speak to Danny when he’s back and see if I can get a telephone number and e mail it to you (I think he has a telephone at least..well I think he has). I look forward to seeing you also. Maybe on a Nature’s Images trip some time :)

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