It has been a crazy few months for me – I have been leading trips left, right and centre. No moaning from me though as it has been absolute delight to take so many fantastic people all over Europe, showing them some of the most incredible wildlife and hopefully helping them get some great images too!
The next instalment in this summer’s schedule was a trip to one of my favourite spots, right on the Finland’s eastern border with Russia. It is here I lead Wildlife Worldwide’s Boreal Predators Photography tour, which gives my clients a chance to photograph European brown bear, grey wolf and the feisty wolverine.
All I can really say about this year’s tour was wow, wow and well… WOW!
We were treated to a remarkable number of sightings of all three species and the photography opportunities were mesmerising. Even with a faulty camera I was able to capture some awesome images, my clients images really blew me away so it was a hugely successful trip.
And now to the photos, all I will say is that I hope you enjoy them…
It must be said that every night in the hides was productive and they allowed the entire group to capture a wonderful array of images. What I have included here are just a small taster. I have only included on wolverine as I was always in a hide that didn't have the prime views.
It is very important to me that my clients are the ones who get the best images, after all it is their holiday and I want them to get the most out of the experience.
On the last night of the trip the whole group were treated to some breathtaking sightings and unrivalled photography opportunities.
The images above (I think at least) perfectly demonstrate why Finland is such a superb destination for a photography holiday. The light is absolutely brilliant, the wildlife is stunning and the photography is very hard to beat.
So if you fancy joining me in 2019 for another foray into the boreal forests of Finland, be sure to visit Wildlife Worldwide's website for more information.
A land of countless lakes and seemingly infinite forests, Finland is one of Europe’s wilder corners. In recent years the country has become well regarded as the finest bear watching location outside of the Americas.
However, I had heard of a particular location (right on the Russian border), where it was possible to see and even photograph European Brown Bear, Wolverine and even Wolf. This place sounded too good to be true! So after a lot of digging and hours of reading through reports, I had all of the information I needed.
In the end I decided it would be a great place to run a wildlife photography tour with Wildlife Worldwide. We have named the tour ‘Boreal Predators Photography’ and it certainly lived up to its name this year. Towards the end of June I set off with 6 eager clients, all keen to photograph the iconic species of this border region, or ‘no man’s land’, between Finland and Russia.
Now I must start by saying that Finland hasn’t really had a spring in 2017, and therefore all the wildlife’s behaviour has been particularly unpredictable. We spent a total of 4 nights in the hides, all of which were different. This year was particularly cold, which makes it much harder to get comfortable within the hides, but our perseverance paid off in the end.
The first night was a little disappointing with only a couple of bears seen at a bit of a distance, one of which was particularly nervous. Don’t get me wrong, it is still incredible to see the magnificent mammals, it was only disappointing from a photographic opportunity point of view.
The second and third nights made up for it though, with at least 4 different wolverine spotted across 3 locations (the group had to be split on the second evening), the very nervous bear made another appearance and the icing on the cake had to be two Grey Wolves seen on both nights. On the second evening, a client and I were treated to a pair of Wolverine – the light was at its worst when they appeared, but we got a few acceptable shots in the end. Just as we thought the evening was coming to a close, it was probably around 3 am, I noticed a light shape moving on the edge of the forest. It was obscured by a light mist, but there was no mistaking what we had in front of us. It was a Grey Wolf … in fact there were two wolves. It was a magical encounter, a real privilege and a challenge to photograph in such low light and the mist.
It was the last night of the trip when everything really came together. We were only going to be in the hides until around midnight as we had to leave first thing for our flight back to Helsinki. I decided we should try our luck at the pond, where I had previously seen the two Wolverine and wolves.
I can honestly say that the evening was one of the very best I have had in my career. The light wasn’t necessarily the best, but the sightings we had are some of the finest anyone could possibly ask for. In fact, the evening actually started relatively slowly. It all seemed like it might be disappointing end to the trip.
As the sun was losing its strength and retreating over the tree line, one of my group spotted a large bear moving through some marshy ground. It was heading right at us, slowly powering through the swamp. You could hear the strength of every movement, it was absolutely incredible. The bear posed perfectly for us and the whole group managed to get some wonderful shots. Having had its fill on the salmon scraps left out, the bear slowly made its way back towards the forest, slowly melding into its wooded surrounds.
Having had such a remarkable encounter, everybody seemed to be settling back into their seats (figuratively speaking), when I noticed a familiar light shape on the edge of the treeline. I stopped myself from saying anything, took a breath, then raised my binoculars and my jaw slowly dropped. I knew what it was, but I didn’t really believe we could be so lucky. Surely I was suffering from sleep deprivation?
There some 70 yards away was a white wolf, the one I had seen at a distance on the previous two nights, and it was followed by a second wolf. The white wolf was the female, whilst the second was tan colour, and this was the male. The female slowly made her way towards the hides, seduced by the smell of the fresh meat of a carcass.
The next 15 minutes were spellbinding. She came to within only 20 metres of the hide … it was her size, her obvious power and that stare that left me breathless. I have never known a stare like it. I have been all over the world, photographing Polar Bears, Leopards and Tiger, but never has an animal looked at me with the same intensity or intelligence. This really was a once in a lifetime encounter and one that will stick with me for the rest of my days.
If you would like to join me in Finland, I will be leading another ‘Boreal Predators Photography’ tour with Wildlife Worldwide in June 2018. I can’t promise the tour will be the same as this year’s, but I can guarantee it will be a great adventure.
For the entirety of this trip I was using a Canon 500mm F4 IS II USM lens which was kindly provided by Fixation. I will be writing a separate post with a review and my thoughts on using the lens if the field.
This morning we awoke to big blue skies and headed into the spectacularly beautiful Hornsund. This massive fjord is surrounded by dramatic mountain peaks and destructive glaciers. Being so far South, I have to admit I really wasn't expecting to see as much of the truly specialist Arctic wildlife.
Upon arrival in this stunning setting a female Polar Bear was spotted on the shoreline and then moments later another larger bear was spotted on the far shore (perhaps a male). We would be going on a Zodiac cruise to see if we could get any closer to the bears and then on to explore the fjord ... little did we know what was in store for us all.
We all met on the deck and waited to board our Zodiacs for our afternoon cruise, I was with the Naturetrek leader Peter Dunn and expedition leader Jan Belgers. We set off as one of the lead boats and headed toward the small headland where we had earlier sighted the female bear.
As we approached the shore line we realised that the bear had moved on and as much as we were scanning both the water and the shore we were unable to see anything. Peter then spotted some movement on the water's surface way out in the fjord ... it was the bear, it had managed to slip by us in the ice-cold water. The bear approached an island and we all held our breaths as we prayed the bear would be a 'quality' bear.
It was definitely a 'quality' bear ...
The real benefit of the island was that the bear felt completely at ease and we could travel all the way round for a constantly changing backdrop. As a photographer you always want to try and capture that image that stands out and lingers in the mind, this really was the perfect photographic opportunity. Even then this was one of those moments where you just have to put the camera down and really take in the moment!
We slowly moved around the island the backdrop was more than you could ever have dreamt of. We slowly moved closer and closer, all the time keeping an eye on the bear to make sure it was completely at ease. We all go the odd glance and a quick sniff but it certainly wasn't affecting its scavenging behaviour. The bear was obviously search for whatever food it could find, it is known that a variety of birds breed on this island in the summer months.
After a wonderful hour with this remarkable Polar Bear we thought it would be best to leave it in peace and leave it to carry on with its search for food. With a few months remaining until the sea ice returns this bear will really have to try and conserve its energy and find whatever scraps that are available.
We move further up the fjord to see whether we could approach the second bear, he was a huge male but he was not at ll interested in us and remained in his slumber. We carried on towards the head of a glacier to explore the amazing landscapes and the ice-filled water.
I really hope you have enjoyed looking through all of these images and with only one more post left, I think that this is perhaps the highlight of the cruise. This day was quite possibly the most memorable of my life outside of my time in Africa, with jaw-dropping landscapes, danger and unbeatable wildlife encounters I am not sure what can beat it.
Coming up are some charismatic reindeer and a few more landscapes so please keep on reading.
Our planned landing site for this morning was Kapp Waldburg, a site for nesting Kittiwakes in a steep sided canyon. As we arrived at our landing point we heard over the loud speaker that there was a Polar Bear and we would have to head elsewhere to stretch our legs.
From there we headed on towards the tundra habitat at Sundneset, once again as we approached the landing site the Polar Bear call went out again. This bear was very relaxed and the expedition team decided it would be safe to land slightly further down the coast and have the ship keep an eye on the bear's where abouts.
As we landed we were greeted by a truly wonderful site, a stunning pair of Grey (or Red) Phalaropes were feeding only yards away from us. The male was particularly obliging, carrying on with its feeding as if we didn't even exist, the female on the other hand seemed to be rather skittish and wasn't a particularly good poser.
Unusually for the bird world the female Grey Phalarope is actually the more beautiful. The males take care of the eggs and ensure they hatch before raising the chicks, the female visits a multitude of males and lays her eggs with a few of them ensuring that they have the best chance of survival.
As we left the two phalarope to their own devices we headed inland across the tundra and had an unexpected but truly wonderful encounter. A very shaggy Arctic Fox was heading towards us and we were blessed with extraordinarily close views. The fox had not yet lost all of its winter coat and spent a bit of time rolling around doing its best to free itself from its Arctic jumper. There were also a few Svalbard Reindeer within the vicinity but they were all a little nervous around us.
After spending a couple of hours on shore and aware that there was still a Polar Bear within the vicinity it was time to head back down to the Zodiacs and transfer back to the Ortelius. As we reached the landing site we realised that the male Grey Phalarope was still feeding and happy to pose for the photographers in the group.
After another incredible lunch we set sail for Dolerittneset, the ship anchored and we were once again out on the Zodiacs heading for shore. I joined the hiking group and we climbed up into the misty hills that towered above the water. We really didn't see much except for a few reindeer and a couple of ptarmigan and even Stein (our Norwegian guide) seemed to find the climb hard work. I am sure on another day the views could have been superb but on this day the visibility was less then 20 metres.
We eventually headed back down towards the ship and had a look at the multitude of Walrus bones that littered the shoreline. This was once a great Walrus haulout but unfortunately they were nearly hunted to extinction in this area. There were a couple of individuals on the shore but no longer were there the numbers that once thrived here.
Once we were back aboard the ship, we headed for the southern most tip of Spitsbergen and up towards the stunning fjord of Hornsund. This took us all night and most of the next morning but what was in store in Hornsund was something none of us ever expected, it was a day that will stay with me until the day I die ... keep reading to find out what Hornsund had in store.
Having had two Polar Bear sightings in as many days the morale was high among the group but sadly our planned excursion to find the Walrus haulout was a no go. It seemed that nobody was at home and so we moved on to the fhord at Faksevagen. Here we went off on our first proper walk to explore the Arctic Tundra.
We set off with our Norwegian guide Stein and headed up the hillside into the slight mist. Stein was completely relaxed and didn't seem at all worried by the possibility of any bears. We spotted a few Reindeer here and there but they all seemed to keep their distance from us, suddenly we had company ... a Purple Sandpiper. The bird blended in superbly well with the tundra and you can see why they breed in this terrain.
Then at long last the Reindeer came close enough for me to get a few shots, including the lovely male below which had a great set of antlers.
As we walked along the edge of a shallow ridge line we suddenly saw a white animal appear within only a few yards of us. Your reaction says Polar Bear but luckily it was only another Reindeer, and luckily for me he posed nicely for a few photographs too.
At the top of the ridge we had a sighting of the ship surrounded by an ice floe that had been at least half a kilometre away when we landed. It just goes to show how quickly the environment can change in this amazing landscape.
We headed back to the ship for yet another filling lunch before we headed to the amazing breeding colony of Brunnich's Guillemots at Alkefjellet. We were told to dress warmly as we were going to be on the Zodiacs for at least a couple of hours and possibly more depending on the quality of the sightings.
We went out onto the water in our Zodiacs and I had our Austrian guide Barbara (an expert on Glaciers). We made our way slowly towards the cliffs and at first there were just a few hundred birds on the tiny rocky outcrops, where each bird was incubating a solitary egg. However, as we made our way further along the cliffs, away from the ship the sky seemed to be filled with birds. The cliffs were towering above us, stained a mix of white and pink from the guillemots' droppings, and the birds were there in their thousands. The noise was quite amazing and it was an incredible spectacle which I feel truly honoured to have seen.
We were desperate to see our first Arctic Fox at Alkefjellet and when we came to a grass covered scree slopes it was the best chance we would have. We scanned and we scanned but we just couldn't see any movement ... then Barbara spotted one, our first Arctic Fox. She was so excited and we were too, it was a long way off but it was an amazing sighting.
We eventually decided to leave the fox alone and head back to the ship for the evening and yet another meal. Tonight we were heading to a fjord that has only be visited by a handful of vessels, even our expedition leader had never been there before. We were now really on a true Arctic expedition and heading into the unknown.
Having spent the night in the ice, all was clear on the Polar Bear front but we weren't to be put off. Today we were going to head through the ice and see if we could find some more bears. After breakfast we were to have a lecture about how to sex Polar Bears, as the lecture was coming to an end a call went out over the loud speaker ... a Polar Bear was on the horizon.
We made our way towards the bear and this bear seemed more relaxed in our presence but as we approached a group of Harp Seal swam around the ship's bow. It was amazing to get closer to this bear and see it behave as if we weren't even there ...
After 45 minutes or so we decided to leave the bear in peace as we didn't want to break the ice and destroy its potential hunting habitat. We set off through one of the many clear channels in the ice and headed east along the coast of northern Spitsbergen. As we made our way through the ice we disturbed the water and were therefor accompanied by Fulmars, Kittiwakes and Glaucous Gulls. I went to the stern of the ship and photographed these birds as they performed their aerobatics.
As we kept on heading through the ice to the remote island of Moffen we noticed a large lump on the ice, it was a Walrus ... our first of the trip! As we got closer, much to our dismay, the Walrus slipped off into the icy water and out of sight. We were all a little disappointed but then to our delight we noticed a multiple of lumps, yet more Walruses.
It was a bachelor group of Walrus, sitting on a small ice floe and creating quite a mess in the process. The ice was less than pristine but the Walruses certainly seemed content as the captain swung the ship to try and make sure everyone on board got a great view.
So with Walrus finally ticked off and some close relatively close encounters from the lowest point on the ship we headed off towards one of the fjords where we hoped to land the following morning. The target ... yet more Walruses but this time at a well known haul-out point.