Barrow Tundra March & More…

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This drake King Eider image was created with the tripod-mounted Canon 800 f/5.6L IS lens, the 1.4X II TC, and the EOS-1D MIV. ISO 400. Evaluative Metering +1 stop: 1/640 sec. at f/9.

On Wednesday, two days after my 64th birthday, we met a nice Swedish couple at the end of the new dump road in Barrow. They shared tales of viewing and photographing three Sabine’s Gulls “at a stream that ran into the second large lake beyond the first large lake.” We couldn’t resist. The next morning, four of us–Brian Zweibel, E.J. Peiker, Chas McRae, and I set out across the tundra to search for the exquisitely beautiful gulls but fearing somewhat of a death march :) It was a bit more than a mile over soft tundra to the end of the the first big lake. We were crossing a small snow field no more than 15 inches deep when my left leg broke through the firm crust. I fell forward gently but as I did so I pulled a muscle in my left hip. Ouch. I realized that it would not be smart to continue on for what would be about another 3/4 of a mile so I decided to stay in the area and find some birds to photograph. After about 45 minutes with no luck I began to head back very slowly only to find that my hip had stiffened up quite a bit. In the meantime Chas had gone only a bit farther but Brian and EJ had made there way far across the tundra. Alas, they never did find the gulls.

I decided to head back to the van in earnest–I had the keys in my vest pocket :). The next time that I glanced back I noticed that the long hikers had turned around and started back and so had Chas. At that moment I realized that hobbling as I was, I would likely be the last one to make it back to the van even though I had a big head start on everyone. As my leg loosened up a bit, I was determined not to let that happen. I set a determined course towards the three big dirt piles that we had noted as markers but each time I glanced back I saw that my three van mates were inexorably gaining on me but by the time that I made it to the road on which the van was parked and had only 100 yards to go they were still 200 yards behind me so I would not be the last one back :) I packed my stuff away and sat in the van and sat and sat. Finally I got the keys out and started the van to keep warm. Still, they never showed up. I was in the process of getting my cell phone when it rang. Brian told me that that had found a nice Lapland Longspur nest and that I should join them for some good photography…. I got out of the van but my hip was hurting much too much so back in the van I went. After another half hour I got out of the van, walked around a bit, drove the van up onto the road within 60 yards of the longspur nest, gathered my gear, and joined them.

I made a nice image or two of the male coming in with a beetle larvae for the female and a few more of the female when she was off the nest. When you looked at the nest through a long lens the female’s face was blocked by grass, but if you approached slowly you could get within three feet of her as she incubated her four eggs so I borrowed Brian’s 70-200 f/2.8 L IS lens, added my 1.4X teleconverter, a 25mm extension tube and my MIV, mounted the rig onto my Gitzo 3530 topped by a Mongoose M3.5, and went to work.

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Often a long lens is the wrong tool for the job. Canon 70-200 f/2.8 L IS lens, 1.4X II TC, 25mm extension tube, and the EOS-1D MIV. ISO 800. Evaluative metering at 0: 1/125 sec. at f/14 set manually. Fill flash at -1 2/3 stops.

When I was done with my nest photography, we packed it up and got into the van. Everyone was cold and beat from the long hike. We had had the ever-present east wind at about 30+ mph for the whole walk…. We all said, “Back to the hotel. We only stop for Snowy Owl, Ruff–there had been one seen by the dump–and King Eider. Brian drove about 100 yards when I said, “Stop; there is a pair of King Eiders in the pond on the left not too far from the road!” They assembled their great and made their way towards the birds. Without a great deal of effort the made their way to the edge of the pond, got low, and got fairly close to the birds. “Hmmm,” I thought. When I saw that the birds were were swimming around in front of them in pretty nice blue water I got out of the van, got my gear, and snuck in behind them. Then the birds both climbed up on a tiny island to roost for a bit. They were quite accepting of our presence, but were not as close as I had thought. The the three of them, each on their knees, began to make their way across the small pond.

Even with my bum hip, I knew that I could not continue to stand up so I got down on one knee and began advancing by stepping with my left leg and sort of skiing along on my right knee. It worked just great. At time the bottom was muck and at times it was ice, but at least is was shallow. Before long I had just about made it to the tiny island. All three were to my left with Brian pinching in on the birds from the far left. I knew that they could not go left so I continued one knee skiing to the island. Just as I got there I lost my balance, fell forward, and gently escorted the 800 on the lowered tripod to the mucky island. That was a close call. Then I simply sat on the island like a king on his throne. The bird rested on the near bank providing some great photo opps, and then got back in the water and began swimming around in front of my three buddies but well to my left. And then they swam right–and I mean right–in front of me in clean blue water. That is when I created the lead image in this post :).

So we hiked for miles across the tundra and then found two great situations right by the road. You gotta love bird photography. I took Friday off to rest, started this post at 4am on Saturday, got back into the fray on Saturday morning, and am finishing this just before 11am Alaska time on Saturday.

To see my absolute killer Spectacled Eider flight image check out my BPN post (Even an Old Dog Can Hunt) here: http://www.birdphotographers.net/forums/showthread.php?p=521707&posted=1#post521707

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9 comments to Barrow Tundra March & More…

  • Beautiful bird! About the time you were taking the photo of the King Eider a group of us on a birding trip with Jim Stevenson were taking one in Prudhoe Bay, but not nearly as difficult as yours, although it took some effort.

  • Happy Belated Birthday Art! Congrats on a great shoot too!

  • Exceptional images of rare and challenging species to photograph, especially in the winds you describe. I was fortunate to photograph in Nome the first week of June and only saw eiders at a distance. Did find loons, phalaropes and godwits in good light. Blue Skies.

    • avatar Arthur Morris/BIRDS AS ART

      Hi Ken, Being in the arctic or sub-arctic in June is always a blast. Thanks for your kind words. artie

  • What was an unproductive day resulted in high 5’s all around. It was great shooting with you again! Hope the hip has recovered.

    • avatar Arthur Morris/BIRDS AS ART

      I too really enjoyed the time that we spent together. And thanks again for your help. See your web site plug in tomorrow’s Bulletin. Love to Greg :)

  • “So we hiked for miles across the tundra and then found two great situations right by the road.” You gotta love it! right Artie!

    When I read that you were hiking a mile plus out I figured that must have been bothering your hip. Say hi to Chas, Brian and E.J for me. Chas had an image place in the Nature’s Best/Audubon contest – so wish him congrats too. Have a good trip. Great looking images.

  • Wonderful images and a delightful story. Sorry about the fall. Do take good care of the hip.

  • A beautiful picture of a beatiful bird! One of the highlights every year for me is photographing flocks of King and Steller’s Eiders up in Arctic Norway. Spectacled Eider would be a dream come true!

    Best wishes from the Shetland Islands,

    Hugh