Svalbard: The Wrong Night to Sleep/The Best Laid Plans…. « Arthur Morris/BIRDS AS ART

Svalbard: The Wrong Night to Sleep/The Best Laid Plans....

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Though we did not walk up the rocky slope seen in the image above, it gives you a good idea of the 35 degree slope that we climbed to get to the Dovkies. Note the “perfect” weather.

The image above was created with the Canon 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II lens, the Canon EF 1.4X III TC (hand held at 98mm), and the Canon EOS-1D Mark IV. ISO 400. Evaluative metering +2/3 stop: 1/200 sec. at f/16 in Av mode.

Svalbard: The Wrong Night to Sleep/The Best Laid Plans….

Not sure why as I had been wide awake since 2am, but at about 4am I poked my head out the window of my hotel room and saw our guide and Patrick Sparkman standing by the car. Not wanting to shout at such an early hour I whistled hello. The look on their faces said it all….

I am farther north than I have ever been, farther north than most folks on the planet have ever been. Since the sun does not set for three straight months there are no days and nights during arctic summer; one day blends into the next. It is hard to know what day it is in Svalbard. I came to Spitzbergen, the main island in the Svalbard group, for the express purpose of photographing Dovekie, Little Auk to Europeans. The world’s smallest seabird is cuter than cute. Jasper had warned me in advance that photographing the Dovekies required an arduous walk about 1/3 of the way up a small but steep mountain. But he had also said that once you make it up to the rocky areas that the birds were guaranteed. Portraits of single perched birds with pretty much any telephoto lens were easy as could be and lenses as wide as 14mm would be great for capturing images of the huge groups of the tiny alcids that would fly right over our heads.

At about 10pm on the evening of June 21 (the longest day of the year below the arctic circle), I packed pretty much all of my gear into my X-tra hand vest and began the steep climb up to the Dovekies. I carried the 800 bolero style and used my tripod as a walking stick. I almost forget to mention that the weather was incredible; it was still and warm. The fjord behind us was flat and almost mirror-like.

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This is the view from our parked car. On the evening of the 21st, we made our way up to point A. When Jasper and Patrick returned two nights later, they climbed only to point B.

The image was created with the Canon 24-105mm IS L lens ( hand held at 24mm) and the Canon EOS-1D Mark IV. ISO 400. Evaluative metering -1/3 stop: 1/250 sec. at f/16 in Av mode.

Though getting from the car to point A does not look too difficult, it was for me for many reasons. (More on those to follow). And it was not a picnic for Patrick and wife Robin either. Once we began to climb, I took 25 small steps and rested for a bit. Thirty-five degrees is steep enough for me. I made it most of the way up in about 40 minutes. There had been some Dovekies in the area but they had all flown as Patrick approached. He was the first one up as our guide stayed behind to help Robin. I trailed behind those two. Once we all reached the smiley-faced snow field between A and B the climbing became much more difficult and much more treacherous as the terrain had gone from tundra-like with a few rocks to mostly rocky with bits of tundra…. The rocks were lose and angular. And they were ankle-breaking sized.

I grabbed the 70-200 in hopes of having some large groups of Dovekies fly by overhead as promised. Our plan was to set up the big lenses once the birds began to land around us. Almost from the get-go our guide was a bit concerned. “Usually a few birds remain and there are always big groups circling to land,” he said. After the first hour the only birds on the ground were far above us. And only one or two small flocks had flown by. After two hours of sitting on hard rocks we were all disappointed to say the least. We agreed to give it until 1:30 am but had pretty much given up hope. On this too-perfect night there would be no Dovekies.

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This image was created with the Canon 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II lens, the Canon EF 1.4X III TC (hand held at 145mm), and the Canon EOS-1D Mark IV. ISO 400. Evaluative metering +1 stop: 1/1000 sec. at f/5.6 in Av mode.

It surely was a glorious evening. A true summer day with the fjord looking lovely and peaceful. Jasper surmised that feeding conditions for the Dovekies might have been perfect that night and we learned later from Sven our boat captain that on windless nights there are often huge feeding frenzies in the fjords as the tiny baitfish that the Dovekies relish come up to the surface…. Our guide was pretty much amazed as he had never struck out on Dovekies before. Ever. They were after all “guaranteed.” We all knew from the get go however that there simply are no guarantees with nature photography.

At some point I had looked back down the mountain. The car looked very, very tiny. And the steep slope seemed almost impassable. Knowing how slowly I would proceed I started down at 1:15 am. To traverse the rocky section I sat on my butt and inched my way down. To have stood at first would have resulted in disaster. Once I got out of the rock field I stood and extended my tripod legs so that my walking stick could reach the ground on the downhill side. Though I took my time I was first back to the car.

I lost track of when I slept and when we went out again after the “Dovekie Debacle” (as we came to call it). But I do know that I slept the better part of one whole day, preparing for a long night of action. But the weather had turned cold and dark and very windy so I went to bed very early. I think. On the morning of the 23rd I awoke at 1am with no place to go. The wind persisted. We enjoyed two photo sessions that Thursday. I did take grab two twenty minute naps. We were back at the hotel for dinner at about 8pm. Our guide and the Sparkmans grabbed some sandwiches at a local shop and I dined (again) on chicken wings and Jarlsberg cheese.

Patrick and our guide were planning to go back up for the Dovekies, but having been up for the very great part of 20 straight hours I knew that there was no way I could make the climb. The 24 hours of sunlight and the six hour time difference play havoc with your body. In addition I had had two surgeries and one nasty infection. Not to mention many rounds of energy sapping antibiotics. At some point I thought about going out and staying in the car unless and until I got the high sign that the Dovekies were there as expected. But I was just too, too tired. By 8:30 I was sound asleep. Until 2am.

At four am I looked out the window and when I saw the smiles on my friend’s faces I knew that they they had had a great night with the tiny, cute seabirds. After I whistled Jasper came to the window of my room and almost apologetically told me that it had been a slaughter. The birds had not even flown as they approached. Soon Dovekies were landing all around them, and the huge flocks that had been absent the night before swirled around right over their heads. I was glad for my two friends (Robin had also chosen to sleep in) but wished that I had been with them. But I knew that it would have been foolish to have made the climb on no sleep.

A few minutes later Patrick knocked gently on my door and described the carnage in detail. “There were birds everywhere. We did not have to climb nearly as high as we did the first time up. Never had so much fun. Used two 25 mm extension tubes for Dovekie head shots. Swarms of birds above us. Gotta get some sleep.”

Shopper’s Guide

Below is a list of the gear used and mentioned in today’s post. Thanks a stack to all who have used the Shopper’s Guide links to purchase their gear as a thank you for all the free information that we bring you on the Blog and in the Bulletins. Before you purchase anything be sure to check out the advice in our Shopper’s Guide.

Support both the Bulletins and the Blog by making all your B & H purchases here.

Canon 800mm f/5.L IS lens. Right now this is my all time favorite super-telephoto lens.
Canon 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II lens. Man, I am loving this lens on my shoulder with the 2X III teleconverter. I also use it a lot–as above–with the 1.4X III TC.
Canon 1.4X III TC. This new Series III TC is designed to work best with the new Series II super-telephoto lenses.
25mm Extension Tube. This vaulable accessory allows for closer focusing.
Canon EOS-1D Mark IV professional digital camera body. My two Mark IVs are my workhorse digital camera bodies.

And from the BAA On-line Store:

Gitzo GT3530LS Tripod. This one will last you a lifetime.
Mongoose M3.6 Tripod Head. Right now this is the best tripod head around for use with lenses that weigh less than 9 pounds. For heavier lenses, check out the Wimberley V2 head.
CR-80 Replacement Foot for Canon 800. When using the 800 on a Mongoose as I do, replacing the lens foot with this accessory lets the lens sit like a dog whether pointed up or down and prevents wind-blown spinning of your lens on breezy days by centering the lens directly over the tripod.
Double Bubble Level. You will find one in my camera’s hot shoe whenever I am not using flash.

The Lens Align Mark II. I use the Lens Align Mark II pretty much religiously to micro-adjust all of my gear an average of once a month and always before a major trip. Enjoy our free comprehensive tutorial here.

Delkin 32gb e-Film Pro Compact Flash Card. These high capacity cards are fast and dependable. Clicking on the link below will bring you to the Delkin web site. There is lots of great stuff there. If you see a product that we do not carry let us know via e-mail; we will be glad to have it drop-shipped to you and save you a few bucks in the process.

I pack my 800 and tons of other gear in my ThinkTank Airport SecurityTM V2.0 rolling bag for all of my air travel and recommend the slightly smaller Airport InternationalTM V2.0 for most folks. These high capacity bags are well constructed and protect my gear when I have to gate check it on short-hops and puddle jumpers. Each will protect your gear just as well. By clicking on either link or the logo below, you will receive a free gift with each order over $50.

7 comments to Svalbard: The Wrong Night to Sleep/The Best Laid Plans….

  • The weather in January is quite variable. Average temperatures are usually a few degrees on either side of 0 C. There may or may not be snow,if there is snow there likely will not be that much (at least in St.John’s). The days are short and there is often not that much light, or there could be bright sun. The conditions can be challenging for photography either way. Birding and photographing birds in St.John’s is very comfortable, with the best areas located in or near the city, with various amenities close by. Some days I’ve seen 10 species of gulls from my car!

    Aside from gulls,there is always a cooperative mixed flock of Scaup and Tufted Ducks,Teal and Euro Wigeon.If there’s a good berry and cone crop there would likley be lots of Pine Grosbeaks, White-winged Crossbills and Bohemian Waxwings. Then you have Boreal Chickadees,which are always a crowd pleaser!

    Anyway, you get the idea. If you get to the point where you ae seriously considering visiting, get in touch with me at and we can talk about it. Good luck with the Dovekies!!

  • Doug Faulder

    A serious injury now could jeopardize your photography for years. Better safe than sorry.

  • Sorry to hear about your “Dovekie debacle”! Come to Newfoundland in January and you can probably get full frames of Dovekies from your vehicle. Not to mention endless opportunities with Iceland, Glaucous and Black-headed Gulls. Then there are the tamer than tame waterfowl, including Tufted Ducks. Ofcourse, none of ths is “guaranteed”!

    Hey Dave, I have been thinking about Newfoundland and those gulls….. How’s the weather then ? :). Where exactly? artie

  • Gerald Kelberg

    What an amazing place! Definitely on my bucket list! Hope you continue to enjoy and that you do get some of those Dovekies, eventually. Any sign of the bears?

  • Pat Fishburne

    Dear Art: God bless you! I’m so impressed by how much really hard work goes into your photography. I’ll never forget your description of that climb up the hill in Antartica (when you wondered whether you might just die there!). How disappointing to have dragged all your equipment up that hill and not found a single dovekie!
    Fondly, Pat

  • Glen Fox

    It us unfortunate that you did not get to photograph the Dovekies. However, your body has been through a lot lately, and decided it knew best. I have found your blogs from Svalbard very helpful as I am packing for my first trip to the Canadian high arctic. The message is the light is wonderful, but that you have to pace yourself. Like you, I’m not as young as used to be or as I’d like to be!

  • cheapo

    It certainly is a beautiful place. Loving the sharpness and depth of field in these shots, as well as the wonderful lighting conditions. Unpolluted skys!