18 Jun BIRDS – THE EMBODIEMENT OF NATURE
I’ve just completed two photographic workshops in Knoydart and the Small Isles and enjoyed what was some of the best May weather we’ve experienced for years. One of the week’s highlights is our trip to Canna and Sanday, where with favorable sea conditions, we are able to cruise below Canna’s north cliffs. Towering vertically above the boat, the rocky terraces and ledges are home to thousands of nesting seabirds which include guillemots, razorbills, shags, puffins, kittiwakes and fulmars and on out the first trip we saw both white-tailed eagles, a pair of golden eagles and both peregrines. On the second workshop, we witnessed ravens aggressively mobbing the white-tailed eagles, forcing one of them to drop what it was clutching into the sea. Later inspection confirmed that it was a freshly killed razorbill, plucked, I suspect, from one of the terraces and was en route to the eerie. We were spellbound by the spectacle and realised that we had just witnessed a rare moment in an eagles’ world.
This was an occasion when the old adage of ‘there’s no substitute for focal length when you need it’ rung true and whilst it would have been extremely challenging to capture anything meaningful of the spectacle even with a 500mm lens, it didn’t deter the group from attaching their longest telephotos and trying. A perfect focal length for this type of photography, and indeed for landscape photography too, is the Canon EF 100-400mm f4.5-5.6 II which gives 8X magnification at the 400mm end and can be quickly zoomed back to the to take advantage of wider framing. Other’s, like me, were content to watch and witness those rare moments of bird life through binoculars.
On one of my earlier trip to Canna, I discovered this huge structure of sticks built in a cleft in the basalt cliffs below me. Ravens are one of the first birds of the year to breed with courtship and nest-building taking place in February. Through my 500mm lens, I could see seven turquoise eggs contained in a crucible lined the matted hair of highland cattle and sheep’s wool. As a structure, the nest had all the hallmarks of a work of art and I imagined it as an installation in a New York gallery with a bio that read; Avian artists, Corvus corax, Canna, Scotland, POA.
Seven weeks later, I returned to the nest site and was shocked to find that only two of the offspring had survived. What, I wondered, had happened to the other five eggs and began to think about the possibilities; perhaps the last two eggs to hatch had been pushed out of the nest by the older fledglings – one way to guarantee better survival prospects for themselves and less competition for food. Maybe, the first-born birds who were bigger and stronger outcompeted their younger siblings for food and they consequently starved or were attacked and eaten by their older brothers and sisters. I couldn’t help thinking that whatever had transpired in that nest was a paradox for life itself in that each living organism, ourselves included, exists only to keep the inextinguishable flame of life burning. As to the fate of the five missing eggs, this mystery remains.
Canna’s neighboring island, Sanday is home to a puffin colony which is located on the flat-topped basalt stack of Dun na Fullan. Early in May, the puffins return from sea to the same nest with the same mate where they lay a single egg in an underground burrow. With its elevated position, the sea-stack essentially becomes a runway for take-offs and landings and on occasions, the birds perform flyby’s, wheeling round for our cameras on the adjacent cliffs. Some birds follow a circular flight path and drop back down to their burrows, whilst the more enthusiastic give it ‘one more time’. There is a tangible zest for life amongst the colony which marks the start of the breeding season and the high point of their year.
With all the hallmarks of a painting, I was drawn to this scene by the vibrancy of colour. The washes of bronze and mustard lichens which cover the upper reaches of basalt are complimented by the translucency of porcelain ‘strokes’ on the rocks below, which act in much the same way as snow does on a mountain by lifting the values of otherwise dark rock. Whilst I am essentially photographing a shag rookery, my approach here is rooted in landscape and is a fusion of both disciplines. Situated on the heads of basalt columns the shag’s nests are in essence, a compost heap of rotting seaweed and twigs which emanate a pungent smell.