Fulmar Mosaic—The Story of the Shot

By Joe Van Os on Jul 17, 2013

When you are good friends with someone, over time you discover each other’s idiosyncrasies—especially when traveling together. John Shaw and I travel together a lot. We’ve found we both really like pickled herring.

Last June, John and I were shooting Atlantic puffins for a week in Iceland. While there we also photographed Arctic terns, red-necked phalaropes, common redshanks and other nesting shorebirds, plus some common eiders and black-legged kittiwakes.

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In Iceland the puffins nest on precipitous cliffs that have areas of soil on the cliff top soft enough in which to dig their underground burrows. There they lay their one egg and raise their chick in that dark hole for six weeks until it fledges in early August. As the chick grows, the parents spend more and more time at sea foraging for fish and less time standing photogenically on the cliff ledges. They can fly as far as 30 miles (or more) from the nesting cliffs while they forage for the chick. Sometimes the cliffs are packed with loafing birds during the day and other times they are almost totally empty. This huge difference in puffin accessibility for photography is probably a direct result of wind, tide, time of day, availability and proximity of fish, and disturbances from predatory gulls and skuas, foxes or unruly tourists. It’s hard to predict.

One morning, John and I arrived at the puffin colony only to find most of them were out to sea. Those that were there were either not very accessible or were in locations not very inspirational for shooting. We stood around for a few hours, chatting with a couple of German photographers, waiting to see if any birds would show up. Not many did—and of those, most delivered their fish on a beeline straight into the burrow and were gone again in a flash.

It was getting on towards lunchtime so we decided to go for drive to see if we could find something interesting to shoot. We headed for a small town about 20 miles away. That town had one small grocery store—and we knew it sold our favorite brand of Icelandic pickled herring. They really know how to make pickled herring in Iceland!

There wasn’t much to shoot along the way and we were soon at the grocery store. We each went for a large jar of herring and then discovered the store also sold vanilla skyr! Skyr is a very tart and intense Icelandic version of Greek yogurt, often eaten at breakfast.

We were sitting in the car in the parking lot, both of us with a plastic spoon, a jar of herring and a container of skyr. (This combination is the quintessential Icelandic power lunch—don’t knock it ‘til you’ve tried it!) The parking lot overlooked the harbor and as we were eating we noticed large numbers of northern fulmars coming into the harbor from all directions.

Curiosity got the better of us and we drove along the water for about a half mile until we saw a huge congregation of fulmars and glaucous gulls swirling along the shore. There were more than 1,000 birds at the exit to a raw sewer pipe pumping fishy slurry from the town’s fish processing plant into the harbor. Mayhem ensued—a bird feeding frenzy!

John and I shot this scene in every way possible. I wanted to create a jigsaw puzzle shot of pure fulmars only—avoiding all gulls. It took more than 100 shots to get one frame with nothing but fulmars in the image—but one frame is all it takes! The tripod-supported shot was made with a Canon 1Ds Mark III with an 800mm lens ISO 800, 1/500 at f/18. Aside from minor dust spotting, this image has not been cleaned up or altered other than being converted, to my liking, from a RAW file.

We drove back for several days in succession to shoot at the sewage outflow when the puffin numbers were low—but we never saw a feeding frenzy, that big, again. Truth be told, we didn’t care about driving all that way—failing to find many fulmars—because we really just needed an excuse to go back to the store to buy more pickled herring!