Travel Journals

Behind the Image(s): Atlantic Puffins

My father-in-law owns a very old house by the sea on an island called Grand Manan, which I have had the privilege of visiting three times. Grand Manan is a two-hour ferry ride, over cold restless waters, from mainland New Brunswick, Canada. The house, which is at least 150 years old, is situated at Seal Cove on the southeast side of the main island. It’s a small community. Tired old fishermen’s houses, salmon smoking sheds, a seasonal bed and breakfast, and one sparsely stocked convenience store are all that corner of the island has to offer. You don’t go to Grand Manan for the food scene, or nightlife, or architectural grandeur. None of that exists. What the island does have is an abundance of beautiful shoreline and wildlife viewing opportunities.

This is one of those “must visit” (I despise that overused term in travel writing, but bare with me…) places for birders, which makes it a great place for photographers. The ever famous and adorable Atlantic Puffin nests in the region. Grand Manan, itself, hosts a small seasonal population on the south side of the island, but if you really want to go where the action is and see these critters up close, you have to take a chartered boat a couple hours south of Grand Manan to Machias Seal Island. A puffin colony hundreds strong nests on the rocky shores of Machias each summer. Due to predation, habitat loss, and climate change, the Machias Seal Island colony is dwindling. Fortunately, I was there just at the right time to observe hundreds of mating pairs of puffins as well as a few other sea bird species.

Machias Seal Island Puffin Sanctuary

The trip began by booking a tour from one of the very few providers allowed to visit Machias Seal Island from Grand Manan. Nothing was guaranteed, not seeing puffins, or the weather to allow us to go out on the choppy north Atlantic waters. My wife and I hopped on the boat with a dozen others at 7am. We received instructions from the burly captain and first mate on how to behave while on the island and some useful information about a few other species of wildlife we may encounter en route.

This was my first ever trip specifically for the purpose of photographing wildlife. I owned a decent telephoto zoom and my first decent DSLR. I was beyond excited.

Atlantic Puffin, Machias Seal Island, Canada, 2011 (Canon EOS 30D, Canon 70-300mm IS)

Atlantic Puffin, Machias Seal Island, Canada, 2011 (Canon EOS 30D, Canon 70-300mm IS)

After a long and bumpy ride of being wind-blasted on an open vessel, we arrived near the rocky shore of Machias Seal Island. We took a much smaller dory the rest of the way. A short walk on a slippery dock brought us to another large and intimidating islander (with a very large camera lens), who further briefed us on how to conduct ourselves in a way that would not disturb or endanger the animals. Aside from a lighthouse, the island was bare except for a few wooden blinds and boardwalks. The island is small and desolate, with little vegetation and a terrain covered in large boulders. Much to my delight, despite the desolation of the land, it was covered in puffins. Hundreds of them!

We were split into small groups and ushered quickly to our blinds. Though the journey took a couple hours, we were only given 45 minutes of puffin watching. By this time it was mid day and swelteringly hot inside the blinds – which were small – barely big enough for the four of us in it. The windows were only about 6 inches square, just big enough to shoot through (we are not allowed to stick anything, including lenses, outside of the windows). I’m not sure how shooting with larger lenses could work here; I could barely turn around with my compact 70-300mm zoom handheld.

Atlantic Puffins, Machias Seal Island, New Brunswick, Canada, 2011 (Canon EOS 30D, Canon 70-300mm IS)

Atlantic Puffins, Machias Seal Island, New Brunswick, Canada, 2011 (Canon EOS 30D, Canon 70-300mm IS)

The late morning light was harsh and poor quality, but there were birds everywhere I looked, so I didn’t fret about it. I fired away, filling up cards with hundreds of shots. I shot wide, medium, and close up portraits. I’d never been in a situation where I wanted fewer animals in the frame before. The chaos of thousands of birds (both puffins and rare razorbill auks) made getting tight simple shots difficult. I started focusing on the puffins nearer to the blind where numbers were fewer. I looked for interaction between mating pairs, who hid their nests under boulders and out of sight. Birds were flying out to sea and back with fish, but I was never able to get the classic “beak full of fish shot.” The limited maneuverability in the blind made panning in-flight shots difficult. I kept shooting portraits. 300mm wasn’t necessary at such close range, even though puffins are very small. Most of the images from this trip were shot between 100 and 200mm for portraits. The birds don’t mind the blinds, and as long as windows are only open on one side at a time, they don’t seem to notice the people in them.

Atlantic Puffin Taking Flight, Machias Seal Island, Canada, 2011 (Canon EOS 30D, Canon 70-300mm IS)

Atlantic Puffin Taking Flight, Machias Seal Island, Canada, 2011 (Canon EOS 30D, Canon 70-300mm IS)

It was an amazing experience I think every photographer should have. Puffins on the North American side of the Atlantic are growing fewer in number by the year. It was a privilege to get to spend time photographing so many of them at once. We were lucky that year. The following summer we tried to book another tour, but were told there were so few birds on the island that it wasn’t worth the trip.

Puffins spend most of the year solitarily on the open sea, which makes them difficult to study. They congregate, reuniting with their mates, each summer for a few short weeks on rocky cliffs and small islands like Machias. Little is known about their life on the open Atlantic. Biologists are trying to find ways to increase puffin numbers, but the troubles these comical little birds face are many. I would recommend seeing them in the wild as soon as you can as sustainable ecotourism helps support conservation efforts.

Winter in Canmore, Alberta

I never gave Canmore a chance before. It was always just a small area I stopped in to fill up the gas tank on my way to Banff. A couple weekends ago, I decided there had to be more to it. I booked an affordable last minute hotel in Canmore on booking.com deciding it was close enough to Banff to be a base for a long weekend photo trip/getaway for my wife and me. I was surprised to find that beyond the Trans-Canada Highway and behind the trees was a nice little mountain town nestled along the Bow River with all the necessities, and even a few good restaurants and decent shopping.

It was bloody cold. We had been experiencing an extended deep freeze up in Edmonton with high temps hovering around 0°F and below. The Rockies southwest of Edmonton are actually a bit warmer on average, but this weekend the temps in the Banff/Canmore areas dropped significantly below average. Each morning we went out for sunrise at -20°F or below with mid-day highs not much warmer. The sky was 100% cloudless the whole time. That might seem nice to most, but for photographers, it means almost colourless skies for sunrise and sunset. Of course, the temps rose back up into the 20s and 30s just after we left. My fingers froze with two pairs of insulated gloves on. My wife faired a bit better- she doesn’t have to take her hands out of the pockets of her parka to fiddle with cameras like I do. No frost-bite developed, though, I’m sure it came close.

The Problem with Canmore

I had a few locations I wanted to visit in and around town. Scouting them out on the first day, I found that, though Canmore is surrounded by beautiful dramatic mountain scenery (and has several large parks and lakes with mountain views), town planners had no interest in preserving the views. Every view of iconic peaks like Three Sisters and Ha Ling Peak along Canmore’s trails was blocked by crisscrossing power lines. It was frustrating; Banff and Jasper don’t really have this issue. I assume that’s why I don’t really see much landscape photography from the Canmore area despite it’s dramatic setting. Thankfully, you don’t have to go that far outside of the town’s boundaries to get to pristine natural areas.

One of the few views of Three Sisters (two of the three) in Canmore free of power lines. Shot from a bridge in town centre.

One of the few views of Three Sisters (two of the three) in Canmore free of power lines. Shot from a bridge in town centre.

Photographing Three Sisters

The best spot to shoot Canmore’s well-known mountains unobstructed is along Policeman Creek. It’s no secret. Though, it’s not the easiest location to get to, especially in deep winter in a couple feet of snow. This location is so frequented by photographers, however, that several trails had been worn into the snow already. Because most of the creeks and streams were frozen, it may have actually have been a bit easier to hike around in late winter than spring and summer.

The Peaks of Three Sisters at Sunrise, Canmore, Alberta

The Peaks of Three Sisters at Sunrise, Canmore, Alberta

This is not an official area with any sort of infrastructure for pedestrians. It’s not an official trail. You have to park at the small gravel lot for the off-leash dog area on the Bow Valley Trail (1A), walk across the road (often there’s lots of traffic), and then walk underneath the railroad tracks following the stream until you get to Policeman Creek and eventually the Bow River. The reward is unobstructed views of Three Sisters in a natural willow and evergreen forest. In winter at really low temps, mist rises off the Bow River and frosts the trees. It’s magical, but bitterly cold.

Mist rising from the Bow River at -30°F, Canmore, Alberta

Mist rising from the Bow River at -30°F, Canmore, Alberta

The snow was so tracked out it was difficult to find good foreground compositions, so I did my best framing tighter compositions to exclude human footprints. Had there been fresh snow, this would have been less of an issue.

Ha Ling Peak and the Bow River at Sunrise, Canmore, Alberta

Ha Ling Peak and the Bow River at Sunrise, Canmore, Alberta

Outside Canmore: Castle Mountain and Grotto Canyon

During our weekend in the Rockies the Bow Valley Parkway was closed for maintenance. It is one of my favourite drives in the Canadian Rockies, so it was unfortunate, but we were still able to visit Castle Junction near Banff for a sunset shoot. The light was good, but it was very windy on the Bow River. This was the coldest I’ve ever felt in my life! My hands have still not fully recovered.

Castle Mountain Sunset, Banff, Alberta

Castle Mountain Sunset, Banff, Alberta

Grotto Canyon is located along the Bow Valley Trail south of Canmore. It was a beautiful hike through dense snow covered evergreens that eventually opened up into a deep canyon with high vertical walls. The only issue is that there’s a magnesite plant located right next to the trail. For the first 1/2 hour of the hike, it’s loud and annoying. Once you reach the canyon, you can’t hear anything but nature- thank goodness. The best part of this hike for me was seeing the 500-1000 year old pictographs painted on the canyon walls. They’re eroding away with time and most aren’t easy to make out (people also like to rub them for good luck, or to posses shamanistic powers, or because they’re gluten free…I don’t know why people need to touch them…). A few are still pretty visible. Being alone in the canyon by the pictographs is like stepping back in time.

Pictographs in Grotto Canyon, Alberta

Pictographs in Grotto Canyon, Alberta

Close-up of 500-1000 year-old Pictograph, Grotto Canyon, Alberta

Close-up of 500-1000 year-old Pictograph, Grotto Canyon, Alberta

On our way farther down the Bow Valley Trail, we came across bighorn sheep grazing on a hillside with a dramatic mountain backdrop. There are few places to pull over on this road. We found a trailhead parking lot and managed to get close enough photograph the sheep (all female) with a long lens without disturbing them. I’m always hoping for a good wildlife encounter on these trips, so I’m glad I at least got to spend time watching these sheep.

Rocky Mountain Bighorns, Canmore, Alberta

Rocky Mountain Bighorns, Canmore, Alberta

A Photographer’s Gotta Eat

Despite nearly freezing to death each day, we did eat well and warm ourselves in some very cozy restaurants. My favourite thing about Canmore is actually the food. I’ve never been impressed with Banff’s pricey restaurants, and Jasper practically has none (I’m exaggerating…it has very few). We ate at the Famous Chinese Restaurant twice because it’s the best (American-style) Chinese we’ve had since moving to Canada. There are things on their menu I haven’t eaten since leaving the U.S. We loved it, and it’s cheap. We also enjoyed amazing bagel sandwiches and coffee at Rocky Mountain Bagel Co. After our frigid sunrise hike around Policeman Creek, we stuffed ourselves with a nice hot breakfast at Craig’s Way Station. Those pancakes sure hit the spot!

Overall it was an excellent weekend, and I came away with few decent images and ideas for summer and fall shoots. I plan on staying in Canmore again as an alternative to pricey and touristy Banff, if not for the nature, then for my new favourite restaurants.

B-Roll:

Thanks for reading and happy shooting!

Behind the Image: Sun, Oak, and Marsh

This photograph was not an accident. I did not coincidentally happen upon this beautiful oak just as the sun was about to set on the horizon. Happy accidents are very rare in photography. This image was the result of planning, scouting, and timing. I’m afraid that most people have this idea that photographers walk about aimlessly with their expensive gear and picture opportunities just jump out at them. Then the camera does all the work, right? Nice gear equals nice pics? Not at all. I can’t stress that point enough.

I was recovering from my recent surgery down on the North/South Carolina border near the coast over the holidays and getting very tired of sitting around. I had my camera gear in my backpack and decided to take a drive early one morning and arrived just before sunrise at Sunset Beach, North Carolina. It was surprisingly chilly weather for the low country, but it was great to be out doing my thing again (see images from this outing in the previous post). After my time on the beach, I drove over the border to Vereen Gardens in Little River, South Carolina.

I’d been there before and remembered all the old oaks that hang over the marsh. I remembered the moss swaying from the branches. It seemed like it would be a great area for landscape photographs. Unfortunately, I’d spent so much time on the beach, the sun was too high for the image I imagined. I wanted the trees to be backlit and the moss to have nice rim lighting. I decided to watch the weather forecasts and return one evening when the sun would set behind this particularly interesting tree.

An old oak by the intracoastal marsh, near Little River, South Carolina. (18mm, f16, 1/40 sec, ISO 100, tripod)

An old oak by the intracoastal marsh, near Little River, South Carolina. (18mm, f16, 1/40 sec, ISO 100, tripod)

On a clear evening I drove back over to Vereen Gardens with a particular shot in mind. I walked the wooded trails through the marshes to the old oak that I found most interesting. I knew exactly where the sun would rest briefly on the horizon before slipping behind it. There would be only a couple minutes to compose the shot. In order to get a perfect “sun star” I had to wait until the sun was just touching the horizon, then I had to compose the frame (with my tripod in several inches of black mud) so that the light poked through the branches in an aesthetically pleasing spot. I used a narrow aperture of f16 to help give the rays of sunlight more definition. Despite the high contrast in this scene (the extreme brightness and extremely dark shadows), I ended up not having to use exposure bracketing. I bracketed several exposures anyway, but the dead-centre exposure was balanced enough that there was plenty of dynamic range to pull out detail in the highlights and shadows. The sun dipped behind the tree-line, signalling my time was up. I was pleased with the results when I was able to look at the image on my big screen back in Edmonton.

This image, for me, captures the feel of an evening on the Carolina coast. Warm light, Spanish moss, salty marshes, and huge live oaks are characteristic of the region. I am happy I was able to make an image that seems wild and untouched in an area so densely developed and over-overpopulated. It’s the natural South in a single frame.

“I think a photograph, of whatever it might be – a landscape, a person – requires personal involvement. That means knowing your subject, not just snapping away at what’s in front of you.” - Frans Lanting

Scenes from Sunset Beach, North Carolina

It’s been a while since my last post. I’d like to say that I spent the last month lying on a warm beach somewhere sipping drinks out of hollowed out fruit….not exactly. My annual trip to North Carolina for Thanksgiving didn’t go as planned. A sudden battle between my pancreas and gallbladder upon arrival resulted in a week-long hospital stay and surgery (my gallbladder lost the battle). Instead of flying back to Canada to finish up the last of 2018’s projects as planned, I ended up staying with my folks in southeastern North Carolina for 5 weeks while I recovered from surgery. Despite feeling like fresh crap for several weeks, I did enjoy spending extra time with family and friends. I arrived home to frigid and snowy Alberta only a couple days ago. On the bright side, at least I missed a whole month of Canada’s winter!

During my stay in the low country I was able to get out with camera in hand a couple times. Though it was much warmer in coastal N.C. than Alberta, it was still not nice enough to enjoy the beach properly. I was happy to be out of the hospital bed nonetheless, even if a winter jacket and gloves were necessary. Mornings on North Carolina’s beaches in the off-season are very peaceful.

I’m feeling much better now and am settling in at home, but I have just begun looking at the images I made down in the coastal plains. Here are a few photos from a couple very chilly outings on Sunset Beach, North Carolina. More to come. As always, thank you for your patience and support. - Jon

Pink Reflections, Sunset Beach, North Carolina

Pink Reflections, Sunset Beach, North Carolina

First Light, Sunset Beach, North Carolina

First Light, Sunset Beach, North Carolina

A New Day, Sunset Beach, North Carolina

A New Day, Sunset Beach, North Carolina