The Alkefjellet bird cliff is probably one of the most famous ones on the Svalbard archipelago. It is the home to approximately 100,000 Brünnich’s guillemot that come there to breed after winter. Knowing this, the translation of Alkefjellet from the Norwegian language makes a lot of sense: the guillemot mountains. It is located on the west side of the Hinlopen Strait, on the island of Spitsbergen.
Now let’s just stop one second and think… Can you imagine how it feels like to be surrounded by 100,000 birds? Yes, I did use 5 zero’s: one hundred thousand birds! Read on to find out more. I have also included a short video of the cliff to give a better idea of the situation.
The Brünnich’s guillemot
Let’s start with a quick biology lesson. The Brünnich’s guillemot (uria lomvia) is an auk (or alcid). It is slightly smaller than the common guillemot that I showed you from my trip to Hornøya island just off mainland Norway. Auks are sea birds that are more comfortable swimming and diving than flying in the air. They “fly” under water to catch their preys, mostly fish and crustaceans. They usually dive to a depth of about 50 meters, but have been seen down to 100 or even 200 meters! The Brünnich’s guillemot breeds in dense colonies that vary between a hundred pairs to hundreds of thousands like in Alkefjellet.
According to the Norwegian Polar Institute, the Svalbard population is about 850,000 pairs. The population has been stable since the 1990’s. However, like any other seabird, the Brünnich’s guillemot remains very sensitive to the availability of fish in the oceans, and (plastic) pollution and overfishing remain threats every day.
A lucky halo
In the morning of Day 3 of our expedition, we sailed down a surprisingly ice-free Hinlopen Strait and arrived at the Alkefjellet cliff. One of the many reasons why I love the Arctic is that there are often the right conditions for all sorts of atmospheric optics. That day, when we approached the bird cliff, we were greeted by a magnificent 22° sun halo.
Halos are always hard to photograph because of the strong contrast between the brightness of the sky, and the shadows of other elements in the landscape. Normally, I would use a (strong) neutral density graduated filter but that wouldn’t work with the cliff on the right, and empty space on the left. Another option would be to bracket several exposure and create an HDR image in post processing: another challenge on a moving boat! Third solution, and the one I chose: expose for the highlights, and just push the shadows up in Lightroom.
Often in the field, you cannot use the ideal technique, and just have to adapt yourself to find the best compromise between the situation and the result that you are looking for.
Approaching the Alkefjellet bird cliff
Still on board the MS Freya, we approached the bird cliff from the north, and started sailing along it very slowly. The halo was still accompanying us. With the proximity to the cliff, the sound of the birds became louder than the ship’s engine, and it was soon all what we could hear.
I put together a short video to give an impression of the cliff. Make sure to watch it in HD!
Slow shutter speed panning of bird in flight
I had seen amazing pictures by Ole Jørgen Liodden, a very experienced Norwegian wildlife photographer, and decided I would try to capture something similar if the conditions were right. Luckily, with the hazy sky, the light was quite soft and it provided ideal conditions. With the right angle, the water also had an amazing blue/green colour. Of course, the first few shots were misses, but with 100,000 birds there and thousands flying off all the time, there were enough opportunities to finally get what I had in mind.
If you want to try too, just use the settings in the image caption as a starting point, and fine tune them according to the available light. And just for a comparison, this is how it looks like without the panning, and with a faster shutter speed to get everything sharp.
How to photograph the Alkefjellet bird cliff
A final word of advice: of course, you will want to use your tele lens there to get close-ups of the birds. However, this is a typical place where the environment is a huge part of the story, if not the biggest part. Don’t forget to use your wide angle lens as well to show how impressive this all is! Making a few video clips can also be a really good idea, as no photo will ever transcribe the real feeling at this location. I wrote the settings of each photo in the captions. Let me know in the comments if you want to know more!