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Orkney's seabirds in spring

Orkney photographer Nicki-Gwynn Jones has been documenting seabirds around the islands as spring takes hold.

Orkney is full of wonderful photographic opportunities, and each season brings something different.

Lately I have been loving everything that spring has to offer and I've been spending a lot of time at the Churchill Barriers and in the East Mainland, where I stay. I try to look for an artistic way in which to portray what I see.

There is a place near my home that is wonderful for watching sea birds as they return to land in order to breed, the air thrumming with an exuberant chorus that echoes around the cliffs as pair bonds are reaffirmed.

In soft light the iridescence of a shag’s breeding plumage is shown at its very best, while on sunny days their stunning feathers glow like burnished bronze.

In bright light I love to make side-lit portraits of the photogenic snow-white fulmars and kittiwakes.

I am not a lover of early mornings, but sometimes it can be well worth getting up with the larks if the forecast is good. The hour around sunrise can produce some spectacular rewards, with everything radiant and flame-rimmed by the dawn light.

I love to photograph at Orkney's beaches in soft light too; with the correct exposure I can make the backgrounds almost disappear, allowing the sweetness and beauty of the birds to take centre stage, ringed plovers, oystercatchers and sanderlings like tiny liminal wind-up toys, somehow coexisting, a motley crew on sands that hold the promise of a tasty meal.

Dull days also bring the chance of some high key flight photography. The flat light acts like a giant softbox - shadows are softened and contrast is reduced, allowing the birds to really stand out against an almost studio-like background. Understanding how your camera’s exposure works is a must for this kind of photography, but experimenting with creative settings can yield great results.

You can’t beat an Orcadian beach for pretty light. As the sun sinks lower in the sky the sand begins to glow and a tiny wader’s plumage looks so fine. Stonechats flit around in the marram grass, their rich colours accentuated by the afternoon rays.

There is a place that I know where on still, sunny days you could believe yourself in the Caribbean. Was there anything more astonishingly beautiful…

Every year I look forward to seeing the return of our Arctic terns, the world’s champion long-distance migrants, and the first ‘tirrick’ of the season is always a happy moment. Their aerial displays are thrilling and they are one of my favourite spring photographic subjects.

With their arrival I know that summer is not far away and that soon harassed parents will be defending their nests from marauding bonxies and ravens, and frantically feeding hungry chicks. I am looking forward to photographing the puffins at the Brough of Birsay this year as well, and to capturing the magic of Orkney’s beautiful flower-filled summer verges.

Good times ahead!


Nicki Gwynn-Jones is based in Orkney and was awarded a Fellowship of the Royal Photographic Society in 2012. You can see more of her work via her official website, on Instagram and on Facebook.

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