Orkney's seabirds in summer

Orkney photographer Nicki Gwynn-Jones has been documenting seabirds around the islands during the summer months.

I love summer in Orkney, the season of eternal twilight, or simmer dim. The echo of one day travelling across the sky to become the dawn of the next, mirroring the lives of seabirds as they cross briefly from their world into ours.

I love seabirds too, those charismatic nomads, their lives striking an uneasy balance between land and sea, suffering and success. I crave their company, so I return to my secret places day after day, drinking in the frantic energy and the sheer exhilaration of observing their lives - their ‘seabirdness’ - with all its joys and sorrows, for to love them is to be left heartbroken some of the time.

I take the ferry to the island of Westray. It feels as if I am journeying to a distant land, so accustomed have I become to my own insular life, and I am soothed by my flask of green tea and marmite sandwiches, and by the gentle rocking and rolling of the Earl Sigurd as it makes its way through the archipelago, revealing secret geos and stunning coastal geology.

The walk to the Castle o’Burrian is stunning - wildflowers everywhere and turquoise sea, and I am ridiculously excited to glimpse my first puffins of the summer. They were considered by the Celts to be the reborn souls of monks, and with their serious, somewhat formal behaviour and bowed walk it is perhaps easy to see why.

They are intensely social - there is plenty of interaction with their neighbours at the tightly packed colony - but when they preen they turn inwards, as if harbouring secrets never told. If only they would…

Back home on the Mainland my obsession with the visiting seabirds continues; they are often thought to be the souls of the dead, but I like to think that Arctic terns are angels, albeit fractious, argumentative ones.

With their lightweight bodies and disproportionately long and elegant wings they are ideally suited to the life nomadic - theirs is the longest migration on earth and they see more daylight than any other creature - and I try to capture their spirit, seeking their soul within that 4000/sec.

Orkney’s summer weather can be mercurial, but should the gods hint at a decent sunrise I am willing to forgo sleep, despite my dislike of getting up in the middle of the night. The golden hour at either end of the day can produce photographic magic, so I relish the sleep deprivation and the quite surreal state of mind that goes with it. It is a special time, all alone with the wild things, and with the ocean thundering into the nearby cliffs.

Life in the colony is busy - arctic tern courtship is quiet and sweet at times, but spectacularly frantic at others as they exchange gifts of fish, flying higher and higher in a crazed pirouette that is soon beyond the range of my lens. The terns are devoted parents, bringing in an endless supply of fish for their hungry chicks, but in spite of the feisty behaviour, the colony does not always do well. The local hooded crow mafia can predate every single chick, and at the sight of a handful of adult birds disconsolately circling the nest site I shed tears for their loss.

It has been a windy summer, but the combination of wind and terns makes for wonderful, if challenging, photographic opportunities as they attempt to land, their dainty bodies buffeted and blown every which way by the relentless gales. Incredulous, I have to remind myself again and again that they are perfectly built for wind and for their extreme lifestyle.

Soon their brief visit to our world will be over for another year, and I am grateful that they have allowed me a glimpse into their extraordinary world, one that is truly on the edge of our understanding.

I turn my attention to the wildflowers - meadows brimming with buttercups and daisies, acres of meadowsweet and verges of red campion, clover, sorrel and vetch. I love to peer into these in-between spaces, a secret realm where mystery and imagination collide, and where, if you are quiet, you might hear the echoes of Orkney’s mythical past.

What am I looking for? I really don’t know, except that I will know it when I see it, the unseen landscape that holds its secrets close. Some days I return empty-handed - the faeries will not tell - but some days I am granted a glimpse into their world, a privilege that is only given to those with eyes to see.

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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