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Pelicans, eagles, snow… & more snow

Posted on May 10, 2017
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Anyone who has met me will know that I love the Dalmatian pelican (Pelecanus crispus). I’m passionate about them. I can’t explain why because I don’t really know… perhaps because it was the first bird I’d properly focussed on a number of years ago, perhaps because the pelican has many charismatic faces and quirks which have the ability to make me smile, perhaps it’s the ongoing warmth and hospitality of the Bulgarian & Greek people. Perhaps it’s a combination of everything.

What I do know is that I always look forward to photographing these birds, my heart is singing when the time comes to return to Lake Kerkini, and I always look forward to introducing the pelicans to my tour group.

Before the Natures Images tour in January 2017, I was watching the weather forecast for Bulgaria… some snow was predicted during our week’s stay. Perfect. A little bit of the white stuff is a photographer’s dream. What hadn’t been predicted was the combination of sub-zero temperatures with several metres of snow and high winds. Mmmmm, this could be interesting!

On our first day at Lake Kerkini, temperatures of -15 deg Celsius meant that Lake Kerkini began to freeze before our eyes. It was quite unbelievable watching a large lake gel with ice, almost at time-lapse speed. The average temperature at Kerkini in January is normally +8 deg Celsius, and these arctic conditions hadn’t been witnessed by locals for 16 years. It was highly unusual, and word began to spread amongst the photographic community that something unique was starting to happen.

The snow-laden sky was a perfect white canvas for portrait shots, and this could be used to create lots of negative space in combination with typical pelican behaviours like preening and wing stretching. I love this style of shot, a blank canvas with a high-key look.

Ice forming on the pelicans’ beaks and feathers was also highly unusual, and some close encounters allowed us to focus on these particular details. These sessions were all about different types of portrait and abstract shots, particularly because the extraordinary weather was causing unusual pelican behaviour.

Lake Kerkini is also home to a very small number of White pelicans which increase marginally in number every year. I like this shot in particular as this individual takes off in flight over an icy shoreline.

On the second day, the lake was completely frozen, snow bound… and it was blizzarding. We were being hit by a major weather front which was bringing eastern Europe to a standstill. So, as any Natures Images group does, we did our best to make the most of the unique circumstances.

I always say there are three Ws in nature photography – Wildlife, Weather and Wilderness. All are unpredictable factors that we can’t control, although normally perhaps only one or two factors are unpredictable when we’re out in the field. During our two days at Kerkini, all three factors were wild! It’s fair to say that we all explored our own levels of creativity during this time, and I’m always thankful for circumstances like this because you really have to push yourself and do something a little different. It’s the best way to develop your style as a photographer.

Personally, some of the nicest images I took on the trip were as a result of the unique weather conditions, and we will probably never, ever witness conditions like this again.

One of my favourites is this high-key image of a Flamingo in snow, a highly unusual vision. 

And a fishing boat stuck on the lake in ice & snow, priceless, especially when you remember you’re in Greece.

This is a minimalistic scene of one of the fishing huts, with chairs, a table and two photographers from the group – normally a pebbled shoreline and lake, with pelicans!

 

Leaving Lake Kerkini and the pelicans (& flamingos) behind, and some landscape opportunities at Rozhen, our next stop was to eastern Bulgaria where we would find the Golden Eagle.

Initially, we made our way to the Eastern Rhodope mountains because the mountain roads at Sliven, in the heart of the Balkan mountains were closed due to snow. However our fortune changed quickly because of some road clearances, and the odds of reaching the mountain hide at Sliven became a possibility whilst they reduced dramatically in the Rhodopes.

The hide setups at Sliven allowed us to rotate between magnificent Golden Eagles and smaller but challenging Hawfinches. The Golden Eagle location was a wonderful rocky mountainous habitat, and the snow added to the dramatic setting.

There were also regulars visits by Ravens and Buzzards which provided an additional opportunity in this stark habitat.

A further hide provided some very rewarding encounters with Woodland birds, particularly Hawfinches, a species that I’ve always wished to photograph. The particularly cold weather meant that their true fiesty chararcters were on display. They are small birds with very big attitudes! This hide was situated in a beautiful Oak woodland, and again the snow was an added benefit. 

On our final morning, we had a super session in the Vitosha mountains where there is a healthy population of Nutcrackers. Two hours flew by with these beautiful birds, and then it was our turn to fly too… back to the UK.

It goes without saying that the extreme winter weather made this quite a tough trip logistically, because of the sheer amount of snow, drifting and road closures that we encountered during the week. Having said that, we photographed the species that we had set out to find, and this would not have been possible without the dedication, support, team work and excellent skills of my co-guides and colleagues in Bulgaria, Miro & Emil – blagodarya -Благодаря!

This will always remain an incredibly memorable trip for me, not just because of the weather conditions, but also because I returned home with a richer experience, and the group took a range of images that would not have been possible without the challenging wintry weather.

So goodbye for now Eagles and Pelicans, looking forward to seeing you again in 2018 when I return with a new Natures Images group. Just a sprinkling of snow next time will be perfect! 

Many thanks for reading, Ellie

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