How to Photograph Manx Shearwaters
The UK is home to some spectacular colonies of seabirds scattered along its coastlines and offshore islands. These provide exciting opportunities for photography during the spring and summer breeding seasons, a topic already covered in detail in a piece by Mark Hamblin.
As many people focus on the most celebrated and charismatic species, such as puffins and gannets, there are some less-known characters inhabiting our shores which are often overlooked in the photographic realm. This is due in no small part to their elusive and nocturnal habits.
These nocturnal seabirds breeding in the UK’s coastal realms include the Manx shearwater, European storm-petrel, and Leach’s storm-petrel. Breeding out of sight in burrows and rocky crevices, returning to their colonies only under the cover of darkness, these species are often difficult to see, let alone photograph.
However, for those keen for a challenge and willing to adventure to remote offshore islands, they present a hugely rewarding and exciting focus for photography.
The Manx shearwater is a species particularly close to my heart, as I grew up on an island off of Wales, home to over 25,000 breeding pairs of these magnificent ocean-goers. Many, many hours spent amongst the Manx shearwaters on Bardsey Island have provided me with unique opportunities to study the species, and understand some key factors to consider for those attempting to photograph them.
Where to find Manx shearwaters in the UK
Manx shearwaters arrive in UK waters in the early spring, having spent their winter in the South Atlantic Ocean off of Argentina and Brazil. Breeding birds begin returning to their island colonies from mid-March onwards, and leave in early September.
Whilst Manx shearwaters are incredibly well-adapted for life at sea, they are somewhat clumsy on land and very vulnerable to land-based predators. As such, most nocturnal seabirds like Manx shearwaters are restricted to breeding on small, offshore islands, free of predators such as rats and foxes.
In the UK, over 80% of the population exists on just four islands: the Isle of Rúm, Skomer Island, Skokholm Island, and Bardsey Island.
Perhaps one of the biggest initial challenges in photographing this elusive species is simply getting to the islands on which they breed, and staying for a period of time that maximises your chances of getting good photographic conditions.
Skomer Island is serviced daily by ferries during summer months (subject to weather conditions), and it is possible to stay overnight by booking through the Welsh Wildlife Trust. However, visits to the island have been curtailed during COVID-19, and this will likely continue to affect accessibility during the 2022 season.
Visiting Skokholm Island is possible for short stays, as well as longer residential trips based at the island’s bird observatory. Places can be booked by visiting the Welsh Wildlife Trust website.
Off of Wales’s north-west coast, the island of Bardsey is serviced regularly through the spring and summer months by a boat from the adjacent mainland. However, it is necessary to book accommodation on the island for either half a week or a full week, to allow time for photographing these night-time creatures.
Accommodation is available either through the Bardsey Island Trust or Bardsey Bird Observatory websites, and the boat service is booked separately:
– Bardsey Island Trust: https://www.bardsey.org/
– Bardsey Bird Observatory: https://bbfo.org.uk/
– Bardsey Island boat service: https://www.bardseyboattrips.com
As the most adventurous option, the Isle of Rúm in Scotland provides an exciting challenge: the colony of Manx shearwaters here breed only on high mountain ridges, on peaks such as Trollabhal.
This necessitates either camping or staying in nearby bothies, and making a trip into the mountains at night-time. This is an expedition only recommended for confident hikers and experienced mountaineers. Ferries to Rúm can be booked through the CalMac ferry service.
When to visit Manx shearwaters in the UK
Once you’ve managed to get to one of these island strongholds, you have a few choices of photographic styles on which to focus. Most of this article is dedicated to how you can photograph these elusive creatures under the cover of darkness, in the colony.
However, it is also possible to capture images of these birds offshore during the daytime, either when they pass the coastline, or on dedicated boat trips out to sea.
Planning for night-time photography requires a bit more thought and consideration than daytime options as you need to factor in other elements, such as moon phase and timing within the breeding season.
The point at which you visit a colony during the year affects how much activity there will be, and how much night-time will be available for photography. In April, shortly after breeding birds arrive back in the colony, the long nights provide superb conditions for getting images with a starry backdrop.
At this time of year, the birds are focused on renovating their burrow nest sites and spending time reaffirming pair bonds with their partner. Manx shearwater are a monogamous species that pairs for life. This means there’s often ample opportunity for observing birds closely whilst they are preoccupied with these activities.
Come May and June, breeding birds are incubating their eggs underground and are often only present on the surface of the ground for brief periods of time, as they change over and swap duties within their burrow.
June and July are the peak months for the sheer number of Manx shearwaters in the colony. This is the time when a large number of immature birds visit colonies at night, sussing out potential nest sites and partners in an overwhelming cacophony of wailing, cooing cries that fill the sky.
This influx of non-breeders can create great opportunities for photographing birds resting on the ground at night, but you have to be prepared for some very late nights. It doesn’t get dark until 10-11pm at this time, and only remains dark for a matter of hours before dawn colours the sky and the shearwaters disperse back out to sea.
In late August and September, shearwater chicks begin to emerge from their burrows and exercise their wings on the tops of dry-stone walls, banks, and rocky outcrops. These naïve and often approachable birds can be observed at close range with care, providing another good window for photographic opportunities.
The nights begin lengthening at this time in the late summer, which also provides more time to spend getting that memorable image.
As mentioned, the moon is another critical consideration for night-time photography of Manx shearwaters. Shearwater visitation to the colony is hugely reduced over full moon periods, when bright night skies increase the risk of predation from gulls, ravens, and other predators that could easily catch these vulnerable seabirds whilst on land.
Conversely, the pitch-black conditions afforded by new moon periods is when activity reaches its peak, thanks to the safety offered by the cover of dark nights.
These conditions also make for some of the best views of the starry night sky, which is especially spectacular thanks to the lack of light pollution above these island refuges. So, make sure you consult a chart of moon phases when considering when to visit these areas.
Read more: The Best Settings for Night Photography
How to photograph Manx shearwaters during the day
Throughout the breeding season (April – September), one of the great spectacles associated with Manx shearwaters is their pre-dusk gatherings offshore. Thousands upon thousands of birds gather together in rafts off of the islands on which they breed, waiting until darkness falls to visit the colony.
These flocks are usually a kilometre or more offshore, and can provide superb opportunities to photograph the birds in their true oceanic environment.
The difficulty here is finding how to get offshore, in order to see them at a close enough range for photography. The best option is using local boat operators, who run trips to see Manx shearwater rafts off of Pembrokeshire and the Isle of Rúm.
Contacting these companies during calm weather conditions will hopefully provide a great opportunity for getting out to sea and photographing the birds as they gather at dusk. Bear in mind that this option is only recommended for those with good sea legs!
Another opportunity for daytime photography of these amazing seabirds is during the peak passage periods, when birds are arriving and departing from UK waters. In the spring, this is between March and May, and in the autumn between August and October.
During stormy weather conditions with offshore winds (blowing towards land), Manx shearwaters can often be seen in spectacular numbers as they weave in and out of huge rolling waves. The offshore winds in these situations help bring birds closer to the coast and into photographic range, but a good telephoto lens in this situation is crucial.
Such daytime passage can be seen from various places along the western seaboard of the UK, but your best opportunities for photography will be from the islands on which they breed. These often present some of the most impressive seascapes as a backdrop to your imagery too!
Fieldcraft and ethics
Whilst on land, Manx shearwaters are quite approachable and tolerant of the presence of people. Even so, getting close enough to capture wide-angle images, including starry night skies, requires a few added elements of fieldcraft.
Before continuing, a note on ethics: care must be taken when wandering around Manx shearwater colonies during the day or at night. Their earth burrows can be very delicate and prone to collapse, if you accidentally tread on the roof of a shallow burrow. Following the advice given by wardens and reserve staff, it is highly recommended to avoid damaging nesting areas.
Manx shearwaters are also quite sensitive to bright lights. So, it’s best to use a head torch with a red filter and limit the use of on-camera flashes (or use a low setting and bump up the ISO).
How to photograph Manx shearwaters at night
So, we’re now in a position to hone in and focus on actually acquiring an image of one of these secretive seabirds at night. I’d recommend heading out into the shearwater colony shortly after dusk; the first returning birds arrive as darkness falls, and their eerie wailing calls begin to fill the sky with a spectacular chorus.
It’s now a matter of carefully walking around until you find a bird resting on the ground or on an earth bank. If it looks settled, quietly shuffle closer until you’re in a position to set up your camera and tripod.
Being as quiet as possible at this stage is crucial, so it helps to wear clothing that doesn’t rustle too much. Settled birds may allow you to approach within feet without disturbing them. This then allows you to use a wide-angle lens to frame the bird with a backdrop, and hopefully some starry night skies.
The critical element is exposing your image correctly.
To capture the night-time landscape and starry sky, you’ll need to use a low aperture, long exposure (often between 10-30 seconds), and high ISO (anywhere between 1600 and 6400, depending on the brightness of the night and your camera’s low-light abilities).
However, to capture the Manx shearwater within this scene, you will have to illuminate the bird with some form of lighting equipment.
I generally use a dim torch and quickly ‘paint’ the shearwater with light during the long exposure. If you are too slow using the torch, then any movement of the shearwater’s head or body will come out blurred within the image.
Alternatively, you can use a flash on a low power setting, but this risks startling the bird at such close range. Personally, I wouldn’t advocate this method due to the dazzling effect and its disturbance of these sensitive seabirds.
Sometimes your chosen shearwater will trundle away or take off into the night, just as you’ve settled into the perfect position for a great image. And so, it often takes a lot of perseverance to find the right shearwater that is willing to stay still for the time it takes you to correctly frame and expose an image.
It is a game of patience and perseverance, as is often the cornerstone of wildlife photography!
Depending on how close you’re able to get, lenses with a focal length between 15-35mm are ideal. Most of my images have been taken using a Canon 15mm f/2.8 fisheye lens, which focuses down to a few inches and allows for birds to take up a good proportion of the image, whilst including as much night sky as possible.
It goes without saying that checking weather forecasts for the days and nights you plan on photographing shearwaters is another important factor. Although in these island locations, clouds and rain showers often blow through relatively quickly, providing patches of clear skies to work with even when forecasts suggest otherwise!
Manx shearwaters are elusive, nocturnal seabirds restricted to a scattering of islands around the UK’s coast. They’re certainly a difficult subject to find and photograph but, for those up for the challenge, the experience of seeing these birds and being amidst a colony at night is something you won’t forget.
Whilst it is possible to capture atmospheric images of these birds as they pass the coast during the daytime, photographing them in their colonies, under the cover of darkness, is an even more rewarding option for the keen photographer.
It might take several trips to these colonies over several years before you get an image you’re happy with, but getting to know the species and locations is rewarding in itself, especially so when you manage to capture the perfect shot of one of these amazing seabirds in its coastal domain.