I am a lucky person or more correctly I am very lucky where I live. I live at the end of the Wirral peninsula in NW England and this is one of the very few places where it is possible to photograph Leach's Storm Petrel from the shore. As September is nearly upon us, it has reminded me that the brief window of opportunity to photograph these birds is fast approaching.
Leach's Storm Petrel are pelagic birds only coming to shore to nest at remote islands and spend the rest of the time out at sea. During September, in their migration southward, some birds pass down through the Irish Sea with peaks numbers passing Liverpool Bay towards the end of the month. To photographic these ocean wanders from the shore requires a whole set of conditions to coincide which means that some years, like 2011, only one or two birds may appear briefly battling their way through the waves. The necessary conditions are that gale force winds from the North-West blow for at least 3 days. This pushes the birds landward and they are funneled in towards the mouth of the River Mersey. The birds linger in the mouth of the river then as the tide ebbs, head out and move along the top of the peninsula. Given the alignment of the river mouth with the coast there is one particular spot about 4 miles from my home where numbers of petrels can hit the shore. Obviously for this to come together the tide also needs to be at the right time of day for light direction to allow photography.
Petrel Video .
The challenge for photography is that you are being buffeted by a 30 - 40mph wind that is laden with camera unfriendly salt and sand, trying to photograph a bird about the size of a starling in flight that keeps appearing and disappearing behind large waves. Believe me it is not easy but it is a very rewarding experience being up close to these enigmatic sea birds and I have had them so close that they were inside minimum focusing distance for the camera. They appear very bat like as they flutter low across the waves and patter across the wave tops as they battle their way back seaward into gales. All you can do is admire these delicate looking birds as they struggle back out undeterred in to a raging sea of spray and foam.
The birds rarely actually land on the water, as this bird below has, unless the kind a quick and easy meal. The tube nostrils of these birds are very effective at sniffing out food over vast ocean expanses.
It is great to watch them as the walk across the wave tops in their buoyant flight. Superbly adapted to their life on the ocean swells.
My favourite image of this species to date is the one below of a banking juvenile bird which is a particularly difficult photo to capture in the howling winds. This photo recently appeared in a book dedicated to storm petrels. However, as any bird photographer will tell you there is always room for improvement which is what keeps us going back.