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Iceland Photos: Digiscoping Puffins With a Phone [slideshow]

By Hugh Powell

In off hours during the Icelandic Puffin Rally I enjoy finding a clifftop and watching seabirds fly past (Atlantic Puffins, of course, but also the many Black-legged Kittiwakes, Northern Fulmars, Lesser Black-backed, Herring, and Glaucous gulls, Black Guillemots, Common Murres, and Razorbills). It’s a chance to savor the vivid green grass, the cold wind coming in off the North Atlantic, and the black shapes of the island cliffs in the distance.

Though I can’t get the kinds of results that my photographer colleague Chris Linder gets with his professional rig, I do enjoy digiscoping with my iPhone. It gives me the combined enjoyment of watching birds with my Zeiss spotting scope, plus the option of trying to capture a bird or a scene as a memento of my time here—without having to carry an enormous camera lens.

I found a few groups of puffins on the edge of a steep drop into the sea, where the evening light played on the grass. Puffins in Iceland are skittish birds—they have been hunted for centuries—so it was hard to approach them closely. I sat in the grass, shortened my tripod legs, and turned my scope on the birds.

It’s still early in the breeding season, and there was plenty of intrigue in the air. Puffin pairs landed near each other and began their “billing” display immediately, in which the birds touch their bills together and then rub them side to side, as if nuzzling each other. Occasionally, a third bird would approach, probably a younger male that hoped to win over a mate for himself. This always attracted the attention of the male of the pair. His clownish face suddenly seemed to become serious as he hurried over. For a while there was a three-puffin standoff, with the paired male showing his open bill to the intruder in a clearly aggressive display. It was tense for a few moments, and then the young bird turned and shuffled off, downhill.

(Images: Hugh Powell. Watch for the full puffin story to appear in Living Bird magazine in the coming year.)

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American Kestrel by Blair Dudeck / Macaulay Library