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A pair of black-browed albatrosses (Thalassarche melanophrys) strengthen their pair bond through bill-fencing. These birds were photographed at the edge of the world's largest black-browed albatross colony on Steeple Jason Island in the Falkland Islands.

Canon EOS-1D Mark IV, EF200-400mm f/4L IS USM at 560 mm, 1/800 sec at f/8, ISO 800

My day started early as I boarded one of our ship’s zodiacs at 5:30 am to be ferried to Steeple Jason Island. Steeple Jason is a small island situated in the far northwest reaches of the Falkland Islands. It is the setting for the world’s largest black-browed albatross breeding colony, which recent estimates have pegged at 220,000 breeding pairs. As I stepped ashore that morning I had no idea that high winds would prevent any of the zodiacs from coming to retrieve me (and other members of our expedition) for another fifteen hours, but that is a story for another day.

Around the time I captured this photograph, my only worries were keeping myself and my cameras dry since it had been raining constantly for most of the morning. I had hiked to a promising spot on the edge of the colony where several black-browed albatrosses were sitting on an elevated pile of rocks. This spot allowed me to isolate one or two birds from the rest and to avoid the distracting clutter of other birds in the background. Most of the time my target birds rested quietly, protecting themselves from the elements. I acted similarly — hunkered down amid the tussock grass in a mostly-failing effort to keep dry and warm.

Then, out of nowhere, another albatross swooped in, presumably returning from a feeding foray in the surrounding seas. The new arrival prompted each of several nearby albatrosses to rise in greeting, or more likely, to protest the incursion into its personal space. Soon the newcomer positioned itself close to one of the others, and before I knew it, the two began bill-fencing, a well-known courtship or pair-bonding behavior.

Their interaction gave me the type of photo opportunity I’d been hoping for and I rattled off a long series of shots in an effort to catch their bills and heads in a pleasing and symmetrical orientation. The albatrosses moved their bills so rapidly while fencing that it was basically a blur to my eye, but I felt confident that my choice of a 1/800 second shutter speed would be sufficient to freeze the action in a reasonable percentage of frames. It wasn’t until I’d downloaded and reviewed my images from that long day that I found out I’d been rewarded.

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