Friday, March 15, 2019

A Star Wars Experience: Visiting Skellig Michael, Part 4: Reenacting the Final Scene

Searching for the last Jedi master atop the island

In previous blog posts on our Star Wars experience visiting the Irish island of Skellig Michael, I covered some of the basics of how to get there and where to staywhat to expect of the crossing to the island (hint: seasickness), and what you'll see on the island itself (including how the sites fit together into Rey's hike up to finally locate the missing Luke Skywalker).  Now, finally, I'm going to tell you how my wife Beth and I reenacted the final, iconic scene of Star Wars: The Force Awakens on location. Try not to geek out!

Not only did we make costumes, but I grew in an actual beard for the first time in my life in an attempt to at least look somewhat like Mark Hamill's grizzled Jedi master.  Beth wanted me to grow my hair out a bit more, too, but I was aiming for a Jedi, not a Time Lord (I could do a perfect Tom Baker Doctor Who 'fro, naturally, if I wanted).  Yes, the beard I've had the past three years was something I grew out just to photograph a Star Wars scene.  I am a nerd and freely admit to it.

Quick Index - Visiting Skellig Michael Parts I - IV

Reenacting the Final Scene

When we climbed back down to Christ's Saddle, the vast majority of people were still at the monastic ruins, and a few had already started back down to the boat landing.  This gave us the time and space to set up a photo shoot.

Beth helps me set up the composition of the shot and practices Rey's plaitive offering of Luke's lost lightsaber

As I said earlier, the angle of the sun in the late morning wasn't conducive to an exact shot-for-shot reproduction; to do so requires shooting the photo toward the southeast, which would have been head-on into the sun at that time of day.  You don't get much choice in the timing of your visit to the island unless you have a massive production budget and have worked with the Irish authorities to set up your film, so either an overcast day with white skies or settling for an angled shot is necessary.

I brought along a lightweight carbon fiber tripod (selfie sticks are for amateurs and poseurs) and a timed shutter release for my camera (I used a Canon TC-80N3 timer remote control ($135, Amazon); how's that for a Star Wars droid name?) so that we could set up, compose the shot, pose, and still give me a good 10-15 seconds to rush back into the shot.  We took several pretty good pictures this way; I count seconds down in my head pretty accurately--yeah, I've posed for shots at the edge of a cliff while under the timer often enough to level up that skill a few times.  But then another tourist (who was wearing a Vader t-shirt, if I recall correctly) offered to take some of the shots for us, which we gladly took him up on.

Maybe I'll do a future blog post about constructing the costumes, but Beth and I weren't aiming for direct, detail-for-detail authenticity of the sort needed to join the 501st Legion, but rather something that simply captured the spirit of the final scene--and something we could change into on an island lacking even an outhouse.  In retrospect, we didn't save enough time before the trip to really make awesome costumes (I think we started in mid-August, shortly after I started growing in my beard), but I think the sash Beth wove on her loom, the sleeves she crocheted, and the robe I sewed worked out just fine--to the point people offered to rent them from us! (More on that in a moment.)

We tried a few different angles, but the sun was just too harsh to get quite the same one as in the film

I wasn't about to hike all the way up the island in a Jedi robe, so I needed something fairly lightweight I could stow in my backpack along with a lightsaber.  I've made Jedi costumes before, typically involving broadcloth (it's cheap), heavy sweatsuit fabric (looks great as a robe, albeit weighing 15-plus pounds in that robe and comfortable only in minus-30 degree temperatures), and other unbreathable synthetics; I wanted something new for this trip.  Even using a linen I picked up at JoAnn's, that robe still weighs a ton--I can't imagine how hard it is to film entire scenes in costume, wearing layers of heavier cloth under the lights without beads of sweat rolling down one's forehead.

Speaking of lightsabers, I have a replica of Luke's from Return of the Jedi that I toted along carefully in my carry-on, daring the TSA to try confiscating it; a more accurate pick would be Anakin's lightsaber, which you could modify from this replica ($150, Amazon) by making the blade removable.  No, my choice was not film-accurate (as my nephew Ferris pointed out immediately upon seeing the photos), but damn it, I spent $250 many years back and have always thought it looked cooler than Anakin's. Sue me.

An Audience

By this time, a few stragglers had made their way up onto Christ's Saddle, and a few others grown bored with the ranger's lecture at the monastic ruins had trickled back over the ridge.  We found ourselves with something of an audience.

Several people asked if we were renting out our costumes, and I should have said, "Sure, for a pint back in Portmagee!" I suppose. Instead, we loaned them out, tickled that we were the only visitors to the island that day who thought to bring any and that anyone else even wanted to try them on.  We ended up making one couple's day as they said their grandkids would be so proud of them!

Epic Christmas card for the grandkids
We even received a round of applause as the crowds from the monastic ruins made their way back to Christ's Saddle. Can a Jedi blush?

The Final Result - The Final Scene

In the end, we chose one of the earlier shots we photographed, using my camera's timer remote.  Although I did have to spend some time in Photoshop cleaning up the highlights due to the harsh, near-noon sun, it was still a fantastic image to remind us forever of the time we went to Ireland, visited a piece of the Star Wars universe, and came away with a souvenir from a galaxy far away.

That's it for our visit to Skellig Michael, the real-life location of the mysterious island of "Ahch-To" and a place that you, too, can visit without having actually to jump to light speed.  Both Beth and I plan to return--perhaps after the bustle of current tourist activity centering around the past two films dies down a bit--and hopefully see the puffins nesting and again find ourselves walking in the same footsteps of the greatest myth of our modern times, Star Wars.

p.s. Skellig Michael is far from the only Star Wars location you can visit in real life.  One day soon, you'll surely find us climbing the pyramids of Tikal in Guatemala (also known as the Rebel base on Yavin IV) or descending into a seedy hotel in Tunisia (the Lars farmstead and Luke's childhood home on Tatooine).  And Beth and I have already visited Iceland's black sand beach for a glimpse of Rogue One's opening setting.

With that, may the Force be with you, always.

Quick Index - Visiting Skellig Michael Parts I - IV

Thursday, March 14, 2019

A Star Wars Experience: Visiting Skellig Michael, Part 3: On the Island and Star Wars Sights

If you've followed my prior posts on visiting Skellig Michael, you've already done the hard part: You've planned a trip to Ireland and the Kerry coast, have booked your rooms and your boat in the village of Portmagee, and you've managed to keep down your breakfast on the eight mile crossing to Skellig Michael.  Congratulations!  Now it's time for the real fun as you experience this unique world heritage site.  Read on to see the culmination of our trip to Skellig Michael and all the wonderful sites atop the island... and next time, come back to see how Beth and I reenacted the denouement of the film as Jedi master and prospective apprentice.

Quick Index - Visiting Skellig Michael Parts I - IV

From the Landing to the South Stairs

Boats coming to land at the island, with the Little Skellig in the background

As I covered in the previous post, the hike starts at the landing, a rocky outcrop on the northeastern end of the island almost directly below the monastic ruins several hundred feet above.  The first part of the walk runs southwest along the coast of the island toward the lighthouses and is pretty boring, although honestly, I kept having to settle butterflies in my stomach that weren't entirely lingering queasiness from the choppy boat crossing: We were on THE island!

At the foot of the south steps, a ranger gives a brief safety lecture and makes sure there's enough space between groups before sending the next one up the 600 stair ascent.

Beginning the ascent
The stairs go through a series of switchbacks as they climb up the side of the island.  Though they are roughly-cut stone and can be slick in the wet conditions prevalent in Ireland, anyone reasonably fit should be able to manage.  They're not as scary as some folks portray, either; Beth had no issues at all with the hike, though it could be she was completely focused on the fact that we had just stepped onto a real-life piece of Star Wars.

Perhaps where Luke stashed his X-wing?
Glance back briefly at the landing as you hike away from it: My thought is that this could be the location where Luke stashed his X-wing, which Rey sees submerged beneath the water in The Last Jedi.  Then again, a lot of the Kerry coast could have stood in for that shot, too.

Most advice I've read suggest that you not worry too much about sight-seeing or photographs on the hike up, and there's something to that, particularly if the steps are at all wet and slick (focus on your feet!).  However, depending on how much time you spend at the monastery and other sites at the top, you may feel a bit rushed coming back down and won't take nearly as long as you should on photos then, either.  So my suggestion is to stop if you see something you want a picture of, and obviously stop if you're winded and need a break from the climb.  Just do please step to the side as much as possible to let others pass.

Tourists far below on the South Stairs
Depending on the time of year you visit, you may encounter puffins making their nests (May through July, typically).  These adorable little birds are the inspiration for the porgs in The Last Jedi, and I can only imagine them getting into the filmmakers' gear throughout the shoot.  Chewbacca empathizes!  (And if you want to try to reenact his barbecuing of one of the beasts, please don't try it on the island--instead, you can find it on the tourist menu a bit across the Atlantic in Iceland, where I was sorely tempted to see if they taste like chicken.)  Unfortunately, we'd planned our trip for the late shoulder season in September, with not a porg, er, puffin in sight.

One last note on the initial stages of the climb: You may notice a helipad just shy of the South Stairs. The cast & crew used boats to reach the island each day, not helicopter (sorry, not even Mark Hamill rated a chopper).  I think this area was used to composite the scene where the Millenium Falcon lands at the end of The Force Awakens and is docked throughout The Last Jedi, but I could be wrong.

The Wailing Woman and Lightsaber Practice

One of the first seriously-recognizable sights you'll encounter is the Wailing Woman, which is a stone formation poised at the edge of the steep slope.  In the distance sits the Little Skellig (ever in view as you ascend the southeastern slope of the island).  Assuming you've watched The Last Jedi, you'll remember Rey practicing at lightsaber with this crag of rock as a mock foe... before she extends her swing a bit too far and slices the upper half off, sending it tumbling down onto the caretakers' cart on the path below.

The Wailing Woman and our young padawan, Beth
Though I'm speculating, I suspect that that scene as well as all the interactions with the island's caretakers which made the film's final cut are subtle jabs at the Irish authorities, who were justifiably concerned as to the impact a large Hollywood crew filming would have on this world heritage site.

I also got a bit of a chuckle before The Last Jedi came out, watching all of the analyses of the short footage of Rey practicing with her lightsaber and "a shape, maybe YODA, watching!"  Having been to the island, I knew that the "Yoda" shape was simply the top of the Wailing Woman, not a Force-ghost Jedi master watching the last remaining hope for the galaxy.

Keep climbing; there's much more to see.

Christ's Saddle and Luke Skywalker

One of only a few semi-level portions of the island sits between its two peaks and is where you will first emerge once you've completed the ascent up the South Stairs.  Christ's Saddle appears at the very end of The Force Awakens, but in real life, it's not actually the apex of the island--not even close!

Will you find a Jedi master awaiting you atop the island?
The stairs emerge just beyond the craggy little rock in the photo above.  The scenery is immediately recognizable, including the small little stone that some viewers initially speculated was a grave of someone close to Luke (it's just a rock).  From here, you can gaze out across the water toward the Little Skellig, and if you're not entirely afraid of heights, you can approach the edge and look down at the climbers below.  The Little Skellig, actually, is something which if you pay close attention to The Force Awakens you'll notice has been composited into several shots in duplicate: There simply aren't that many other islands visible in real life, certainly not to the degree seen in the film with the archipelago surrounding Luke's island.

Most people continue onward to the monastic ruins at this point, which you are free to do... but for us, we stopped here and let the crowds thin out so that we could enjoy the spot where Rey finds Luke at the end of her quest in relative peace.  A few others hiked up the opposite slope, but most everyone headed onto the final ascent to the monastery, giving us a good chunk of time to reenact that ultimate scene from the film's end.

Looking down from the hill above the southern end of Christ's Saddle
If you do walk up the dirt path rising to the south, be aware that when the ground is wet and slick, you should be extra careful (or perhaps not even attempt the walk--honestly, it doesn't give that much better of a view, anyway).  One of the rangers did tell us that he'd brought his girlfriend and a pack of beer up to the rocks of the southern peak, but the Irish authorities require advance approval to climb all the way to the hermitage, so don't go beyond where the path ends.

In the photo above, you can see a fence along the left side of the plateau; when Rey walks up upon Luke Skywalker at the end, she's coming from the fenceline, roughly where the dirt has been trodden down into a path, and Luke was of course standing near the little tombstone-shaped rock which is actually where the South Stairs ascend onto the plateau.  It's clear to me that the scene was filmed on a more overcast day than we experienced, and likely in the late afternoon--because when we visited, the sun made a direct reenactment of that scene impossible as the camera would be staring right into the sun behind Luke to the east.

Before I get much into our reenactment, though, let's follow the others onward to the monastic ruins; to paraphrase Rey, we'll be back.

Ascent to the Ruins

Fans with a quick eye will recognize this last long staircase ascending from Christ's Saddle, and they'll probably say, "Wait, don't these ascend from the monastery to the peak?"  That's the order of the shots in the film, with Rey pausing to consider the ruins briefly before making a final climb to discover Luke Skywalker, but in real life, you'll pass through the grounds of that last scene before reaching the last steep, narrow stairs.

Proceed, young padawan
These stairs are much more narrow and steep than those on the slopes of the island's South Stair ascent, and they are partly in shade, partly in the sun, and thus can be a bit slick with moisture and algae clinging to the rocks.  Be careful!  There's a handrail about 2/3 of the way up the stairs to help, but you're on your own beneath that.

Looking down at Christ's Saddle from the top of the stairs
At the top of the last flight of stairs, a quick glance back down at Christ's Saddle might make you dizzy; at any rate, it's absolutely clear how the film reversed the sequence of the geography, showing Rey emerge after the climb at a point where a fence (barely visible in this shot, along the right edge of the flat part of the land) actually stands.

Once you climb up and over the ridge from Christ's Saddle, there's a short, mostly level stretch of trail leading northeast toward the northern peak of the island.

A penitent man shall pass... oh, wait, mixed adventure movie metaphors there; sorry!
There's a dry-stacked stone door along the path; I really had to duck at 6'4" to make it through... though that's been the case in a lot of Ireland; I must not have much leprechaun blood in me, I guess.

This stretch of path offers some great views of the Little Skellig in the distance as well as the steep slopes of Skellig Michael.  One last small set of stairs at the end puts you on the grounds of the sixth century monastery, a place abandoned now for 800 years or more.

The Monastic Ruins

Almost all of the structures within the ruins are free-stacked stone, including the iconic beehive structures where the monks themselves lived.  The ruins of the old church itself are among the only uses of mortar on the island, and ironically, the church is in the worst shape of any of the buildings with only a couple of complete walls still standing.

Several of the beehive huts and the ruins of old church

If you've followed the crowd the whole way so far, I'm sad to say that you will indeed be part of a crowd. Though the Irish authorities limit the number of visitors to no more than 180 per day, the site is itself pretty small, and at least 100 of those people will likely be gathered on the grounds of the monastery at this point in the tour.

The monk's graveyard, and lots and lots of people...
There is a ranger on hand who will give a brief lecture on the history of the site and who will likely also talk a bit about filming Star Wars: The Force Awakens on the island.  Some parts of The Last Jedi also were filmed on site, though if you notice discrepancies in the layout of the beehive cells and the grounds of the Jedi temple, you're not imagining things: For many of the scenes in the latter film, Lucasfilm built a full-scale model monastery a bit further out along the Kerry coast.  This made filming much, much easier as it didn't require the logistics of traveling every day by boat to the island, the hike up to the site (and yes, they brought all of their gear up those 600-plus steps), and it also avoided the threat of damaging these historic, unique relics.  Remember the caretakers in the film and how upset they were that Rey blasted a hole through one of the beehive cells?  Unfortunately, Lucasfilm dismantled the set after filming; I bet the locals would have paid good money to keep it as a tourist attraction!

A row of beehive cells, with Beth in the distance for size perspective
While I'm sure that lecture was interesting, there were quite simply too many people in the way to get great photos... and we had a scene to reenact!  So Beth and I slipped away and walked back down to Christ's Saddle, where I removed my backpack and dug out the simplified costumes we'd made for the trip.  (More on that in the next post, I promise!)

After our photo shoot, we did make a brief visit back to the monastic ruins after the crowds had departed.  This makes photos and exploring much easier, but be forewarned that the ranger/guide at the ruins may limit how long you have on site if you do this.  He will be heading back down the island and catching a boat back to the mainland just like you, so he's not going to linger for long--and for obvious reasons the ranger is not likely to let you wander totally unsupervised, either.  In our case, Beth and I asked if we could make one quick pass through the ruins to see anything we had missed, and he was okay with that.  In my haste, though, I missed re-taking the shot of the monk's graveyard with the beehive cells stacked in the background that the crowd had so cluttered-up earlier, and my Photoshop skills at editing out the people have yielded mixed results to date.

One word of caution and courtesy: the walkway and stairs leading to the monastic ruins are fairly narrow.  If you're going to do like we did and invert the order of visiting the locations atop the island, you may want to wait until nearly everyone has gone one way or the other so that you're not swimming upstream.

The Return and Descent

Walking back down to the waiting boats is a good time to take it slow and grab any photos you missed on the hike up.  The perspective from above will be quite different, and you can let a fair bit of the crowds get well ahead of you to free up space in your pictures.  However, do note that at least one of the rangers will be following behind, ensuring everyone makes it down from the top safely.

Remember, don't spend the trip at the back of the boat! Your stomach will thank you.
Our boat, from Seanie and Mary Murphy's Sea Quest Adventures, took us on a loop around the entirety of Skellig Michael, giving us a chance to see the lighthouses on the southern tip and the steep green slopes and rocky shores of the Atlantic side of the island.  After that, we headed over to the Little Skellig to see the large colony of Gannets nesting on its uninhabited cliffs.  Approximately 35,000 of the birds make the smaller sibling to Skellig Michael their home.  If you manage to only be able to score an "eco tour" or "nature tour" booking, this is pretty much all you get to do: Boat out to and around the two skelligs, with a bit of a narrated tour from your guide.

Gannets nesting on the Little Skellig
All said and told, these maneuvers added a solid hour to the return trip to Portmagee, and though interesting in the sights seen, made for a miserable additional bit of seasickness.  I made the mistake of going to the back of the boat for a photo opportunity--and meanwhile, lost my place near the front where I could get the wind on my face and avoid the worst of the tossing movement on the day's choppy seas.

I managed not to be sick, but it was quite a bit closer a thing than the outbound!

Oh, one thing you might notice and wonder about: No, the gnarled old tree where Luke stows the Journals of the Whills / ancient Jedi texts does not exist, at least not on Skellig Michael, nor does the Force emblem inside a cave overlooking the ocean.  There are no trees on Skellig Michael, and there's no cave, either.  Those are creations of The Last Jedi, although the hermitage (again, accessible only with advance arrangements and proven significant climbing skills) atop the south peak of the island might come closest to the ledge from which Luke Skywalker levitates and projects his Force image during the fantastic final confrontation of The Last Jedi. 

Next time, finally, I'll cover how my wife Beth and I reenacted the final scene of The Force Awakens, costumes and lightsaber and all atop Christ's Saddle.  Until then, may the Force be with you.

Monday, March 11, 2019

A Star Wars Experience: Visiting Skellig Michael, Part 2: The Crossing and Logistics of the Hike

So you've decided to visit Skellig Michael, the real-life location of the mysterious island of "Ahch-To" from the recent Star Wars films.  You've made your hotel bookings and reserved a spot (or spots!) with one of the boat operators licensed to land at the island.  You've bought your plane tickets to the Emerald Isle.  Great!  But what do you need to know about the crossing to and your time on the island itself?  Read on...

The Little Skellig in the distance, viewed from about halfway up the stone stairs on Skellig Michael
In my prior blog post on visiting Skellig Michael, I described some of the basic logistics of planning a trip to see the iconic island made famous by the recent Star Wars films, including when to go (late May or early September), where to stay (the village of Portmagee), and arranging a booking for a landing tour to get you to the island.

This time, I'll cover the basics of the crossing to the island--roughly 8 miles by sea, or anywhere from 45 minutes to an hour-plus depending on conditions--as well as the logistics you'll need to enjoy your too-brief stay on Skellig Michael.

Quick Index - Visiting Skellig Michael Parts I - IV

What to Wear and Bring

I'm sure if you read my prior post, by now you are tired of hearing me say that the weather is fickle. But it bears repeating: You should plan for a range of weather during your trip, not just to Skellig Michael, but to Ireland.  It rains a lot, so quick-drying synthetics are a must for starters.  I'm a big fan of Outdoor Research's pants ($99-ish, Amazon) for these conditions; they're lightweight, water-resistant, breathable, and decent at blocking the wind.

Plan to layer; it can be chilly to downright cold, particularly in the shoulder season of May and September, and it's always windy out on the water and the island--but it can also be quite sunny and warm.  I suggest a fleece as well as a a lightweight, water-resistant windbreaker.

You'll want a hat; I prefer a lightweight, wide-brimmed one with a chin strap to keep it from sailing out to sea in a gust of wind.  On a blustery day, a stocking cap or toboggan would be better.

Shoes? You want solid hiking shoes--not sandals, not sneakers--as once on the island, there's a hike up a lengthy series of stone stairs to reach the interesting parts, like Christ's Saddle (where Rey finds Luke at the end of The Force Awakens) and the monastery.  My current favorites are Merrell Moab 2 waterproof trail shoes ($85-120, Amazon), though if you prefer more ankle support, feel free to go to full-fledged hiking boots.

You'll want your hands free during the hike up, so any gear you bring (like a camera or a Jedi Master's robes) should be in a comfortable backpack.  I'm partial to anything from Osprey, but try to keep it lightweight like the Osprey Stratos ($100-$130, Amazon) line; no need to throw off your balance or bonk fellow hikers with a big, bulky pack.  You could also of course carry a well-worn shoulder bag containing a lightsaber.

Yes, I know Beth is holding Obi-wan's lightsaber, not Luke's. Sue me.
Some folks bring trekking poles.  I didn't see the need for them, but if that's your thing, feel free.  A few people during our visit brought them along.

There's also no food or water available on the island, so bring water and any small snacks you may need with you.  (There's also no bathroom on the island, so be judicious with your coffee consumption prior to the crossing!)

Pack a small towel and perhaps some baby wipes; you may need to dry yourself or your gear off a bit after the crossing, and you may need to clean off the remains of breakfast...

The Morning of Your Visit

Let's start from the village of Portmagee, which is the launching point for 13 out of the 15 boat operators licensed to land on the island.  It's also where I strongly recommend staying so that you can avoid a pre-dawn drive and potential traffic on the Ring of Kerry if coming from points further afield.

Boats moored at Portmagee's harbor
The night before and again the morning of, you should double-check with your tour operator to see whether or not conditions are favorable for the trip and what the departure schedule will be for the morning.  We were scheduled to leave by around 8:30am, but our operator indicated they wanted to go earlier to take advantage of the first clear weather in a week and requested we be at the pier no later than 7:00am (if I'm recalling correctly--it was definitely moved up from the original departure by an hour or more).  Don't be left behind, because there are probably several other folks disappointed from prior days' cancellations who will happily take your place!

If your landing tour is cancelled due to weather, hopefully you have reserved a backup trip on a subsequent day, because tour operators aren't likely to have space to accomodate you otherwise.  I cannot stress this enough: The weather is fickle, and you have probably a 25-35% chance of the weather crushing your once-in-a-lifetime trip to the Skelligs, so plan ahead accordingly!  As advised in my prior post, you can book multiple trips a couple of days apart to give the weather time to improve, and if you make the first trip, great: chances are that you will be able to get the second refunded, and at worst, visit the island a second time.  You can check in with the tour operators each morning to see if they have any cancellations, but don't count on it; people book months in advance, and with a weather cancellation rate of 25% or more, there are going to be a lot of people hoping to make the trip the next day as theirs was missed.

The morning of your trip, you definitely want breakfast, because it's going to be a long day... but be careful what you eat.  The crossing can be (and often is) very rough, and even if you aren't prone to motion sickness, you may have problems.  Don't eat a heavy, greasy breakfast!  Don't even look at that traditional Irish meal of ham, black & white pudding, sausage, eggs, beans, and bread.  Instead, opt for something bland and light, like perhaps some nice Irish oats or toast with jam.

Irish breakfast. You do NOT want to eat this before boarding the boat for Skellig Michael!
And, keep in mind that neither the boats (with the exception of one) nor the island have bathroom facilities... and it's a world heritage site, so please don't expect to go behind one of those beehive huts to relieve yourself.  Thus, you'll want to keep coffee and tea consumption to a minimum; save it for your lunch after you return from Skellig Michael.

Seasickness: A Fact of Life

Maybe you don't get motion sick; I rarely do, myself.  Rest assured that the crossing to Skellig Michael can put even the most iron of stomachs to the test.  The waters between Portmagee and the island are pretty rough, in part due to the ocean currents and waves that are in play every single day, even when the skies are completely clear and sunny.

You want to get to the island (duh!), and tour operators want to get you there (so that they can get paid!), so believe me that they will do everything to do so and will operate so long as conditions are safe... but that also means that a marginal day on the water is one they will attempt.  That marginal day is perfectly safe, but can mean a longer, rougher crossing, with the waves pitching your boat up and down and side to side for more than an hour as you motor over to Skellig Michael.

Beth made the mistake of having that Irish breakfast, albeit a meatless one, but the eggs and potatoes and toast and beans were heavy fare for the morning.  She was so sick she lost that breakfast, and more, several times during the crossing.  I managed to avoid that embarrassment, but nonetheless had my gorge rise several times and barely bit back being sick.

Beth is standing too close to the back of the boat: You'll feel the waves and motion much more greatly at the back, so I advise positioning yourself closer to where the lady in the yellow jacket is standing...
Most tour operators advise against Dramamine and other motion-sickness drugs, and for good reason: Most anti-seasickness medications can leave you a bit woozy, and once on the island, you need to be sure on your feet.  If you have taken Dramamine or other motion-sickness drugs (like the transdermal patch one) and tolerate them without too much effect to your balance, then by all means, take something to help.

My suggestions otherwise include:
  • Stand as near the front of the passenger area as you can (typically right behind the pilot's cabin, near the front/back midpoint of the boat). Almost all the licensed boats are open air, and though you may be tempted to go have a seat at the back, that's the worst place to sit as every bit of motion will be magnified. 
  • Stand along the side of the boat and face the wind.  This really helps me and combats that clammy/hot onset of nausea.
  • Chew gum (dispose of it properly, though). I learned this trick when doing a marathon session at an old-timey amusement park with rickety, vomit-inducing rides.  Somehow, the movement of your jaw and the constant equalization of pressure in your ears seems to help.
  • Focus on a point on the horizon that doesn't move so much and don't watch the waves or anything close by.
And, if you do have to vomit, try to aim over the side and facing away from the wind: Beth went into the wind and ended up with a mess on her jacket to clean up.  (Remember, I did recommend bringing some baby wipes and paper towels.)

The Crossing... and Landing

The route from the harbor at Portmagee to the landing at Skellig Michael is approximately eight miles, and depending on the conditions can take anywhere from 45 to 90 minutes.  Once everyone is on the boat, given a safety briefing, and provided a life jacket or preserver (the different operators handle these different, for what it's worth), you'll be off on your way to the island!

Depending on the conditions, you may get several good looks at the island in the distance as you draw closer.  Our skies were totally white when we departed, and I admit I didn't bother taking many photos (I was also trying to keep my breakfast down).

Once you arrive at the landing point, you may have to wait offshore for a few minutes as other boats disembark their passengers; it's one-at-a-time.  And when your boat does pull up to the landing, you'll see another big reason why the conditions have to be just right to make the trip.

The landing point at Skellig Michael. Note the people standing on the area to the left and above the boat: this is where you'll climb as the waves pitch the boat up and down against the rocks!
The waves will pitch your boat up and down while the crew keep it pushed up against the landing point.  There's going to be a small ladder lowered toward the side of your boat, and that's what you are aiming for.  Our operator told us to time things so that we grabbed the ladder as near the peak of the wave as possible, with the boat riding high.

There were a lot of people helping passengers off the boat, and our operator kept the boat as stable as possible, but people have fallen between the boats and the landing point before and have thus received serious, even fatal injuries.  Be careful and don't become a statistic.

Once you're safely up on the landing site, the crew will give you a time to be back at the boat--usually somewhere about three or four hours in the future, giving you time to hike up the island's stairs, spend some time at the monastery ruins, and get plenty of pictures.  We landed around 10:00am and were given until 2:30pm to return, if I recall correctly.  Make sure to be back by the specified time, allowing yourself plenty of time to walk down safely (you don't want to rush!), as you don't want keep your boat (and all the other boats) waiting.

The Climb

After a brief safety lecture from one of the island's park rangers, you can begin the climb to the good stuff.  There are a lot of stone steps to reach Skellig Michael's points-of-interest: 618 all told to climb up the almost 600 feet from the near-sea-level landing point to Christ's Saddle and to the monastery ruins beyond.

The boring part of the walk from the landing ... before the ascent!
Suffice to say that there are a lot of folks online who seem terrified of the climb, but as far as heights and difficult climbs go, this is not particularly bad.  The route used from the landing and then the ascent to Christ's Saddle are not particularly steep or narrow in most parts.  That said, there isn't any way to accommodate someone who is unable to make the ascent; you'd have to wait at the landing point until the boat is ready to depart if you are physically unable to walk to the top.  Honestly, though, it's "just" a bit over 600 stairs: You can do it!

Seriously; Beth is afraid of heights, and she had zero problems on this hike.  By comparison, she couldn't even make it much past Landscape Arch at Arches National Park, where the hike to see Double-O Arch involved clambering up a sandstone fin about 3 feet wide and 20 feet high.  She was likewise petrified on the ledges approaching Delicate Arch.  The climb up the stairs at Skellig Michael are honestly no big deal, and if you need, simply stop for a moment and catch your breath, and keep focusing on the steps above you, not the drop-offs to the sea or the steps beneath.

Tourists ascending the stone stairs from sea level toward the fun parts


  • Stay in Portmagee (avoid traffic & getting up early); if your tour is cancelled due to weather, you can check with the boat operators for any last-minute openings the next day if you're still in town!
  • Dress in layers and with water- and wind-resistant clothes
  • Plan for seasickness; eat a light breakfast, consider medication, and stand or sit near the midpoint of your boat to minimize motion
  • The climb up the stairs isn't that bad, certainly nothing as scary as you may have read!

Next time, I'll spend more time talking about the experience on the island itself, including more on the climb up stone stairs (and back down), the monastery, Christ's Saddle, and will tie it all together with the film.

Until then, may the Force be with you.

Quick Index - Visiting Skellig Michael Parts I - IV

Sunday, March 10, 2019

A Star Wars Experience: Visiting Skellig Michael Island, Part 1

Star Wars: The Force Awakens delivered not just a revitalized chapter in the Star Wars saga but introduced fans to some fantastic and gorgeous new worlds.  Much of the film's plot revolves around the search for Jedi Master Luke Skywalker, who in the years subsequent to 1983's Return of the Jedi vanished after seeing one of his promising pupils go bad in a serious way.

The film's final scenes (and if this is a spoiler to you, you've had four years to see the film!) feature the main character, Rey, completing the search and finding Luke Skywalker atop a craggy, mysterious island.

The best thing is that the island is real, and you can visit it.

"I see it... I see the island." -- Kylo Ren, The Force Awakens
In this first post, I'll address a bit of background history of the mysterious island and the logistics of visiting it (written from a well-traveled American visitor's point of view, though you can generalize my experiences easily).  The next post will cover the crossing to the island itself as well as more of its history as well as logistics advice for your time on the island, and finally, I'll tie everything together into a view of the visit from a Star Wars fan's perspective.

Quick Index - Visiting Skellig Michael Parts I - IV

  1. Basic logistics and background: Getting there, where to stay and eat, and booking a landing tour (this post)
  2. The crossing and logistics of the hike on Skellig Michael
  3. Touring the island and its Star Wars sites and sights
  4. Reenacting the final scene of The Force Awakens

The Island: Skellig Michael

Skellig Michael, also known as the Great Skellig, is located a bit over seven miles from the Kerry coast of southern Ireland.  Today a UNESCO World Heritage site, Skellig Michael was home to a small monastery dating to the fifth or sixth century.  Though it later became a destination for religious pilgrims, the Great Skellig had been abandoned by its monks by the early thirteenth century.

Ruins of the 10th century church and the "beehive" huts
In more modern times, Skellig Michael hosted two lighthouses erected during the early 19th century, and subsequently in 1880 the Office of Public Works took the monastic ruins under guardianship. Today, the ruins are carefully preserved, balancing access for tourists against the need to maintain the unique heritage and history for future generations to come.

The Weather and When to Go

Irish weather is somewhat--nay, very!--fickle. The entire nation is so green for a reason: The Emerald Isle receives a ton of rain, with the western portions of the island (of which the Kerry peninsula is part) getting upwards of 50 inches of annual rainfall.  The sunniest months are May and June, but there can be rainy stretches throughout the summer, with storms picking up in the fall and into winter.  Remnants of hurricanes from the Atlantic season bring rain and winds to Ireland after they batter the Caribbean and the United States and cross the ocean, so keep in mind that the deeper into hurricane season you get in the late summer and early fall, the more you risk poor weather in Ireland, too.

It had been sunny just 10 minutes earlier, I swear!
Besides having a sunny background for your photos and not getting soaked, weather is important to a trip to Skellig Michael for another reason: It's an island and accessible only by boat, and those boats simply won't operate if the conditions are bad.  Skellig Michael sits right at a point where Atlantic swells break, making the waves bad enough absent strong winds or storms.

Right off the bat, this limits the time of year to visit to May 15th through September 30th, and a typical year sees the boats only able to operate 75% of the season (100 of the 130 days available); a particularly stormy summer or autumn can reduce that even further.

Shoulder season if you want to include a tour of the island (and you do if you're reading this post, right?) is thus mid-May and late September--that's it, as the boats do not operate from October through April.  June, July, and August, corresponding as they do to the summer holidays in most of the western hemisphere, are the peak tourist season by far.

We went in mid-September to reduce costs a little bit; lodging is somewhat cheaper, and the crowds are lower as well.  Over the course of a week, we had appreciable rain pretty much every day except for one, though the sun did peek through on all but a couple of soaking days.

Regardless, keep in mind that the weather changes and changes a lot! We had one morning where we started out with plenty of sun and did a hike out along the coast just across from the village of Portmagee, and the weather turned to mist and fog to steady rain. By the time we finished the hike and took a drive out along the Ring of Kerry, it had turned sunny again. Before we stopped to get dinner, it had turned to an all-out downpour.

One other consideration is whether or not you want to see the puffins, which inspired the adorable porgs in Star Wars: Puffins are typically only present from late April through early August, making May or June the best times to see them.  A few may linger as late as September, but there were none when we visited--although there were a ton of other seabirds around.

Getting There

Skellig Michael sits off the Kerry coast in southwestern Ireland. The nearest major airports are Shannon (SNN), about 3 hours away; and Cork (ORK), about 2.5 hours away by car, both of which offer several options via major airlines arriving both from North America and Europe.  Kerry Airport (KIR) is much closer at just over an hour, but has limited flight options: AerLingus from Dublin, or Ryanair from London and "Frankfurt" (the latter in quotes as Hahn airport is 75 miles outside of the city proper, halfway to Luxembourg).

You'll almost certainly have to rent a car; though there are bus services, they require multiple connections, even from Kerry itself and span dozens of hours of travel. I suppose you could take a regular tourist bus to the Ring of Kerry and depart it there, and perhaps rejoin another tour a couple of days later, but the logistics strike me as rather burdensome.  I shudder to think what a taxi or shared ride service would cost.

Car rental in Ireland is easy and relatively inexpensive, though you should invest in the full insurance coverage for your rental and watch the road shoulders: There is a reason for the ubiquitous tire (tyre) shops you'll see everywhere in the countryside. The roads are narrow, visibility poor, and dropping off the shoulder even by an inch will shred your tires. (I know. It happened to us.) And it requires driving on the left, although honestly, that's not as big a deal as most Americans seem to think it is. Pay attention and use common sense, and drive as slowly as you feel you need to--the majority of drivers seem to go under the posted limits, mind you, and others can pass--and you will be fine.  Most cars take diesel fuel, and the majority are standard (stick-shift) transmission: If you need an automatic, reserve in advance, and expect to pay a premium.  That said, I recommend an automatic even if you regularly drive stick, as the fact that you'll be driving while sitting on the right side of the car and would have to use your left hand to shift is one more distraction than necessary.

The Ring of Kerry is the primary road through the area, and it runs in a loop along the Kerry peninsula.  The Ring in and of itself is a bit of a tourist attraction, with tour buses and much traffic throughout the day as people rush through on their way to kiss the Blarney Stone or visit Killarney National Park to the north or to visit this or that set of ruins.  Most of the tour buses travel counterclockwise around the ring, so the typical suggestion to visitors is to go clockwise to avoid them and their crowds--though there's no avoiding the fact that the buses do take up in places a white-knuckle-inducing amount of the roadway!

Once you're in Kerry proper, there's only one way to get to Skellig Michael: by boat.  More on this in a moment, after we get situated and figure out where to stay and eat while in town.

Staying There: Portmagee

The village of Portmagee is the most convenient place to stay, with its limited lodging options literally directly across from the harbor from which the Skellig tours depart.  There are several other small towns nearby along the Ring of Kerry, including Cahersiveen (about 15 minutes away) and Waterville (about 20 minutes), and a few other options along the Skellig Ring (Ballinskelligs, 20 minutes).
The village of Portmagee as seen from the Skellig Experience visitors center
I suggest sticking to Portmagee for the convenience; you can always visit the other towns for dinner, and you can explore the Ring of Kerry when you're otherwise not on your Skellig Michael visit.  You can walk to the harbor, and you don't have to fight with the tour buses and traffic of the Ring each morning. It's just that much simpler.

Before we get much further, let me say one thing: Book more than one night in Portmagee (we stayed three nights).  This has to do with the particulars of the Irish weather which I touched on above and the boat transportation to Skellig Michael.  The weather changes frequently, and tour operators absolutely will not go out to the island in poor conditions.  I'd hate to come all the way to Ireland and then have my one night in Portmagee end watching the rain and wind from my hotel window rather than from atop Skellig Michael.  Again, more on the boats momentarily...

In Portmagee, lodging options are a bit thin. There's The Moorings, with the most rooms available (16) and the most convenient to the harbor itself.  There are also a couple of B&Bs and guest houses nearby.  That's it.  What this means is that you need to book early, particularly if you're coming during high season (summer).

The Moorings and adjoining Bridge Bar pub
The Moorings hosts a restaurant and pub, both with decent food and a selection of both local Irish microbrew beers and whiskey.  Think seafood- and cream-sauce-heavy gastropub fare for dinner for the best dishes.

Mushroom and cheese toast, I think

Local fish in cream sauce
There are a few other dining options, again very limited: Fisherman's Bar is the only other full-service restaurant in Portmagee offering both lunch & dinner.  In my experience, it's offerings are not quite as good as the Moorings restaurant, but Fisherman's Bar can be a nice change of pace.  If you're a beer geek, be forewarned that they have Murphy's and Guinness and a few other big-label quaffs, but I don't recall any microbrews or local beers on the menu.

Seafood sampler at Fisherman's Bar
There's also Smuggler's Cafe in town, but they are only open for breakfast and lunch, and as our Moorings room included breakfast and we had lunch out and about all but our one day, we didn't get a chance to try them out.

There's plenty else to do in the vicinity of Portmagee despite it being a small village; I'll come back to this in a later post, highlighting some of the things we did when we weren't visiting the island.

The Boat to Skellig Michael

Remember, Skellig Michael is an island, and getting there involves a boat. Ireland limits the number of visitors to Skellig Michael to only 180 people per day to help preserve the historic and cultural treasures of the island, and correspondingly limits the number of tour operators as well. Like your hotel, book early to avoid disappointment, and may also want to reserve more than one crossing date in case of bad weather.

There are 15 licensed tour operators, all of whom have similar boats and charge similar prices to visit the island.  Thirteen of them operate out of Portmagee (see why you should stay there?).  Licenses are awarded by the Irish government every other year, which can make bookings a bit tricky, as no one operator is guaranteed to win a license.  In fact, as I write this in March of 2019, the licenses for 2019 and 2020 have not yet been awarded, and no operators are able to take bookings for the season yet!

Most operators offer two different tour options: a "nature" or "eco" tour or cruise, and a "landing" tour.  What you want is the landing tour, which actually goes to Skellig Michael and lets you explore the island for a few hours.  The nature tours simply go out and around the rocks, giving you a tantalizing view of the island and its wildlife.  They could be a nice consolation prize, I suppose, if you didn't get to land at the island, and they do operate more frequently through the day as well, which might offer the chance for a tantalizing sunset view of the island (an experience we didn't attempt when we visited, but which I'd love having subsequently seen The Last Jedi and its poignant penultimate scenes of the island).

A typical boat returning from the landing tour
Peak summer season will typically run up to 85-100 euros ($100-115) per person with some of the operators, though shoulder season may see slightly cheaper prices. We used SeaQuest after striking out on the first tour operator we inquired with (they were already fully-booked!) and were quite pleased--read more about the crossing in the next blog post in this series, coming soon (and no, I don't get any sort of kickback).  In 2016 when we visited, our fares were 70 euros per person; ah, inflation.

As you can see from the photo above, these are not exactly large boats.  I cannot state often enough that the authorities limit visitors to Skellig Michael to a maximum of 180 per day, and yes, because of Star Wars, the demand to visit the island is very high, particularly with the extended Kerry and Skellig Michael footage in The Last Jedi.  Book early! Some of the tour operators will let you sign up to be notified when and if they receive a license for the year and are able to start accepting bookings, which I highly recommend.

Also, you may consider making reservations for multiple days.  All of the operators I checked with do require payment in advance (some a few days before the tour, some at time of booking), which means you will be paying for multiple tours... but you really want to go to the island, don't you?  If your scheduled booking ends up cancelling due to weather, you'll get a refund--but getting onto a different tour at the last minute is nearly impossible due to the demand.  As fickle as the weather is, don't travel all the way to Ireland, stay several days in Portmagee, and be disappointed due to your one chance to visit the island falling through.

We made reservations 2 days apart, figuring that if the weather canned our first booking, there would be a better chance it would clear up in two days rather than one.  We discussed this with our tour operator, and they agreed, though they did remind us we'd be paying in advance for both tours.  We ultimately did receive a refund for one of the bookings, as the subsequent trip did not get to run due to weather--leaving our successful outing the only one to operate within a 10 day span!  Worst case assuming no weather cancellations would be making more than one trip to the island, which honestly wouldn't be a bad thing.

Finally, have a cell phone, or at least the contact info for your room at your hotel, because the night before and then early the morning of, your tour operator will confirm whether or not they'll be able to go that day--and in our case, SeaQuest advised on the morning of our reservation that they'd be leaving a half an hour earlier than scheduled to catch a break in weather.  Some operators will re-confirm with you starting 2 days before your scheduled tour, and failing to re-confirm can lead to cancellation.


The website offers a great overall summary of what to expect and how to plan (which I came across well after I started writing my own post); you may wish to visit their guide for more information, and of course use Google judiciously as well.  To summarize my own points here:

  • The season typically runs mid-May through the end of September
  • The best weather is in late May and June
  • Crowds are lowest later in the season
  • Fly to Shannon (SNN), Cork (ORK), or Kerry (KIR) and rent a car
  • Stay locally (Portmagee is my suggestion--13 out of 15 tour operators depart from there)
  • Expect to pay 85 to 100 euros per person for the landing tour of Skellig Michael
  • The weather is fickle--have backup plans to save disappointment!  Consider multiple days' bookings, and stay in the area for several days to maximize your chances of success.

Next time, I'll talk about the logistics of the actual island visit (what to wear and bring) as well as the crossing--and yes, the crossing is a big deal!

Until then, may the Force be with you.

Quick Index - Visiting Skellig Michael Parts I - IV

  1. Basic logistics and background: Getting there, where to stay and eat, and booking a landing tour (this post)
  2. The crossing and logistics of the hike on Skellig Michael
  3. Touring the island and its Star Wars sites and sights
  4. Reenacting the final scene of The Force Awakens

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Putting the New Glass Through Its Paces: Initial Impressions of the Canon 500mm f4L II

I've been into bird photography for several years now, dating back to 2006 when I got my first SLR and a cheap 70-300mm zoom lens. While it's true that equipment does not make the photographer, inadequate gear, particularly when it comes to lenses, can hold one back--and I quickly outgrew the capabilities of that setup and upgraded to the professional 300mm f4L lens which served me well for several subsequent years. After this past fall's trip to the Bosque del Apache, I realized that I had again come to the point where I had gone as far as I could with my equipment. It was time to upgrade again, this time to the sort of glass that serious bird photographers employ.

Your faithful correspondent putting the 500mm to the test at Huntley Meadows Park in northern Virginia
Canon's supertelephotos have long been the standard for the professional bird photographer, with the superb 500mm f4L and 600mm f4L the cream of the crop by which all others are judged. Last year, Canon announced redesigned versions of both, significantly reducing weight and improving their already-stellar optics--but the horrific earthquake, tsunami, and ensuing power crisis introduced significant production delays, and it wasn't until nearly this June that the lenses began to hit the streets.

Reading the specs and early reviews on these lenses, it would seem like they were worth the wait. Regarding the Modulation Transform Function (MTF) charts for the lens, I won't bore you with the technical details--there are already some good explanations of how to read MTF charts out there--but the charts alone promise some incredible theoretical performance. Let's just say that the various lines running across the top and so close together are indicative of fantastic edge-to-edge sharpness, resolution, and contrast. Compared side-by-side with its predecessor's MTF chart, it's evident that Canon made an already-great lens even better, optically-speaking:

500mm f4L II MTF chart
Courtesy of Canon USA's site
500mm f4L (original version) MTF chart
Courtesy of Canon USA's site
Now compare that to the MTF chart for the venerable 300mm f4L I've used for a good part of the last decade, and you'll see quickly just how much better the 500mm f4L II is. Note that the 300 is indeed a fine lens with which I've taken prize-winning images--but even bare its performance is not up to that of the new 500 with a 1.4x teleconverter attached!
Canon 300mm f4L MTF chart
Courtesy Canon USA's site
And though MTF charts don't tell the entire story (they don't address chromatic aberration, for example), needless to say the new Canon lenses deliver across the board. I'm not going to even attempt to do the sort of in-depth review which professional gear junkies have already provided; for those details, I'll refer you to one of many available out on the Web, such as The Digital Picture's review. What I am going to do is share my initial experiences and some of the images I've captured in the first couple of weeks owning this fantastic piece of glass.

As I mentioned earlier, Canon ran into a lot of production delays in getting this lens to the market--over a year later than originally announced when all was said and done. I had wanted to get my hands on one in time for spring migration birding, but alas, 'twas not to be. Come the promised "late April" release, then May, and into June, and no one had the lenses in stock yet. I scoured the Net on what seemed like a daily basis for information about a firm release date when at last I came across a posting on indicating that B&H Photo had recently shipped both the 500mm and 600mm lenses to a lucky photographer. Somehow, I'd missed that the lenses had gone from "pre-order" to "backordered" status sometime in early June! I immediately placed an order with Amazon (figuring the backorder waitlist might be a bit longer at B&H).

Now, I've ordered a lot of camera gear from Amazon in the past, including one of my camera bodies (the Canon 50D), all of my lenses (including the 300mm f4L and 24-105mm f4L, both $1000-plus pieces of glass), and countless accessories. I must say that this is the first time I received a call and e-mail from a personal "camera concierge" after my purchase! Amazon followed-up with me a couple of times to provide updates on estimated delivery, as well as after shipment and arrival. I guess when you invest in something this pricey--the new 500mm is worth more than my car is at the moment!--Amazon wants to make sure everything goes smoothly. My only complaint is that though I paid the extra $3 for one-day shipping over the free two-day option I get as an Amazon Prime subscriber, they still sent it via UPS Ground on a Friday afternoon--meaning I spent an extra $3 for nothing as both would have come Monday regardless. I took off of work so I could sign for the package when it arrived; unfortunately, we've got a new UPS driver on our route who hasn't quite gotten down our address and who waited until nearly 6:00pm to swing by.

I'm glad the driver didn't just leave the box on the stoop (Amazon did send it signature-required, though UPS has been known to ignore that before); it wasn't in Amazon packaging but was rather in a huge Canon box saying exactly what was in it--sort of like when I ordered the Playstation II several years ago and it came in Sony's blue box. I guess these are drop-shipped (the box even had an EVA Air Cargo label still on it), but nothing says "steal me" like the original, naked packaging left on the doorstep. Needless to say, I pulled the trigger on new insurance coverage immediately, too!

Frog in Lac du Papillon (our backyard pond).
Canon 50D, Canon 500mm f4L II, Canon 1.4x II
Effective focal length of 700mm (optical), f/5.6, 1/40 sec., ISO 800
The threat of thunderstorms had left the backyard rather overcast, but I wanted to try out the new glass right away. Although I didn't catch any great birds to photograph, I did spy one of our resident frogs and pointed the lens his way. Right away, I found out just what an amazing lens the new 500mm is; under the rather poor light, I had opened the aperture all the way (f/5.6 with the 1.4x teleconverter attached) to let in as much light as possible, dialed in a third of a stop of underexposure (for a third of a stop faster shutter) and cranked my camera's ISO up--and still ended up with a rather slow shutter speed of 1/40 second when shooting in my usual aperture priority mode. The rule of thumb for sharp images free of blur induced by camera motion alone is that the shutter speed must be at least the reciprocal of the lens' focal length. For the effective 700mm of optical focal length I had set up between the lens and 1.4x teleconverter--plus the additional 1.6x magnification over full-frame 35mm due to the Canon 50D's crop-factor APS-C sensor--that meant I needed around 1/1000 of a second to ensure a sharp photo.

Note that I took the photo at 1/40 of a second--almost five full stops slower than the reciprocal rule would dictate is necessary--and that nonetheless it came out very nicely sharp. Part of that is due of course to my steady tripod rig and its Wimberley Head version II... but the lion's share can be attributed to the updated 4-stop image stabilizer inside the 500mm II. By comparison, my 300mm had the original, 2-stop image stabilizer--the 500 is able to maintain optical stability at a full four times (two stops) slower shutter speed than was possible in the 300.
Setting up for some hummingbird photography
On top of that, the 500mm II is considerably sharper wide-open (at f/4, or f/5.6 when using the 1.4x teleconverter) than either its predecessor or the 300mm f4, both of which really need to be "stopped down" to f/8 or so to achieve optimum sharpness.  This is something I'm really still getting used to, as I'm having to force myself to open the lens up to f/6.3 and even f/5.6 when with my prior setup I'd have never considered going any wider-open than f/7.1 due to the decrease in image quality. Finally, the fantastic resolution on this lens means that with a decently-high megapixel sensor, even images which fill only a small portion of the frame can be blown up without losing all detail; I was absolutely floored when I zoomed in on "ID pictures" I took of a few distant birds just to see what they were--the detail in comparison to my old 300mm was just unreal.
Ruby-throated Hummingbird in our backyard.
Canon 50D, Canon 500mm f4L II, Canon 1.4x II, and 25mm of extension tube
Effective focal length of 700mm (optical), f8, 1/500sec, ISO 800
It was a couple more days before I got enough sun in the yard to really try out the new lens. I set up near one of our hummingbird feeders and waited--then snapped the photo above. The angle of the light and a swarm of yellow jackets who kept trying to drive off approaching hummingbirds added to the challenge, but I'm quite pleased with the end result. The bird is sharp throughout and the background an almost-perfectly smooth bokeh due to the focal length and the lens' 9-bladed aperture--that darker smudge at the bottom is more my fault than the lens', as I failed to compose the shot in a way that excluded a brush pile against the fence (that pile being the darker area).

I also for one of the first times put my extension tube set to the test, adding a 25mm extension to the lens for the hummingbird shot above. Extension tubes are simply hollow metal tubes with pass-through electrical contacts to keep the lens and camera connected to each other; they contain no glass elements. Extension tubes do a couple of things to the image: first, they reduce the minimum focusing distance (MFD) of the lens, allowing you to get closer to your subject--the 500mm II has a MFD of just over 12 feet compared to the 5-foot MFD of my old 300mm lens (conversely, extension tubes also reduce the maximum focusing distance so that it is no longer at infinity and thus very distant subjects will not be able to be brought into focus--but that's rarely an issue when going after professional, frame-filling images). Second, extension tubes slightly increase the subject magnification within the frame and thus allow for composition which yields better, smoother bokeh (background blur) to separate the subject from its background. To be fair, this magnification increase is very slight unless one really stacks on several millimeters worth of extension.

Another frog from Lac du Papillon
Outside of migration (late February through early June, and September through early November), the birds in our backyard aren't super interesting, so despite the oppressive heat and humidity, I eagerly made two early-morning treks down to Fairfax County's Huntley Meadows Park to take in some of the wetlands fauna.

Unlucky duet for these mating dragonflies--lucky breakfast for this Green Heron
Canon 50D, Canon 500mm f4L II, Canon 1.4x II
Effective focal length 700mm (optical), f/8, 1/1250 sec, ISO 400, -2/3 exposure compensation
My first morning, I came across several Green Herons hard at work filling their bellies with breakfast.  I caught the image above just after this one had scarfed down a red dragonfly--the pair of mating dragonflies drifted a bit too close in their throes of passion. Not to be too greedy, the heron did release one of the two before swallowing its hapless mate.

I really like the action in this image; for years, I'd done some very good perched bird shots, but truly great bird photos involve some aspect of behavior: flight, foraging, mating, defending one's territory, and so forth. These images are obviously much more difficult to bag due to the challenges of gaining and maintaining good focus as well as the simple fact that birds do not perform on command--you just have to be there and hope that everything comes together correctly to yield a great shot. That's also where having the absolute best gear plays a significant role: I don't want to have to worry about problems with focus, with contrast or light, etc.; I want to simply record the action I see and get great images.

For the Green Heron shot above, in retrospect I would have gone with my 25mm extension tube mounted and would have opened the aperture up to f/6.3 or so to give a bit better bokeh, but I'm still not quite used to the ability to shoot at full-open or nearly-so and still get nice, sharp images.

Juvenile Barn Swallow at Huntley Meadows Park
Canon 50D, Canon 500mm f4L II, Canon 1.4x II
Effective focal length of 700mm (optical), f/8, 1/500 sec, ISO 400, -2/3 exposure compensation
I also managed to stake out a pair of juvenile Barn Swallows who'd perched on a snag near one of the boardwalks. A couple of years ago, I captured images of slightly-younger babies begging for food from the adults who zoomed around constantly, but these two birds were old enough to get by on their own. Still, I held out for some sort of a behavior shot instead of just plain perching, and after about 15 or 20 minutes caught this one stretching. Even without perfect light--he was turned a bit into the sun verses being well-sidelit--the contrast and detail delivered by the 500mm II are quite nice, and it would be tough to ask for smoother bokeh.
I wrapped up my photo shoot by about 9:30am each morning, which is when the influx of rowdy children out with their parents for weekend nature walks typically begins at Huntley Meadows, making bird photography much more challenging as the day winds on. Too, it was already stiflingly-hot and muggy, and my shoulder was just about worn out carrying my tripod and the 500mm. Yes, Canon did reduce the weight of the mark II by a good pound and a half over the original version, and yes, it's possible to handhold it for short periods for getting good bird-in-flight shots, but this lens still comes in at over seven pounds and does necessitate a good tripod with a gimbal head like the Wimberley. I've had to order a new camera backpack--my Think Tank ShapeShifter doesn't have any capacity for such a large piece of glass!--and went with a Gura Gear Kiboko 22L+ which I'll talk more on once I've had a chance to break it in. I also need to pick up a used "baby jogger" stroller, which seems to be the normal method of wheeling around all one's big photo gear when out at the park.

Canon 500mm f4L II (left), compared with the Canon 300mm f4L (right).
Both lenses shown with lens hoods extended.
I haven't tried out my Better Beamer flash extender yet, but I do expect to get much better results using it in tandem with this lens than I did with my 300mm--hmm, that's probably something I can test out in the backyard, in fact.

Next week, I'm taking a brief mid-week trip down to Fort Meyers, Florida, to try the new glass out in Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge and will surely post the results of that expedition. I really can't wait until the fall comes and I get a chance to really put this lens to work; besides covering our own migrating birds in the backyard and at Huntley Meadows, I already have trips planned to Idaho and Monterey, California, for some serious birding, and may try to work in a southern California outing as well--and don't forget that Beth and I are going to Thailand for a week where we'll go on a grand birding adventure with Tony Eagle Eye, and where I hope to capture a shot of the critically-endangered Spoon-billed Sandpiper (I didn't even try with my 300mm previously--the bird was small enough in Tony's spotting scope that I knew there was no chance to record even an ID photo with my old lens).

Look for much to come as I enjoy this fantastic new birding lens!