Monthly Archives: May 2013

In search of Arctic Eiders – Varanger, Northern Norway

12th – 17th April 2013

I picked up Tony Davison from his house at 5.15am, then set off to collect the other two trip members, Glyn Sellors and Mike Richardson. Having just about fit all the suitcases and camera bags into the car, we set off for Heathrow. The SAS two-leg flight to Kirkenes, via Oslo would last approximately 4 hours, plus a 5 hour wait in Oslo, between flights. Arriving at Kirkenes airport at 7pm, we picked up the hire car and drove to the Rica Arctic Hotel in Kirkenes, a small provincial town on the south side of the Varangerfjord. This was the furthest north I'd ever been, north of the Arctic Circle, at approximately 70 deg north.

After a fitful sleep we met for a lovely breakfast – a great choice of food, which is standard for Norwegian hotels. We loaded the hire car up again then set off south to the Pasvik Valley, in search of our first target species Pine Grosbeak, Siberian Jay and Siberian Tit. The Pasvik valley is very picturesque,  lying north-south and bordering Russia and Finland. Since Glyn had been before, he advocated driving until we found a house with a bird feeder, with birds on it. This may seem odd, but the people are very friendly and are happy to share their feeder, even with 4 eager photographers. After a while we spotted a Siberian Jay, then after good views, we spotted 2 Pine Grosbeaks, one of which was a stonking male. Very obliging it was too. To top it all we also found a pair of Siberian Tits, some Arctic Redpoll, Mealy Redpoll, northern Bullfinch and northern Willow Tit. Later we stopped off to catch a flock of 30 Snow Buntings and a great Lesser spotted Woodpecker,  not bad for day one. Oh, and a great northern Red Squirrel. Later that day we took the drive north to Båtsfjord a 3 hour drive.

Arriving at Båtsfjord late evening, when the light was stunning, we booked into the Polar Hotel for the night. After a great meal of Reindeer stew and vegetables, we turned in early, ready for a 4am start next day, where we were to visit the floating hide in the harbour, famous for close views of Common Eider, but especially Steller's and King Eider.

At 4.30am we met Orjhan. He is the guy who organises the trips to his floating hides. They're not cheap (overnight hotel plus hides approximately £200), but don't go to Norway expecting a cheap holiday. He can be contacted on (www.arctictourist.no). The next 3 hours were spent photographing Steller's and King Eider, as well as Common Eiders. As we visited late in the Winter season, King's were scarce – normally there'd be thousands of them. The hide experience was great, but be warned, after a couple of hours your back and neck will ache and you will get cramp, as you are photographing the birds low down at water level – you have been warned! Later that morning we took in the harbour and got further views of King and Steller's Eider and also nesting Kittiwakes.

Later that day we headed for Vadsø, for a 2 night stay at the lovely Rica Hotel, run by Anita, a very nice lady. On the journey back from Batsfjord, over the snow covered mountain pass, we spotted a Ptarmigan in full white winter plumage and after stopping at Nesseby, a small fishing village, we saw Snow Buntings, Kittiwakes and Purple Sandpiper. We also saw an adult White-tailed Sea Eagle, which cruised over our heads. Nesseby has a beautiful church and also has some interesting fish cages, to dry cod in the wind and sun.

Day 4 was to explore Vardø and hopefully visit the island of Hornøya, for it's seabird colony. The weather had been bad overnight, with a good snowfall and the morning weather was ominous,  with high winds. Weather in Northern Norway at this time of year can be changeable at it's best, attrocious at it's worst. Fortunately by the time we reached Vardø the weather had improved somewhat and we risked a trip to Hornoya island. It was easy; none of this booking ahead lark – we just turned up at the Harbourmaster's office, paid our £35 and headed off via a zodiac boat to the island, in what for me was the highlight of the trip – stunning place !

Here we had Common and Bridled Guillemot,  Brunnich's guillemot,  Razorbill, Puffin, Shag, Cormorant,  Glaucous Gull, Herring Gull, Great and Lesser black backed gulls and Kittiwakes. Also some mean-looking Ravens. The cliffs were stunning, albeit a bit dangerous in the deep snow and rocky crags, as one or two of us found out. Nothing serious though, but sinking waist deep in snow can be traumatic.

Back in Vardø, once again on terra firma, we met up with Tormod Amundsen, a local chap. He let us photograph approximately 60 Snow Buntings that he was feeding in his garden. I say garden, this was some land on the shores of the Varanger Fjord, but what a view! Tormod helps organise the GULLFEST festival in March which celebrates the birdlife of Varanger (www.biotope.no).
The next day we headed back to Kirkenes, stopping as we drove first west, then east round Varangerfjord, looking for sea ducks. Although a bit disappointing,  because of the late winter of our visit, we saw plenty of Common Eider, 2 Red-breasted Merganser and lots of Steller's Eider, but sadly no Long-tailed Duck.

We decided to head back to the Pasvik Valley, to look for the Pine Grosbeaks and the other woodland specialities – it did not disappoint. We had really good views of Pine Grosbeak, Siberian Tit, Siberian Jay, Arctic and Mealy Redpoll, Northern Willow Tit and Bullfinch. To top it all, the sun came out again, with blue skies – brilliant.

After a further night in the Rica Arctic hotel in Kirkenes, we had a short time to explore, before our morning flight home. To be honest, with the weather poor, we did not find many birds, but we had had a superb 5 days.

Norway is beautiful, scenic, dramatic, friendly, but also expensive. Okay, so beer is £9 a pint and a cheeseburger, chips and salad is anywhere between £12 and £25, but the hotels are reasonably priced, with good breakfasts, and fuel is on par withith the UK, although car hire is pricey. All in all, it is worth the expense, due to the uniqueness and stunning beauty of the scenery, and of course the bIrds.

The final tally of birds sighted was 40. This doesn't seem many but we went for quality, not quantity. Our mileage was 1150 kilometres over 5 days. Norway is an experience,  a country of stunning vistas and skies. Okay, the weather can be rough, but it can also provide you with the most beautiful light you can ever imagine. Before anyone asks; no, we never saw the Northern Lights, despite being so far north, but to be honest we were so tired after birding all day, we just wanted to sleep.

If you get the chance to visit Norway,  go, you won't regret it.

To see some images from the trip, click the link below:

Cheers.
Richard

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Posted in 2013, Seabird Colonies, Trip Reports, Visits, Year