Sunday 29 March 2015

Norway Birding - 23rd and 24th March (Day 5 and 6 of 6)

We were heading for the Pasvik Valley today so were up at 05:00 for 05:30 breakfast and on the road for just before 06:30. As we had breakfast we scanned the harbour at Vardo and picked up three Black-headed Gull (largely summer migrants here), a Common Gull (the first of the trip) and an immature White-tailed Eagle which flew across the harbour. We headed back west along the north shore of the Varangerfjord scanning from the car as we went. It was a little warmer today and the thermometer showed -5c in slightly more cloudy conditions yesterday. We diverted to the small harbour at Nesseby to check for gulls but there were only small numbers of argentatus Herring Gull, Great Black-backed Gull and Kittiwake so we continued our drive. A short way out of Nesseby a stunning juvenile White-tailed Eagle flew slowly over the road, we did an emergency stop as quickly as we could, not easy on an ice covered road, and enjoyed amazing views as the bird flew overhead. We turned south on the A6 and somewhere in the area of Aune a few kilometres south of the E6/E75 junction we came across a stunning Hawk Owl perched atop a telegraph pole and then, just behind, another bird. They gave fantastic views down to around 20m before flying off in pursuit of a Magpie after giving some juvenile Tawny Owl like contact calls. A short way on a third bird was siting atop a TV aerial on a house - three Hawk Owl within a 100m stretch! We headed on south passing through some stunning mountain scenery which we had not seen on the first day due to the terrible weather conditions and saw a further two Hawk Owl along the route, this is evidently a common species along the better wooded parts of this road.

Immature (1st year) White-tailed Eagle

Hawk Owl

Hawk Owl

We reached the Pasvik Valley at 09:00 and drove down the far more wooded valley dominated by spruce and birch. Our first stop was at the National Park visitor centre of Bioforsk at Svanhovd. We were hoping to spend some time at the feeders at the centre and explore the birch woodland behind the centre which supports Three-toed Woodpecker. The feeders, while busy, were relatively species poor and supported little more than House Sparrow, Common (MealyRedpoll, two Coue's Arctic Redpoll (which showed briefly) and Greenfinch. The woodland was inaccessible due to the recent heavy snowfalls and we could find no clear tracks to allow us to bird it. So, after a quick stop at the local Co-op, we headed further south and birded the loop that extends through Skroytnes. The road passes through a mosaic of fields, spruce and birch woodland although much of this was covered with snow. The road was relatively birdless, we saw a good number of Mealy Redpoll, Willow Tit and a male Goshawk which looked to be much paler below than our UK birds and was of the northern race buteoides.

We eventually reached the BIRK Husky guesthouse near to Melkfoss at around 13:00 and checked in with Chris the owner to a cacophony of barking husky’s, not really my idea of peace in a beautiful snowy wilderness - but they were fairly well behaved and only seemed to bark when attention was given to them. Chris showed us to our rooms and pointed us in the direction of the feeders and hide and off we went. The feeders were alive with redpoll and we identified (or at least claimed!) Common (Mealy) (the commonest with a peak of around 20 birds present at anyone time) and Coue’s Arctic Redpoll (no more than three present at anyone time). I find these redpoll extremely difficult and I was somewhat baffled by the two species and the apparent integration between them. Quickly Trev picked up a lifer for me, Pine Grosbeak, a female bird and then soon after a male appeared, there were probably four birds present in total and over the course of the afternoon showed very well. Other species coming into the feeders included a Siberian Tit, Willow Tit, Siberian Jay (a single bird rather briefly), Bullfinch (a pair) and many House Sparrow, Greenfinch, Blue Tit and Great Tit. After a couple of hours at the feeders we walked the ski-do trail to the south of the guesthouse and followed this for a couple of miles to a frozen lake. The crossing of the lake looked daunting in this vast snowy wilderness so we turned back and headed for the lodge for the last bit of birding. The birding along the ski-do track as with much of the forest was very slow and all we saw was a single Arctic Redpoll, three Siberian Tit and a couple of Willow Tit.

Male Pine Grosbeak

Male Pine Grosbeak

Female Pine Grosbeak

I had fairly poor views of Siberian Jay and this is the best shot I managed

Siberian Tit

Willow Tit

Common (Mealy) Redpoll

Common (Mealy) Redpoll

Common (Mealy) Redpoll

Common (Mealy) Redpoll

Common (Mealy) Redpoll

Possible Coue's Arctic Redpoll

Possible Coue's Arctic Redpoll

Coue's Arctic Redpoll

We spent the final hour or so of birding light trying to add some birds to our Russian list, the BIRK Husky is no more then  200m from the Russian border and as neither Trev nor I had been to Russia we thought it would be entertaining, if rather trivial to start a Russian list. The border runs along the centre of the river Vaggatem and after some brief scanning we scored fairly well with the first bird being a Dipper feeding on the ice on the edge of the partially frozen river followed by a Whooper Swan which flew from the south and landed in the centre of the river before swimming to the Russian side and coming ashore, our Russia list now numbers two species.

After popping to the local Co-op to grab some beers we relaxed to some photo editing and writing up up notes. Two other guests, Aurora Borealis 'hunters', who had been pacing the woodlands outside looking for the lights burst into the lodge exclaiming the lights were showing so we tore ourselves away from our beers and popped outside into the -10c temperatures. We saw a glimmer of the lights which were not too spectacular before returning to our laptops and beers.

The 26th saw us up at 05:30 for breakfast followed by loading of the car and our return drive to Kirkennes. The plan was to revisit the Waxwings of our first day and then took for a Hawk Owl which was said to perch on one of the roadsigns on the airport approach road. However, conditions were overcast and the snow heavy and our journey back was a little slower and more treacherous than we had anticipated. We had a drive around Kirkennes in the increasingly heavy snow before deciding that we would be better off at the airport. As we drove we saw a few Waxwing but little else. On arrival at the airport we relaxed and did some 'chimping' before boarding our flight on time, the journey home was smooth and efficient, unlike the final flight on the first day of our trip, and following departure at 11:30 we were home by 18:30.

We had a fantastic trip, the highlights for me were undoubtedly Ivory Gull, Steller's Eider, King Eider, Hawk Owl and Pine Grosbeak and the island of Hornoya with its vibrant seabird colony. Our list of birds recorded was 71 species, two of which, Pine Grosbeak and Steller's Eider were new for me while Trev had one lifer, Ivory Gull. Species recorded were:

Whooper Swan
Greylag Goose
Bean Goose (Taiga)
Long-tailed Duck
King Eider
Common Eider
Steller's Eider
Common Goldeneye
Red-breasted Merganser
Rock Dove (Feral Pigeon)
Common Woodpigeon
Common Crane
European Shag
Great Cormorant
Northern Lapwing
Purple Sandpiper
Ivory Gull
Black-legged Kittiwake
Black-headed Gull
Mew Gull
Lesser Black-backed Gull
European Herring Gull
Iceland Gull
Glaucous Gull
Great Black-backed Gull
Atlantic Puffin
Black Guillemot
Thick-billed Murre
Common Murre
Northern Hawk-owl
Northern Goshawk
White-tailed Sea-eagle
Eurasian Green Woodpecker
Lesser Spotted Woodpecker
Great Spotted Woodpecker
Meadow Pipit
Rock Pipit
Bohemian Waxwing
White-throated Dipper
Mistle Thrush
Common Blackbird
Willow Tit
Siberian Tit
Coal Tit
Great Tit
Common Blue Tit
Eurasian Nuthatch
Great Grey Shrike
Eurasian Jay
Siberian Jay
Common Magpie
Eurasian Jackdaw
Hooded Crow
Common Raven
House Sparrow
Common Chaffinch
European Greenfinch
European Goldfinch
Common Redpoll
Arctic Redpoll
Pine Grosbeak
Eurasian Bullfinch
Snow Bunting

Total = 70 species

See also:
Day 1 here;
Day 2 here;
Day 3 here; and
Day 4 here.

Saturday 28 March 2015

Norway Birding - 22nd March (Day 4 of 6)

Today was to be our main day birding the north shore of the Varangerfjord and we had a target list to play for. We were up at 05:00 and headed back west towards Nesseby where a Hawk Owl had been seen of late. As we drove the thermometer dropped to -15c and hoar-frost clad the trees the scenery was stunning and the weather was amazing. The Hawk Owl here perch atop pylons as there are few larger trees so as we drove our attention was focused on man-made structures. What looked like a Wood Lark flying across the road turned out to be a Lesser-spotted Woodpecker which was a bit of a surprise in a landscape lacking woodlands, it was accompanied by a female Bullfinch which showed upon landing but unfortunately the woodpecker was far more elusive and with the exception of a brief glimpse we did not see it again. We drove on, enjoying the stunning winter scenery and just past Nesseby, atop telegraph pole we eventually struck lucky, a stunning Hawk Owl at Nyborg. Trev’s emergency stop sent us skidding along the ice covered roads for tens of metres, we stopped, emergency parked in the snow drift and stumbled out of the car, bins, tripods, mono-pods and cameras flailing. However, the bird flew presumably a bit shocked by the Laurel and Hardy act and perched in a dense Silver Birch before flying again and after a bit of searching we found the bird perched atop a fir tree where it began to show well despite Trev floundering round up to his knees in the snow - perhaps the bird wanted to stop to see the spectacle. After a while watching the bird it flew back away from the road it was time to head back to the hotel for breakfast, a couple of Snow Bunting seen en-route were new for the trip.

We then headed north towards Vardo, the landscape was a great deal flatter being dominated by flat shingle and sandy plains covered by gently undulating snow. We stopped at the bay between Kommagnes and Kvalnes where there was supposedly a White-billed Diver wintering in the bay but with the exception of Steller’s, King and Common Eider there was little to be seen. It was bitterly cold on this exposed part of the coastline and the car thermometer read -11c. We pushed on and passed through the tunnel to Vardo we intended to head across to the island of Hornoya so we checked the ferry times and fortunately there was a ferry going as we arrived taking a photographic expedition to the island at that moment (11:30) so we quickly grabbed our stuff and jumped on the boat. It was a short 10 minute crossing to the island and as we neared the shore a flock of 100’s of auk was present off the jetty and as we passed through them we picked out mainly Common Guillemot, with possibly around 50% being bridled, Razorbill and smaller numbers of Puffin and Brunnich’s Guillemot. The landing was a little dodgy with a moving boat, moving jetty and a moving metal ramp to the cliff top all covered in ice making things particularly treacherous.

We were greeted on the island by lines of Shag beginning to take up territory on the rocks, many were nest building and beginning their pair formation rituals. We walked around the west shore of the island along a shallow ledge with a towering cliff above where 1000’s of Kittiwake were present, again these birds were clearly starting to rebuild nests and form their pairs, we noticed a large number were colour ringed. The site and smell of these birds was awe-inspiring particularly as the birds were restlessly flying, the auks rising in flocks and circling the cliff face and the Kittiwake exploding from the cliffs and wheeling in and out from the cliff face in noisy flocks. We headed around the south coast and then back up the east coast of the island to the lighthouse and then back along the top of the west cliffs below which we originally landed. The west coast gave us a fantastic view of the coast of the island and across the sound to the neighbouring island of Reinoya. Small numbers of Twite buzzed back and forth overhead. A scan offshore revealed 1000’s of auks presumably awaiting for the snow to melt so they can move ashore to breed. As we scanned the scenery the gulls went up from the sound below and I picked up a Gyrfalcon flying directly towards us at just above eye level. The bird passed very close by and appeared to be checking us out and giving us great views. We spent the rest of our time here along the lower cliff ledge on the west coat on the path back to the landing area photographing Kittiwakes, auks and Shag and enjoying the spectacle of hundreds of birds, the auk numbers offshore now swollen to several thousand birds. We headed back to Vardo at 14:00 and spent a little time birding within a short visit to the radar station to scan to sea to see if we could see a report ‘mega-flock’ of Long-tailed Duck, Common and King Eider that had been reported and while the flock was still present it was way out to sea and not as spectacular as was hoped.

Brunnich's Guillemot - Numbers of this species were far lower than those of Common Guillemot

Shag - Check out that eye

Raven - A common species on Hornoya

Shag on their nest

Shag with Kittiwake in the background

1000's of Auk were present offshore


Kittiwake were formation flying back and forth from their nest sites

Kittiwake were establishing their nests

Kittiwake showing their lurid red mouths which form an important part of their display

We headed back off the island and decided to bird the harbour at Svartnesbukta just to the west of the mainland entrance to the tunnel, there were evidently quite a number of gulls present. We parked up in the south-east corner of the harbour and scanned along the seawall groynes towards the fish and crab processing plant. There were many argentatus Herring Gull, maybe 20 or so Glaucous Gull and a good number of Kittiwake and then I spotted a pure white gull - adult Ivory Gull!! I shouted it to Trev and the bird promptly swam out of view to the seawall but it was only a matter of a few seconds before the bird swam into view, a tick for Trev. I did question as to whether this bird could be an albinistic Kittiwake but as we approached it was evident that the bird was a tad bulkier than a Kittiwake and had the diagnostic tri-coloured bill of an Ivory Gull. We settled down to take some snaps slowly getting closer and closer views until we were within four metres of the bird and too close for the camera to focus on. The bird spent a great deal of time feeding daintily on food items from the waters surface but eventually flew a short distance to the seawall where it settled to clean on a drift of snow atop the seawall. Trev and I again approached very close and the bird seemed quite at ease with our presence - we even managed a couple of ‘selfie’ shots with the gull!! i checked the status of the bird with Simon Rix and he confirmed that this was a National rarity so I sent a couple of off camera-back shots on my iPhone and he broadcast the news. We were very chuffed with our find to say the least!! The news was quickly published on the Biotope website here and Twitter and Facebook came alive with the news.

Adult summer Ivory Gull one of the highlights of our trip

We headed back south and stopped again at the bay between Kommagnes and Kvalhes to scan for White-billed Diver but again no luck so we headed back to Vadso. A fishing boat had just come ashore with a catch so we had a quick look at the gathered gull flock, the flock consisted mainly of argentatus Herring Gulls, around six Glaucous Gull and a gull that we initially suspected of being a Thayer’s Gull but after a little text communication with Simon Rix felt that it was likely to contain Herring Gull genes on account of its inner primary pattern and its course tail pattern.

Chuffed with our day a couple of beers were downed before we had to brave the Arctic blast as we crossed the bridge to get diner in town at the Scandic Hotel where a bottle of red wine went down a treat!

We first thought the gull in the three images above was a good candidate for Thayer's Gull however the barring on the tail was too course and with dark subterminal band, paler inner and dark main area of the tail. The inner primary pattern is also not quite correct lacking the 'venetian blind' effect seen in Thayers Gull.

See also:
Day 1 here;
Day 2 here;
Day 3 here; and
Days 5 and 6 here.

Friday 27 March 2015

Norway Birding - 21st March (Day 3 of 6)

Today felt like it was to be a birding day proper and we were up at 04:00 and donned our Arctic onesy's ready for a four hour stint in the floating hides run by Ørjan Hansen at Arctic Tourist in the Batsfjord Harbour. I think both Trev and I were a bit sceptical of these hides having seen very little in the harbour around the hides yesterday afternoon and seeing how close to shore they were. Still, when we arrived at the hides at 05:00 there were probably a thousand or so seaduck present including Steller’s, Common and King Eider and Long-tailed Duck, many being very close to the hide. The approach of the RIB to collect us to take us the 50m or so to the hides soon put pay to this and virtually all the duck were flushed and we clambered aboard the small hide (there is also a large hide but as there were seven people in this we opted for the small hide) opened the flaps and stared onto an empty sea. However, within a short while the first Steller’s Eider appeared and over the course of the four hours we were in the hide we had great views of all the previously mentioned duck species, some down to four metres or so. There was a great deal of calling and courting, especially amongst the Steller’s, and it was great to watch these birds at such close range and obscured from their view. We rattled off hundreds of photos and I filled two 64GB cards, it was almost a relief to leave the hide safe in the knowledge that we had secured some reasonable shots but now not having to process anymore! Although the temperature was around -8c the hide was surprisingly warm and the arctic suites were almost too warm but my feet felt like the ice had taken control and I lost all sense of feeling. Unfortunately, during our time in the hide the light was not great for photography and there was regularly heavy snow further compromising the light, furthermore, beyond the area where the ducks gather is a red building, this casts a red light onto the water affecting the images. While in the hide we also had good views of Glaucous Gull, Purple Sandpiper and Hooded Crow plus Mallard trying to get in in the action – I don’t think either of us took shots of the latter though.

King Eider - we had close views of up to 10 birds, a further 50+ were present further into the harbour

Female King Eider

Female Steller's Eider

Steller's Eider - Absolutely stunning birds. My favourite part of the plumage is the sprig of broccoli on the nape. This Eider spent more time close to the shore than the other Eiders and is close in behaviour to the dabbling ducks.

Adult male Common Eider

1st year male Common Eider

Female Common Eider

Female Common Eider

Adult male Long-tailed Duck

1st year male (left) and female (right) Long-tailed Duck

Purple Sandpiper

Photography in an Arctic onesy

After the hide we headed back to the hotel for breakfast and packed our bags. A scan over the very southern area of the harbour (Maritbukta) produced four Black Guillemot and a handful of Common and Steller’s Eider. We then headed back over the pass which was a lot clearer than yesterday and the views were fantastic. Trev did attempt an off road approach and drove between the snow poles marking the edge of the road and we plunged into the deep off road snow, I found this slightly hilarious once I had pushed the car free and Trev did a good job of driving out of the snow but it could potentially have been a bit serious, Trev eventually saw the funny side I am sure.


Mountain pass between Batsfjord and Tana Valley

We passed through the Tana Valley heading for Vadso and along the way we did a little birding but saw relatively little, a couple of Willow Tits nest building, Bullfinch, Great Tit, Greenfinch, Red-breasted Merganser and few sea-duck on the Tana Delta. The snow was so thick though that birding was difficult and it was difficult to pull over to enable us to scan or walk anywhere.

At the Varangerbotn junction we topped up with fuel and grabbed some food before heading along the coast for Nesseby. We enjoyed superb views over Veranger Fjord now that the weather had cleared and while I stared out to sea looking for seaduck, Trev, while driving, spotted an adult White-tailed Eagle sat on the near shore. We manoeuvred the car alongside the snowdrifts bordering the road, hopped out the car and at a range of 300m the bird flushed. We had rather unsatisfactory views of the bird in flight. We then headed to the carpark by Nesseby Church parked up, had a quick bite of lunch and then hopped out of the car. It was biting cold, amazingly cold, and it felt like our faces had frozen almost immediately and our teeth were about to shatter. I took some snaps of the church in the snow and then we both went to the shore and took snaps of some obliging Purple Sandpipers which were feeding on the sandy beach which was a little alien to us having largely experienced them on the rocks of UK shores. We then spent some time at the small fishing harbour at Nesseby where there where small numbers of gull including an Iceland Gull and a few Glaucous Gull, argentatus Herring Gull and Kittiwake present. A fishing boat approaching the harbour was followed by thousands of large gull species but they peeled away before reaching the harbour but not before an immature White-tailed Eagle approached from a distance and passed through the flock to assess the feeding opportunities before disappearing towards the hills on the south side of the fjord. There was little else to be seen, six Red-breasted Merganser and the occasional Black Guillemot were offshore while dried Cod hung on the drying racks to be picked over by the crows. I went up to my thighs in snow and had to commando roll myself out, I stood, checked no one was looking and continued photographing the Cod.

Nesseby Church

Purple Sandpiper

Adult Kittiwake

Fishing boat off Nesseby


After Nesseby we drove slowly towards Vadso stopping occasionally but saw little new, although lots of seaduck were present offshore and a small flock of 20 or so Waxwing were seen on the approach into Vadso and there were good numbers of Steller’s Eider, Common Eider and Long-tailed Duck in Vadso Harbour. We checked into the Vadso Fjord Hotel had a beer and then had to cross back across the bridge on foot in the ice cold after finding that the hotel did not serve food. Had a big pizza dinner at Opticom, a couple of beers and then crashed.

See also:
Day 1 here;
Day 2 here;
Day 4 here; and
Days 5 and 6 here.