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.