Thursday, 23 March 2017

BTO (and others) Arctic Norway trip

Following a very successful BTO birders trip to Estonia in 2015, this year myself, Sarah Harris, Nick Moran, John Marchant (now ex-BTO having retired last year), artist Alan Harris and Norfolk Birding owner Chris Mills decided to embark on a trip to the Varanger Peninsula in Arctic Norway to look for seaducks, Siberian Jays, Siberian Tits, Gyr, owls and woodpeckers.

The intrepid team, from left to right: John Marchant, Sarah Harris, Chris Mills, Nick Moran, me and Alan Harris 
(photo by Nick Moran)

16th March

After a night in a Premier Inn near Heathrow, we caught the flight to Oslo where we spent 4 hours between our connecting flight staring out at the runway trying to start a Norway list but only managed a few Jackdaws, Hooded Crows, Magpie and Buzzard.  From here we boarded our next flight to Kirkenes, where we arrived but unfortunately due to faulty hydraulics, they weren't able to get our luggage off the plane - not a great start.  After an hour of organising to get our bags delivered next day we picked up our hire cars and drove a couple of hours south to Øvre Pasvik Camping, arriving at around midnight.

17th March

Despite the late night and due to it getting light at about 4.30am, we were out very early in the surrounding woods.  Almost immediately on looking out of the cabin window and some of the group who were out first, a group of Pine Grosbeaks were soon on the list along with some Arctic and Mealy Redpolls, Bullfinches and Greenfinches.  A walk along the road towards a large frozen lake and husky centre soon revealed our first Siberian Tit, though very mobile but once we arrived at the husky centre, found a feeding site where a dozen Pine Grosbeaks, 2+ Siberian Tits and several Arctic Redpoll were all coming to feed only a few yards away from us allowing excellent photographic opportunities.

Pine Grosbeak

 Siberian Tit

Arctic Redpoll

male Bullfinch

After a thoroughly enjoyable hour photographing we headed north towards Svanvik, seeing a very brief Willow Grouse flying across, a couple more Pine Grosbeaks by the road, but very little else.  As we drove around a loop road, a quick stop by a house produced 2 Siberian Jays feeding on a bird feeder in the garden.

Siberian Jay

Thankfully, and rather miraculously, when we got back to the cabins, our lost luggage had been found and delivered, and we were able to dig out some proper cold weather clothing.

18th March

Another early start and another excellent hour or so spent at the husky centre feeding site, which again held at least 16 Pine Grosbeaks, 3 Siberian Tits, several Willow Tits and Arctic Redpolls as the snow began to fall more heavily.

male Pine Grosbeaks 

 Siberian Tit

Willow Tit

Other good birds seen by the group during the morning included a Hawk Owl that Nick was lucky enough to see briefly before it was chased off by two Siberian Jays, a probable Three-toed Woodpecker John heard then saw in flight only, Black Grouse for Nick and John, and a Lesser Spotted Woodpecker seen by Alan, but I wasn't quite so lucky.

The rest of the day was spent driving in horrendous blizzard conditions up to Ekkerøy, on the Varanger Peninsula, unsurprisingly with very few, if any, birds seen except the odd Raven and Hooded Crow.  A few Reindeer were seen by the road, but the conditions didn't allow for much in the way of photos, this one I photographed while we stopped by the road to remove ice from the windscreen wipers.

Reindeer in a blizzard

 A quick stop at Nesseby Harbour produced little but a large flock of Herring and Great Black-backed Gulls following a trawler and a flock of c20 Snow Buntings.

19th March

In complete contrast in weather to yesterday, we awoke to gorgeous sunshine and soon found our first drake Steller's Eider, right behind the accommodation in Ekkerøy.  Our first stop was the nearby harbour where John found the first King Eiders of the trip, but I got distracted by a group of Purple Sandpipers performing brilliantly in the morning sunshine, as did several Kittiwakes from the massive colony.

Purple Sandpiper


From here we headed east towards Vardø, stopping to scan the bays where another drake Steller's Eider was seen.  A chance stop near Krampenes where a couple foxes drew our attention soon got much better when a male Gyr appeared overhead and then the female was seen perched on a rock before also flying off over the bay.

male Gyr Falcon

Arriving in Vardø Harbour, an Iceland Gull flew over the car and a small group of Steller's Eider were present very close in giving amazing photographic views and further round a small group of Long-tailed Ducks and Black Guillemots too virtually posed for the camera, but the King Eiders present were all too distant for photos.  At least 5 Glaucous Gulls were also in the harbour, one flying quite low overhead.

 Steller's Eiders

drake Long-tailed Duck

 Black Guillemot

Glaucous Gull

On the other side of Vardø, a viewpoint looks across at the island of Hornøya, which we had hoped to get a boat across to but we didn't have time.  Hundreds of auks were visible from the Biotope hide at the viewpoint, mostly Puffins but also many Guillemots, and also many King Eider, a distant White-tailed Eagle, a Gannet and a distant acrobatic pod of White-beaked Dolphins.

Scanning across to Hornøya Island from the Biotope Hide
(photo by Sarah Harris).

On the way back to Ekkerøy, a scan of various rocky outcrops eventually produced 2 more Gyrs and a couple of White-tailed Eagles, but both were very distant and spent the majority of their time perched.

In the evening, the Northern Lights were visible, by eye looking very uninspiring, being a dull green cast to the sky, but the camera on a long exposure pulled out many more colours than our eyes could see.

The Northern Lights

20 March

A more thorough scan of the bay behind the accommodation in Ekkerøy produced 250+ Steller's Eider close in along with a few Velvet and Common Scoter, Red-breasted Merganser and the rest of the group who had 'scopes had a Red-necked Grebe here too, but despite a good search, no White-billed Divers that had been reported in the area recently.

Steller's Eiders

Just west of Ekkerøy lies Vadsø Harbour, but although there were a few groups of Common, Steller's and King Eider, Long-tailed Duck and a flyover White-tailed Eagle present from the Biotope hide, nothing was that close in to be worth photographing.

A little further west we went for a walk along a trail at Vestre Jacobselv, which was generally extremely quiet, though several White-tailed Eagles were seen, including one low overhead.

adult White-tailed Eagle

Another quick stop for late lunch in Nesseby Harbour produced a single Iceland Gull among the gull masses following a trawler in, but the highlight was an adult White-tailed Eagle that drifted over and then swooped in, almost striking at a Grey Seal that had its head poking out of the water before flying across in front of the breakwater being furiously mobbed by gulls.

White-tailed Eagle with Herring Gull escort

21 March

Our final morning was spent driving to the airport. As we drove south of Bugøyfjord, 2 Willow Grouse (or possibly Ptarmigan, given how similar they are in winter) flew across the road, one landing, by the treeline and almost vanishing in its white plumage among the snow, with only its black beak and eye visible.  A few more Reindeer were seen, but none in places to photograph them.

Willow Grouse, or possibly Ptarmigan
(photo by Chris Mills)

Although the final species list was just over 50 birds and 5 mammals, it is a quite stunning part of the world and a place I will have to revisit, both in summer and again in winter.  Thanks go to Sarah for her organising and researching for this trip.