Monday, 30 March 2015

An Arctic Adventure 19th - 24th March (Day 6)

We awoke on our last morning to a gloriously sunny day, with no wind, but there was a bank of cloud lingering to the north that gave an indication of what was to come. We only had an hour or so drive back to Kirkenes Airport and so the plan was to slowly head north birding along the way. If we had time we intended to hunt out the flock of Waxwings we had seen when were arrived and get some more photos.

The view from our accommodation at BIRK Husky across to Russia on our last morning

By the time we had loaded up our car, light snow had started and the conditions deteriorated further as we continued north. By the time we reached Kirkenes the conditions had deteriorated further and so we decided to head for the airport and call an end to our trip.

In the six days we had seen 70 species (see list below), although I didn't see the Lesser Spot (in italics, below). Our tally included two new birds for Simon (Steller's Eider and Pine Grosbeak) and one (Ivory Gull) for me. We had some very variable weather with temperatures in the north ranging from -3 to -15, fortunately that did not hamper our birding. The highlight for me was undoubtedly the Ivory Gull, as it was a bird I had wanted to see for a long time, but did not fancy twitching one in the UK. Seeing one in the snow at Svartnes was for me the perfect setting for me.

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 (Brunnich's Guillemot)
Common Murre (Common Guillemot)
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

Sunday, 29 March 2015

An Arctic Adventure 19th - 24th March (Day 5)

Today was to be our last full day in Norway and we were back on the road again. This time we were heading south past Kirkenes and to the Pasvik Valley, where we would spend the night at BIRK Husky. Our reasoning behind choosing this site was because it was a guaranteed location for Pine Grosbeak, one of Si's target birds, and other forest specialities. As with many of the sites we were visiting, they were often better later in the spring, when waders and other migrant passerines were passing through, the recent snow had made accessing many sites difficult, so we didn't know what to expect.

We set off early again as we were keen to get into the Pasvik Valley when there was still time to bird. A scan of the harbour before we set off produced a flock of Purple Sandpipers, Glaucous, Herring, Common, Black-headed and the dodgy Thayer's type gull, and the usual selection of eiders and Long-tailed Ducks. A distant White-tailed Eagle drifted over whilst we were scanning. We started to travel west along the E75, had a brief stop at Nesseby, but there was little to report, and pressed on, but no sooner had we got going a White-tailed Eagle came in off the fjord and flew right over our car. Si was the quickest out of the car and got some amazing photos as it drifted overhead. We continued east and before long had stopped two more times, both times for Hawk Owls, two at one site and one at another.

Hawk Owl - Nyborg Area
Hawk Owl - Nyborg Area

We continued east along the E75 and turned south on the E6 at Varangerbotn. We made good time on our journey, adding a couple more Hawk Owls on the way, before heading south on the 885. Heavy overnight snow combined with a fairly narrow and winding road, made driving conditions interesting, and didn't give much opportunity for stopping and we hence made better time than expected. 

Our first stop in the Pasvik Valley was the National Park Centre where we had good views of both Common (Mealy) and Arctic Redpoll on the feeders, but that was about it. We had been advised that the old birch woodlands were a good site for Three-toed Woodpecker, but the snow was knee deep and none of the trails were open. We decided to move on and continued south through Svanvik and then took a detour along a minor road towards Skrotnes. This road was apparently another good site for Three-toed Woodpecker and we stopped several times, but only saw Willow Tits, Greenfinchs and Ravens. Further along the road, and just as we were about to rejoin the 885, Si picked up a Goshawk; the views were unfortunately distant and the bird was flying away at all times.

We arrived at BIRK Husky and after dropping our stuff off in our room we headed out exploring. Our first stop was the feeders in search of Pine Grosbeak, and we didn't have to wait too long. There were four birds coming in, and when not feeding they tended to sit around on the tops of the pines, occasionally coming lower. Whilst waiting for good photo opportunities we also picked up Siberian Jay, Siberian Tit, Great Tit, Blue Tit, Willow Tit, Bullfinch and Greenfinch.

Male Pine Grosbeak
Female Pine Grosbeak
Siberian Jay
Siberian Tit
Willow Tit

The most common birds on the feeders were redpolls, and they were present in their tens. We spent a long time working our way through them and considering their ID and I have to say that I came away from the experience feeling more confused than when I started. That confusion was not helped when I started doing a bit of research back home. I initially worked my way through the various images and tried to sort out the ID of each bird, but have also sort the advice of Simon Rix (Oslo Birder) who is far more experienced with Common (Mealy) and Arctic Redpolls than I.   

Bird 1 - I initially put this bird down as a Mealy, but deliberated over the ID for a while before doing that. However, Simon Rix thinks this birds probably an Arctic, it has a generally frosty appearance and a small bill with a pinched culmen. The undertail coverts are predominantly white, with the dark central feather, although he is concerned this maybe a bit too broad. Unfortunately I don't have any images that show all of the rump, but what is shown again is predominantly white with a small amount of streaking.
Bird 1 - Probably an Arctic Redpoll
Bird 2 - Common (Mealy) Redpoll
Bird 3 - I initially thought this bird was a Mealy Redpoll, but again there is a suggestion it maybe an Arctic. Unfortunately I don't have any images of the undertail coverts, and only one image showing a very small amount of rump, which is unstreaked. 
Bird 4 - Common (Mealy) Redpoll
Bird 5 - Common (Mealy) Redpoll
Bird 5 - Common (Mealy) Redpoll
Bird 6 - Common (Mealy) Redpoll
Bird 6 - Common (Mealy) Redpoll
Bird 7 - Coues' Arctic Redpoll

After a fair while at the feeders we decided to go and have a wander and followed a track through a patch of woodland to a frozen lake. It was very quite bird wise and the only birds of note were Willow Tit, Siberian Tit and a few more redpolls. After our stroll we nipped down to the river that bordered BIRK Husky. We were right on the Russian border at this location, with the boundary running down the middle of the river. Neither of us have ever been to Russia so we scanned the landscape looking for any birds for our Russian list. Si quickly picked up a Dipper (Black-bellied) that was feeding along the edge of the river, on the Russian side and then a Whooper Swan flew downstream, landing in front of us before swimming to the Russian side of the river.

Dipper (Black-bellied) in Russia
Whooper Swan in Russia

With the light now fading we headed back to our room, briefly popping out to pick up a couple of beers. Later in the evening a couple of other guess who were staying came in and told us that the aurora borealis were showing outside, we quickly grabbed our cameras and ran out but had missed the best of the display.

A faint Aurora Borealis display

Saturday, 28 March 2015

An Arctic Adventure 19th - 24th March (Day 4)

If you are thinking of visiting Varanger Fjord the Vadso Fjord Hotel is a great place to stay as a base. Not only are you located in a great location for most of the best birding sites, but you will also have access to the latest bird news. One species that we were keen to see was Hawk Owl, but despite us looking hard we had failed, so when Frode, the owner of the hotel, told us of a sighting back at Nesseby we decided to have a look before breakfast. 

Sunrise was just after 5am so we got up early and headed off. Around Nesseby Si picked up a Lesser Spotted Woodpecker, but as I was driving I missed it. We stopped for a look, but despite hearing it tapping away we could not relocated it. We did bump into a couple of British birders, who were also looking for Hawk Owls and told us of one to the west of Varangerbotn, so we set off. Fortunately, we did not have to travel that far as Si picked one up just along the road at Nyborg. This individual was initially staying within the dense vegetation, but eventually it adopted the more usual behaviour by sitting out on prominent perches. The British birders who we had bumped into earlier saw our car, and had soon joined us to enjoy this cracking bird. On the return journey to the hotel we picked up a couple of Snow Buntings, but they took flight as soon as we pulled over.

Hawk Owl - Nyborg
Hawk Owl - Nyborg

Our plan for today was to head west to Vardo, and then across to the Island of Hornoya. The Island is renowned for the thousands of seabirds that breed there, but at this time of year it was probably our best chance of seeing Gyrfalcon and Brunnich's Guillemot. We headed west along the E75 to Vardo, stopping at various locations along the way to scan for White-billed Diver. Despite our best efforts we failed to find any White-billed Divers, but did pick up some distant flocks of sea duck.

To get to Hornoya Island you need to take a short boat trip, and we arrived in Vardo at 11am, just as a boat was preparing to leave. A group of photographers had chartered a boat earlier than scheduled and invited us to join them, which we did without any hesitation. The trip took about 10 minutes and as we approached the harbour we worked our way through rafts of auks, it was truly spectacular. We saw the full range of auk species in the flocks, Common, Black and Brunnich's Guillemot, Razorbill and Puffin.

A raft of Common Guillemot

We landed on the island and asked to be picked up at 2pm, giving us about two and a half hours on the island. Many Shags and Kittiwakes were already on the island trying to get the best nesting sites providing excellent photo opportunities, and after spending while photographing them we set off to explore.

Shag - Hornoya Island

The noise was incredible and we were treated to fly-bys by swarms of auks as they came in close to investigate the cliffs. The recent snow fall had covered most of their nesting sites and that is probably why they were all sat of the water, although it was still a bit early in the season.

Passing Auks and Kittiwakes - Hornoya

We worked our way around the back of the Island and ended up on the top above the cliffs where hundreds of Kittiwakes were nesting and sat enjoying the atmosphere. The Kittiwakes were continuously lifting off the cliff and wheeling around, so we kept thinking that a bird of prey was around, and then it was. All the roosting gulls took flight and Si suddenly picked up a Gyrfalcon heading straight for us. I was fortunate in that I had my camera at the ready and grabbed a sequence of shots as it flew by. The flyby was over in a couple of seconds, it then briefly circled around the cliff and was lost from view......amazing!!

Gyrfalcon - Hornoya Island
Gyrfalcon - Hornoya Island

We hung around on the top of the cliff for a while hoping that the Gyr would come back past but it did not, but we were able to enjoy the aerial displays of Ravens. Time was now pressing on so we headed back down to the landing spot and where soon back amongst the shags and kittiwakes.

Black-legged Kittiwakes
Kittiwakes wheeling overhead

Before long we were back in Vardo and ready to work our way back east. We stopped at a few local birding spots on Vardo before heading back through the tunnel that links Vardo to the mainland. On our way to Vardo we had noticed a few gulls in the harbour at Svartnes and so decided to go and have a look. We took a small gravel track to an area where a few gulls were feeding near an outfall and began to scan. I started looking in the middle whereas Si looked nearer the outfall, and immediately noticed a small white gull and exclaimed Ivory Gull!! From where I was stood I could not see where he was looking and so quickly moved out to get a view, and yep there indeed was an adult Ivory Gull and a new bird for me!! I make no apologies for posting so many pictures of this very fine bird.

Adult Ivory Gull - Svartnes
Adult Ivory Gull - Svartnes
Adult Ivory Gull - Svartnes
Adult Ivory Gull - Svartnes
Unsurprisingly we spent quite a long time photographing the bird as it picked up scraps in the harbour, and then it decided to come and land right by us and begin washing in the snow. We crept up as close as we dare, but soon realised that this bird was not at all concerned by our presence and even allowed us to take a couple of selfies!

Adult Ivory Gull - Svartnes
Adult Ivory Gull - Svartnes
Selfie with the Ivory Gull

We felt bad leaving such an amazing bird but were pretty chuffed with our find. We were unsure of the status of Ivory Gull in Norway so Si sent a text and some back of the camera pics to Simon Rix (Oslo Birder). As it turned out Ivory Gull was a bit of a mega and the speed with which we had put the news out enabled many local birders to see it.

Feeling pretty chuffed with our days birding we headed back to the hotel but as there was still a bit of light left we stopped for a quick look over the nearby harbour. There was a good selection of gulls to go through but one individual stood out, and we both immediately thought Thayer's Gull, could lightening really strike twice. We spent a while watching and photographing the bird and taking notes and headed back to the hotel to paw through our reference guides. Frode was waiting at the hotel and informed us that an Ivory Gull had been found at Svartnes, we obviously recounted the story to him and then started circulating images of the possible Thayer's and the Ivory Gull.

Odd Gull at Vadso Harbour
Odd Gull at Vadso Harbour
Odd Gull at Vadso Harbour

Images were circulated locally, to Simon Rix and to Hugh Harrop and Martin Garner in the UK. The general consensus of opinion was that this bird was not quite right for a Thayer's as the band on the tail was not strong enough, and it also showed an odd pale band. The patterning on the primary tips were also not quite right, but it was an interesting lesson for us.

An Arctic Adventure 19th - 24th March (Day 3)

The primary reason for coming to Batsfjord was for the floating photographic hide that was located in the harbour. Both Simon and I are keen photographers and so the opportunity to 'get amongst the birds' really appealed to us, although the thought of floating over icy water for 5 hours was not top of our wish list. We need not have been concerned though, since before entering the hide you are provided with an all-in-survival suit, which kept everything warm......except our feet that is!

We met on the quayside at 5am with a handful of other like minded photographers and were quickly transferred to the hides. There are two floating hides in the harbour, and we were put in the smaller one. I think on hindsight we would have preferred to be in the larger hide, as the small one was less stable, and moved around with the tide quite a lot and also when one of us changed our position. That said, we were closer to the shore and therefore did get some better views of birds on or near the foreshore. 

The harbour was full of ducks when we arrived, Steller's, Common and King Eider and a handful of Long-tailed Ducks were all present but they flushed as we approached the hides in our rib. But it was not long before they returned and we were photographing our quarry. Initially the birds were slightly nervous of the sound of whirring motor drives, but they soon became accustomed to it, with some birds swimming right up to the hides, it was a fantastic experience.

Unfortunately the weather conditions whilst we were in the hide were not the best, and there were regular snow flurries and subsequently poor light. This did not damper our spirits and we were still able to get some reasonable photos.

Male Steller's Eider
Male Steller's Eider
Female Steller's Eider
Male Steller's Eider
Male King Eider
Female King Eider
King Eiders - Female Left, Male Right
Male Common Eider
Male Long-tailed Duck
Female Long-tailed Duck

After five hours we were ready to leave, our feet needed warming up, we were hungry and also had to head back south to our next hotel. After a shower and a spot of breakfast, we were heading back south across the pass, which was now open. I have to say, it was much more nerve-racking crossing the pass without the comfort of the support vehicles. Although it was open, visibility was at times very tricky, and occasional snow showers and drifting did not help. The scenery was amazing and we stopped on occasion to take some photos of the landscape, and a couple of Reindeer that were grazing near the road.

The Arctic conditions on the pass
Reindeer on the pass

After successfully crossing the pass we worked our way south through the Tana Valley. Snow was banked up on either side of the road and therefore it was difficult to find places to safely pull over, but was managed a few stops. We did see a few species on the way, including Willow Tit, Greenfinch, Great Tit and Hooded Crow in the roadside vegetation and Red-breasted Mergansers and Long-tailed Ducks on the Fjord. Our next hotel was the Vadso Fjord Hotel where we would be based for two nights. We stopped at Varangerbotn for a quick refuel and a bite to eat, and then headed east along the E75 to Vadso. 

We were intending to stop at Nesseby as there is a small fishing harbour there, and subsequently lots of gulls, but made an unscheduled stop when we picked up an adult White-tailed Eagle on the beach. Despite being about 300m away the bird flushed as we got our of the car, so it was a frustrating encounter. 

The Church at Nesseby

We arrived at Nesseby and stopped first at the church, overlooking a small bay. There were around 50 Purple Sandpipers feeding on the beach, and in the fantastic light we headed down to the beach to photograph them. Getting to them was interesting as the snow was thigh high, but it was worth the effort, as the birds were very confiding.

Purple Sandpiper - Nesseby

We moved on to the harbour and as expected were faced with a good selection of gulls, Herring Gull, Glaucous Gull and Kittiwake were the most numerous species; a lone Iceland Gull was a nice bonus. King, Steller's and Common Eiders were also in the harbour but we were now in gull mode. A small fishing boat was just offshore and slowly returning to the harbour, it was surrounded by gulls and as we scanned through the distant flock an immature White-tailed Eagle made an inquisitive fly-by but did not linger.

White-tailed Eagle flying over the gull flock

We had been up since 4am and were now feeling pretty jaded and so pressed on to our hotel where we were able to relax with a cold beer and reflect on the day.
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