Thursday, 26 March 2015

An Arctic Adventure 19th - 24th March (Day 1)

Back in 1999 I did a trip with a group of mates to Finland and Varanger Fjord, Norway in search of owls, seabirds and sea ducks. The trip ran from 29th May through to 6th June and there are certain experiences from that remain as vivid memories. When I was asked by my good friend Simon Colenutt (The Deskbound Birder) if I fancied a winter trip to north Norway, I jumped at the chance. My trip in 1999 was a whistle-stop tour that focussed on key sites for key birds, and this trip was no different. It was primarily designed to get Simon two key species, Steller's Eider and Pine Grosbeak, both of which would be new for him. I was not expecting to get any new birds.

Our trip began on 19th March with a flight from London Heathrow to Oslo and then an onward flight to Kirkenes in the north. There was a 4.5 hour gap between flights and so we had arranged to meet Simon Rix (Oslo Birder) a British birder now based in Oslo. There wasn't much around but a spot of birding was infinitely better than sitting in the airport for four hours. After checking in our baggage for our onward flight we met up with Simon and headed out. Our first stop was scheduled to be Nikevegan, which was the staging site for a flock of 'Taiga' Bean Geese. Our trip got off to a good start as en-route to the Bean Goose site we bumped into a Great Grey Shrike, which performed well for a while and whilst watching it we also had Bullfinch, Great Spotted Woodpecker and Greenfinch.

Great Grey Shrike

After a few minutes enjoying the shrike we pressed on to the Bean Geese and picked up a couple of Goldeneye on a small stream, before arriving at the site. There were around 50 birds on show and Simon reckoned that the the rest of the flock, which normally numbered around 150 were there but just out of view. There is an interesting story to these birds in that they winter in Scotland, and have been the subject of a study by the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust to establish where they breed. The birds were initially fitted with neck collars and then satellite transmitters and it is now known where they breed, winter and the route they use for their migration. Details of the study can be found on Angus' Bean Goose Blog.

'Taiga' Bean Geese - note the silver neck collar on the bird in the foreground

Whilst we were watching the Bean geese one thing that was very apparent was the number of Yellowhammers around, a species that is increasingly more uncommon on the south coast of Hampshire. A flock of nine Whooper Swans and a Common Crane were nice additions to our species list.

Six of the flock of nine Whooper Swans

Our next stop was the Glomma River at Udenes, which is apparently a good spot for migrants. It was still a little early in the season for good migration and we were there in the early afternoon, so not the ideal time, but it was worth a shot. We were once again very fortunate in that two Moose were out in a field feeding on the young spring growth of grass. I have seen Moose in Canada on numerous occasions, but this was a new mammal species in the Western Pale-arctic for me.

Two Moose Grazing on the young spring grass

The Glomma River was quite low and there was very little to see, but we did see a couple more Common Cranes, another Whooper Swan, two Greylag Geese, some Mallards and a couple of Herring Gulls. With our time now running out we headed back for another look at the Bean Geese and the Great Grey Shrike and then back to the airport.

We said our farewell to Simon and worked our way through passport control to our onward flight to Kirkenes, all was going well until that is, we tried to land. A change in the weather, and a heavy blizzard meant that visibility was too poor to land and the pilot aborted our landing. We circled for a while before it was announced that we were being diverted to Laksalv Airport, to the west. We had planned to pick up our hire car at Kirkenes and had booked a night in the Scandic Hotel, but unfortunately that plan went out the window. A five hour overnight coach journey meant we arrived at our hotel and 04:50 in the morning.

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