28 May 2011

VARANGER TRIP REPORT: promotional birding tour, may 2011

Photos by Tormod Amundsen/Biotope copyright (when not stated otherwise)
and Steve Rogers/SWOpticsphoto copyright (bird -and bear- photos).

From 6th to 14th of may 2011 Biotope arranged a promotrip for birdwatching tour-companies, in collaboration with touristportals and the ´Motvind´-project. With key knowledge on birdsites and the birdlife in ´Arctic Norway´, we had the pleasure to both prepare and guide this trip.

Varanger is a top 100 birdwatching destination in the world. It is the only easily accesible arctic destination in the world. This is where you travel to experience intact nature and unique birdlife. Stellers Eiders, King Eiders, Gyr Falcons, Brünnichs Guillemots, Pine Grosbeaks, Siberian tits and many other birdspecies of the north can be seen within a short distance. This is where taiga, tundra and arctic oceans meet.

BEARWATCHING (photo above by Steve Rogers / copyright):

Thanks to good info from local nature photographer Helge Stærk we started the trip with great views of a just-out-of-hibernation bear that had settled on a reindeer carcass. This was only a 5 minute drive from Kirkenes airport! A great start on a 6 day rather fast-forward journey inside the arctic circle.

For this promotion trip we had invited the following guests:
Martin Garner - www.birdingfrontiers.wordpress.com
André van Loon - Dutch Birding: www.dutchbirding.nl
Steve Rogers - SWOptics: swoptics.co.uk and www.swopticsphoto.com
Ruud van Beusekom - Birding Breaks: www.birdingbreaks.nl
James McCallum - Wildlife artist: www.jamesmccallum.co.uk
Jörg Kretschmar - Ozellus: www.ozellus.de
Nigel Jones - Ornitholidays: www.ornitholidays.co.uk
Chris Lansdell - Oenanthe Birding Adventures: www.oenanthe.co.uk
Hans Ueli Grütter - Liberty Bird: https://liberty-bird.ch
Colin McShane - Avian Adventures: www.avianadventures.co.uk

Trip itinerary:

We stayed at selected guesthouses chosen for their location close to or in the middle of great birding sites.

The original itinerary was the following (a few changes where made due to weather conditions during the trip):
20.00 Arrival Kirkenes. Transfer to Pasvik, 40 min by car. Dinner and overnight stay at Birkhusky ́s cabins. Birkhusky
Breakfast at Birkhusky. Birding the Pasvik Valley. Drive from Pasvik Nesseby. Outdoor lunch. Checking out various sites on the way. Birdwatching Nesseby area. Check in Varjjat Feriehus / Varjjat for overnight stay.
Breakfast at Varjjat. Birdwatching the Varangercoast to Vadsø. Lunch at Påls Matopplevelser, Vadsø. www.paalsmat.no Birding Vadsø to Ekkerøy. Dinner at Varanger Panorama www.varangerpanorama.no before check in at  Ekkerøy Hollidayhouse
Breakfast at Ekkerøy feriehus. Birdwatching outer Varangercoast. Lunch at Vardø Hotel. Boat (10 min only) from Vardø to Hornøya birdcliffs, with Vardø Havn  KF www.vardoport.no Return to Vardø. Birdwatching around the Island Dinner and overnight at  Vardø hotel
Breakfast at Vardø Hotel. Drive to Hamningberg. Boat to the birdcliffs of Syltefjord with Arctic-­Tourist / Arctictourist Eagle photography at the birdcliffs. Lunch at Arctic Cabin. Brief talk/lecture by guide Tormod Amundsen, on birding in arctic Norway, at Arctic Cabins conference-­facilities. Drive from Syltefjord to Båtsfjord. Birdwatching the harbour and surrounding areas. Dinner and overnight at Polar Hotel www.polarhotel.no
Breakfast at Polar Hotel. Birdwatching Båtsfjord and Kongsfjord mountains. Outdoor lunch. Birdwatching the coast from Kongsfjord to Berlevåg. Seawatching at Kjølnes lighthouse. Back to Kongsfjord for dinner and check in at Kongsfjord Guesthouse / Kongsfjord­gjestehus
After  early breakfast at Kongsfjord Guesthouse 07.15    
Transfer to the Berlevåg airport
Flight back home from Berlevåg

We only had time for a brief visit in the taiga. These areas usually requiers 2-3 days to find the most desired bird species. We had a few ours. From the army watcpoint the ´96-height´, overlooking the marshland and taiga bordering Russia we got both Pine Grosbeak, Parrot Crossbill and Siberian Tit (Sib tit photo by Steve Rogers/copyright) within one hour.

Taiga and marshlands in Pasvik (Russian mountains in the distance)

The Skrøytnes bird tower, Pasvik River

For our trip we had driver Hans-Atle, the owner of the Barents Safari company. Birders are not his usual crowd, but he performed great! Driving birders is after all very different from driving any other group. One rarely stops at assigned places. Stopping usually happens when it is least expected, and preferably in the instant a bird is spottet.

The Birkhusky facilities in Pasvik, very strategically located by the Pasvik River in the middle of taiga bird land. They now have feeders at their fasilities that attract the characteristic birds of the northern taiga - Pine Grosbeak, Siberian Tit and Siberian Jay.

Nesseby nature reserve. Our first good views of Stellers Eiders. 

Vadsø Harbour is one of the best places in the world for seeing Stellers Eider.

2 Photos below by Steve Rogers, Stellers Eider drake

Wildlife artist James McCallum stayed for a week longer in Vadsø to make field studies of these high arctic seaducks. Check out more of his field work from the trip here. Sketch by James below.

Vadsøya just outside Vadsø town is a great place for passerines. Here is James looking for Arctic Redpolls.

A flock of newly arrived Lapland Buntings landed in the grass, offering some great views. Vadsø town in the background.

But the fast running and very skulky birds where not easily photographed

 Posing / pausing for a brief moment

We stayed at Ekkerøy Hollidayhouse situated next to a Kittiwake colony of approx 20 000 birds. Here is the sauna, with the Varangerfjord in the background. Moments earlier we had two Orcas in the distance. 

The next day we spent driving from Ekkerøy to Vardø, birding the Varanger tundra on our way. We stopped at a feeder with lots of birds, notably Snow Buntings and Arctic Redpolls. A male Snow bunting below, in a typical Varanger garden interior with Reindeer, WW2 granades and driftwood

The palest passerine around - the Arctic Redpoll

Redpoll for comparison

Birding the arctic tundra

Willow Grouse displaying (photo Steve Rogers / copyright)

We ended our day with a few hours of birding on the Hornøya birdcliff. Easily reached 10 min boat from Vardø harbour. This is Norways easternmost point. Birding from Biotopes wind shelter

Puffin in a hail shower

Incoming Razorbills from the Barents sea

The next day we continued to the northern side of the Varanger Peninsula. Here in Tana River valley

A few hours of seawatching at Kjølnes lighthouse provided noteworthy 8 Yellowbilled divers, 4 auk species, including the high arctic Brünnichs Guillemot, and a couple of thousand fly-by Blue Fulmars

We served dryfish (cod) as an appropriate seawatch snack. It is like a piece of wood, until you wack enough times with a stone to make it edible. A Norwegian speciality..

A highlight of the trip: Kongsfjord - home of the Gyrfalcon. From this point we had great views of three Gyrfalcons and a Peregrine. The northern part of the Varanger Peninsula is a very good place to see these fantastic birds. Veines in Kongsfjord is a favoured hunting ground, with a productive nearby seabird/Kittiwake colony. Kongsfjord Guesthouse is absolutely the place to stay if Gyrfalcon is on the wishlist.

Happy crew of birders. Gyrwatching in perfect arctic landscape.

This is what May looks like on the high tundra. We had to drive over the high tundra mountains to get two Båtsfjord, where we had a new adventure waiting

Standard transportation in the north

The Blue Fulmar Pelagic
Dressing up for a few hours in the arctic ocean

In late April to late may there is approx 70% blue type Fulmars around - in thousands! The day record of migrating Fulmars in may is 600 000 birds!

We took a 70 km long trip in a RIB from Båtsfjord to Syltefjord. That is quite a few hours in heavy waves.

Loaded with fish liver for chumming we where surrounded by Fulmars

Very good and very close views of these arctic seabirds.

Ørjan Hansen who runs Arctic Tourist was our man for this trip. He is a local fisherman and nature guide, and he knows how to find the birds and how to drive safely. Agreat experience! Ørjan also delivers phototours with his RIB in Båtsfjord harbour, from February to April, and he does a great job on getting close to both King and Stellers Eiders - but that is a story to come later..

After our ocean adventure with 4-5 meter swells, we headed into Syltefjord. Great birdcliffs, spectacular scenary. Someone compared it to a scene from Jurassic park..

Again a little fish liver chumming made a Kittiwake spectacle in an instant

More then 50 White-tailed eagles stay here in the spring and summer season. For good reasons - food is abundant, and they have created a hunting tecnique of their own - they fly very close to the Kittiwake nests and by a single powerfull wingbeat they blow young Kittiwakes off the cliff ledges and grab them as they fall. Take away for eagles.. By the way - Ørjan does boattrips to this eaglepacked birdcliff the whole summer.

The end of the road. The local community had opened the road for us. They where somewhat reluctant to  do so - a week earlier then planned. To much snow, they said. We insited that we needed the road open. After all birding is important!

 No wonder they hesitated! And thanks a lot to Båtsfjord community for opening the road! Great (massive) job done

The Hawk Owl - finally! A target bird for the trip. We had missed it at a good location previously on the trip. And it was only thanks to a cancelled flight from Berlevåg that we saw this fantastic bird on our way to Kirkenes. We had to speed drive over the high tundra to reach Kirkenes airport and the connecting flight home for our participants, and -yes- they made the flight. Never have more people been more happy about a cancelled flight! Photo below by Hans Ueli Grütter

Martin Garner (Birdingfrontiers) stayed in Varanger for three more days. We had him booked for a talk about bird identification at Vardø Hotel. This was not a birders meeting (there are no more then 6-7 resident birders in Finnmark!), so Martin was challenged to engange a mixed group of local fishermen, old and mildly nature interested ladies, the local nature warden, a couple of politicians, three birders, tourist company representatives and a few other curious locals from Vardø. What you would call a tough crowd for such a subject. No trouble - Martin delivered a really inspiring talk about birding and bird identification! Thanks Martin!

Afterwards we headed for the small town of Hamningberg - the end of Europe - and a very good place to do some more seawatching. We had 18 adult summer plumage Yellow-billed Divers in one hour.
Martin made many very interesting blogposts from the trip, both during and after the trip. Check out his Arctic Norway-posts. A sharp eye for details!

Hunted / hunter, at Hamningberg

In just a short week we managed to see 101 bird species and a few mammals aswell, which is pretty good in this part of the north, and just before aumtumn migration hit with full speed.
Here is our trip list:

Whooper Swan
Bean Goose
Pink-footed Goose
Eurasian Teal
Northern Pintail
Tufted Duck
Common Eider
King Eider
Steller´s Eider
Common Scoter
Velvet Scoter
Long-tailed Duck
Common Goldeneye
Red-breasted Merganser
Willow Grouse
Rock Ptarmigan
Red-throated Diver
Black-throated Diver
White-billed Diver
Northern Fulmar (70% blue type)
Great Cormorant
European Shag
White-tailed Eagle
Rough-legged Buzzard
Peregrine Falcon
Eurasian Coot
Common Crane
Eurasian Oystercatcher
European Golden Plover
Red Knot
Purple Sandpiper
Common Redshank
Spotted Redshank
Common Greenshank
Bar-tailed Godwit
Eurasian Curlew
Common Snipe
Arctic Skua
Long-tailed Skua
Black-headed Gull
Common Gull
Herring Gull
Lesser Black-backed Gull
Great Black-backed Gull
Black-legged Kittiwake
Glaucous Gull
Iceland Gull
Arctic Tern
Atlantic Puffin
Black Guillemot
Common Guillemot
Brünnich´s Guillemot
Little Auk
Feral Pigeon
Northern Hawk Owl
Great Spotted Woodpecker
Song Lark
Shore Lark
Rock Pipit
Meadow Pipit
White Wagtail
White-throated Dipper
Bohemian Waxwing
European Robin
Northern Wheatear
Song Thrush
Great Tit
Blue Tit
Willow Tit
Siberian Tit
Hooded Crow
House Sparrow
Common Redpoll
Arctic Redpoll
European Greenfinch
Pine Grosbeak
Parrot Crossbill
Reed Bunting
Little Bunting
Snow Bunting
Lapland Bunting

Brown Bear
Red Fox
Harp Seal
Grey Seal
Harbour Porpoise
Arctic Hare
Vole sp.

Lapland Bunting photo by Steve Rogers. Thanks a lot Steve for letting us use your exellent photos!
Check out Steve´s Varanger blogposts here (may 2011 posts)

Thanks very much Martin Garner, André van Loon, Steve Rogers, Ruud van Beusekom, James McCallum, Jörg Kretschmar, Nigel Jones, Chris Lansdell, Hans Ueli Grütter, Colin McShane for making this a very enjoyable birding trip. Hope to see you back in Varanger soon!

Also thanks a lot to driver Hans, and Kate at Visit Varanger and Sinikka at Motvind-project. The birding was great, and beiing treated with really good guesthouses and have such great food served was brilliant.  So to Birkhusky in Pasvik, Åse in Kongsfjord, Ørjan in Båtsfjord, Ingjerd at Ekkerøy, Båtsfjord hotel, Vardø hotel, Vardø Harbour, Atle in Nesseby, Vadsø hotel, Kirkenes hotel and Øyvind in Vadsø - Thanks!!

Biotope is - together with above mentioned companies and others - working on improving the fascilites for birders in Finnmark. We are now designing bird hides, photo hides, wind shelters and more at strategic birdsites in Varanger and Eastern Finnmark. We also advice local companys about birds and birding. We also engage in conservation projects in Finnmark. In short - we engange in the development of Eastern Finnmark as a birding destination. Varanger and Eastern Finnmark (´Arctic Norway´) is a well known destination among birders, but until recently there have not been much focus on this very specialized type of niché-tourism in Finnmark. This is now changing, for the better for both birds and birders.

I get quite a lot of e-mails from birders from around the world, who is wondering about logistics, prices and of course where to find birds in Varanger and Eastern Finnmark. I  have been checking out some costs of flight, accomodation, etc. I must say I am surprised at how cheap flights are! London - Kirkenes cost less then 350 GBP to and from included. I guess it is smart to book this in advance, at least one month before going, to get these prices. I even found tickets from London - Kirkenes (one way) for 140 GBP at sas.noI think also that the total costs of a trip to Varanger and Eastern Finnmark will be very decent, considering that this is the only easily accesible part of the arctic! I think that if this was better promoted, then going to Varanger would be a very easy choice to make. We are off course working on this aswell.

We will be back with more info on birds, sites and further development in articles to come.