05 February 2012

Varanger in winter / early spring - info on birds, sites, accommodation

We get quite a lot of requests from birders that are planning trips to Varanger this winter / early spring. Varanger has been rated one of the top 100 birding destinations in the world - but locally no one has, until quite recently, paid any attention to these qualities, but this is improving rapidly! I very much appreciate emails and with both feedback and questions from birders, and I try to respond to all mails as best I can. To make your research a little easier, I have put together a short (or long - depending on your bird interest level..) article with some advice and on birds, sites, accommodation and more for a winter or early spring visit to Varanger (V-Fjord / Peninsula + Pasvik / South Varanger). It is based on mails I have written in reply to birder and bird photographers requests. 

Above: -Steller´s Eiders - a Varanger winter / early spring speciality (digiscoped, by the way)
           - Northern lights (Aurora borealis) in february, over the high tundra, Varanger

With our website we aim to present our engagements as architects and birders living in Varanger (we work on pro nature projects all over Norway). To a large extent this includes
serving updated information on birding news from Varanger, our main focus area. Here we have basically kick-started the local awareness of the unique bird life in Varanger / Eastern Finnmark, and we are working on several pro nature projects. News from our site is both on coming bird hide projects and already build projects + all our other bird related adventures in the north. We engage in much more then just the birder facilities. Right now we are mapping all the finest sites for birding (both from the viewpoint of the birder, and the bird photographer (sometimes the same, sometimes not). 

While we aim to make much birder related information available on our website, it will never be a pure birders resource to Varanger / Arctic Norway / Finnmark: That is why we have engaged in a collaboration with www.birdlife.no on making a birder website dedicated to this region. In Varanger (and the rest of Finnmark county) we are no more then 4-5 resident, active birders, but several thousands visiting / foreign birders. We want to make a resource for all of these, that at the same time will make it easier for all the visiting birders to leave their observations in a database (both for conservation use, research and bird news. To be launched this spring, before summer). But for now our site will have to do. Varanger is still very much a birding destination in the making. However on www.visitvaranger.no you will find quite a lot of infrastructure and accomodation information.

Winter birding style - by kick sled (february 2011) with a 4500 King Eider raft view!

General approach

I would easily advice Varanger anytime between early February - late September, depending on what birds you want to see. New things are happening every month. For example the GullFest is put together for a combination of bird reasons: in mid April all winter species are present in good numbers. But there are more movement of birds, especially gulls (and very much so white gulls). Also the weather is more predictable and better then in March. The harbours of Vardø and especially Vadsø still holds good numbers of Stellers Eiders. Approx 3000+ in the Varanger fjord, and about 250-600 consentrated in Vadsø Harbour. A little less in Vardø. The King Eider flocks are in place in Vardø in good numbers too, the flocks are dispersing a little more then in March, but still there are huge rafts around (several hundred - 1000 ++). Also around mid April the bird cliff of Hornøya is predictably more accessible (in March the boat to the bird cliffs have sometimes to be cancelled due to weather, so more days are required to be sure to get on and off Hornøya, and overnights at the lighthouse is possible and recommended : handled bywww.vardohavn.no). So for the Gullfest we have tried to make the optimal combination of accessibility, numbers of birds (and especially the high arctic specialities) and weather predictability. Also very much daylight at this time, and since it is just after the Easter holliday the flights are very cheap.

For a general approach I would advise to fly for example London-Oslo-Kirkenes (one stop, nice prices) (airport: Høybuktmoen), rent a car there (several available: rent-a-wreck or other service) then do the Pasvik taiga, and afterwards drive to the Varanger fjord, and do Varangerbotn to Vardø. Kirkenes -Varangerbotn is only 1.5 hours straight drive (not so much birding there, two or three short stops), then Varangerbotn - Vardø is 2 hours straight drive, but the birding is great so this is where you want to spend your time. Stop at Nesseby (tidal landscape - great site!) and Vadsø, which is fantastic for arctic sea ducks, especially Stellers Eider. From Vadsø to Vardø you have non-stop good bird sites by the road (worth at least a day or two, easily more if you are into bird photography too). 

Pasvik : Taiga birding

If you aim for Siberian Tit, Siberian Jay, Arctic Redpoll and other taiga birds then Pasvik is the place, basically all year, but early spring / winter is great. This is a fantastic forest area with all of the taiga birds present. From the Kirkenes airport there is only a 40 min drive to a B&B (www.birkhusky.no) with a good bird feeder. They specialize in dog sled trips, but with many dogs to feed there are much easy snack scraps for the Siberian Jays around. They are also becoming very much more aware of birders and try to do these little extras like seed feeders (Sib Tits, Arctic Redpolls, Pine Gros, etc). You will find Sib Tit and Sib Jay without any problem. Probably also Pine Grosbeak. They also have a feeder at a cabin in the forest where all these birds occur all the time. They have even had a Great Grey Owl hanging around their feeder area at their taiga cabin for a while recently.The people at  Birkhusky are very much worth supporting (pro nature people) and as a part of a birding project we work on they will put up nesting boxes for the Great Grey Owls in the taiga this winter. This have proven to be very effective for attracting these fantastic birds. If you are keen on photography then the Pasvik part will be very rewarding, especially the Siberian Tits are very confiding. Check out the Pasvik article on this website.

Varanger Fjord / Varanger Peninsula South : Tundra & Arctic coast

In 2011 we had a very good owl year in Northern Norway. For Hawk owl the chances will be good in 2012, I saw many in 2011. And it actually looks very good for a second lemming year in 2012! Good news. I even just got news of a female Snowy Owl down by the Varanger Fjord (between Vardø and Vadsø) a week ago. They too had a very good year, with over 40 confirmed breedings in Northern Norway in 2011! Early spring is the best time to see these birds, but never make them your main reason for coming (also breeding sites are kept secret, so little point in looking in to that). I will be very carefull about promising any owls, but we will certainly keep our eyes open, and make updates on this website during the winter and spring. With the lemmings boom and a upcoming owl nesting boxes project it looks very good for 2012. 

In Varanger you will have more good chances of seeing both Arctic Redpoll and Siberian Tit. We can advice a stay at Øyvind Arntzens cabin in Vestre Jabobselv (20 min from Vadsø by car, towards Varangerbotn). He has a cabin with a feeder that attracts these birds all year. Also he is setting up Hawk Owl boxes near his cabin. He is even building an eagle photo hide (of Biotope design) this spring, ready for use (will attract birds with Reindeer carcass) during 2012. Updates will follow on this progress. We have spent much time with Øyvind - a very good guy with lots of good projects going - and most importantly: they are all pro bird / pro nature! Øyvind Also have a cabin from where you can sit in the sofa and watch the Stellers Eiders outside. This cabin is basic style, but nice standard, and with fantastic view. Good for 4 - max 6 people, nicely priced. Very close to the cabin is a river outlet - a favored place for the Stellers. Very good photo opportunities. This is also central in the Varanger fjord, and it is a very good base camp if you spend a week or so in the southern part of the fjord - everything is within reach (1 hour to Varangerbotn, 1 hour to Vardø).

View from Øyvind Arntzen´s cabin window (digiscoped Steller´s Eiders)

A little further out the Varanger fjord you have Ekkerøy (20 min drive from Vadsø). Also a great place to bird. Here you can find very good accommodation too (classy eco-style or basic, two places, same operator) more info at Ekkerøy Holidayhouse
This is also a favored area for Stellers Eiders, and from April it is also favored by the White-billed divers. Also with a 20 000+ pairs Kittiwake cliff, only 4 min walk from one of Ekkerøy Holidayhouse´s cabins. 

Basically from Vadsø harbour to Vardø and the last 40 min drive to Hamningberg is non stop fantastic birding (this last piece of road to Hamningberg usually opens just before the Easter holidays). Describing all the sites along this route is something we will leave for another article. This is what Varanger is famous for: very good numbers of birds, intact nature and beautiful tundra landscape. Vardø is good for all the arctic sea ducks, Glaucous Gull, Iceland Gull, maybe more gull surprises (in Feb 2011 I had a very nice adult Ivory Gull flying by a good sea watch site at the northern tip of Vardø). Cheap and very good place to stay is Skagen Bo- og Havfiske, or Vardø Hotel www.vardohotel.no - here you can have a great dinner and watch arctic sea ducks and white gulls from the restaurant. The hotel has its own little bird beach and great views of the harbour.

Birders checking in at Vardø Hotel - birding first!

Then of course you have Hornøya, 10 min by boat from Vardø, which is allways fantastic! The guys at Vardø Harbour KF / www.vardohavn.no will take you there by RIB or their harbor boat. This will be a life experience at this time - simply fantastic! 100 000+ seabirds, fighting puffins (see end of the Hornøya webcam article), and much more. Brünnichs Guillemots will be all around, great views. Thousands of Glaucous Gulls (day record is 3300+ in April). 

The waters around Vardø holds very good numbers of many species. From early March to late April there can be up to several hundred thousand alcids (in late March / early April a substantial part of the Russian population of Brünnichs Guillemot are resting and feeding in the very productive waters of the outer Varanger fjord. In fact, if any person working in the oil industry saw the amount of birds present, they would very quickly realize that this is not the place for such activities. It would simply be very strategically unwise (unless one aim for maximum high risk areas). For a birder or a fisherman, however, this is heaven! All winter massive rafts of King Eider is found around Vardø ( the record count is 7000+ in one raft), and very often in Bussesundet (between mainland Vardø and Vardø island). Still Båtsfjord is better for Arctic sea duck photography (see more below) with more confiding birds. Many other species as well is present, in very good numbers. Svartnes harbour is also a great place for arctic sea ducks, and the river delta in this harbour is a very good place for large numbers of gulls, waders (more towards summer). Allways worth checking carefully. 

For Yellow-billed divers I definantely advice a visit in mid-late May. Hamningberg (Outer Varangerfjord) is the best location. Here birds migrate close to the shore, both by swimming with the ocean currents, and by flying past. You can see from 10-200+ birds in one day, depending on weather, etc (very often / mostly adults in summer plumage). In April there are allways a few birds around at (we will try and look for W-b Diver on the Gullfest). If you want to photograph them then coming in mid May, and make deal with the below mentioned Ørjan Hansen is the thing, and to spot birds at Hamningberg and try to drive + drift close by his RIB (I can help facilitate this - never done before by the way, but looks very good, and should be a product available). 

Mid - late May is very good for Pomarine Skuas. Especially in Bussesundet (Vardø) where they stay around chasing Kittiwakes and not just migrate past, like they do at other places in Finnmark / Arctic Norway. Not so easily photographed from land, but there are fishermen that can drive you to the right places. I have had fishermen in Vardø showing me very nice photos of Pomarine Skuas taken with their mobile phone - close views possible, in other words. Take contact for more advice / info / facilitation. My record count for one day in mid May is 800+ Pomarines.

Northern Varanger Peninsula : Arctic coast  

Another advice, after doing the southern part of the Varanger Peninsula, is to drive over the high tundra (Båtsfjord Mountain) to Båtsfjord, via Tana. On the road (along the Tana River) is one of the best sites to check for Hawk Owls (watch roof tops and light poles from the road). Then drive to Båtsfjord (Varangerbotn-Båtsfjord is a 2.5 hour drive) 

Hawk Owl in Tana, with a view, April 2011

If your primary goal is Stellers and King Eider photography in pristine winter landscape I would advice spending a week in mid March, or even in February (the fantastic ´blue light season´). I would very much advice you to go to Båtsfjord and visit fisherman and nature guide Ørjan Hansen of www.arctictourist.no in Båtsfjord harbour. No doubt that this is the best way to get close to King Eider and Stellers Eider (also Long-tailed ducks and Black Guillemot). With his boat (RIB) he will get you very close to the birds. He is a good man who knows how to drive birders and photographers. Most of his customers are so happy with the photo trips that they end up with more then one trip! 

From mid / late April he also does ´Blue Fulmar Pelagics´ (see Martin Garners blogpost for more info). He will prepare fish livers for chumming - excellent photo opportunities! Also from Mid May he will take you to bird cliffs of Syltefjord (Stauran). Here are thousands of Kittiwakes, the northernmost Gannetry in the world, quite a lot of alcids (but these are better viewed at Hornøya, Vardø), but a main attraction here is the 50+ resident White-tailed Eagles, which Ørjan will get close to the RIB for very good photo opportunities (he knows the tricks..). A friend of mine who visited this huge bird cliff, with thousands of Kittiwakes and 50+ Eagles in the air, thought it looked like a scene from Jurassic Park.. It is spectacualr.

Above is Varanger resident bird photographer Knut Sverre Horns photos from Båtsfjord : King and Stellers Eider, taken from Ørjans RIB (2nd photo, in Båtsfjord harbour winter scene) 

The drive from Båtsfjord to Kongsfjord and to Kongsfjord Guesthouse (www.kongsfjord-gjestehus.no) is only 35  minutes, this is where you go to find the Gyrfalcon. Of course I will not tell about any breeding sites, but the Gyrfalcon population in the Northern part of the Varanger Peninsula is pretty good, with quite a few pairs. Due to overhunting of Ptarmigan they have started to hunt Kittiwakes by the fjord. So the area around the Guest house in Veines, Kongsfjord is actually one of the Gyrs favoured hunting grounds. Ask at the Guest house, they know where you are best of standing / area to look. Great place, great people (they keep an open eye on the Gyrfalcons).

By the way, on the drive from Båtsfjord up to the road cross to Kongsfjord is one of the best places to look for Ptarmigan, from the road (contact Øyvind Arntsen for more info on Ptarmigan and Willow Grouse, at www.varanger.info). Willow Grouse you will find between Skallelv and Vardø, the southern side.

A general note on King and Stellers Eider:
They until late May. By mid / late may they start moulting and are less numerous. A few birds of both eider species stick around all year, but not so good for photographing (mostly females, 2cy males). The rafts of Arctic sea ducks is  undoubtedly a highlight of any early spring / winter trip to Varanger. 

As a very fine arctic bonus experience you have very chances of seeing the Northern lights or the Aroura borealis. This can be everything from a slowly moving vague haze of green light to a pulsating breath-taking power-display of light. For mammals chances are very good for Orca / Killer Whale, several species of seal, dolphins, Otter, Arctic hare, Reindeer and more. 

Had to add one more northern lights photo, taken at Komagvær, Varanger. That is lights from Kiberg on the clouds in the background (fishing town near Vardø). The Aurora is allways worth stopping the car for. Taken in February 2011.

Get dressed for the Arctic

For clothing I would advice warm and wind proof clothing. Several layers. Typically what you would wear at a day out skiing / mountaineering. February and March can be very cold (easily with 15 - 20 minus celcius). Mid to late April is usually very nice weather wise in Varanger. But by nice I mean not so much wind (less likely with heavy snow storms), usually much sun, but allways some clouds, probably little snow (no rain), but lots of snow on the ground. Wear solid boots (hiking type, or similar, with space for good wool socks). Temperatures will be around -5 to +5 celcius. But that can be very cold should the wind pick up. Also birding Varanger means standing still a lot, scanning flocks of birds. Also for the pelagics / photo trips it is good with warm clothes (Øyvind in Båtsfjord allways provide sailing suits). For those who will join the Arctic GullFest: at the GullFest base camp we will have our Lavvo (tipi like tent) with a warm fireplace and warm food. So, in short bring warm clothes, but we will have possibilities to be both sheltered and warm. Also for the Hornøya bird cliff visit I would recommend to think about wearing something that you are ok with being shit on by birds. I have been to Hornøya many times and been shit on many times. Particularily if you spend much time under the bird cliff for photography and bird studies. There are lots of birds there and it is basically a matter of time spent at the cliff. However it is very rare with the all over Great Black-backed Gull spray (in summer, when breeding, they even aim!), mostly it is ´rain drops´ from overflying alcids hitting you. not much, but worth considering when choosing your clothing. 

One more tip: check this one before you go: https://artportalen.se/
Here you can search for species (searchable in English & latin). You have to know what you look for, but can be very usefull. 

Hope all this helps you birders who are researching your next trip to Varanger. It is a long-ish article, but as a birder myself I know that the little details make the difference, and well, it takes more time and words to be specific. I could add so much more but I´ll leave it at this for now. 

Feel free to contact me. I am are always interested in getting feedback from birders both before and after their visits to Varanger: you can help us improve fascilities and also provide us with more info on birds in Varanger.  We are very interested in expanding our knowledge of Eastern Finnmarks birdlife (especially for conservational reasons), we have a good overview of much, but bird info on good numbers, rarities, nice photos, etc is always very interesting. 

You are most welcome to Varanger, and we are happy to help you out with info and advice! 

email: tormod@biotope.no 
twitter: @BiotopeOffice

Tormod A. / Biotope

Elin birding Vardø (this spring we will have a wind shelter / bird hide build at this location (Steilnes, a very good for King Eiders, alcids, etc)

Orca family hunting in the Varangerfjord, early March 2011

Incoming alcids, Hornøya bird cliff, Vardø early April 2011