I just returned from a spectacular trip to Vardo during which time I also visited Vadso, Vestre Jakobselv, the Tana river valley, Birk (Pasvik) and Kongsjord as part of the first annual GullFest put on by Tormod Amundsen and co. from Biotope, with the help of too many other great folks to name one by one. It was a real team effort headed up by Tormod and his partner Elin Taranger! You can read all about the daily goings on of the GullFest here on Surfbirds, or get it straight from the source at www.biotope.no. There is lots of other info from this amazing event showing up every day now that the participants are finally rested up and their memory cards have cooled enough to download photos!

This is just a brief report for now to give everyone an idea of the potential out there, and what I was able to see during my time in Finnmark.
The time during which we visited (mid-late April) seemed to be the beginning of the transition between winter and spring. Although snow was still everywhere and there was little exposed ground except on some very sunny south-facing hillsides, the temperatures were mild (0 to 10 Celsius) and the weather was non-stop sun and blue skies. Most songbirds were singing, and seabirds were well into staking out territories as well. Based on local info it appears that we missed the peak of eider concentrations (although there were still LOTS of eiders around) and hit the beginning of spring migration.
The birding was absolutely exceptional throughout the trip, and some real highlights of the trip included Vardo and the cliffs at Hornoya for seabirds (a must-see), birding in the taiga in northern Pasvik at Birk (another must-see) and spending a day birding around Kongsfjord. We also had great luck with Hawk Owls on the road to Tana Bru (and beyond) with a minimum count of 7 birds with minimal searching (all seen from the car while travelling at high speed). Below is a detailed breakdown of what we saw and where, as well as info on where we stayed. Overall I would HIGHLY recommend a spring trip to Varanger to anybody at all, and if you are interested in seeing eiders close up as well as Siberian Tit, Siberian Jay and Hawk Owl, Gyrfalcon and Willow Grouse, you would be very hard pressed to come up with a better destination than Varanger. Travel is super easy and a real pleasure, prices are high, but reasonable compared to the Canadian/Alaskan Arctic, and the overall quality of birding is absolutely in the top tier of what can be expected anywhere in the world. I would recommend a trip of no less than a week to see this area well.

Vardo should merit at least two days, with a full day allocated to Hornoya - a 10 minute boat ride away, but a world apart once you are surrounded by 100,000+ seabirds! A great guy to get in touch with if you need some advice, some guiding, or help facilitating your trip is the one and only Anders: birder extraordinaire and all-round awesome guy - you can reach him at: andersfm77'at'yahoo.no Anders knows the area like few others, and he really knows his birds!

Pasvik is a 4.5 drive along good roads, and the drive itself is spectacular. Pasvik is a must-see for all the taiga birds, and the trip is worth it even if you only spend one night, although I would very much have liked to stay two or even three to really bird the area better. There is lots of good and varied habitat and no telling what surprising migrants might turn up this time of year. Check out the Birkhusky cabins if you are looking for a place to stay in the area. Accommodations are fabulous, food is great, and there are lots of opportunities to take some exciting trips with dog-sleds in the right season - look them up on the internet! https://www.birkhusky.no/?lang=en

If you really must cut it short on time, you can see many of the same taiga birds you would find in Pasvik around Vestre Jakobslev as well, although they are far trickier to find unless you known just where to go. Contact Oyvind of Arntzen Arctic Adventures for the best advice on local conditions in this region, and if you are looking to spend a night or two outside of Vardo, his cabins in Vestre Jakobselv are simply awesome, both in town, and in the woods near the river. He has a lot of info on the local scene, and he is very passionate about birds.

Kongsfjord is fairly quiet at this time of year, and while most of the birds you are likely to see are also to be found around Vardo, it is definitely worth the trip up to the north coast. The scenery is breathtaking, and this is probably your best shot at Gyrfalcon unless you get lucky in Vardo. Two nights is good, three is even better if you can spare it - just to relax and possibly make the trip to Batsfjord, which we missed much to our chagrin. Batsfjord is supposedly one of the best spots to get close to King Eiders anywhere. Look into Orjan Hansen as a great guide who knows the area well and can get you into the thick of it! http://www.arctictourist.no/

The GullFest was an amazing event, and it seems destined to be an annual one that will only get better! Anybody considering a trip in the spring would be wise to coordinate their timing so as to participate in this remarkable event. GullFest is part conference, part festival, and 100% good times! There are many fascinating evening talks which are open to the public (held at the Arctic Hotel and the North Pole Pub in Vardo), there is a basecamp set up at Hasselnes where you can meet local biologists and perhaps even get up close and personal with a gull or two when the ringers are capturing birds, and there is a big lavvo tent set up to accommodate visitors who want to warm up, chat with fellow birders and fill their bellies with hot reindeer stew, coffee, tea and pastries! Also, several events run more or less daily (often multiple times a day) including the "Fisherman's Pelagic' - a chance to accompany a local fisherman out for a short trip where you will get closer to more gulls than you can imagine, the 'Blue Fulmar Pelagic" - a high-speed Zodiac ride out to the offshore waters where Fulmars can be found and approached closely, and of course, daily trips to the bird cliffs at Hornoya. We also enjoyed some day trips out to Vadso, and there are endless opportunities to extend your stay and travel to other places in Finnmark, and certainly to coordinate such trips with other birders as well. GullFest was a fantastic experience, the chance to meet fellow birders from around the world is a huge bonus, and chances are that you will get much more out of your trip by participating in the event than you would if you traveled alone. The boat trips and such were priced very reasonably, and many of the other events are open to the public, so take advantage of this phenomenal opportunity in 2013!

Here is a quick run-down of my trip!

Day 1 Oslo - Kirkenes by plane, Kirkenes to Vardo by ferry

Kirkenes was a blur, but a small flock of Steller's Eiders right at the dock gave us a little taste of things to come! All along the way we saw ever-growing numbers of birds, culminating with a spectacular show of seabirds as we approached Vardo. A single Iceland gull seen near Vardo was the only one seen during the trip. The boat is a great way to bird, and a very nice way to travel in this area. Trips are twice daily and the cost is surprisingly low. Check the Hurtigrten schedule - the boats stop in almost every coastal town from Vardo to Bergen.

Day 2 - Vardo

We stayed at the Arctic Hotel the entire time we were in Vardo. Relatively high prices, but for a little extra, a fantastic breakfast and gourmet dinner was also included making the total quite reasonable. The food was far better than expected, truly exceptional cuisine. The Arctic Hotel is ultra clean, very cozy, and quite charming. Also, there can be no doubt: you will NEVER find a better view than the ocean-side rooms (specify your preference when booking). You overlook picturesque Vardo harbour and you can watch flocks of eiders, shorebirds and gulls from your bed through huge panorama windows. Stunning. Birding around town is a pleasure, Vardo is small, walking is easy and the birding is good everywhere you go. Hasselnes is a nice spot with good birds. I birded mostly around town, and helped some local biologists trap some gulls for ringing in the afternoon. Good views of Steller's Eiders were to be had both in the town harbour and in the harbour by the tunnel opening. Vardo may be the only place where kittiwakes are truly yard birds. There are several houses covered in nesting kittiwakes sheltering under the eaves. Super cool.

Day 3 - Vardo

More good local birding, phenomenal views of Common and Steller's Eiders from a floating blind in the harbour (courtesy of Biotope and Arntzen Arctic Adventures!), and more lovely looks at gulls from all around town. Great looks at Purple Sandpipers and Oystercatchers near Hasselnes.

Day 4 - Vardo

Out most of the day on Hornoya where we enjoyed spending a lot of quality time more or less in the middle of a large colony of Black-legged Kittiwakes, Shags, Razorbills, Atlantic Puffins, Common and Thick-billed Murres, and Black Guillemots, getting amazing looks at all these species as well as Rock Pipits, Common and Steller's Eiders, Great Cormorants and Ravens. Magical. Hornoya alone is worth the trip to Vardo - it is a truly unique seabird colony which allows very close approaches to an unusually high diversity of seabirds. A jem.

Day 5 - Vardo to Kongsfjord along the highway through Vestre Jakobselv, Vadso, Tana Bru etc....

Greenfinches near Vestre Jakobselv, Scoters, Goosanders etc....at Ekkeroy along with a fly-by Yellow-billed Loon. From Tana Bru north we saw 7-8 Hawk Owls just from the side of the road. Stopped to look at all of them, and got very close looks at several birds including one eating a vole. Most rivers and creeks along the way were breaking up and we saw Willow Tit, Great Tit, Dippers, Bullfinch, Greenfinch, and House Sparrow at several points along the road - more or less everywhere we stopped there was decent songbird activity. Birded at Nesseby a little and turned up several Shelducks, a couple of Short-eared Owls and a few Goosanders as well. Decent flocks of Eiders, both Common and Steller's with a few Kings thrown in for good measure all along the road. Well over a thousand total seen between Vardo and Nesseby. Also, several White-tailed Eagles along the same stretch of coastline. A stop at Kiberg was slightly underwhelming, but two days later we returned and enjoyed spending over an hour sitting on the shore with dozens of Steller's Eiders milling around and displaying literally a few feet away from us. A spot worth popping into whenever you pass by.

Day 6 - Vardo to Vadso.

Much the same as the previous day although a Rook caused quite a stir - seen well in Vestre Jakobselv. A stop in Kiberg yielded amazing opportunities to study hundreds of gulls at close range as well as get the best views of Steller's Eiders during the whole trip. We sat quietly on the shore in the harbour and had several small flocks come up almost close enough to touch. A ski-doo trip into the woods near Vestre Jakobselv yielded some ridiculously close looks at Arctic and Common Redpolls as well Siberian Tits. A Hawk Owl was also seen well, and slightly further afield a Boreal Owl was also seen well. We did not get lucky finding Three-toed Woodpecker, but several birds were reported in the area just a few days earlier, and they are no doubt a solid possibility with a little searching and patience. Contact Arntzen Arctic Adventures for more details on birding opportunities in this area - Øyvind, the owner is a superb guide with tremendous local knowledge of the area and lovely cabins nearby where birders can connect with all of the local specialties. A very early curlew flying over the Jakobselv River was also a nice surprise. Many flocks of Snow Buntings everywhere - many hundreds of birds seen around every patch of open ground.

Day 7 - Vadso to Birk (Pasvik).

A fabulous drive. Thousands of reindeer along the way, and lots of great birds too. Several White-tailed Eagles and Rough-legged Hawks were seen well. A feeder near the settlement at Birk turned up great looks at Crossbills, Bullfinches, Greenfinches, Arctic and Common Redpolls and Great Tits. These birds were all common throughout the area, but they were most easily seen at the feeder. There is also a huge feeder at the Birkhusky cabins where guests can enjoy great looks at a variety of species. We spent the night at the remarkable Birkhusky cabins run by Trine and the rest of the Beddari family. Spectacular accommodations in a magical location. From our cabin, we could see Russia across the river, and technically, many of the birds we saw were actually in Russia! Some of these included a trio of Whooper Swans, two White-tailed Eagles flying up the river, a pair of Dippers, and a single Goldeneye flying by. The woods nearby were filled with birds - again mostly the usual suspects although a single probable Siskin was also seen here. A dusk drive along the road nearby turned up a pair of Willow Grouse - a species we saw nowhere else despite searching in good habitat around Vardo in areas where they are known to frequent. The birds we really came to see here were Siberian Jays, and after striking out at every turn, a last-ditch effort near the cabins the next morning turned up a single bird that seemed uncharacteristically quiet and evasive. After following it for a few minutes, we watched it fly into a low nest, and with patience and caution we managed to approach close enough to see it sitting on the nest! A highlight for me, since this was one of the birds I was most looking forward to seeing on this trip.

Day 8 - Birk to Vardo by car, Vardo to Berlevog by ferry (and on to Kongsfjord by car).

Not too much birding on the run back to Vardo, although lots more Reindeer along the way along with more White-tailed Eagles and eiders. The ferry was absolutely stunning. We lucked out and scored the 'Finnmarken'. After some great birding from the observation lounge we enjoyed a dip in the pool, a nice steam in the sauna, and then some more birding! Lots of kittiwakes, puffins, murres, Razorbills, Gannets and large gulls, but surprisingly no Fulmars. Drove in the dark to Kongsfjord where we stayed at the Kongsfjord Guesthouse - our first night was in their large house in town. It was extremely neat and tidy, very spacious and right on the water. An excellent choice if you are on a budget.

Day 9 - Kongsfjord

After moving over to one of the houses near the main Kongsfjord Guesthouse in Veines (only 1.3 km away) we had a phenomenal breakfast, and then decided to bird around the cliffs and beaches to the north. We saw lots of Shags, Great Cormorants, Common and Steller's Eiders, Purple Sandpipers as well as two Gyrfalcons - one of the highlights of the trip. We got stunning looks at both birds flying and perching on the cliffs overlooking the ocean. Rock Pipits were also seen nearby along with small flocks of Snow Buntings. The birding here was a bit slower than anywhere, but the coast was still locked in winter, and the scenery more than made up for it. Simply spectacular, and a chance to see Gyrfalcon well is always a highlight. Highly recommended, and the second night we spent in the Guesthouse was fabulous. Food was fantastic, the owners, Ase and Trygge, are great people and very friendly. Ase is very familiar with the local birds, and they have an impressive library of bird books which visitors can peruse during their stay. They also arrange pick-ups and drop-offs at the Berlevog ferry docks if you don't want to rent a car to travel there from Vardo or Vadso. Check: https://www.kongsfjord-gjestehus.no/

Day 10 - Kongsfjord - Oslo

Not much birding at all - a day in transit and a chance to finally rest after a week of straight birding!

Species seen during the trip in no particular order:

Yellow-billed Loon - one flyby at Ekkeroy, although several more were seen by other birders
Red-throated Loon - one seen at Ekkeroy
Goldeneye - one seen at Birk
Goosander - many seen all along Varanger Fjord
Common Scoter - many seen mostly around Ekkeroy
Velvet Scoter - one seen at Ekkeroy
Whooper Swan - three seen at Birk
Steller's Eider - many hundreds seen all around Varanger Fjord. Best looks in Kiberg and Vardo
Common Eider - thousands seen virtually everywhere
King Eider - several seen around Ekkeroy, although many more were around throughout Varanger Fjord
Long-tailed Duck - common, seen all over Varanger Fjord in small flocks
Shelduck - several seen around Nesseby and south of Tana Bru
Mallard - several seen around Varanger Fjord
Greylag Goose - one seen at Ekkeroy
Rough-legged Hawk - three seen on the drive from Vadso to Birk - mostly north of Kirkenes
White-tailed Eagle - many seen all around Varanger Fjord and two along the Pasvik River at Birk
Gyrfalcon - one in Vardo, two in Kongsfjord
Short-eared Owl - two seen near Nesseby
Hawk Owl - 8-9 seen, mostly just north of Tana Bru
Boreal Owl - one seen near Vestre Jakobselv
Great Tit - common, seen everywhere
Siberian Tit - several seen near Vestre Jakobselv, also near Birk
Willow Tit - one seen near Vestre Jakobselv, another near Tana Bru
Dipper - three north of Tana Bru, two at Birk
Greenfinch - common, seen everywhere in small numbers
Bullfinch - many seen north of Tana Bru as well as at Birk
Siskin - one seen at Birk
Rock Pipit - several seen at Hornoya as well Kongsfjord
Snow Bunting - abundant, seen everywhere
House Sparrow - abundant, seen everywhere
Arctic Redpoll - common, seen everywhere in small numbers
Common Redpoll - common, seen everywhere in small numbers
Red Crossbill - several seen near Birk
Hooded Crow - abundant everywhere
Rook - one seen in Vestre Jakobselv
Raven - seen everywhere in small numbers
Black-legged Kittiwake - abundant and seen everywhere, many thousands near colonies
Atlantic Puffin - abundant and seen offshore from the ferry, many hundreds near Hornoya
Razorbill - common and seen offshore from the ferry, many hundreds near Hornoya
Shag - abundant, seen everywhere
Great Cormorant - common, seen everywhere
Common Murre - abundant, seen everywhere, many thousands near Hornoya
Thick-billed Murre - common, hundreds seen near Hornoya
Black Guillemot - abundant, seen everywhere in small numbers, many around Hornoya
Gannet - several seen offshore near Hornoya and from the ferry en route to Berlevog
Purple Sandpiper - abundant, seen everywhere
Oystercatcher - common, seen everywhere
Curlew - one seen at Vestre Jakobselv
Siberian Jay - one seen on the nest near Birk, several more seen nearby by other birders
Willow Grouse - two seen near Birk
Glaucous Gull - several seen around Vardo
Herring Gull - abundant, seen everywhere
Iceland Gull - at least one seen around Vardo
Great Black-backed Gull - common, seen everywhere
Black-headed Gull - several seen around Varanger Fjord
Common Gull - several seen around Varanger Fjord and Vardo

Anybody who is interested in joining us for GullFest 2013 (dates tbd but probably very similar) should get in touch and get more info from Tormod Amundsen at Biotope, or feel free to email me at mark.maftei'at'gmail.com if you are going to make the trip from North America. Hope to see you there!

-Mark Maftei