02 October 2012

Birding Destination Varanger - the pro nature development study

Varanger is the worlds easiest accessible arctic birding destination. In Varanger you have the northern taiga, tundra and arctic coastline in one destination. Within a days drive you can experience the Pine Grosbeaks in the taiga, and see a wide variety of species on the tundra of the Varanger peninsula. At the coastal bird cliffs the arctic species Brünnichs Guillemot is accompanied by a hundred thousand seabirds. The summer is a hectic season with 24 hours daylight and birds in beautifull breeding plumage. In winter and early spring arctic seaducks concentrate in huge rafts, and at night the Aurora borealis completes the experience. We are at the northern edge of Europe, further east then Istanbul. Despite its extreme northerly position, the Gulf stream keeps the Varanger fjord ice free in winter. It is the only fjord in Norway facing east, and the shallow waters provide feeding grounds for great numbers of birds, and with all basic infrastructure in place it is truly a birders destination.

The Birding Destination Varanger document is a 137-page study describing this region and its potential as an international birding destination. It is a document that in detail outlines the characteristics that makes this a truly unique nature destination. It is both a public awareness project / nature conservation and a document that describes the possibilities within nature-based tourism. The study is in its entirety produced by Biotope during the three years we have lived in Varanger, since 2009. To briefly introduce our background: Being architects and birders we have found our niché in making architecture dedicated to birders and nature enthusiasts. Our idea is simple, and stated in our company ethos: "Architecture is a tool to protect and promote birds, wildlife and nature."

This study is the result of this approach / attitute: In 2007 we visited Varanger - as birding tourists. What a grand experience! In 2009 we moved to Varanger and started our pro nature architecture office. For a long time Varanger has been known among the most enthusiastic birders. Locally, however, the visiting birders have been considered oddities - strange people parkeing at the ´wrong´ places, and what they seemed to study with their huge binoculars was not that clear. We quickly realized the potential of making Varangers unique birdlife a key part this destinations development. The aim: birding to the people - by architecture, by awareness, by business - appreciation of nature in its widest sense. Much has happened since 2009 and the Birding Destination Varanger study outlines the development that has taken place, and advices on further action to be taken and at which sites in Varanger.

This study has been made as a part of the natural heritage project (naturarvprosjektene) funded by the Norwegian directorate for Nature Management (Direktoratet for Naturforvaltning). This local project VVV-naturarvprojekt is owned by the Varanger-municipalities Nesseby, Vadsø, Vardø and Båtsfjord. It has been co-funded by Finnmark Fylkeskommune and Varanger næringssenter - and the countless hours of work, field trips and meetings undertaken by us at Biotope. It has been fantastic experience: As architects we believe in working locally - with people. Thanks all, from the fishermen in Vardø harbour to the twitchers from Britain, for input and inspiration! By this article we will share some of the work that is done, and by coming articles on our website we will let you know how Varanger continues to develop as a nature aware destination. It is birding to the people... 

Featuring in the study: Birding and nature-based tourism, the birdlife of Varanger, building a nature aware destination, mapping Varanger: the sites and potentials in Varanger, the architecture of birding, and more. This article features 20 pages of the study, and gives and overview of the project, without going into to much detail - that takes 137 pages.

Birders at Nesseby - a hotspot in Varanger. Visiting birders are a part of nature conservation in Varanger, and it is one of perhaps few places in the world where birders really make a difference.

The Varanger peninsula is situated at 70 degrees north and 30 degrees east. It is 100% birding! We just had to make this one... 

At the core of this study is countless hours of field work. We have mapped the Varanger peninsula by car, fishing vessels, kick-sled, RIB, foot and even rented a plane to get those birds perspective aerial photos from around the peninsula. (More info on the ´Mapping Arctic Norway´-article.)

As architects we engage in the process of the destination development, and we spend a lot of time developing new architectural concepts for experiencing birds and nature. Both photo hides, wind shelters, bird towers and more are being designed and built. Birders do not need one grand monument of architecture, but we prefer modest but precise buildings that gives shelter from wind and weather. Nature and birds play the lead role, and we much prefer several small strategically placed bird hides to one grand piece of architecture. Finding the exact right site and building according to the optimal sightlines, whilst at the same time not disturbing birds, are keys to a good project. 

At Biotope we not only work in Varanger, but deliver hides, shelters, towers, etc for other destinations. The above combined bird tower and outdoor amphitheater is built in Norways best tidal destination, Ørlandet. Read more on this project soon here at the Biotope website (or check out the birdlife.no article on this project). Making nature accessible to people is a key ingredient of nature conservation. The logic is simple: we care for what we love - and if it can be good business too, then that just add to the conservation argument.

In Varanger we have spent much time fascilitating collaboration. In 2009 we met those who strongly believed in borders and that each municipality must find its own way, and that the neighbouring municipality was competition only. The map above show the borders that no one but the locals see. To the visitors these are mostly invisible.

A birder or a nature enthusiast visit Varanger because of the rich and varied habitats that are found. From forest, high tundra, valleys, marshlands, tidal lanscapes and shallow seas - the nature is the attraction and not even bordes like the national park border is really important. Varanger is a region with intact nature at your doorstep. 

Being a birding architect is really about working with people:
Since we moved to Varanger we have had the pleasure of working with lots of great people: locals that value their nature, from fishermen that are very much aware of natures balance to visiting birders from all over Europe . Local schools, kindergardens, politicians, beaurocrats, businessmen and many more have become involved in the development of Varangers natural resource. 

Architecure is not only building - it is describing and visualising 

We have carefully mapped and described all important bird sites and areas in Varanger. From the overall picture (above) to the key sites in each municipality. Then, within each site the local potential and value has been outlined, and where possible suggestions for new improvements have been made. These proposals range from new bird hides to habitat restauration and construction of new bird habitats. Even new possibilities for birding and nature based products are outlined.

Hotspots in Nesseby municipality

Proposals for Nesseby like the ´ringing scheme site´ (already a project in great progress, see the Nessby ringing project blog), Nesseby seawatch bird hide / wind shelter (to be built very soon). The maps are custom made to provide info dedicated to birders, with hybrid maps showing important features like the tidal landscapes. 

Aerial photos from key sites makes the Birding Destination Varanger study a visual experience. Again with proposals for hides and shelters at strategic sites. Here from Vestre Jakobselv.

In Vadsø we propose rebuilding an old and abandoned radioshack into a new bird tower and amphitheater. Using the existing concrete base and even some of the bulding itself makes it a low impact, high value birding fascility project. 

In Vardø we find some of the best bird sites in the town centre. Birding and people can mix well - just have look at the harbour in winter. It is a seaduck and arctic gull spectacle!

Hornøya bird cliff is only ten minutes by boat from Vardø town, and is without a doubt one of the finest bird cliffs in Europe! The fascilities are already in place (article on the building of the bird hide).

In Båtsfjord local fisherman and now nature guide Ørjan Hansen (link to his website) will make sure you have some of the best bird photo opportunities imaginable. Where else in the world will you be able to photograph King Eiders, Stellers Eiders, Common Eiders, Long-tailed Ducks with a wide angle lens? We have now designed a new floating ´King Eider-photo hide´ for Ørjan to open this coming season / winter+spring 2013. After some testing with a prototype winter 2012, we expect this will be a fantastic experience. So even an architect armed with no more then a 300mm/F4 lens will perhaps have decent photos to show off. More on this new photo hide is coming soon. 

Making an impact

In short: it has been three years, with thousands of meetings, and we are just getting started. Like the arctic birding festival ´Gullfest 2012´ made clear: this development is made possible by the efforts of every single birder who visit Varanger combined with all the local nature enthusiasts. It is a combined effort, and thanks to good friends like National tourist routes, birdlife Norway, the Directirate for Nature Management and many local businesses, hotels and guesthouses Varanger is making great progress. 

If birding is your thing then arctic Norways Varanger region i well worth a visit! 

The photos below are taken with a d300 + 300mm/F4 lens - not the most powerfull of lenses. Now with the photos hides and general development in Varanger we hope to see much more striking bird and nature photograpy in the coming years! And locally there is no doubt that the regions birdlife is high on the agenda. 

King Eider / praktærfugl

White-tailed Sea Eagle / havørn

Lapland Bunting & Wood Sandpiper / lappspurv og grønnstilk

Puffins / lunder

to be continued...

Tormod A. / Biotope  -  pro nature destination development