14 December 2012

Architecture & nature - the Steilnes bird hide / wind shelter

Birding in Varanger just got a little more comfortable:
We have been very fortunate to collaborate with so many great people in Varanger. The result is an increasingly better birding destination - for birds and for people, visitors and locals. As the first King Eiders now arrive Varanger we cut the red ribbon on a brand new bird hide / wind shelter in Vardø, at Varanger and Norways easternmost point.

Varanger can easily be reached within a day from most well connected places in Europe, although in the arctic. Even in summer birding can be a chilly experience. Increasing numbers of birders from around the world are now discovering Varanger, and our aim is to make birders feel welcome. Being birders ourselves we know how to value a good bird hide and wind shelter. And of course we love to see how the regions unique birdlife is becoming more and more popular with the locals. A well thought through project can deliver for both the most hard core birders and the local birders. The latter being known as ´titting-titter´ (which is ´bird-wathcer´ in Varanger-speak, and most species fit into the category of ´titting´). I think it can be called generous, all-inclusive concept! 

The new bird hide and wind shelter in Varanger - open for all.

One of the finest ´tittings´ in Varanger: the King Eider. This photo is of King Eiders, one of the winter residents in Bussesundet, between Steilnes and mainland Domen. The sea surrounding Vardø island is where the large rafts of eiders from Siberia spend their winter.

The new bird hide (fuglekikkerskjul in norwegian) has been strategically situated on the southern tip of Steilnes, facing south towards Russia and and west towards mainland Vardø. The key concept is making a wall in the centre of the hide / wind shelter, giving you choice of where to sit according to where birds are and from which direction the winds blows.
Opening day - birding to the people

At the opening we where very happy to see so many residents turn up. The 5th-graders in Vardø cut the ribbon,  while Vardøs mayor Lasse Haghom gave a brief speech about the nature destination Vardø and how the youngsters will be next in charge. Fascilities like this hide no doubt makes nature more easily accessible to a greater crowd.

As this year is coming to an end we are very much looking forward to the lighter season. Already in early February the days are longer and the birding is no less then spectacular. Above is photo from mid february 2012. This is from Steilnes looking south: Tight rafts of eiders use the shallow waters around Vardø as their main feeding grounds. These rafts can count more then 5000 King Eiders and 7000 Common Eiders. And then there is the occasional 100s strong rafts of Stellers Eider passing by. Not a bad place to be birding! And now this can be done more comfortably.

The King Eider - a Varanger favourite. 
However if you are a bird photographer, we will recommend a trip to Båtsfjord, on the northern side of the Varanger peninsula. Here you will find another bird hide, of a very different kind. An article on Ørjan Hansens floating photo hide will be out on Biotope.no soon. In any case - these birds are almost to good to be true. For now check out the prototyping from winter 2012

Opening day mini seminar

Thanks to the collaboration with Nasjonale Turistveger (National Tourist Routes) and the Nature Heritage program VVV-project, funded by the Direktoratet for naturforvaltning (the Norwegian Directorate for Nature Management), the Steilnes hide is now a reality. With Svein Harald Holmen from the nature heritage project and Arne Moen from National Tourist Routes, we invited people in Varanger to join a mini seminar following the opening of the new bird hide. 

Opening day poster - featuring talks by the involved parties and a homage to the pro nature partners in Varanger.

Short talks where given by Svein Harald Holmen - about nature awareness and the qualities in Varanger. Kate Utsi from Destination Varanger spoke of the increasing interest in Varangers birdlife. Tor Emil from Vardø hotel gave his perspective on birding in Varanger. At the opening Arne Moen of NT officially handed the building over to the people of Vardø. Ingela Mästerbo of Varanger Næringssenter shared her thoughts on how Varanger is in a very positive drive, and how nature based tourism is an important part of this. Tormod of Biotope talked about how and why the hide was designed, while Vardøs good carpenters shared their thoughts on the whole building prosess. It is great to see how such relatively small projects can have great impact. 

At Vardøs south-western tip is the new hide. Situated according to already established plans. Varanger is a birding destination in the making - for locals and visitors. 

At this otherwise very exposed place you will now find a sheltering hide with views of some of Varangers most bird rich areas. 

While summer will bring a wide range of bird species, we local birders have to enjoy the few but endlessly fascinating species like this little feather ball, a Purple Sandpiper. When all other sandpiper head south during winter this one stays during the dark and icy winter months. 

Grand thanks to all involved in the Steilnes project!

Tormod A. / Biotope

18 November 2012

Riders on the storm - Cape May birding

We are currently birding a couple of the finest destinations in the eastern USA + Canada. Below follows a brief ´post-hurricane-Sandy´ birding report. More to come soon...
An exhausted Tree Swallow at our hotel balcony.

Cape May in southern New Jersey is known as one of the top birding sites in North America. We recently spent two weeks at this amazing bird migration site. No wonder the good birders of Cape May decided to make a bird festival at this destination - this place is a spectacular bird migration site! However this year was to become more exciting then expected. As the 66th annual Cape May Autumn Birding Festival was progressing it became clear that a massive hurricane from the tropics was about to hit New Jersey. The last day of the festival was cancelled and a mandatory evacuation of all the coastal areas shut down Cape May. The by now very famous hurricane Sandy hit New Jersey and New York with devastating force. The aftermath of the storm have been well covered in all media. The ´superstorm´ forced us to move to Philadelfia for two nights. But we drove back to Cape May as soon as possible. It turns out we were not the only ones. Quite a few birders had found their way back to the Cape. 

Birds are very much affected by weather, and a storm is a massive challenge for both birds and people. Thankfully Cape May was not hit very hard, unlike northern New Jersey and New York. We came back to an area that was just recovering from rather heavy flooding - and a post hurricane bird migration activity that was beyond belief! Litterally millions of birds passed through Cape May the days after Hurricane Sandys dramatic visit.

As we rode the storm of in the comfort of the hotel we had a couple of office work days, with correspondence and drawing. With rain and heavy winds we simply did not spend that much time outdoors. We thought we would get less birding done, but Cape May proved to be an extremely bird rich place. And the birds had to seek shelter too, even landing just outside our hotel window. A Coopers Hawk had its lunch on the fence of the hotel balcony. As night settled tired Tree Swallows sheltered on the same fence. 

 Aerial acrobats extraordinaire: Tree Swallows in 10000s pass through Cape May in Autumn

Cape Mays neighbouring town Wildwood flooded after Hurricane Sandy

USA in the eye of storm - it went beyond turbulence...

Being in the predicted path of the hurricane we had to evacuate, but were soon back in Cape May for some post-hurricane birding. 

Above photo from a Cape May field trip a little while after the storm had settled. Post hurricane birding proved to be spectacular!  Here joining one of New Jersey Audubon Societys many field trips. 

A Coopers Hawk and its lunch. I think it was a Hermit Thrush, but hard to say with the condition of the lunch. And, yes it is snowing. Tropical storm Sandy was met by a heavy northern cold front - creating a worst case scenario of a storm.

The Tree Swallows above where all exhausted, and seeking shelter under the hotel balcony outside our room. This provided some decent photo opportunities. 

The Cape May birding experience was two weeks of great birding - despite the storm and because of the storm. We did not only see fanstastic numbers of birds, but we also met so many nice people! It has been a really inspiring experience. We are very grateful to the birding community of New Jersey and Cape May! It is truly a destination where birders are making an impact - and we love to see that happen! 

For more birding + Sandy-weather reports have a look at these articles. Birding and weather predicitions is well worth a read:

-A post-Sandy bird report from Cape May
-Ebird reports on post-hurricane birding strategies
-An avian coastal evacuation (the Nemesis bird blog)
-Audubon Magazine: How hurricanes effect birds

This is just a short report from ´Biotope in the US´ for now - we will be back with more Cape May and North America material soon. So to be continued...

Follow our US + Canada bird tour on twitter: @BiotopeOffice

Tormod A. / Biotope

27 October 2012

Good green - New York birding

When in one of the greatest cities in the world. What do you do? - You go birding!

Perhaps not a matter of course, but to more-then-avarage nature and bird interested people New York is a good place to be for birding. Supposedly New York is good for everything else as well. But - Biotope is on a study trip birding eastern USA and Canada, and we just spent a few days birding in one of USA´s birding hotspots: New Yorks Central Park!

Central Park, New York : architecture meets nature (view from the Rockefeller Building)

October means bird migration season, and Central Park is a green island surrounded by concrete. The park is full of thousands and thousands of birds on their way south taking a rest and feeding in this green heart of the concrete jungle.

New York: Why Central Park (green rectangle) is such a great birding hotspot is easier to undestand when seen from a birds perspective: For a bird green often means food and rest.

Green versus green:

The above photos are zoomed in sections from the google-satelite view above. We have divided the green spaces into three rough categories: suburbia green, central park green and sport green. 

With the work of architects and planners, green actually come in lots of shapes and sizes - and not to mention qualities! At Biotope we are interested in studying the pro nature green. Central Park is a very interesting study in park architecture / green design. We will be back with a more elaborate article on pro biodiversity green design. For now we hope you enjoy this brief overview, written as we are on tour in the US. 

Suburbia green - Typically tall trees + grass, some bushes. Lack of open water. Moderatly good for birds / wildlife. Few species around, but still good visual qualities (for people it is ´recreational green´). Often too managed undergrowth (=less biodiversity)

Central Park green - Very good. Great variety of biotopes, open water + flowing water, ´untamed´ undergrowth. High biodiversity.

Sport green - Almost as dead as concrete. Monotoneous. Biodiversity is not a word that relates at all. 

Memo for architects:
Green is not the same as nature (just try checking out the biodiversity of a golf course). 

Central Park green

Central Park is an impressively lively park. Not only does it cater to the 8.5 million inhabitants of New York city, it is also  very rich in biodiversity. In fact more then 300 bird species live in or pass through this green island! We spent a few days there to experience this for ourselves.

A striking feature of the park is the ability of the designers to not over design, or rather making the decision to leave larger areas of the park to manage itself. Much too often in area planning and design do we see the architect plan every little detail. The result is usually sterile from a biological diversity point of view. It may be green, but it is often as lively as a shopping centre parking lot at night.

In Central Park large areas are planned for nature to unfold itself on its own premisses. This simply takes the will and ability to not design and control everything. Make sure a few key features is in place. The most basic is: add water and life will happen, then leave it to rot - and reproduce, and diversify and so on..   

Nature can best produce itself - and you can plan for the best possible circumstances. The result is intact nature, a kind of ´cultural green´. It is letting nature happen. Central Park proves it can be done in the busiest metropolis. 

The photos below are taken from the same site as the photo above. These are just a few of a wide range of species we saw in three days of birding Central Park. Running water, rotting leaves an a good variation of habitats in the park makes it attractive to thousands of birds. If you think of urban birds are just pigeons, then try to go birding in New York! 

Blue Jay 

Hermit Thrush 

White-throated Sparrow 

Winter Wren 

American Robin

The concrete jungle

And the nature within it. The Ramble in Central Park is a hotspot within the hotspot. A top US bird site.

 Biotope on study trip in New York.

Add water - then leave it alone...

 A Yellow-rumped Warbler taking a bath in one of the many ´rivers´.

If you are going to New York we can highly recommend a visit to Central Park! It is a great nature experience. In fact walking around with binoculars hardly seems strange at all, and you are sure to run in to other birders. We thought the near nude guy in pink thong and Dame Edna style glasses on a bicylce was stranger. Anything goes...

Birding is big in the US, and we are impressed with the amount of information available, dedicated to birders. Check out this bird app in Itunes: Audubon Birds of Central Park (Its free! - I would have paid). A quick google search on birding in Central Park will give you all information you will ever need. An overview of the bird sites within the park can be found here (see ´by location´) and at this google map is another overview of hotspots in the park. Birding is definantely on the rise: check out this trailer for the documentary Birders - the Central Park Effect. Normally we bird in Varanger / Arctic Norway - but Central Park most definantely charmed us. We´ll be back... 

New York / Central Park 

Stay tuned for more articles from US - we are now in Cape May at the annual Autumn Birding Festival. Hurricane Sandy is approaching, and we are having a ´silence-before-the-storm-moment´. Meanwhile we are enjoying some spectacular birding here as well!

You can also follow daily tweets from our US bird trip at @BiotopeOffice

To be continued..

Tormod A. / Biotope

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