22 December 2013

Birding Varanger in winter & early spring

The following article outlines the Varanger winter birding experience. During the past few years I have received many emails from birders and bird photographers with questions about winter birding in Varanger. Now I have have collected my responses in this following article, with some advice about birds, sites, accommodation and more for a winter or early spring visit to Varanger (That is Varanger-Fjord / Peninsula + Pasvik in South Varanger)

23 November 2013

Blue Season Birding - Grey Phalaropes in Varanger!

2 of 3 Grey Phalaropes (polarsvømmesniper) in Vardø harbour today, 23rd of November - an amazingly late record! Phalaropes are often very confiding, and these birds were no different.

13 November 2013

Birding Cape May - Chasing yanks in USA (pt 2/2)

Yanks and Sibes are words that will raise the pulse of any European birder. Maybe it is cheating, but after growing up with Alstrøm, Colston and Lewingtons ´Rare Birds in Europe´ book, I have always dreamt of seeing more of those exotic birds from the other side of the Atlantic Ocean. To inform the non-birding reader of this post: Sibes and Yanks refer to rare birds found in Europe originating form Siberia and USA. When found as rare birds in Europe you know that these are birds that have travelled great distances and then being observed by a birder. It is the birder equivalent of finding the needle in a haystack. Like birders have a habit of doing, since they actually look for them. So going to USA to be flooded in Yanks is perhaps cheating a bit. But then again birders migrate too and Cape May seemed like a great place to visit, considering they run a very nice bird festival, there are loads of great sites to visit, good people to meet and Yanks everywhere! This is Cape May part 2 of 2 (check out 1/2)

16 October 2013

Birding Varanger - the winter, spring & summer leaflets

Since 2009 we have had the privilege of experiencing Varanger through the seasons. We have now made 3 info-flyers giving you the basic information on birding Varanger in Februar & March, or April & May, or June, July & August. Both landscape and birding changes dramatically every month, from February with its blue light and dark nights to the midnight sun season starting in May. King Eiders can be seen in rafts of thousands in winter, but in summer they can be hard to find. In these leaflets you will find key info and the QR-codes act as digital short cuts to more information on birding experiences in Varanger. The leaflets are printed and can be found in the tourist informations, hotels and guesthouses in Varanger. Click on the images in this article for slide show view (with larger images). 


23 August 2013

Birdfair 2013 - the worlds greatest gathering of birders

We just came back to Varanger, Arctic Norway, after a weekend visit to England and the amazing Rutland Birdfair. Birds migrate worldwide to wherever there is suitable habitat. It seems birders migrate too, and Rutland is the birder site of choice. Some 25 000 birders and nature enthusiasts from all over the world have been recorded in this little village two hours north of London. It should be included in a list of wonders of the wild world, as a migration phenomenon not to be missed. Birders are preferably found behind a pair of binoculars at some nature reserve or some other wild place. At Birdfair you will find birders admiring fine optics, possible adventures, great birding destinations or exciting conservation projects. In addition it is situated next to a spectacular nature reserve, the Rutland Water, so you may see a bird or two as well. The Rutland BirdFair is an amazing blend of bird and nature conservation and business. Whenever I meet people in Varanger or elsewhere that doubt the size and impact of the birding world, I tell them about Birdfair. It is grand!

06 August 2013

Stealth Birding - photo hide prototyping

Posing on the beach. Young Red-necked Phalarope (svømmesnipe). View from the photo hide. 

 The "Get-low-stealth-type" bird photo hide. Ready for action by the Sunddammen tidal pond in Vardø.

Many of the Biotope projects are about making architecture in which sharing a nature experience is a key part. Finding good shelter for a couple of hours of seawatching with good company is great (like the Steilnes hide)! We also design birding architecture where the sharing and even education is important. Like in the ´Outdoor Amphitheater / Bird Tower - concept´. 

This project is a very different one. This is a ´hard-core-one-man-experience-project´. There is very wide variety of birds. We look for a wide variety of ways to experience birds and nature. Getting close to nature without disturbing is a true privilege. Seeing birds within a hands reach, doing what they normally do as if you were not there is simply amazing.

You may not look very cool walking around in a photo hide, and it is not the most comfortable of vessels. But it it works amazingly well. Once crawling on the knees with the hide on top, the birds almost do not mind your presence. When you are flat on your belly and slowly crawling towards the birds, completely covered by the hide, the birds do not mind at all. Within minutes birds are surrounding the hide.

This hide was never designed to be a very comfortable experience, it is simply designed to remove movent visible for birds. The aim is to get low. At the level of the birds. Usually we think of the term ´birds perspective´ as aerial views. This is the very opposite point of view. The hide makes no impact vertically, meaning the feeding waders in the area can walk up close to the hide and still have a very good overview. After all, birds are always on the alert, looking for birds of prey and other dangers. Designed for birds to feel more relaxed, and therefore improving the birding / photo experience. The Phalarope, and other wader photos where taken during an hour in early August. 

Young Red-necked Phalarope (svømmesnipe) searching for a snack. 

Red-necked Phalarope, adult / Svømmesnipe
In late July and  early August we had approx 250 Phalaropes in the Sunddammen tidal pond. Only 1 per 100 birds was an adult! Seems Phalaropes had a good 2013 breeding season. 

Dunlin / Myrsnipe 

Young Redshank (1cy) / Rødstilk. The Redshank seemed like a giant bird compared to the Phalaropes. This is birding from a Phalaropes perspective.

This photo hide is almost arhcitecture meeting clothing. Maybe we can call it wearable architecture.
The making of video..

Check out this 5 minute making-of-video (link to youtube version). After making a couple of other protoype bird photo hides, the aim this time was to make a hide that was quickly made, low weight, low maintenance, low budget and fairly easy to manouver once inside it. Comfort and spaciousness had less to do with this project. 

The hide consists of few elements: one board of 4mm plywood, cut and folded to a self-supporting form. The buoys are the ´wheels´ of the hide, easily gliding over both sand and rocks without getting stuck. They are also very durable. Walking around in Vardøs fishing harbour gave me the idea of using buoys. Finally there is a fabric covering the gap between the ground and the plywood shell. Voila. The video, a very fast production, shows the making over two short afternoons at the Biotope office, and then the testing of the hide. Hope you enjoy it.   

Prototyping, testing and more prototyping..

The Strolling photo hide prototypeThis one was made in August 2012. I guess it can be called the comfy version of the new Stealth hide. It is based around the same principles as the Stealth hide: photo flaps surrounding the base of the hide, and it is movable. However as with all prototyping, the idea is to test and find weaknesses and then improve them. The mobility of this hide was ok. It has wheels and it is easy to take for a stroll. However on a sandy beach and in kelp the wheels tended to get stuck, and to be honest, manouverability is not great. It is a bit weighty for a movable hide. But the upside is the convenience part. You can comfortably stay here for a day. Note that the concept of comfort is clearly very different for a birder / bird photographer to what most people would call comfort. In this hide I spoiled myself with a bottle of fine ale and a dried Reindeer heart for lunch. Pure luxury. And the birds performed too. I had amazing views of Temminck Stint, Dunlins, Common Ringed Plover, Golden Plovers, Sanderligs and quite a few more species. The biggest issue that needed to be solved was actually the wheels. Nice idea, less then optimal functionality. Meaning wheels simply rust, and being by the sea this hide strolled ok for a couple of months, and thats it. Not good enough for something that should be low maintanance and easy to use over time. But again, protoyping is all about learning.  

Temminck Stint feeding at Smelror beach, Vardø. From the Strolling hide, August 2012.
(photo with 

The Komagdalen experience

Midsummer night in Varanger is full of life. I spent one night silently at the very edge of a pond. Hidden by a simple canvas, the Red-throated Divers was very obviously aware of my presence. They did not seem to be bothered by me, and kept swimming and diving as normal, although never closer to me then about 8-10 meters. I kept thinking of the Stealth bird photo hide, and wondered how that would have made a difference. Surely the hide would have looked a bit out of place, but removing movement is the key ingredient. Maybe designing a Tundra-wetland-style photo hide will be a coming project..

Red-throated Divers, by night. Komagdalen in July 2013. 

The Steller´s Eider experience 

Covered by a wool blanket cover only. The wool proved to be a perfect cover material as it held the snow and instantly made me blend with the landscape. However the Steller´s Eiders kept some distance, as movement was still visible. (Full story of this great Kiberg experience).This winter we will bring the new Stealth hide to Kiberg. We are working on an upgraded model for this experience too. To be continued.. 

The serenity of non disturbance

A few more photos from the Stealth hide. Sunddammen in Vardø is truly a bird hotspot. You just have to look closer, preferably with the help of a hide.  

Arctic Tern relaxing and a Bumble Bee fly by, at Sunddammen, Vardø in july. 

Red-necked Phalarope, 1cy / svømmesnipe (ungfugl)

Red-necked Phalarope. For the photography interested: I use Nikon d800 + Nikkor 300mm F2.8 

Thanks for tuning in to our website. More stories of architecture and nature to come.

The next big thing for us is the Rutland Birdfair in England, where we are both exhibiting and giving a talk. Hope to see you at Birdfair!

Meanwhile feel free to check out our Facebook page for news, views and daily updates from the Biotope office. Or go straight to our Arctic Norway bird news twitter account for strictly bird info. Thank you, and to be continued..

Tormod A. / Biotope

26 June 2013

Pushing the Boundaries RELOADED - talking at the Rutland Birdfair 2013!

In January and February 2013 me and Martin Garner went on a tour around UK, giving talks at 10 bird clubs in 14 days. What a road trip! In our different ways we both hoped to promote birding and talk about some projects that proved that birding is quite possibly the coolest enterprise ever. In all modesty. We were both amazed by all the great people we met on the road. In day time we birded nature reserves and other hotspots with old and new friends, in the evenings we where met by welcoming people at the bird clubs. I think we must have met something close to a 1000 birders on our tour! 

Since my early years as a young birder, in the 1990s, I have basically been raised on British birding litterature. One of my favourite books was the ´Rare Birds´ guide, illustrated by Ian Lewington. On the Pushing the Boundaries Tour I got the chance to see a lot of cool places, but the people we met is what really stands out! And that Brown-bellied Dipper I had to chase unexpectedly hard to find, and of course that 111-species-in-day bird race in Norfolk. Great birding, great people!

Now the RSPB (The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds) have asked me and Martin to give our Pushing the Boundaries Talks on the Rutland Birdfair, at the RSPB Birders Lecture. Friday evening, first day of Birdfair. In the Events marquee. 550 seats. That is a pretty big wow! Now we hope to fill the marquee with birders, and we promise to upgrade and fine tune our talks with even better birder niceness for this event! 

From Rutland Birdfair 2012: an amazing event celebrating birds and nature. How cool it is to see so many people enjoying it. Its like the birding world migrated to the same little hotspot, for information, for inspiration and to connect. Close to 25 000 bird and nature enthusiasts visit Rutland Birdfair!

Me and Martin on tour in february 2013. Birding and bird clubbing. Check out Martins Pushing the Boundaries Reloaded intro.

Pushing the Boundaries Talk: So what is it about?!

Birds, of course. 

Some of the coolest birds on the planet actually. 

As it is for both Martin and me, birds and birding is a source of endless inspiration! For me birding has become a full time enterprise. With a twist. For four years I have now run what I think is the only bird focused architectural practise in the world. I have not heard of any other architects working full time with bird projects yet (but I hope this will improve). My Pushing the Boundaries Talk is about how me and my wife, against much "good" advice moved north to the fishing town Vardø in arctic Norway, to set up an architectural practise that worked with pro bird and nature proejcts only.

Varanger is a well known birding destination and for the past few years we have made it even more known, both internationally and locally. It has been and continues to be a great adventure being birding archtiects based in Varanger. 
Arctic birding. A small family business with a plan to make a difference.

Being a birding architect is much more then just designing buildings, it is about enganging with people! Making new things happen is a great reward. The world of birding have such a wide range of amazing people and things happening. The Birdfair itself is proof of a community of both magnitude and variety. We have bird art, bird festivals, bird sound recordists, bird science, bird identification specialists, bird tour companies, bird conservation, and so much more. We wanted to contribute to the world of birding by means of architecture. To do so we had to prove our value, by engaging with both the international birding community and by making a  solid difference where we live. Join the Pushing the Boundaries Talk and hear about this story.

Birding architecture in progress, from stealth type bird photo hides, to wind shelters to combined bird towers and outdoor amphi-theaters. We design, protoype, build and make it happen.

A lot of people see Che Guevera as a change maker worthy of iconic status, and of course mass spreading on T-shirts. We aim to make the über cool Steller´s Eider the Che Guevara of Varanger. Pro nature revolution by birding!

Bird street art: For that little arctic birding revolution we needed more birders, and being impatient, we just started making them. 

Pushing the Boundaries: Isles of Scilly & Becoming birder architects

So how do you go about becoming a birder architect? Well you start by convincing your architect girlfriend that birding really is very normal and even a very cool thing. In 2006, having just met Elin at the architect school, we just had to go somewhere exiting, to prove that not only was birding a big thing but also worth our focus as architects. Remembering how the Isles of Scilly seemed to feature in almost every page of the 1990s classic ´Rare Birds´ guide book, I figured there could be not better place to go! We spent 3 weeks in October 2007 on Scilly. A superb experience, and this is where we hatched our plans to become birder architects! 

Scilly birding: We spent a lot of time birding, and we where both amazed by the number of birders around. Like phylloscopus warblers they popped out behind every bush on the island. Walkie talkies was sparkling all over the place and the ´huit´ calls was always the latest bird info passing around. 

We even found ourselves a very cool Blackpoll Warbler, and we were both a little overwhelmed by the scenes of heavy local birder migration the following hour at the Lower Moors on Scilly. Check out the short video clip we took of birders rushing in to see ´our´ Blackpoll Warbler (a low res video, but pretty cool still). I think about 300+ people arrived within 20 minutes.  

A long story short: The Isles of Scilly proved to be a potent experience. We met a lot of great people, saw some very cool birds and places and we both agreed that we should pursue a career as birder architects. Sorted. 

We hope to see you at the Birdfair

With that brief intro I am very glad to be able to invite all birders coming to the Birdfair to join mine and Martins talks at the Events marquee on Friday at 16.15 o´clock. We promise Martins inspirational stories from the frontiers in bird id and birding and my story of how birding can change a place. It will be some cool stories of birds and people aiming to make a difference. 

From the Arctic I will present some architecture dedeicated to birders

the scenaries

the inspirational people who make things happen

and of course some very cool birds!

Grand thanks to all the good birders & bird clubs that hosted our talks in January and February, and thanks to the keen birders at RSPB for making this happen. Hope to see you all, and meet new friends, at the Birdfair this August! to be continued..

Best wishes 
Tormod A. / architect & birder, based in Varanger / Arctic Norway

22 May 2013

Intelligent design - the RSPB Minsmere nature reserve

We were recently invited to the UK by the RSPB to give a talk at their headquarter, the Lodge. In addition we had a small bird hide workshop and  visited a few of their reserves. The aim of our trip was also to look into the possibility of new bird hides that could cater to a diversified group of birders. That is both birders, birdwatchers (yes, there is a difference), bird photographers, sea watchers and more generally nature interested people. In our norwegian projects we have sought to make a series of bird hide types that will do just that. The idea is simple: you can't fit everyone in the same box. We are grateful to be invited to the UK to share knowledge and ideas. We returned to Norway much more inspired ourselves. As with many birding adventures, this one too turned out to be both more educational and inspirational then we expected!

On our recent trip we have been very fortunate to witness an important part of the future. No less! Everyone who pays a little attention to the state of nature knows that it is under an immense pressure from human development. Nature too often looses. A wide range of species are suffering from loss of habitat. Nature need us to be more clever.

Being an eager birder for many years I knew a fair bit of the work of bird conservation organization RSPB (The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds). Still, after seeing the dedication and detailed knowledge behind RSPB reserve projects, I am left with a very positive sense of peoples ability to produce niceness! They are in fact showing us the shape of things to come: It is the necessary making of concentrated and highly productive nature. It is man made eco systems. People have become very good at producing for consumption. This happens at the expense of nature, and we simply need to improve our skills and our ways of treating nature. Experiencing the RSPBs making of nature is an uplifting experience. It provides an insight into how we should start producing and manage nature. Simply put, we need nature intact, and we can make that happen! Literally.

Aerial of a part of the Minsmere nature reserve. Made by the RSPB. 

The front and the garage. For people and for nature.
Thanks to Mark Thomas at the RSPB hq and Adam Rowlands, Minsmere reserve manager, we stayed at a reserve cabin, and we got a tour of the reserve. It is great to see the wide variety of tasks the reserve team handles. From the business end to the massive job of managing the reserve. About 40 people man the reserve, and it serves a couple of hundred thousand people every year and bird wise it caters to a wide range of species and I don't know how many hundred thousands of birds. This is serious!

It seems when running a business, like the visitor centre (café, shop, etc) a job well is done is easily noticed. By good service, great food, a shop with things of use (bird books, optics, etc) and welcoming people. I am very impressed by the whole people-business enterprise. Then there are the things that is managed extremely well, but at first glance we don't take that much notice of it. Like the reserve nature. The amount of work behind such a rich reserve is enormous. It is only when seeing the big tools garage and see the fact that the habitats are man made and maintained, you realize that such a reserve is run like any farmer would run a big agricultural enterprise. This is the very clever making of nature, with detailed knowledge of species requirements, preferences, productivity and endlessly much more. Nature is easily taken for granted, but when birds are your clients they will let you know if you fail or succeed. Judging by the rich bird life of the Minsmere reserve, it is without a doubt a success. 

Bird city Minsmere - a densely inhabited place with a wide variety of species. In Norway the Black-tailed Godwits are very rare, in fact critically endangered. In Minsmere we saw many, and wide variety of other species.

Birders seemed to love the reserve too. 

Marsh Harrier and Swifts over the reed bed.

Going aerial - tools for birder architects

At our architectural office we often need aerial views of places we do projects. When putting up a bird hide you need to know where the birds are and which routes they fly in the landscape. Location is the number one thing to consider. No point in setting up a bird hide at place where you will not find birds. Good aerials helps in the understanding of the landscape and habitats, and in turn the movement of birds. But, most importantly, good aerials help explain a project to other people involved. To be better birder architects we have acquired our own quadrocopter, letting us do our own aerials. A great tool. We just had to bring it on our UK tour. When Adam at Minsmere asked us if we could do a series of aerials for the reserve we happily provided that.

A birds perspective of Minsmere - a varied habitat with something to offer for a wide range of species. The variety of water depths, plants, open and dense growth. This is both feeding-, breeding and resting grounds for a large number of species. And it is all designed that way. Intelligent design and nature in a very productive blend. The magnitude and detail of this man made bird city is striking. 

When looking at the aerials we took, some of the images remind me of those elaborate crop circles, typically featuring an extremely strict order and geometry. Often envisioned as proof of intelligent design, almost beyond earthly capabilities. That is the idea, it seems. However, one may also argue that someone simply had to much time on their hands. The first ´wow´ can very quickly turn into a ´why?` (when you realize that the first wow was the reason for making it in the first place). Seeing the Minsmere from above leaves me with the ´wow´ hanging around. I just love to see all the small ponds, edge zones and mixed habitats. It is a job that requires very detailed planning and management, with an extreme insight in the biology of a very wide variety of species. The Minsmere is actually proof of intelligent life, and it is full of life! It is production of nature and it is working very well! It is highly intelligent design. Not over designed, but made to let every singular part make its presence on its own terms. 

Ladies and gentlemen: we are making nature! Lets do much more of it!

The Minsmere reserve from above:

Birds, birders & bird hides
We were very interested in studying the birder architecture in the UK. In Norway it was the lack of a type of architecture dedicated to birders that sparked our idea of being birder architects in the first place. In Norway it seemed the very same type of sheds where used for every occasion. We felt something was lacking, and that by diversifying the architecture for birders we could greatly improve the birding and the experience of nature. So we set out to design new concepts and then meet with people who where interested in making new things happen: Like a wind shelter / sea watch hide at Steilnes in Vardø, and a floating photo hide dedicated to close up views of arctic sea ducks and the bird tower and outdoor amphitheater catering to tour groups and school kids in addition to birders. Things are improving in Norway. I must admit too, that after seeing a few places in the UK, that it seems a wider variety of hides could be beneficial to birders, birdwatchers and nature interested people in the UK. However, the fact that great numbers of bird hides are in place is without a doubt fantastic! Very often the box bird hide is a great solution, but other times different approaches should be taken. This subject is still very much open to exploration!

Box bird hide and open type box bird hide

From the bird hide: The Bearded Tit - a bird that have eluded me many times. It really became quite the issue on mine and Martin Garners recent ´Pushing the Boundaries Tour´. Wherever we went the Bearded Tits seemed to hiding from me. And we did visit several places where we were told ´you will definantely see it here´. Like in Dorset or in Cley or Titchwell. On this trip too the tits where hard to find. We visited several places where they should have been, before finally seeing these über cool birds at Minsmere. Thank you Minsmere, for fixing the Bearded Tit issue! Got some pretty cool views, but did not manage any photos to brag with. For me this was still a trip highlight. In addition to the Savi´s Warbler found by our friend from Gullfest 2013, Jonny Rankin! I was second man on that rarity that day. Thnx Jonny for finding this bird! Check out the encounter story on his bird blog extraordinaire. Birding is cool. 

Bearded Tit!!! A heavy crop, but still BT niceness. From the Island Mere bird hide.

We also saw loads of the very stylish Avocet and got close to the very loud Cetti´s Warbler.

The ultimate flying machine! Swifts are absolutely super stunning birds. Masters of flight - and very hard to photograph. 

The birders 
It was great meeting fellow birders and sharing ideas and inspiration. There are so many good stories to tell, and I am certain we will find time for them too. For now I would like to thank the very cool birders we met at the RSPB. Thanks Mark Thomas, Graham White, Graham Hirons, Adam Rowlands, Martin Davies and many other good people we met. Meeting Martin Garner again was of course nice as the RSPB hosted our ´Pushing the Boundaties talk´ at the Lodge lecture room. Thanks all birders and pro nature people we met on our UK tour!

Further explorations in architecture and nature:
I would like to make a proposal for an architectural contest, or in fact which ever profession is suited for the task, but this should concern architects! The RSPB have clearly shown us all how to make a ´bird city´. 
Now: who can design the most productive and ecologically sound built environment, with people as a part of it? How to make a living environment with a high number of people combined with the highest possible biodiversity? 
Could we even design urbanity with intact ecosystems catering to many species? 
How dense could we populate a rich and sound ecosystem, without degenerating it? 

For the record: Todays urban environment has loads of fast food stores,  and thus produces loads of pigeons. Yes they are birds too, but this does not count as proof of an ecologically sound environment. Even if you have some super cool Peregrines sat of top of that food chain. The key is species complexity and habitat variety. How cool would it not be to see that architectural contest?! I would definantely have the RSPB in that competition jury. 

We need to explore and figure out these things in a much more dedicated manner. The alternative is business a s usual, and that is obviously not working. 

Experiencing the Minsmere reserve is huge inspiration, and a very good reminder of the amazing pro nature work taking place today. Making nature: A few more Minsmere aerials to end this post.

We will be back. To be continued..

Tormod A. / Biotope