24 February 2013

The iconic Steller´s Eider - winter birding in Varanger

When we are not working with bird projects we are out birding. I guess all our activities are somehow part of the ongoing Biotope adventure. This weekend we had some very fine blizzards in Varanger, and what better to do then spend a day at the beach! That is the beach in Kiberg harbour, Vardøs neighbouring fishing village. A great place to view Stellers Eiders - if you are properly dressed!

Steller´s Eider Polysticta stelleri, Kiberg, Varanger - February 2013

Male Steller´s Eiders showing off. Both by sound and sight this is an amazing spectacle!  

Female Steller´s Eider taking off. 

Amazing nature at the doorstep

Varangers iconic arctic seaduck, the Stellers Eider. Breeding in Siberia, and wintering in Varanger. We in Biotope do an annual count of the Varanger Fjord on behalf of researchers. In March 2012 we counted a total of approx 4500 Steller´s Eider in the fjord. An amazing number of birds, but still lower then just a few years ago. We also counted approx 12 500 King Eider last year and nearly 20 000 Common Eiders. All the arctic seaducks can be seen at all coastal sites around the Varanger peninsula. However the various species have their preferred areas. Kiberg, Ekkerøy and Vadsø are strongholds for the Stellers Eiders. To have great views of other ´superduck´, the King Eider, the numbers one place to visit is Båtsfjord. For this experience all we had to do was get dressed (in a survival suit), and drive from Vardø to Kiberg. That is a ten minute drive, and a great little pre lunch adventure. 

Winter birding in the arctic: lovely snow blizzard and rapidly changing conditions.  

Kiberg harbour is one of several photogenic fishing harbours in Varanger. Fishing and birding goes very well together. I have written more about this in a previous article about Varanger harbours (Gull focus). Note to politicians, etc: Supporting the sustainable fishing industry in Varanger is also a pro bird and eco tourism act.

Kiberg town aerial, outer Varanger Fjord. All the shallow bays of Varanger makes a perfect habitat for arctic seaducks. Much of your birding in Varanger can actually be done within a few meters of the car. It is almost too easy. 

Testing & prototyping

We are are continously working on new ideas for fascilitating for better birding. Making photo hides is a key part of this work. As with all lines of work it helps loving what you do, so spending a Sunday flat on the belly on an arctic beach for a few hours is just perfect! Trying to get new photos of our favourite birds is an educational experience: seeing how close you can go without disturbing, learning light conditions, imagining new ideas as you work. Its grand! 


Photo hides is where clothing and architecture meet. We have made a series of prototypes, testing what works, and learning about what doesnt work. The below photos are from the making of two different prototypes: one floating photo hide (made with fish boxes) and one semi-mobile photo hide based on an old stroller. The semi-mobile hide wokred fantastically well, and we are now making the ´pro-model´. The fish box version is still to be improved...

Bird photo hide protoyping

Camouflage is essential. Whilst clothing is an easy option, a hide lets you move around inside it without disturbing the birds. Which is why the Båtsfjord floating King Eider hide works amazingly well for several people and over a longer period of time. Using wool plankets proved very usefull as snow sits well on it and you instantly blend in the arctic landscape. Making movement less visible for the birds. It worked well, but surely a hide would have proved easier for me and the birds would have settled faster. Judging by the birds I seemed to be quite invisible.  

About 45 Steller´s Eiders came within few meters. All photos are takes with a 300mm lens (Nikon d800 + Nikkor 300mm F2.8)

Great to have birds flying towards you, and not the rear views of frightened birds. 



Several Purple Sandpipers came very close too. Great birds, with some impressive survival skills.

Enjoying a day at the beach, in a survival suit. No trouble from the cold water when the tide kept rising. Get low - the rule of cool bird photography.

Steller´s Eider in snow blizzard. 

By the way, I just made a new Iphone movie: the previous weeks highlights in 1 minute. Out now on youtube. It a fast and and basic production, all iphone, but it gives you a sense of what the King Eider experience in Båtsfjord is like.

Gullfest 2013 is happening very soon in Varanger - It looks like we will have an Eider party too. And we are preparing some new photo hides for Gullfest!

Stay tuned..

Tormod A. / Biotope

17 February 2013

The Varanger King Eider extravaganza

I just came back from one of my best birding trips ever. Being a fishing town, Båtsfjord harbour is one of the most bird rich places in winter in Varanger. For a birder or bird photographer this small town on the northern side of the Varanger peninsula is actually bird heaven! Thanks to a new floating photo hide, where the initial idea of the hide was to fascilitate for the ultimate King Eider experience. Båtsfjord harbour is now without a doubt the finest place in the world to experience Arctic seaducks! A true nature spectacle in the town centre. Any bird photographer and / or birder will have an experience of a lifetime. 

Båtsfjord town aerial. I took this photo in december 2011 flying over Båtsfjord. The floating photo hide is now situated in the fishing harbour of this amazing little place in northeastern Norway. Winter in Varanger is spectacular!  

Steller´s Eider, male

Below is Ørjan Hansen preparing the RIB to take a group of 4 birders / bird photographers to his new floating photo hide in Båtsfjord harbour. For this experience we got up and met Ørjan at his harbour base at 0600. That gave us time to settle in the hide before daylight. I just came back from a tour in the UK, presenting projects and approaches from Varanger at various UK bird clubs. Ørjan was one of the guys I talked about. One of the things that struck many was how early light returns to the Arctic. In my opinion February is one of the finest birding months in Varanger. The light is simply stunning. Crisp, deep blue light for hours both in the morning and the evening. And to many peoples surprise we have near full days of daylight. By early February the sun rise at about 0800 and do not set until 1400, and by late February you have full days of birding. The rest of the time we chase the Northern Lights! It is pretty cool - litterally - and one of the reasons we have established our architectural practise in Varanger.

Ørjan at his Båtsfjord base, ready for departure at 0600. February morning light.

Long-tailed Duck, male - preparing for a day of showing off

Common Eider, male - this is very cool design by nature

The floating King Eider photo hide

This unique product is now a part of the harbour scene in Båtsfjord: the floating King Eider photo hide. It is based on a concrete jetty and will provide a sheltered comfortable space for a group of 6-10 birders / bird photographers. This is from where all the Arctic Seaduck photos in this article are taken. This is innovation in the Arctic. I am certain that the next few years will bring some of the most stunning photos of Arctic seaducks ever produced. Through changing conditions of light, sun, snow and wind this will be a stable and solid hide, providing the ultimate close encounters with some of the worlds coolest birds! Being a part of this project feels like a privilege. From testing the prototype motorised fish boxes (!) in the harbour, to seeing this ´pro model´ in place is fantastic! 

Close encounters 

The two photos above are taken from inside the floating photo hide with a 50mm lens. It is hard to describe in words how good this experience is. I think these photos make a solid statement: You are surrounded by some of the most spectacular bird species in the world. They are all familiar with both the photo hide and Ørjans boat. It is simply magic! Even armed with no more then an Iphone you should be able go home with pretty cool photos. One thing is certain - you can not blame the camera if you dont!

The variety of birds, behaviour, displays, backgrounds and light is enough to keep a birder, bird sound recorder or bird photographer busy for days. 


Steller´s Eider, female

King Eider, male

The making of...

The floating photo hide has been developed over 2-3 years. From the testing of the concept by motorised fish boxes to the solid concrete jetty based new model. It is still a fascility of basic comfort, but it has insulated matresses for comfort, and even a camping toilet. It will provide the best possible photo opportunities imaginable! It may not be a place you go for a honeymoon, but it certainly is the best option if spectacular birding is on the menu. The photo montage above shows some of the drawings we made for Ørjan and a few prosess photos from the making of this new hide during the summer 2012, at Ørjans base camp in Båtsfjord. 

A good man with a very cool car!
I have written about fisherman and bird guide Ørjan Hansen before. He is one of the just-do-it-people I have been lucky to cooperate with since we moved to the Arctic in 2009. Varanger is a sparsely inhabitet place. About 10 000 people live in an area the size of Wales in UK. In such small conditions you realize that everyone matters - and that you can make a big difference. We are a group of dedicated and entrepreneurial people in Varanger, working to realize as many pro nature ideas as possible. Now the ultimate winter birding experience is here.

Båtsfjord is a fishing harbour. It is also a birding harbour! Photo taken from RIB when driving back from the photo hide experience. 

Ørjan driving four very exited birders / bird photographers by his RIB to the photo hide at about 0600 in the morning, february 16th 2013.  

Some of the birds where sleeping when we arrived the hide in early morning. The variety of backgrounds cought my eye. Being able to portray some of my favourite birds in such stylish surroundings was amazing. The February light is very photogenic.

Steller´s Eider male.

The King and the Queen

For a little while light snow showers created a magical scene in the harbour. The chance to portray King Eiders in such beautifull light was amazing. I still havent quite landed after this experience. Nature is fantastic! 

Queen Eider 

King Eider

I hope you enjoy these photos (by the way, you can click on the photos for slide show mode).

If you need a birding architect feel free to contact me at: tormod@biotope.no 

Best wishes from the Arctic

Tormod A. / Biotope

09 February 2013

Touring UK - the Iphone road movie

Pushing the Boundaries Tour - the Movie

During my 15 days tour with Martin Garner around UK, I recorded a series of video clips with my Iphone. I had a very simple idea: Instead of recording masses of video from the tour, I would simply record a few seconds long moments every now and then. So here it is - 150 moments avarage 2.8 seconds condensed to 7 minutes. A speedy glimpse of our tour around UK, visiting bird clubs, giving talks, meeting new people and birding. Not any kind of masterpiece but it gives a relatively good idea of how the tour was. It is an all Iphone production. Hope you enjoy :) 

Also check it out at our youtube chanel

A series of Iphone video fragments recorded on tour, and edited on my way home. Basic and doable during a hectic tour around Britain (Iphone screenshots above). 

Touring UK

This tour have been a fantastic experience, and a more personally engaging experience then I expected. As I have spoken of in our talks at the numerous bird clubs we have visited, I really own much of my birding knowledge and enthusiasm to English bird litterature - being practically raised on it! During this tour the highlights have been many! Meeting so many engaged birders is a privilegie. There are too many meetings to name them all, but meeting Ian Lewington certainly stands out for me. Simply because the Rare Birds book from 1991 sparked my interest in birds outside Europe. As a young birder I read this book, and studied its art in detail. It widened my horizon. Visiting Ian now and seeing his art in progress today was great. Simply amazing work! Birding with new birders all the time was fantastic too. Seeing new places and talking birds with new people non stop for 15 days was brilliant. Being in a place where phrases like "the abietinus is really the Baltic Gull of the warbler world" is part of a normal conversation is good (thats Martins phrase, by the way). I wish to thank all the bird clubs who hosted our evening talks, and all the kind birders we stayed at - grand thanks for your hospitality! During my talks I also spoke of an amazing visit to the Scilly Isles in 2008 - a trip that strengthened me an Elins ambitions to be pro bird architects. Talking to so many birders after our talks have also been a great experience. So many encouraging words and good ideas have been shared. Thanks all!

Also touring with Martin have been a brilliant experience. We connected early in 2010, when I wrote Martin a mail about a strange looking Bean Goose I had photographed in Varanger (probably an eastern type, ssp middendorfii-ish kind of bird). We have stayed in contact ever since. I really admire the openess and inquisitive approach of Martins Birding Frontiers concept. He proves over and over again that new discoveries is within reach - it is all about your own perceptions and eagerness to learn more. Being two rather entrepeneurial birder types on the road has been a great experience! Sharing ideas and fine tuning concepts over so many hours have been the on-the-road privilegie! Thanks Martin! Much more to come... Meanwhile, do check out the Birding Frontiers blog for an eyeopener in the world of birding.


The Pushing the Boundaries Tour was an idea that me and Martin have been talking about for a while. The idea was simply to make an extended event, a tour, and share stories of birds, people, discoveries, conservation work and new and innovative approaches to birding. I have shared my story from Varanger / Arctic Norway. This is where I live and work, and run the pro bird architectural office Biotope. Varanger is without a doubt one of the worlds birding hot spots, and certainly the easiest accesible arctic birding destination in the world. In my talks I have told stories from the work with the development of this amazing destination. No birding destination just exists, it is built, with infrastructure, bird guides, local nature awareness, mapping and loads of enthusiasm from locals and visitors. During our tour in the UK I have also met several of the british birders who are contributing to the building of Varanger as a birding destination. Among them the Brewood Ringers (photo above) who have made the Nesseby Ringing Scheme possible. I have also spoken much of the locals in Varanger, and how people like Ørjan Hansen in Båtsfjord, fisherman gone bird guide, have made a great impact in Varanger and for visiting birders. I have talked about Varanger gardens, of the kind with grenades and Snow Buntings. I have also shown a series of photos of unique arctic bird life (f.ex the Phalarope story and the fighting Puffins). I am very happy for all the encouraging comments from birders we have met about our birder architecture projects - both mapping and bird hide designs. I hope to meet many of the birders we have talked to during the past weeks in Varanger at some point. Or perhaps in the UK. I will certainly be back! It has been very inspirational.

Back in Varanger

Two busy weeks on tour in UK was grand, but being back is fantastic. I made little attempt to hide my enthusiasm for Varanger in winter and early spring. February is one of my favourite birding months in Varanger. The light is simply spectacular and the birding is fantastic too. Just got back from a  walk in the harbour (photo above fromyesterday). The Stellers Eiders, King Eiders and flocks of Gulls are enjoing life in the harbour.  
The photo below is taken yesterday just after sunset at 15.00, from the mainland, with a view towards Vardø island. A pretty cool place to live, work and bird!

Thanks all! 
We are in the mood for action: next project is the Gullfest 2013!

To be continued...

Tormod A. / Biotope

04 February 2013

Birding Britain - two weeks on the road

We have now been on road for two weeks with the ´Pushing the Boundaries Tour´. We have enjoyed some very cool birding, met so many enthusiastic birders and seen new places. For me it has been a crash course in Britain. My previous UK experiences are two early school years trips to Britain, with little birding in it. And an amazing three week visit to the Scilly Isles in 2008, which was a key ingredient in me and Elins choice to start the adventure that would lead to us setting up the Biotope office - the first ever architectural office dedicated to birding. Being on tour in Britain for these past two weeks have been an amazing experience! Below follows a few photos and thoughts as the tour comes close to and end.

Birding is not same same as a general interest in or love of nature, it goes slightly beyond that. You go where the birds are, and if that is not an escpecially beautifull site, you can still have an amazing experience. We have visited several dumps during our tour, and been rewarded with some very cool birding. Such as seeing the Gull variety: Caspian Gull, Great Black-backed Gull, Herring Gull ssp argenteus & argentatus, Lesser Black-backed Gull, Yellow-legged Gull and Common Gull, possibly even Russian type ´heinei´ Common Gull. Right photo above is of the Milton Tip in Cambridgeshire. Great birding. Left photo above is from the spectacularly beautifull fields and wetlands of the Norfolk coast. Thousands of ducks and geese winter here, and we had great views of a wide variety of species. More great birding.

UK - the homeland of birding

Meeting so many birders across UK have been a real privilege! The people we have met on this tour have all made the Pushing the Boundaries Tour a real adventure for us. Thanks to all of you! The great thing about being a birder is that you meet and connect with people, where ever in the world you go - especially in Britain. Birders make a differende - ´A force to reckoned with´ is the right frase, I feel. It has been a true inspiration meeting the digiscopers, the reserve wardens, the tour operators, the bloggers, the twitchers and many, many more! 

Thinking outside the box

Lots of birders count their species. As a birder / architect I also tick bird hides! I have already a quite large library of bird hide photos, and this has grown even more on this trip. Finding new inspiration, and always looking into how bird hide design can be improved is one of my favorite topics. It is one of the key things we work with at the Biotope office: how to improve architecture for birders. Britain probably have more hides than any other country, so in this respect it was a fruitful tour. Still, as in Norway, there is potential for improving the designs. At our talks on this tour I have shown photos and spoke of how new bird hide design can improve our birding, and even invite more people to the birding scene. 
On our tour we have tried a variety of hides, from the standardized box hides, to the one of a kind Titchwell hide to the simpler, but equally functional screen hides. I will make a more in-depth article on hides soon. This is a topic that is worth researching and describing much more. The amounts of hides that are build is amazing, and evidence of a birding scene with the impact and power to promote birds and nature. However this is also a frontier to be developed. To be continued…

On the road

During this tour I have filmed a series of short cuts with my iPhone. Approx 100 three to six seconds clips will be edited down to a short Pushing the Boundaries movie. To be released very soon. It is an all phone production, giving a glimpse into the tour on the road. 

It has been hectic and inspiring. Grand thanks to all the birders we have met on the road! In the end our scheme was bound to be revealed. Andrew Chick of the Lincolnshire Bird Club connected the dots, and revealed the Curlew plot :)

Well - what an adventure it has been! Need a little power-nap after this tour. Thanks all! Hope to be back soon. 

to be continued..

Tormod A. / Biotope