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