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.
 The above photo was taken with the SonyRX100m2 compact camera set at wide angle (28mm equiv. / Internal flash is used, but dimmed by partly covering the flash).

Late November in the Arctic: Vardø island at 12.00hrs, yesterday. Back in Varanger after a week working in south Norway.

Varanger winter birding

The Biotope office have been quite busy lately. This autumn kicked off with a trip to the Rutland Birdfair, the worlds greatest gathering of birders. After that we visited the Cape May Autumn Birding Festival, where we both exhibited and gave a couple of talks. Recently the island Smøla (westcoast of Norway) was on the travel menu, where we are contributing to a nature destination development scheme. In addition we have been invited to a couple of nature and travel conferences where sharing ideas and knowledge. Then there are a couple of birding architecture projects in progress in Varanger. All of a sudden it is November and we have seen the last rays of sun in Varanger. Now we have two months of dusk and dark before the sun is back in late January. Winter birding in Varanger is not about quantity of species, but rather about quality of species. And in early spring it is even about quantity of quality species! To be honest November and December is the slowest birding months of the Arctic year. But - there is no doubt that Varanger is seriously underwatched, as we are no more then 4-5 resident birders covering the entire region! 

Optics for Arctic conditions

What is required of the winter birder in Varanger? Seriously warm and wind proof clothing and preferably optics with great low light capabilities. So, any birder can imagine the thrill of coming home from USA to find a package waiting in the office, sent from the Swarovski Optik in Austria! The Biotope office is very proud to be equipped by Swarovski with a brand new telescope and a pair of binoculars. This is a collaboration we are very happy to be in on: the task at hand is basically to bird with the ATX Telescope with the 95mm objective module and the 8x42 EL binoculars. Call it an Arctic birding test - to see how the optics perform in the harshest of conditions. Anyone with knowledge about optics know that Swarovski makes the finest bling for birders you can possibly find. 

Today, on the 23rd of November, my first day off for a rather long time, I had the chance to go straight to the harbor to challenge my new birder tools. As expected there where quite a lot of Glaucous Gulls (Polarmåke) in the harbour. Icy winds tend to drive a lot of birds into the harbours of Varanger where they find shelter and feed on scraps from the fishing industry. My record count this autumn is 500 Glaucous Gulls in (and just outside) Vardø harbour. That  was 7 days ago, after a heavy storm. Today Vardø was slightly calmer with only minus 5 degrees celcius and fresh breeze. The harbour still held hundreds of gulls (and approx 45 Glaucous Gulls), 150 Common Eiders, 12 Long-tailed Ducks, 2 Black Guillemot and 50 or so Purple Sandpipers. Great conditions to try some low light birding and digiscoping with the Swarovksi optics. 

Birding Vardø harbour at 11.00 hrs today: The 95mm Swarovski telescope was an absolute pleasure to bird with! I will be back with a more thorough report later, but first the impression is, well, impressive! The 95mm objective module is the largest of the three options available, and I can not think of a better match for an arctic birder. Above: Fishing boat and Glaucous Gull (2cy / ungfugl) photographed with a Sony RX100m2 handheld through the Swarovski-telescope (known as ´digiscoping´ to inform the non-birding reader). 

Grey Phalarope in the Arctic in winter!

As I was looking at the gulls sat on the pier, I had a glimpse of a couple of small birds flying low over the water. This is the kind of glimpse you only see as a quick movement in corner of your eye. Had it not been for the fact that I heard a strange sound, this quick movment would be noted as just a few more Purple Sandpipers crossing the harbour. I grabbed my binoculars and managed to get a better view of the birds just as they flew behind a pier wall. Surely it was three very pale waders! At this time of the year there are not supposed to be any other waders in Varanger than the Purple Sandpipers! In December 2011 I saw one Grey Phalarope in Vardø, and I had a feeling this had to be the second ever winter observation of this species in Varanger (and Finnmark, and Northern Noway?). I ran to the the end of the pier, set up the telescope and surely there they where: three Grey Phalaropes restlessly swimming around on the other side of the harbour. Talk about hard core birds! And what an amazing start for the brand new optics. 

Docu-photo from Vardø harbor, digiscoped (right photo).

I notified Biotopers Elin and Alonza, who came over the view these record birds!  Elin brought the D800+300mmF2.8 camera set up and as the light dissapeard almost entirely I got these close-ups too. Taken at 12.00hrs today, lit only by lights from fishing vessels.   

The Blue Season

The light and the landscape in Varanger / Arctic Norway in winter is spectacular. The sky turn dark blue when the winter sun cruise just below the horizon, bathing the snowy, sloping landscape in every shade of blue. The photos below are of Vardø, Båtsfjord, Berlevåg and Vadsø (top left to low right). They are all aerials taken from the  regular flights connecting these Varanger harbour towns. A few years ago it seemed Varanger was just a summer birding destination, with an expection of a few bird photographers visiting in early April. Now birders from around the globe are discovering the winter destination. If amazing landscape and very cool birds are on your wish list, then I can highly recommend it! Just remeber to bring solid clothing - and proper optics! Check out the Varanger birding season leaflets (previous Biotope post).

Biotope Aerials: Vardø, Båtsfjord, Berlevåg & Vadsø

Varanger winter blues: Sandfjord in Berlevåg, Northern Varanger peninsula, 15th of November 2013. 

To make birding in Varanger more comfortable we are constantly working with the development of the infrastructure. Two weeks ago we visited Kongsfjord (Berlevåg kommune) to overview the building of a new bird hide / wind shelter. This is undoubtedly the most weatherbeaten site we have designed a project for! From the coming shelter high up on a cliff you can enjoy spectacular views of the Barents Sea, with waves hitting the shore below. Together with Åse, the owner of Kongsfjord Guesthouse, we have for a couple of years worked with the idea of a shelter in Kongsfjord. Thanks to Åses it is now happening. Carpenter Gunnar from Båtsfjord makes sure that the hide sits well on the cliff. The project is also a part of a scheme to inform about, and protect local bird species. More to come about this project as things come togehter!

Kongsfjord wind shelter in progress

We are very much looking forward to bird Varanger Swarovski style. We have had a great start on the winter season! This is what January birding looks like. More to come...

As usual: find our updates on twitter @BiotopeOffice or on www.facebook.com/biotope.no or just check out the recent bird news we provide on twitter @Finnmarkbirding

Best wishes from the north

Tormod A. / Biotope