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)

The iconic Steller´s Eiders - a Varanger winter / early spring speciality.

Arctic street art 

Northern lights (Aurora borealis) in february, along the road from Vadsø to Vardø.

The birders guide to Varanger 

In Varanger (and the rest of Finnmark county) we are less then ten resident, active birders, but several thousands visiting / foreign birders every year. Varanger is still very much a birding destination in the making, but being a popular destination for birders its fairly easy to find information on both birding, accomodation and more. By searching the Biotope website you will find quite a lot of info. Still, info on birds, sites, accomodation and more is very much scattered around. We are pleased to tell you that we are in the process of making a bird guide for Varanger. Our aim is to publish this book before birders start to visit Varanger, which is by late February / early March. So stay tuned! This guide book will include detailed maps over all key bird sites (and then some), aerial photos, a Varanger bird checklist and info on accomodation and much more. More info to come as we get closer to publishing.

Winter birding - digiscoping with the Swarovski ATX95 telescope for great low light performance. White-billed Diver at Svartnes harbour, Vardø, 21st of December 2013. White-billed Divers are present all year, but in May the numbers can be spectacular (10-150 birds pr day at key seawatching sites). 

General approach

Varanger in winter plumage is spectacular. The white sloping landscape and the deep blue sea bathing in the low arctic sunlight is the most pristine scenery imaginable. The polar night lasts from late November to mid January. Already by early February the sun start to rise at 08.15hrs and doesn't set until 15.30hrs. February is the peak of the blue season. The characteristic arctic blue light is amazing during the long hours from dusk to dawn. With the sun passing quite low over the horizon, both sunrise and sunset seems like an amazing natural event in slow motion. By mid March the sun rises at 06.00hrs and sets at 17.30, giving you full days of birding, and the night to enjoy the northern lights. Unless you find yourselves facing a snow storm, which can be quite spectacular too! I highly recommend taking a walk in one of Varangers fishing towns in a full gale force arctic snow storm.

For the last years the harbours of Vardø and especially Vadsø holds good numbers of Stellers Eiders. Approx 3500-4500 in the Varanger fjord. Of these 250-600 usually consentrate in Vadsø Harbour. A little less in Vardø. The King Eider rafts are in place around Vardø in good numbers from early February, the flocks are dispersing a little more towards the end of March. Seeing a 6-10 000 large King Eider raft is simply beyond amazing. Around mid April the bird cliff of Hornøya is predictably more accessible (in March the boat to the bird cliffs have sometimes to be cancelled due to weather, so more days are required to be sure to get on and off Hornøya. Staying at the lighthouse is possible and recommended: handled by Vardø port).

I would advise to fly to Kirkenes and airport Høybuktmoen. Try to search for tickets from both Norwegian and SAS / Widerøe. Norwegian is often cheaper, but only fly to Kirkenes. You can fly directly to both Vadsø, Vardø, Båtsfjord and Berlevåg, but the you have to use SAS (in collaboration with Widerøe). If you order 2-5 months in avance you can find very cheap flights (like London-Oslo-Kirkenes with return, for 200 GBP)! Rent a car in Kirkenes (several companies available, like Rent-a-wreck and the other ususal suspects) then do the Pasvik taiga, and afterwards drive to the Varanger fjord, and do Varangerbotn to Vardø. Kirkenes -Varangerbotn is only 1.5 hours straight drive (not so much birding there, two or three short stops), then Varangerbotn to Vardø is a 1,5 hours straight drive, but the birding is great so this is where you want to spend your time. As species are fewer in winter, and getting around, outside of the main roads, is not so easy, 4-8 days will often be enough, but this depends of your style of birding. I will highly recommend a trip to the northern part of the Varanger peninsula (Båtsfjord, Kongsfjord and Berlevåg are also great places to visit).

Pasvik : Taiga birding

Pine Grosbeak in Pasvik

If you aim for Siberian Tit, Siberian Jay, Arctic Redpoll and other taiga birds then Pasvik is the place, basically all year, but winter and early spring is great. This is a fantastic forest area with all of the northern taiga species present. From the Kirkenes airport there is only a 40 min drive to a B&B ( with a good bird feeder. They specialize in dog sled trips, but with many dogs to feed there are easy snack scraps for the Siberian Jays. At the B&B they are also very much more aware of birders and try to do these little extras like having feeders that attracts Siberian Tits, Arctic Redpolls, Pine Grosbeaks, etc. You should find Siberian Tit and Siberian Jay rather easily. Probably also Pine Grosbeak. They also have a feeder at a cabin in the forest where all these birds occur all the time. If you are keen on photography then Pasvik can be very rewarding, especially the Siberian Tits are very confiding. Check out this previous Pasvik article from Pasvik. Pasvik can be tricky to bird in winter, so staying at a guest house with a feeder makes sense, but there are a few places available. In Pasvik you can have temperatures down to minus 30 degress celcius in February, rarely below 20 in March and down to minus 10 in April (snow usually start to melt by mid to late April). Wind is not so much of an issue in Pasvik, as it is in near the tree-less Varanger Peninsula.

Taiga transport: go by snow mobile or dog sled. Above is bird illustrator / artist Ian Lewington prepping the dogs for our ride back to the B&B during Gullfest 2013 - the taiga part.

Varanger Fjord / Varanger Peninsula South : Tundra & Arctic coast

Vadsø town, a superb place for Steller´s Eiders. In the background Vadsø airport and further behind is the Ekkerøy peninsula. 

The Varanger Fjord is great for birds as it is a shallow and relatively sheltered fjord. It is Norways only eastern facing fjord. It is far north, well within the arctic circle, but it is kept ice free by the warmth of the Gulf Stream. Since food is fairly easily available for birds that prefer the arctic climate, the Varanger Fjord is simply an amazing place to winter, if you are an arctic sea duck. 

From Varangerbotn, innermost Varanger Fjord, to Vardø, Norways easternmost place, the birding is basically non stop great. The sheltered bays and fishing harbours are easy to bird, and almost all birding can be done from the car or just a short walk from it. Of course, spending most of your time in the car is not the best way to bird - anywhere. In general walking is easy, also in winter. The roads are allways kept open by plow trucks, and very rarely are roads closed due to weather. However, be prepared for the occasiaonal snow storm. By following weather reports you will be well informed, and the good thing about Varanger is that you are always fairly near a small town. Birding the fjord is mostly about scanning the seas, but large flocks of Snow Buntings can often be seen when driving along the Varanger Fjord (from mid MArch to late April). Last year we set up a feeder and a small photo hide by the Biotope office in Vardø. For three weeks we enjoyed hundreds of Snow Buntings just outside our office door. No doubt we are doing that again! 

Snow Bunting at the Biotope office, April 2013.

To make birding the Varanger Fjord even more comfortable you may be glad to know we are in good progress with the birding infrastructure. New bird hides / wind shelters are being built in our garage in Vardø, ready to be transported out to key sites in Varanger this winter & early spring. There are also a few bird hides and wind shelters already in place. Like the Steilnes shelter below, overlooking the amazingly bird rich Bussesundet in Vardø. 

The Steilnes bird hide, Vardø. This is where the mega-rafts of King and Common Eiders can be seen from February to late March, with smaller flocks lingering well into April.

Brand new bird hide / wind shelter in production in Vardø, ready to be transported to site early in 2014. 

In Varanger you will also have more good chances of seeing both Arctic Redpoll and Siberian Tit. The Vestre Jakobselv Camping have cabins and rooms at very decent prices, and its a great budget option. Especially considering they also have a great feeder that attracts loads of redpoll (including Arctic Redpolls), and the occasional Siberian Tit, and several species of woodpecker. Øyvind Arntzens cabin in Vestre Jabobselv is another option. He also have bird feeders and have even made a hide to better cater for photographers. In recent years the numbers of woodpeckers in Varanger have increased, and Vestre Jakobselv (and Nesseby + Varangerbotn) is good places to see them. Greater Spotted Woodpsecker is most common, Lesser Spotted Woodpecker can also be seen regularly and your chances of finding Tree-toed Woodpecker are also fairly good. 

The Varanger Fjord starts in Varangerbotn, which is often frozen at the innermost parts in winter. Then comes Nesseby, which is often the first place many visiting birders see Steller´s Eider. Stop by the Nesseby Church (you can´t miss it). From Nesseby it is a 25 minute drive to Vestre Jakobselv, described above. After that comes Vadsø town, Varangers largest town with approx 6000 inhabitants. This is also central in the Varanger fjord, and it is a very good base camp if you spend a week or so in the southern part of the Varanger peninsula. Everything is within easy reach for a great day of birding (1 hour to Varangerbotn, 1 hour to Vardø - straight driving, that is). In Vardø you can find good accommodation at the Vadsø Fjordhotel. The Biotope office are proud to supply them with both branding and design input. They are most certainly Norway first hotel to brand themselves as a ´birders base camp´! 

In Vadsø there is also the option of Scandic Hotel Vadsø, with a good restaurant, strategically placed in the middle of Vadsø town. Everything is within a couple of minutes walk, including the bird rich harbour. It is certainly a great place to stay with everything in order from food to internet and a very stylish breakfast. There are also a a couple of guest houses in Vadsø town. Find more info at

Ekkerøy bird cliff, another amazing Varanger bird site. 

Gyrfalcon action - best experienced at Varangers bird cliffs (above scene from Hornøya bird cliff. Full photo series in the Gyrfalcon versus Raven article)

A little further out the Varanger fjord you find Ekkerøy (20 min drive from Vadsø). Another great place to bird! Here you can find very good accommodation too. From classy eco-style to basic style, two places, same owner. More info at Ekkerøy Holidayhouse.
This is also a favored area for Stellers Eiders, and from April it is often favored by the White-billed divers (sometimes present even in March and February). Ekkerøy has a bird cliff with 20 000+ pairs of Kittiwakes, only 4 min walk from one of Ekkerøy Holidayhouse´s cabins. If you want to see Gyrfalcons the bird cliffs of Varanger are the best places to spend time at. Gyrfalcons are seen regularily hunting Kittiwakes at Ekkerøy, but you better keep an open eye: from the moment the entire bird cliff panic it can be hard to spot the huntig Gyrfalcon. The recipe is simple: a little luck, sharp eyes and optics and then add some patience.

Basically from Vadsø harbour to Vardø is non stop fantastic birding (the last piece of road to Hamningberg is cosed in winter, and usually opens no later then May 1st). Describing all the sites along this route is something we will leave for our coming guide book, as the sites are plentiful. This is what Varanger is famous for: very good numbers of birds, intact nature and beautiful tundra landscape. Be sure to stop many times scanning the sea with telescope and binoculars, especially at Skallelv, Komagvær, Kiberg.

Kiberg harbour - another great place for Steller´s Eider in Varanger. Above photo from March.

Vardø is good for all the arctic sea ducks, Glaucous Gulls, the occasional Iceland Gull and maybe even more gull surprises (in Feb 2011 I had a very nice adult Ivory Gull flying by a good sea watch site at the northern tip of Vardø). A cheap and very good place to stay in Vardø is Skagen Bo- og Havfiske, or Vardø Hotel - here you can have a great dinner and watch arctic sea ducks and white gulls from their restaurant. The hotel has its own little bird beach and great views of the harbour.

The waters around Vardø holds very good numbers of quite a few species. From late February to early April there can be up to several hundred thousand alcids (!), mostly Brünnichs Guillemots. In March it seems a substantial part of the Russian population of Brünnichs Guillemot are resting and feeding in the very productive waters of the outer Varanger fjord. In fact, if any person working in the oil industry saw the amount of birds present, they would very quickly realize that this is not the place for such activities. It would simply be very strategically unwise (unless one aim for maximum high risk areas). For a birder or a fisherman, however, this is heaven! All winter massive rafts of King Eiders and Common Eiders are found around Vardø, and very often in Bussesundet (between mainland Vardø and Vardø island). The winter 2013 we counted an amazing 10 000 King Eiders and 12 500 Common Eiders. It is one of the most spectacular of natural phenomena I have ever witnessed! Check out the King Eider Vortex story, for some spectacular scenes. Several other species are present as well, often in good numbers. Svartnes harbour is also a great place for arctic sea ducks, and the river delta in this harbour is a very good place for large numbers of gulls, waders (in summer).  

Vardø town, with a small portion of the 20 000+ Eiders in the air. The Biotope office is the white house by the shore, just below the church. Guess why we bought that place - a view of epic proportions!

Then of course you have Hornøya bird cliff, 10 min by boat from Vardø harbour, which is allways fantastic! The guys at Vardø Harbour KF / will take you there by RIB or their harbour boat. This will be a life experience - simply fantastic! 100 000+ seabirds, fighting puffins (see end of the Hornøya webcam article), and much more. Brünnichs Guillemots will be all around, giving great views. Depending on your timing, Glaucous Gulls can be seen in hundreds if not thousands (my day record is 3300+ in April), but numbers seem to vary a lot every year. But they are always around in good numbers in winter and early spring.

Hornøya bird cliff, seen from the harbour-boat "Hornøya", mid March 2013. In the air: King Eiders, Common Eiders, Gulls, Kittiwakes and alcids. 

Incoming alcids, photographed from Hornøyas south end. Vardø town in the background.

Northern Varanger Peninsula : Arctic coast  

Another advice, after doing the southern part of the Varanger Peninsula, is to drive over the high tundra (Båtsfjord Mountain) to Båtsfjord, via Tana. On the road (along the Tana River) is one of the best sites to check for Hawk Owls (watch roof tops and light poles from the road). Then drive to Båtsfjord (Varangerbotn-Båtsfjord is a 2.5 hour drive) 

King Eider male in Båtsfjord harbour, photo from the ´King Eider hide´ in Båtsfjord.

I would very much advice you to go to Båtsfjord for close views of King Eiders. If you are a bird photographer visit fisherman and nature guide Ørjan Hansen of in Båtsfjord harbour. In Båtsfjord you can enjoy the most amazing views of King Eiders, Common Eiders, Steller´s Eiders and Long-tailed Ducks. The photo opportunities from Ørjans new floating photo hide is simply amazing. Ørjan is a true entrepreneur in Finnmark, and is well worth a visit. We first met Ørjan in spring 2010 when when we arranged our first bird promo-trip to Varanger, for a mix of birders, bird bloggers and bird tour operators. Since then we have worked with Ørjan many times, and the new floating bird hide is a pioneering project it is cool to have supported. Check out the King Eider Extravaganza article from February 2013.

The drive from Båtsfjord to Kongsfjord and to Kongsfjord Guesthouse (www.kongsfjord-gjestehus.nois only 40 minutes. This is a great place to stay if you want to explore the northern side of the Varanger peninsula. In winter the famous road from Vardø to Hamningberg is closed, but the road from Kongsfjord to Berlevåg fishing town is equally amazing with its harsh rocky landscape. The fishing town of Berlevåg is also well worth a visit, as it attract good numbers of white gulls, and it is probably the most underwatched place in Varanger. As such it is very much something for the pioneering birders visiting Varanger. More about Varanger harbour birding (on gulls)

Berlevåg town, winter aerial

A general note on King and Stellers Eider:
They stay until late May. By mid / late may they start moulting and are less numerous. A few birds of both eider species stick around all year, but not so good for photographing in summer (mostly females, 2cy males). The rafts of Arctic sea ducks is undoubtedly a highlight of any early spring / winter trip to Varanger. 

Orca family hunting in the Varanger Fjord, early March 2011

As a very fine arctic bonus experience you have good chances of seeing the Northern lights, or the Aroura borealis. This can be everything from a slowly moving vague haze of green light to a pulsating breath-taking display of light. For mammals chances are very good for Orca / Killer Whale, several species of seal, dolphins, Otter, Arctic hare, Reindeer and more.

The Varanger birding info leaflets

We recently made a set of double-paged info leaflets describing Varanger, the birding destination in winter, spring and summer. Above is page 1 of the winter leaflet. Download the full pdf-leaflets here:

- Winter birding in Varanger
- Spring birding in Varanger
- Summer birdding in Varanger

Get dressed for the Arctic

For clothing I would advice warm and wind proof clothing. Several layers. Typically what you would wear at a day out skiing / mountaineering. February and March can be very cold (easily with 15 - 20 minus celcius). Mid to late April is usually quite nice in Varanger. But by nice I mean not so much wind (less likely with heavy snow storms), usually much sun, probably little snow (no rain), and with lots of snow on the ground. Wear solid boots (hiking type, or similar, with space for good wool socks). Temperatures will be around -5 to +5 celcius from mid April. But that can be very cold should the wind pick up. Birding Varanger means standing still a lot, scanning flocks of birds. For a Hornøya bird cliff visit I would recommend to think about wearing something that you are ok with being shit on by birds. I have been to Hornøya many times and been shit on many times. Particularily if you spend much time under the bird cliff for photography and bird studies. There are lots of birds there and it is basically a matter of time spent at the cliff. However it is very rare with the all over Great Black-backed Gull spray (in summer, when breeding, they aim!), mostly it is ´rain drops´ from overflying alcids hitting you. not much, but worth considering when choosing your clothing. 

Thanks for tuning in, and welcome to Varanger!

With our website we aim to present our work as architects and birders living in Varanger. We work with bird and nature projects all over Norway, but we are based in Varanger and this is where we work with everything from designing and building bird hides and photo hides to arranging workshops, festivals, planning, mapping and concept development. In short: a holistic approach to pro nature destination development. This also includes to a large extent 
serving updated information with bird news from Varanger. I Hope this article will help birders who are doing research foran arctic adventure.

I am are always interested in getting feedback from birders both before and after their visits to Varanger: you can help us improve fascilities and also provide us with more info on birds in Varanger.  We are very interested in expanding our knowledge of Eastern Finnmarks birdlife. We have a good overview of much, but bird info on good numbers, rarities, etc is always very interesting. 

Find regular updates on birding (and more) in Varanger on the Biotope facebok page
Or check out the Biotope twitter account @BiotopeOffice for more news & views 

For strictly bird news from Varanger / Finnmark / Arctic Norway check out @Finnmarkbirding   
Also feel free to tweet your bird observations to @Finnmarkbirding, as we retweet noteworthy observations, comments, etc. 

Best wishes from 

Tormod A. / Biotope