01 April 2014

Gullfest 2014 - Touring Varanger / Arctic style birding

Gullfest 2014 was a bit experimental: instead of having a base camp in Vardø like GF2012&13 we designed this years Gullfest to be a tour of Varanger. With our invited guests and contributors we toured Varanger from the Pasvik taiga in the south to Vardø, Vadsø, Vestre Jakobselv and Berlevåg and Båtsfjord in the north. What an amazing experience it was! We managed some spectacular birding, we had three exhibitions, and we gave talks at a pub, a hotel, a guest house, a cultural insititution and a school. Our aim was to inspire people in Varanger with stories from the birding world, and to do some top arctic birding while we where at it!
We are very happy to say that we feel this years event have made us better birders too: Gullfest is an event where we aim to inspire each other as birders, and to share ideas and knowledge. 

With us we had a great group of birders from both England, USA, Sweden, Germany and Norway:  
Jonnie Fisk and Zac Hinchcliffe from the Next Generation Birders, Graham White and Mark Thomas from The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB), author Richard Crossley, artist Hans Larsson, Hans Dahlgren of Swarovski, digiscoper Jörg Kretzschmar, Anders Mæland (Gullfest veteran and bird guide).
For more info on our guests and contributors check out the pre-Gullfest 2014 article on Biotope

The following post is a photo series from the recent Gullfest 2014 Varanger tour from the 19-24th of March (click on any image for slide show view):

Gullfest 2014 was arranged from the 19-24th of March, from the Pasvik taiga, to the Varanger tundra and arctic coast. Gullfest was designed to showcase the finest birding Varanger has to offer at this time of the year. At Biotope we have been working with describing and researching Varanger as a birding destination for several years. See this detailed article for more on winter birding in Varanger, or have a look at the Varanger leaflets article (on which the above map background is taken from).

Gullfest 2014 started in the Pasvik taiga, at Ellentjernkoia (=Ellentjern cabin) in Vaggetem, south Pasvik. This is 1,5 hours drive from Kirkenes airport where we picked up the Gullfest team. This 100 year old cabin is run as a guest house / accommodation for visitors by Marit Sundt and Arne Liaklev. We have helped them with advice on setting up a decent feeder, with the aim of providing more top bird sites in the Pasvik taiga. It worked brilliantly: We had up to 25 Pine Grosbeaks in the area, in addition to Siberian Tits, Bullfinch, Willow Tits, Arctic Redpoll, etc. We also had great views of Siberian Jay in the taiga, in addition to Willow Grouse. Find Arne and Marit on their Dogpower website.

Photography is great but the birding world is made so much richer thanks to bird artists. Young birder Jonnie Fisk has already proven himself to be a very cool new voice (or line) in the bird art world. His ability to pin down a species character in a few lines is quite impressive. The above Arctic Redpolls are from his Gullfest sketch book.

The taiga cabin had no electricity, but thanks to Marits brilliant off-grid cooking skills we all enjoyed freshly made reindeer stew. Above is Jonnie Fisk sketching in the taiga cabin. With the one room cabin solution we all got to know each other quite well too. A great start of Gullfest. Being ´birders from birth´ we all connected rather quickly.

And there where loads of great birds to talk about. Pine Grosbeaks were my favorites during the taiga  section of Gullfest.

Vardø Birding - Hornøya bird cliff and the King Eider Vortex

We arrived Vardø by the Coastal Express / Hurtigruten. Panorama photo taken from the top deck of the ship. Hornøya bird cliff can be seen in the background. Vardø is one of the finest fishing and birding towns in the arctic. 

Only 5 minutes from Vardø town with its 2000 inhabitants is the Hornøya bird cliff with its 100 000 inhabitants! An amazing place. The above photo will give you an idea of the place. 

Vardø Hotel was our accomodation of choice and thanks to chef Tor Emil it is one of the finest gourmet experiences in northern Norway. At the nearby North Pole Pub we had the first Gullfest 2014 talks: a welcome talk by Tormod of Biotope. Swedish bird artist Hans Larsson showed us prints and talked about his work on Gulls and being a bird artist in general. Very inspiring! US-birder Richard Crossley gave a firework of a talk about his life as a birder and his innovative bird books.

Gullfest walks, talks & exhibition in Vardø: Like in the previus Gullfest events we arranged guided birding trips for the local schools. Big thanks to Vardø super fixer Birger Knudsen for joining the bird guiding! Fotos of birding kids by journalist in local newspaper, Dan Tore Jørgensen. Check out more of his photos from the bird guide day in Vardø.

Richard Crossley being bombarded with photo opportunities on Hornøya 

Puffin fight club - From mid March Hornøya bird cliff is teeming with life. These fighting Puffins paid no attention to me as they came fighting out of a Puffin burrow. 

In Vardø we enjoyed spectacular views of alcids, eiders and gulls.

From the King Eider Vortex boat trip to Bussesundet (with Vardø Havn KF). In addition to the amazing 25 000 King and Common Eiders (!!) we also made another discovery.. (stay tuned for more on that) 

Zac Hinchcliffe of the Next Generation Birders taking notes at Ekkerøy bird cliff. We had one full day of birding along the Varanger Fjord. We could very well have had one or even a few more days to cover the fjord properly. But I guess we have to leave something for later as well.. 

Vadsø Fjordhotell

These guys have really seen the potential of birding in Varanger. We at Biotope are very happy to collaborate with the owners Frode and Ingeborg. When we moved to Varanger a few years ago we were met with quite a bit of sceptisism, and we have hoped someone like these guys would come along and join us in the birdification of Varanger! We spend two days at Vadsø Fjordhotell, where we arranged the main Gullfest exhibition and had a workshop evening and one full evening of talks. Huge thanks to Frode and Ingeborg for supporting Gullfest and for adding more birding power to Varanger! By the way they got onto twitter during Gullfest: follow them @VadsoFjordhotel

Vadsø Fjordhotell hosted talks by Mark Thomas of RSPB, about his work as a wildlife crime investigator and about RSPB in general. This is an impressive pro bird and nature organization that very obvioulsy have done a lot of things right. After all they have more then one million members! Varangers own nature warden, Arne-Petter Sarre (SNO) gave a talk about the wildlife and cultural heritage on Varanger high tundra. Absolutely brilliant!

On our workshop evening bird guide Anders Mæland talked about rarity finding in Varanger. RSPB´s wetland ecologist Graham White talked about how to manage nature reserves. We are already looking at new ideas for Varanger, and it is great to have such recources as Graham to help us with clever thinking on possibilities in Varanger. To be continued..

Jörg Kretzschmar was our other invited Gullfest artist. He both exhibitied his photos and gave a talk. His Swarovski-digiscoped images are spectacular, and it really showcase digiscoping as an autonomous form of bird photography. We added to the total birdification of Vadsø Fjordhotell by filling the lobby and restaurant with Biotopes Varanger bird photos.

More birds from Jonnie Fisk´s sketch book: Harbour birding = Steller´s Eiders 

We were also very generously welcomed at Vestre Jakobselv Camping. where we both held talks and arranged a ringing workshop. Jonnie Fisk and Zac Hinchcliffe gave a talk about the initiative they are a part of: The Next Generation Birders. A brilliant initiative and a great example of young birders defining their birding on their own terms. Inspirational work. Follow the NGBirders on twitter too. We all agreed that passion and hard work will take you to cool places! Quite literally so for the NGBirders in the Gullfest case.

After Vestre Jakobselv we birded the Tana River valley. A key site for Hawk Owl. In the end we found three Hawk Owls in Tana, and two more in Pasvik and one more in Neiden. Seems they will have a good year in Varanger. This is the Neiden bird digiscoped with a Sony compact camera (RX100m2) through the Swarovski ATX 95 mm spotting scope. 

The Varanger high tundra in winter, on our way to Kongsfjord, Berlevåg and Båtsfjord. Spectacular landscape: If you want to experience nature in monochrome this is it!  

We just made it to Berlevåg fishing harbor and had a few minutes of ok light to bird the harbor. Berlevåg is one of the seriously underwatched places in Varanger. Within minutes we had spotted the local Glaoucous Gulls and our first Otter of the trip. 

After a much too short birding session in Berlevåg harbour we headed to Kvitbrakka. This is the place for niceness in Berlevåg. Local just-do-it people have transformed a run down bulding into a local café, ateliér and cultural house. A great place to host more Gullfest talks: Tormod of Biotope talked about nature destination development in Varanger. Graham White talked about the work of RSPB and the potential of birding - both as a conservation model and as a business. This is ideas and knowledge we need more of in Varanger! Jonnie Fisk impressed us all with a talk about his bird art and his inspirations. Thanks to Kvitbrakka and the people of Berlevåg for hosting the Gullfest talks!

We spent the last night at Kongsfjord Guesthouse. The owner Åse Winsents was one of the first people in Varanger to contact us when we moved to Varanger in 2009. She is another one of those great Varanger just-do-it people we know. She makes things happen, and we really like working with such people. She has been one of the driving forces behind the new bird hide / wind shelter in Veines (in addition to rebuilding the entire Veines village!). Thanks Åse for welcoming us!  

Båtsfjord Arctic sea duck niceness!

A visit to Arctic TouristØrjan Hansen floating photo hide was a pefect grand finale of Gullfest 2014! Normally King Eiders are the most numerous in this harbour, but the later in spring you arrive the more Steller´s Eider you see. Not bad, considering  they surely are the coolest duck in the world! And, yes we had our King Eider views too.

In addition to visiting Ørjans brilliant photo hide we also had a date with the Båtsfjord School. They are actually the closest neighbour to the bird hide. They are situated with great views of the harbour, but I must admit I do not think they realize the full epicness of Båtsfjord harbors bird life. Yes, it is world famous. After an introduction on birding in Varanger by Tormod, Jonnie and Zac talked about their birding adventures and NGBirders project. We also ejoyed the discussions with the students after the talks: Is birding better then Hollywood? Yes. How do birds ´do it´? Shag. Loads of questions to answer. Big thanks to the Båtsfjord students and teachers for welcoming us!

King Eider age studies - more top opportunities in Båtsfjord

The Gullfest bird list: Perhaps not an impressive species count, but it is an impressive numbers of birds of very cool species!
White-billed Diver / Gulnebblom
Gannet / havsule
Shag / Toppskarv
Greater Cormorant / Storskarv
Mallard / Stokkand
King Eider / Praktærfugl - 10 000+
Eider / Ærfugl- 15 000+
Pacific Eider - 1
Steller`s Eider / Stellerand - 1000 +
Long-tailed Duck / Havelle
Common Scoter / Svartand
Red-breasted Merganser / Siland
Gosander / Laksand
White-tailed Eagle / Havørn
Sparrow Hawk / Spurvehauk
Willow grouse / Lirype
Ptarmigan / Fjellrype
Oystercatcher / Tjeld
Purple Sandpiper / Fjæreplytt
Common Gull / Fiskemåke
Kittiwake / Krykkje
Ivory Gull / Ismåke - 1 first- Winter.
Iceland Gull / Grønnlandsmåke - 3 ind.
Herring Gull / Gråmåke
Glaucous Gull / Polarmåke
Greater Black-backed Gull / Svartbak
Guillemot / Lomvi
Brunnich`s Guillemot / Polarlomvi
Razorbill / Alke
Black Guillemot / Teist
Puffin / Lunde
Hawk Owl / Haukugle - 6
Greater Spotted Woodpecker / Flaggspett
Lesser Spotted Woodpecker / Dvergspett
Rock pipit / Skjærpiplerke
Wren / Gjerdesmett - 1
Siberian Tit / Lappmeis
Willow Tit / Granmeis
Blue Tit / Blåmeis
Great Tit / Kjøttmeis
Sibeian Jay / Lavskrike
Jay / Nøtteskrike
Magpie / Skjære
Raven / Ravn
Carrion Crow / Kråke
Tree Sparrow / Pilfink
House Sparrow / Gråspurv
Greenfinch / Grønnfink
Arctic Redpoll / polarsisik
Pine Grosbeak / Konglebit
50 Species (Highlights being amazing numbers of eiders, ridiculous numbers of alcids + a set of very cool taiga birds).

Mega thanks to the key Gullfest supporters Innovation Norway Nordnorsk Reiseliv and Kulturnæringsstiftelsen Sparebank-1 Nord-Norge 

King Eider, Common Eider & Pacific Eider!

Gullfest is all about discovery, sharing ideas and very cool birding. Prior to Gullfest 2014 Europes /WPs first ever Pacific Eider was discovered (from the Biotope office!). During the Gullfest 2014 King Eider Vortex boat trip we saw approx 25 000 eiders. I took hundreds of photo as the swarms of eiders passed our boat. After going birding in these photos afterwards I re-discovered the Pacific Eider. What an end to this years main arctic birding event! Read more (with more photos) about this record bird in the Pacific Eider Article.

A huge thanks to all the Gullfest 2014 contributors! We also want to thank all birders and nature enthusiasts who followed and engaged in the event as it unfolded on twitter on #Gullfest

Stay tuned for more birding niceness from Varanger / Arctic Norway..

Tormod A. / Biotope