20 August 2015

Birding Varanger in summer

The arctic summer in Varanger: The midnight sun seems to energize all living creatures and spectacular birding can be enjoyed 24/7. Displaying waders in their full breeding plumage, passerines singing and bird cliffs teeming with life is an experience of a lifetime. We hope the following blogpost provides you with both inspiration and information for your next arctic adventure. 

The flamboyant gentlemen of the tundra. 

Going at it every time a lady Ruff visit the lek site. Ruff lekking can be seen several places in Varanger. However the Komagvær valley is a good place to look. (click on any image for slide show view)

Bluethroat in song flight. A character bird found all over the Varanger peninsula.  A visit to Varanger in summer can produce around 150 species. But I still believe its is seeing top birds in a beautiful pristine arctic landscape that will stay with you. 

Red-throated Divers are plentifull in Varanger. They breed on lakes and ponds across the peninsula, and fly to the fjord to feed. 

Birders enjoying the sceneries (from our trip with Swarovski Optik in mid June 2015). 

Varanger - a birding destination in progress

If it has got to do with birding in Varanger there is a rather good chance Biotope is involved. By now we have arranged series of tours, workshops, events, festivals, ringing schemes and organized trips for TV teams and film productions. It is all part of building Varanger, and creating awareness for the regions unique birdlife. We do our outmost to make sure people who visist will have a great experience. One of our recent projects involved being organisers for Swarovski Optik on their new product launch tour. We are very grateful for Swarovski choosing Varanger. It is well worth mentioning that Biotope is a Swarovski ambassador, and we are provided with their fines optics. But then again I have been a Swarovski ambassador since the age of 14 when I spent all my savings on my very first expensive thing: a pair of Swarovski SLC 10x42 binoculars. An investment that fueled my birding passion even more. Never regretted that, and afterwards I could not afford to do anything else then going birding (which is almost free if you have a bicycle and nearby birding areas). It was money well spent. Now being able to take a group of dedicated top birders from around the world on a tour of our favorite birding destination was true pleasure. We themed the tour ´Varanger behind the scenes´ and made sure that we not only enjoyed some great birding, but also got to meet all the good people that make a visit to Varanger a great experience: from the chef Tor Emil at Vardø Hotel, to Frode, the owner of Vadsø Fjordhotell, and Øystein Enoksen the fisherman looking into bringing birders on his fishing vessel, Kate Utsi the modern Reindeer herder (& birder!) and Åse Winsents the owner of the completely rehabilitated village of Veines, in North Varanger peninsula. Enjoying Varnger in the company of great birders and enthusiastic locals is brilliant. Make sure you get to experience that!

Biotope have for more then 6 years been working with the development of Varanger as a world class birding destination. The region has of course been well known to quite a few birders for many years, but with the recent years work I guess we can safely say we have proppelled Varanger into being recognized as the worlds finest arctic birding destination. 

Our latest birding Varanger leaflet, showing the Varanger peninsula, the Pasvik taiga in south Varanger, and also including the Norkyn peninsula in the west (as it is an amazing seawatching, migration site in May, at Slettnes lighthouse). The leaflet features a few key birding sites, and also the sites of bird hides / wind shelters currently in place in Varanger. Most visitors arrive via plane to Oslo, Norways capitol, then take the two hour flight to Kirkenes, from where they rent a car. From Kirkenes to Vardø is a 3,5 hours drive, but be sure to visit Pasvik, the taiga forest in the south of Kirkenes, and the northern Varanger peninsula, from Båtsford to Berlevåg. 

It is well worth reading our ´Birding Varanger in winter´ article which features even more relevant info on travel and accomodation in Varanger.

Bird hides, wind shelters and more

Ten bird hides / wind shelters / photos hides designed by Biotope are now found at key bird sites around Varanger. They are designed to be open and inviting, strategically situated for birding and easy to find. Our aim is simply to birdify Varanger: That is to make the regions rich and unique birdlife easily accessible both for visitors and to people living in Varanger. We are very thankful for our collaboration with key partners in Varanger. National Tourist Routes, Innovation Norway, Finnmark Fylkeskommune, The Environment Agency, the Varanger comunities, and even private businesses like Arcitc Tourist, with rentable photo hides like the floating King Eider hide in Båtsfjord (a winter experience). They all make building the birding destination possible. After a few years of work these hides are getting some attention too, from architecture reviews to our personal favorites, like Swarovski Optik featuring one in their latest binocular release / promotional movie

Bringing birding and nature to the people: The new Varanger Peninsula National Park Exhibition in Kiberg. Desinged by Biotope, produced in collaboration with Vardø Museum and the National Park Board. This exhibitions is not a traditional exhibition showcasing the regions nature with stuffed birds. It is rather showing a selection of top species in photos, placed on what surely is Norways biggest super-detailed floor map. Over 40 m2 of detailed map from wall to wall, lets the lazy take the walk across the peninsula, and the curious can explore the valleys and peaks of the peninsula before exploring it. Find the exhibition in Kiberg, outer Varanger Fjord.

The Varanger national park exhibition in the old Kiberg school, before and after

Kiberg, a 250 people town, have experienced heavy decline, with everything from shops, postoffice and cafés closing and jobs disappearing. Lets hope some of the local and new initiatives is the start of a new and good things happening in Kiberg. The starting point for the exhibition was the local run down and abandoned school building. It is just a start and there is lots more to be done. There is a new bird hide / wind shelter about to be built in Kiberg too. It is one of the places you must make sure to visit. Particularily in winter the harbour is one of the best places in Varanger to see Steller´s Eiders. In summer the beach and river outlet is often a good place to find a Glaucous Gull or more, or even an Iceland Gull. 

The Varanger high tundra

Make sure you visit the high tundra of Varanger. The vast rolling mountains can be reached both by car or by foot. In fact almost 70 % of the Varanger Peninsula is designated as the Varanger Peninsula National Park. It covers large areas of the central peninsula. There are several entrance points, but three stand out clearly on the south side: Vestre Jakobselv valley, Komagvær valley and Sandfjord valley. Gravel roads will take you a few kilometers off the main road, closer to the national park border. The Komagvær entrance is most used. Though the term ´most used´, should not be understood as busy. It is not. This is one of the fantastic features of Varanger: Vast areas of amazing nature and relatively few people. Despite increasing numbers of birders visiting Varanger is still very much under watched as a birding destination. It is also worth noting that in Varanger being inside or outside the national park makes little difference for the quality of the birding or the nature experiences. In fact most people stick to birding the areas close to the fjord. This also provides some of the finest birding in the arctic. If you are not up to a long walk in the national park, don´t worry. You will have a spectacular time anyway. 

Then there is the northern part of the Varanger peninsula, providing you easy access to brilliant high tundra birding: When driving from the south to the north you will pass Varangebotn, drive along the Tana River valley (watch for Hawk Owls!) and from Austertana to the Kongsfjord and Båtsfjord mountains.  One of the top sites here is the Gednje intersection, where you can continue to either Båtsfjord or to Kongsfjord and Berlevåg. The ponds around the intersection often holds good numbers of waders and ducks. It is also worth stopping at high points before or after Gednje to look for Dotterel, Ptarmigan, Shorelark, Snow Bunting, Bar-tailed Gowits, Lapland Buntings, Arctic Redpolls, Purple Sandpiper and more. The mix of very cool birds and amazing landscape will stay with you forever!

Aerial of the Gednje intersection and the Varanger high tundra

Dotterel, male (the "unshaved" look is a characteristic of the male, females have clean white throats).

Long-tailed Skua. Always a great bird to see. Just make sure you respect their territories.

Greater Scaup, digiscoped at the Gednje pond (Swarovski ATX 95mm + Sony RX100 m2)

Red-necked Phalarope, female. A common breeder all over the Varanger peninsula

Young Red-necked Phalaropes finding food in the surf in Vardø. If you are in Varanger in late summer / August make sure you visit Vardø as hundreds of Red-necked Phalaropes can be recorded. Our day record is 750+ birds seen from our office window in the south harbour in Vardø.

Birding along the Varanger fjord

When driving along the Varanger Fjord there are many places to stop with brilliant birding to be enjoyed. Varangerbotn to Hamningberg is about a 2,5 hours straight drive, but if you are to enjoy some quality birding then you can easily spend a week or more. Inner Varanger Fjord is great with the areas around Nesseby nature reserve being a highlight. In easterly winds be sure to do some seawatching from Nessebyodden. Easterly winds often concentrate birds in the inner parts of the fjord. Rarities can be seen and some top birds seen on a Nesseby seawatch includes Soft-plumaged Petrel and Stejneger´s Scoter. Like on all seawatching: you never know what can fly by.

The outer Varanger Fjord: From Vadsø you are basically driving nonstop through premium birding territory. Stops should be made all along the fjord, but be sure to stop at Skallelv bay and Komagvær bay. The past summers have seen a Bearded Seal rest on the river bank in Skallelv, and the birding is generally great, with good numbers of waders, like Temminck´s Stint, and passerines, like Lapland Bunting and Bluethroats. 

Accommodation wice we recommend a stay at the Vadsø Fjordhotell or the Scandic Hotel in Vadsø. Both hotels are centrally placed in Vadsø town, and offer great birding within walking ditance from the hotels. The Fjordhotell is strategically placed on the (good for birdng place) Vadsøya island (connected to Vadsø town by a bridge) and Scandic is just a minutes walk from the Vadsø harbour, where you will find lots of arctic seaducks in winter and spring.

For those seeking a more secluded experience we recommend staying at Ingjerd Tjelle´s Ekkerøy Feriehus. Very nice apartmens beautifully situated in the middle of great birding on Ekkerøy. Perfect for families and groups of friends. Though the Barents Sea is never ideal for a swimming holiday, the white sandy beaches provides great walks and birding. The nearby Havhesten (´The Fulmar´) restaurant is usually open all summer, with good local food. 

In collaboration with our many partners in Varanger we aim to provide visitors and locals with bird hides, or rather, wind shelters at key sites along the Varanger Fjord. Ekkerøy is such a place where you will find a wind shelter. Nicely situated at the north shore on your way out to Ekkerøy. This is always a very bird rich bay. In winter with many hundreds, sometimes thousands, of Steller´s Eiders and King Eiders. In summer this is also good place to search for one of the few summering Steller´s Eiders, but mind you, they can be tricky to find, and seem to hide anywhere along the fjord. The waters around Ekkerøy is also a good place to look for summering White-billed Divers (typically 2cy birds). Then theres is the Kittiwake cliff on Ekkerøy facing the fjord. 40 000 pairs of Kittiwakes is spectacular, and you can walk very close to the birds. The bird cliffs of Varanger is also the best places to look for Gyrfalcons. Be sure to spend some time at the cliffs as Gyrfalcons hunt there daily. Just keep an open eye when the bird cliff goes in to mass panic mode! 

Ekkerøy aerial 

Ekkerøy wind shelter, found near the beach on the northeast (upper left next to the beach in photo above)

Kittiwakes are plentiful in Varanger. This one was photographed with a wide angle from a boat, attracted by fish guts after we did some fishing. Good food and cool birding sorted.


Midsnight sun birding

Vardø island, is the easternmost town in Norway, further east then Istanbul, and truly a one of kind place in the world! When me and Elin back in 2008 laid plans on where we had to move to start the worlds first birder architect office, we quickly arrived at Vardø. Varanger was given, as it clearly had the biggest potential of all places in Norway, in regards to building a world class birding destination. We looked at all the towns in Varanger, but figured we had to move to the most extreme place possible. Vardø seemed like an unpolished diamond to us. But in 2009 Vardø was not a place oosing with positivity and productive energy. In fact it had just been ranked as the worst community in Norway (!) out of 430 communities, to start a business. Needless to say enough people adviced us against moving to Vardø. However: we knew that Vardø had amazing potential, and it seemed so obvious that the very rich and very unique birdlife around Vardø and in the Varanger region just had to have the potential to help renew the town, its self esteem and its economy. Not to say that birding was going to save Vardø, but there is no doubt that appreciation of your near surroundings is important. That has been some of our goal in Varanger: to contribute to raising awareness of the rich and amazing nature in Vardø and Varanger. This truly is a unique place, and there is no reason for anyone to think Vardø is worst in Norway, when it in fact is a place of world class qualities. Few places can make that statement! We wanted to help make that become obvious. I think a new sense of positivity and optimism is found in Vardø and Varanger now. It is of course much more then building a birding destination that makes this happen, but there is no doubt birding has made a very solid contribution. Not only financially, but just as importantly how everyone sees their living environment. Sure there still struggles to be had. One of the problems in Vardø is simply too much architecture. There are too many buildings in a town built for 4000+ people, but inhabitet by only 2000. At the same time I think a renewed sense of possibilities is taking place. I think building a destination starts with local entrepreneurship, slowly but steadily building jobs and businesses based on local recourses, but with an international focus and audience. So, with no further ado: here is Norways northeasternmost town bathing in the midnight sun. 

Make sure you visit Vardø Hotel and dine at the restaurant (the best in Varanger: Cod is great!). Vardø Hotel is brilliantly situated for birders: in winter you can see often see both King and Steller´s Eiders from your hotel room, and in summer the Brünnichs Guillemots often visit the harbour, and can be seen from the hotel restaurant or your room.

This place need to be on your must visit list. The birding is spectacular and unlike anywhere else. In the above aerial is Hornøya bird cliff to the right. An island, 5 minutes boat ride from the town harbour, with 100 000 seabirds. In winter there are megarafts of King Eiders and Common Eider at times numbering more then 25 000 birds, of which the majority are King Eiders. In March we have recorded megarafts of 400 000++ Brünnich´s Guillemots. This is some of the richest waters in the world. It is awesome (think that is the first time I have used that word in our blog, but it is very appropriate). 

Puffin on Hornøya

Brünnich´s Guillemot on Hornøya

About 10 000 pairs of Puffin breed on Hornøya, and since you can walk around the bird colony (following the path) you will get up close and personal with some of the most amazing seabirds. Then there is the Brünnich´s Guillemots too. A target species for many visitors. 500+ pairs breed on Hornøya. Just visit. You don´t even have to be a birder or have binoculars to enjoy this place.

A life and death drama

There is so much happening in Varanger, from when the light returns in late January to the autumn migtration in September / October. The movement of birds is spectacular, and following the life of birds in Varanger is a privilege. One of the highlights is the Guillemot Run in that takes place in late July. This is at the end of the breeding season when all the Guillemot chicks jump from the bird cliff and fight their way to the sea. Witnessing this is absolutely spectacular. Sometimes this happens concentrated over a couple of days (usually with a peek day or two), other times this happen over a few more days. Again every year in Varanger is different, depending on weather, food availability, etc. This year I was lucky to be on Hornøya the day all the Guillemot chicks seemed to agree on leaving the cliff. 

An adult male calling for its chick, encouraging it to make its way to the sea. 

Hundreds, if not thousands, Guillemot chicks jump from high up in the bird cliff, then run, hide, shelter, jump and crawl their way to the sea. Some survive, some are eaten by gulls, some die from crashing into the rocks after a 40+ meters free fall. This truly is nature at its most brutal and amazing. 

A guillemot chick getting some guidance.  

As they finally reach the sea, there are thousands of adult Guillemots searching for their chick. Its all based on sound recognition, and the soundscape is deafening. 

The free fall from high up in the cliff means some chicks die on impact, while others, quite amazingly, survives the impact. Some pass out for a few minutes, then walks off as if it was nothing. I have nothing but the outmost respect for these little free fall base jumpers. 

Made it. It may not be a long journey from the cliff to the sea, but witnessing the hardship of every step is a privilege.

Visit the new www.hornoya.com website for more information on Hornøya birding

Fisk & Fuggel - fish & birds

Varanger was one of the first places in Norway to become inhabitet, more then 10 000 years ago. The abundance of natural resources is the reason. The Varanger Fjord is shallow making food easily available for birds. The Varanger is Norways only eastern facing fjord, it also has no threshold, making it both relatively sheltered and with ocean currents refreshing all of the water in the fjord, all the time. Very unique features all contributing to the richness of the fjord. In addition to an abundant birdlife, there are always whales and dolphins to be seen. Minke Whale, Orca, Beluga, Finn Whale, White-beaked Dolphins, Humpback Whales, etc are seen every summer, but be sure to spend some time seawatching.

 Going fishing with Vardø fisherman Øystein Enoksen (from the mid June 2015 Swarovski trip). 

Fishing and birding goes very well together, especially when Blue Fulmars are part of your audience when fishing.

Vadsø harbour - solid birding architecture

Like with Vardø, Vadsø is also situated in the middle of great birding. The shallow waters and the tidale landscape around Vadsø is great for waders. The harbour is in winter, particularly, one of the best places to get close to arctic sea ducks, like Steller´s Eider, Long-tailed Duck, Common Eider and King Eider. In summer there are always a few Steller´s Eiders around, and they tend to be found in Vadsø as well. But don´t come to Varanger in summer expecting great views of Steller´s Eiders. King Eiders, however are seen in small flocks of 5-20 birds in summer (often toyng males, females), and typically in outer Varanger Fjord (around Vardø, in Persfjord or Sadnfjord). 

In Vadsø harbour a new wind shelter was recently built on the end of the harbour breakwater. This shelter is made in solid concrete, and designed to survive a 100 year wave. That is the glass walls, creating the various wind shelter spaces will break, but the concrete construction will stand. Architecture adapted to the changing climate, so to speak. This is also an exhibition space featuring info on the local birdlife and a Vadsø map and aerial. More birding to the people in progress.

Vadsø harobur wind shelter / Vadsø naturrom

 Vadsø town and harbour. The green area is Vadsøya which is a brillinat birding area

Vadsø harbour wind shelter from the front. 

The 1.6meter wide poster found in the Vadsø hide

 From Russia with vole

Pasvik is a must visit too. The taiga is a vast forest stretching from Pasvik all the way to the Russian Pacific coast. This is where you go to find northern specialities like Siberian Jay, Siberian Tit, Pine Grosbeak, Black Woodpecker, Capercaillie, Hawk Owl and much more. We are currently working with several people and businesses in Pasvik, aiming to fascilitate better for birders visiting the region. The taiga can be a difficult place to bird but with more feeders in place, and better overview of key sites we are in progress on making Pasvik a complementary experience to your Varanger / Arctic Norway adventure. 

This year we are running a ringing scheme at Nyrud in Øvre Pasvik in collaboration with the Øvre Pasvik National Park Board. Ringing of birds is a way to learn more about the birds' migratory routes and population trends. This is the first systematic bird ringing scheme researching which birds migrate through the Pasvik valley. The project has both scientific value, while also looking at new opportunities to develop Pasvik as a destination for birders and nature enthusiasts. And like all project we are involved in we make sure that locals people and local schools get to visit the ringing site, and experience birds up close and personal. 

Aerial over Nyrud, the police station is the little group of houses next to the river, and also the base camp for this years bird ringing scheme. The Pasvik river is the Norwegian Russian border. It was great seeing how Hawk Owl daily came flying in to Nyrud from Russia carrying voles to feed their chicks. Nature has no borders. 

Hawk Owl calculating an attack on a Squirrel. Saw it happen a few seconds later. Photographed in Pasvik, South Varanger near the Nyrud bird ringing station. The Squirrel got away after two attempts by the Hawk Owl. An amazing birding experience!

The Biotope team is growing slowly but steadily. Birder & artist Jonnie Fisk is now on the team. We are very pleased to have hired a skilled birder and a very talented artist. Biotope is now a 4 man team, aiming to bring people and nature closer! We will continue to make birding in Varanger better and more widely recognised, both by locals and visitors alike. In addition we are very plsead to now contribute with our ideas, experience and enthusiasm for nature and birding at other destinations. 

Stay tuned.. And do call us if you need a birder architect!

We hope this article have given you both inspiration and information on what you can expect from a visit to Varanger. Feel free to find much more info in our collection of Birding in Varanger blogposts

Maybe see you in Varanger!

Tormod A. / Biotope

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