Well, where to start! As some of you are aware, I recently took part in a superb annual event called Gullfest: this involves birders from many different areas converging on the north-eastern region of Norway called Varanger, where Biotope organises a variety of exciting events ranging from gull ringing in the harbour to visiting the immense seabird colony on Hornøya. Biotope is a pioneering organisation that harmonises architecture and nature, designing a variety of structures that blend into the landscape, from bird hides and wind shelters to floating photography hides and birding towers. Check out their work on their website here.
The event itself is based on the island of Vardø, in the far north-east of Norway. The bays and harbours around the island play host to a breathtaking number of seaducks in winter, including Europe’s only wintering site for Steller’s Eiders. In addition to the handsome eider trio (King, Common and Steller’s), the harbours are also packed full of gulls, hence the title of the festival. Glaucous Gulls, hefty argentatus Herring Gulls, Iceland Gulls and Great Black-backed Gulls make use of rich pickings from fishery waste, and thus provides the perfect place for gull-watching. It has all the potential for turning up far-flung visitors like Vaga and Kumlien’s Gulls if enough effort is put in to searching.
A satellite image showing the main areas we visited during our visit: the rugged coastal landscape of the Varanger Peninsula at the top north-east side, and then the wooded expanses of øvre Pasvik to the south of Kirkenes at the lower reaches of the map
The trip – Part 1
On the 14th of March, I set off to Heathrow from Cornwall by train, catching an initial flight over the North Sea to Oslo that evening, where I met up with fellow Next Generation Birders James O’neill, Tim Jones and Ed James. The following morning we boarded the last of our plane journeys that took us to Kirkenes – here, we were greeted by Jonnie Fisk, who is also a young Next Generation Birder, and is working for Biotope. He would act as our seasoned guide for the duration of the trip.
A few pics from the flight in to Kirkenes
Heading south towards øvre Pasvik
Our plan was to head south into the forested wilderness of øvre Pasvik for a day or so, to try and cache in on some woodland birding before joining Gullfest in Vardø. We made good progress on the afternoon of the 15th, and reached our camp at Vaggetan for our first night, after some quality birding en route…
One of the first non-corvid species we came across was a superb White-tailed Eagle, which sidled past the road on broad wings. We came across a further two on our journey to Vaggetan, including this bird that looks to be a 4th calendar year (?)
We bumped into (although thankfully not literally) a small flock of Willow Grouse beside the road on our way to camp, which were superb to watch in all their winter finery and thickly feathered snow-shoes
Stopping off at the odd feeding station rewarded us with a great range of passerines too, with silvery loenbergi Willow Tits, good numbers of Great Tits, a single Blue Tit (a rarity in these parts!), a couple of smart Siberian Tits, chunky and cleanly marked Northern Bullfinches, a frosty mix of Redpolls (both Mealy and Coue’s Arctic) and also Greenfinches. Hooded Crows were prolific, and we had a single White-tailed Eagle dabbling at some fishing on the Russian side of the lake.
High on everyone’s wish-list of things to see in this area were two specific things:
A) a Hawk Owl
B) the Aurora Borealis
We weren’t disappointed!
Trundling along in the car, Ed and I simultaneously cried out as we saw the distinctive shape of an owl perched atop a classic rotten pine just 50 metres from the road. We bundled out of the car, and confirmed our suspicions that it was indeed a HAWK OWL! And what a bird! We watched the austere predator for a good half hour, before continuing on our way, only to be welcomed at our night lodging by a second owl right outside our cabin!
Roadside birding – you can’t beat it, especially when there’s a Hawk Owl within throwing distance
For the second aspiration, we had to wait for darkness to fall…
Our cabin for the night at Ovre Pasvik
At around eight o’clock, the skies began to glow in a fluorescent green, and so we decided to head out on the road to try some owl taping whilst keeping an eye out for the northern lights. We ended up getting a little distracted by the aurora, which erupted in curtains of brilliant green all around us, pulsating and rippling at the height of activity. It was truly breathtaking, and I was glad I left my camera taking images for a timelapse back at the cabin…this is the result:
Waking up at the crack of dawn, we were greeted outside by howling gales and clear skies, and it was very cold! We spent some time initially birding around the camp at Vaggetan, before heading over to Ellentjern where there were a number of feeders stationary to attract finches. Despite the freezing wind, we heard the bubbling songs of Pine Grosbeaks a little way away (sounding somewhat reminiscent of a Woodlark) – it didn’t take long before a few pairs appeared around the feeders, giving superb views. I really didn’t expect their chunky size – much closer to Hawfinch than Crossbill! We spent some time watching and photographing these very handsome finches, with Willow, Siberian and Great Tits also present in the vicinity. We then set about trying to find our number one targer- species at this site: the Siberian Jay. We got talking to a friendly Norwegian who came to say hello – when asked about the Jays, he replied: ‘Oh yeah, there have been about seven around feeding on the meat [which is put out to feed the sled dogs] just over there’, upon which he turned around and pointed to a small clearing. Almost as if summoned, a smart Siberian Jay flew up into a tree where the guy was pointing, and was shortly followed by four more. Although we got some great views, they scarpered when an adult Golden Eagle soared overhead and across the treeline.
The morning vantage from our forest cabin at Vaggetan
Pine Grosbeaks! The shade of red in the male is pretty amazing
Next up, we headed back to camp to pack up our things (or at least, break through the door into the cabin after Jonnie lost our only key…), and after a bite to eat we said goodbye to Vaggetan and began our long northward journey to Varanger.
Our plan of action was to stop off at a few woodland birding sites on our way back up, and to arrive at Kirkenes in time to pick up the last ‘NGB’ member of the group: Olly Metcalf (who was arriving late morning by plane). The birding was reasonable en route, with flocks of Pine Grosbeaks on the road, several Willow Grouse in the straddling forest, trumpeting Northern Bullfinches flying over, and best of all, the Hawk Owl from the previous day perched on exactly the same tree as it had been! We watched this epic owl in the bright morning sunshine, before it decided it had spent enough time on this particular rotten stump, and flew off in typical hawk-like fashion. We took the opportunity to ransack the immediate vicinity to try and find one of its pellets, and we did! How many birders can say they’ve held the regurgitation of a Hawk Owl?
We contiued on our way, coming across a particularly productive feeding station a few kilometres down the road between Skegfoss and Melkefoss. Here we saw a Pine Grosbeak, 4 Northern Bullfinches, 5 Mealy Redpolls, 5 Coue’s Arctic Redpolls, 9 Great Tits, two Siberian Tits, a single loenbergi Willow Tit, 6 Greenfinches and a few Hooded Crows. See below for a few of the images taken here…
There was a nice selection of redpolls at several of the feeding stations along the road to Vaggetan, and we spent plenty of time admiring their varying forms and getting our eye in for the ID features between the two main species. Mealy Redpolls were perhaps the most common species in attendance, with their streaky flanks, red-flushed chests and marked uppertail coverts (although these features varied hugely between individuals); Coue’s Arctic Repolls (little snowballs) were somewhat less apparent, but the minimal streaking on flanks and rump, bright white plumage and straw-coloured upper-parts made it is easy when one dropped in front of us!
one of the warmer-coloured Mealies
A darker, streaked Mealy
Coue’s Arctic Redpoll, mid hop
female Northern Bullfinch – check out their awesome call here!
We didn’t really come across anything extraordinary from then on in, and made it to Kirkenes for midday, where we met up with Olly Metcalf. We set off early afternoon on the long drive along the rugged coastline up to our main base for the week: Vardø.
The second blog post from the rest of the trip, and our time at Gullfest, will follow in the coming week (once I have sifted through a few thousand images…)