Gullfest 2016 – Norway part 2: The Varanger Peninsula

For the second part of my #Gullfest2016 round-up, I will leave much of the talking to the pictures, and just illustrate some of the highlights of the superb event we were fortunate to take part in.

Gullfest aims to promote the wealth and diversity of birdlife on offer around the Varanger peninsula, whilst seeking to engage the local community with the benefits that visiting birders can bring. It was the vision of awesome photographer and birder Tormod Amundsen and his partner Elin Taranger of Biotope.no. The event consists of a superb cocktail of talks, exhibitions, birding trips, artwork, bird ringing and much more. It brings together birders, photographers and artists alike from across the World, in a celebration of the premier birding destination that is Varanger. The fishing town of Vardø was the main base for this year’s event, where most participants were treated to superb lodging and food at the Vardø Hotel. Vardø’s harbour and the nearby coastal towns represent some of the best places in Europe to see Steller’s Eiders, alongside huge flocks of Common Eiders and King Eiders.

The great mix of participants in this year’s event included the amazingly talented artist Darren Woodhead, the RSPB reserves ecologist Graham White (the Grumpy Ecologist), and also Kane Brides, who spearheads some fantastic ringing projects in Europe, such as his studies on Whooper Swan and Coot movements from the UK. 

Having spent the days leading up to Gullfest birding in the forested area of Øvre Pasvik (*see my previous blog post*), we were now destined for this fantastic location to meet up with the Biotope team and the other participants of this year’s festival…

‘Basecamp’ for this year’s Gullfest, with a superb exhibition detailing the diversity of wildlife in the surrounding region, and (more importantly), a sheltered fishing shed where we could escape the biting wind and lashings snow! 

Øvre Pasvik to Vardø (16th March)

Having picked up the last Next Generation Birder member of our cohort midday on the 16th March from Kirkenes, we set off on the road. Bound north-eastward, we wound our way around various bays and the rugged snow-covered landscape, eventually ending up in Vardø. This drive usually takes around four hours, but with frequent stops for the inevitable roadside birding sojourns, it took us a little longer!
We stopped off regularly to check out the bays and coast, which held flocks of Common Eiders, along with our first views of the superb and rather dapper King Eiders. Also noted en route were Goosanders, large numbers of argentatus Herring Gulls, the odd White-tailed Eagle, Long-tailed Ducks and Black Guillemots. A smart pair of Siberian Jays verging the roadside were also great to see

By far the highlight of the journey up was coming across these lanky beasts: Moose! 
Travelling in two vehicles always has its amusing moments, and the discovery of these monstrous grazers was one of them: we were using radios to relay messages between cars for any sightings, but myself, Jonnie and Olly in the front car had fallen lax and completely failed to spot the four Moose immediately adjacent to the road…the result was that when the rear car hurtled past, an abrupt and raucous transmission came through on the radio: ‘MOOSE!!!’. We spent a while watching these bizarre creatures, before continuing on our way

Whilst on the Mammal theme, it was nice to see these continental Red Squirrels on our way up, looking decidedly different to our own British Reds. With long, black ear tufts, a dark tip to the tail, and more of a grey wash to the body, they looked very smart amidst the snowy tones of the forest

Another cool mammal that is a quintessential element of the arctic circle and surrounding landscape is of course the Reindeer, and we saw several groups as we headed north-westward to Vardø.  Whether they were wild or semi-domestic animals I don’t know, but they certainly looked at home!
We slowly progressed to our destination, but decided to use the last of the evening light to have a quick look around Vadso harbour on the evening of the 16th, before making the final push to Vardø (about 1 hour & a half away). The harbour was full of eiders, gulls and Purple Sandpipers, and we were really happy to come across a small flock of Steller’s Eiders – our first of the trip. 
Steller’s Eider

Hooded Crows were everywhere
As darkness fell, we set off on the road, and in the ensuing hour had one of the most hair-raising and adrenaline-filled drives I have ever had. The weather conditions decided to take a turn for the worse, with wind speeds gusting over 60mph and with it the accompanying snow blizzards. These combined factors resulted in visibility of no more than five metres, and also meant that the road (now no more than a faintly darker strip of white amongst the snow) was barely visible. With the car being blown sideways by the gale-force winds, driving conditions were not great to say the least. Nevertheless, we made it (just), and pulled into the quiet town of Vardø with a sense of relief.

Vardø by night and day…the main street through the town’s centre
Bird Ringing in Vardø

Gull ringing in Vardø harbour was amongst the many activities we helped out with during Gullfest, and it was great fun. We used a couple of different techniques to capture these beats, the first utilising a leg noose that was pulled tight when anything stepped into the loop; the second was using a square trap with strings held taught across the top. The holes between the criss-cross of string were just large enough for Gulls to drop in through (onto the bait), but meant that when they opened their wings they struggled to exit the same aperture.
We trapped Glaucous Gulls, Great Black-backed Gulls and Herring Gulls during the few days we were there, fitting each with a metal ring and a Darvic ring that bore a three-letter code. Handling Glaucous Gulls was something of an experience – certainly not birds to be messed with, easily slicing through flesh with their powerful bill. 

It was really interesting to learn about some of the ageing and sexing features relating to gulls…
I didn’t realise that skull and bill length is a reliable indication of sex, with males being significantly larger than females. For Glaucous Gulls, the range of measurements for head length (including bill) is 128-139mm for females, and 142-160mm for males

The gull trap with the ringing squad looking on (note fish handling gloves inside- an essential tool for catching gulls)
As you can see, Vardø harbour has no shortage of gulls! We used fishing discards as bait for the nooses and traps, which brought in hundreds to squabble over the pickings

The main gull species in attendance in the harbour…
Glaucous Gull (juvenile)

bulky argentatus Herring Gull (with Urchin!)

even bulkier Great Black-backed Gull (not always the bosses, but most of the time!)
Vardø harbour itself is a fantastic place for photography, but involves wandering out onto a floating pontoon system which is covered in snow and moves around like a bucking bronco when the waves are large. It makes for an exhilarating experience anyway, but produces some fantastic results if you are patient. Lying in wait long enough can reward with close views of the large flocks of Common Eiders, Long-tailed Ducks, King Eiders and also Black Guillemots… 
 
The star of the show: King Eider (and they know it) – I am going to dedicate a complete blog post to these awesome birds, so watch this space

An interesting bit of behaviour that was fun to see was that all the Eiders – both Common and King – were feeding on prickly Urchins and Starfish. I am not quite sure what physiological mechanisms allow them to swallow these prickly snacks whole! But it looks rather uncomfortable

Flocks of Common Eiders adorned the bay – they looked superb when clumped together in their rafts. You could hear the odd ‘ooooOOOOhhhhh’ calls coming across the bay as males attempted to woo the females

Long-tailed Ducks were in abundance, and I think take the prize for coolest call. Check out their bizarre song here

Black Guillemot

Kittiwakes are thankfully doing ok in this region of Europe, with Hornoya’s population stable at present. Let’s hope they don’t follow suite with the populations of Iceland and most of the UK
Hornøya seabird island

One of the key sites on our trip list for Gullfest was the superb island of Hornøya – it is quite simply a spectacular place. The island is one of 14 seabird colonies in the Finnmark region of Norway that receives protection as a nature reserve. Situated at the most easterly point in Norway, and residing at the same longitude as Cairo, and looks out over Barents Sea. The rugged cliffs and grassy slopes of this island – no larger than a square kilometre – are home to some 15, 000 Guillemots, 10, 000 Atlantic Puffins, 500 Brunnich’s Guillemots, 1300 Shags and 8000 Kittiwakes! A lot of seabirds, to put it short. The auks wheel around your head in great vortexes, looking stunning in their black-and-white attire when illuminated by the soft lighting of the snow. Although the diversity of birds isn’t quite as amazing in the winter, it is certainly made up for by the lighting and weather conditions!
The main sites for our Gullfest week…the island of Vardø, with Hornoya and neighbouring island Reinøya to the north east.
On our first visit to the island, we had a pretty intense half-hour visit: the winds were so strong that we barely made it to the boat slipping and sliding along the pontoons. The crossing over was lively to say the least, with a 50mph headwind and pretty impressive waves! Once ashore on the island, we made a quick walk up past the lighthouse and over to the second mooring point, which is easier said than done. With the wind whipping around the corner and carrying with it snow at a fair speed, we could barely look up to see what birds were around, never mind appreciate the scenery! Unfortunately (probably due to the extremeness of the weather) there were no birds whatsoever on the island!
Our second visit was far more pleasant, made all the better by thousands of Guillemots wheeling around the cliffs, along with a handful of Brunnich’s Guillemots and plenty of Kittiwakes and Shags… 
Some wintry scenes from Hornoya

We got some great views of King Eiders off the island, which were feeding on Urchins beneath the waves
adult Glaucous Gull
Around 50% of the Guillemots were stunning Bridled birds, and looked splendid with the soft underlighting from the snow
Some landscape scenes of the Guillemots
And a load more Guillemot shots! Note the marked flank streaking in most of the birds – this was interesting to see on almost all the breeding birds on the island, as you’d expect the hyperborea subspecies to bare this feature, but breast marking appear to be more obvious on those birds
Hornoya panoramic
Svartnes, Kiberg & Komagvær

During our time at Gullfest, we visited several of the nearby harbours and smaller fishing towns, which offered larger numbers of ducks in some instances, and certainly some far better views of these cracking birds…
Steller’s Eiders!

More Long-tailed Ducks

Kittiwake – note the tranquil waters! The weather did actually settle down a bit after the arctic blast we had in our first few days

We tried some seawatching at Svartnes one morning, which involved sitting in a snow drift for an hour, with 0% visibility whilst slowly getting buried under an inch or two of snow. BETWEEN the snow showers, we did actually manage to see a couple of smart Blue Fulmars, a Brunnich’s Guillemot, Glaucous Gulls passing distantly, and the usual King and Common Eider flocks
 One of the biggest highlights for our meanderings around the surrounds of Vardø was seeing a white morph GYR FALCON ATTACKING A WHITE-TAILED EAGLE – we were pretty ecstatic to see such an beast taking on an even more impressive beast. Not a moment that will be forgotten with ease…
Jonnie post-Gyr encounter

And finally, I’ll end with a selection of images that I am particularly fond of, trying to capture the ever-changing lighting conditions and hundreds of different shades of greys, blues and whites that this wonderful area can exhibit…

 argentatus Herring Gulls in the arctic light of Vardø
Great Black-backed Gull
Glaucous Gull
Please check out Biotope’s website to take a look at their work, and get yourself out to Varanger to experience some awesome arctic birding! 
A massive thanks to Tormod and the Biotope crew for being so accommodating and inviting us out there, and also to Jonnie Fisk for acting as our local guide and lending us his lounge for accommodation! 
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3 thoughts on “Gullfest 2016 – Norway part 2: The Varanger Peninsula

  1. Pingback: Looking back at 2016 | The Island Naturalist

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