Monday, 8 August 2016

Postcard from Finland and Norway...Arctic Explorers

Knowledge from the outside does not stay in any head
Sámi Proverb

Where did you say we were Sam?

The border crossing that we took into Norway could well have been missed if we had blinked as it was marked only by a change in road surface colouring.  It did seem that nearby habitat stretching for what seemed many square kilometres of trees had been ravished by an invasive moth species, showing just how fragile such environments can be.  Our Destination today was to be Vadso on the shore of the Varanger Fjord.  Over the next week our days of viewing were to encompass vast areas of fjord and sea, cliff and mountain, tundra and pool and all seen in changing weather conditions ranging from calm and wind, mild and cold, clear light and mist, sun, snow, hail and rain.  The mix of conditions showing the area in many of its dramatic moods.  Thankfully dry clear conditions prevailed more often than not, but everyone soon realised that those extra layers had not been packed in vain, as that wind could get to the bones!  Everyone also realised that the back seats of the van give a perfect opportunity for a short spell of shut eye on long days in the field, so on occasions it wasn’t talking heads, but perhaps would be better described as nodding heads.  Eyes could not stay closed for long however, such was the dramatic landscape and of course wildlife.

Long Tailed Skua 

Long Tailed Skua
As we passed through the area of Varangerboten and Nesseby on the Varanger Fjord sightings of White-tailed Sea Eagle and Long Tailed Skua became quite common place.  Sam and I enjoyed our first feel of the biting air as we walked out to the point past Nesseby Church, counting Wheatears along our way.  Our first night in the area was spent at Vadso and despite our tiredness Sam and I were unable to resist a walk after dinner across the bridge to the island of Vadsoya and how pleased we were to have taken the chance as we were met by the most perfect clear white evening light of the entire trip.  As we walked onto the island we found a flock of Knot which looked stunning in the bright sunlight.  We watched rafts of gulls lift from the fjord as they were disturbed by numbers of Arctic Skua and lesser numbers of Long Tailed Skua.  We also found our first Red-throated Pipit of the trip and had close encounters with Arctic Terns.  We were drawn to the small pool on the island as it looked ideal for Red-necked Phalarope and sure enough we were soon settled down to watch these birds at close quarters as they fed. We noticed what had been the airship mast where Roald Amundsen and Umberto Nobile had set out from on ‘balloon’ explorations of the North Pole.  In 1928 Nobile had set off from here in the airship Italia on an expedition during which on the 25th May 1928 the airship crashed onto the ice causing some fatalities.  As Sam and I walked back towards the hotel after 11.00pm reflecting upon the fact that this evening had been a highlight of the trip, the sun shone brightly behind the arch of Vadso Church and we agreed that one night we would get up around 3.00am (not for the first time on this trip) and take photos of ‘night birders’.  Unfortunately tiredness ensured that this idea was not acted upon!  The following morning we were back out onto the island watching the birds again this time with the group, but that light of the evening before could not be repeated.

Red necked Phalarope 

Red necked Phalarope

Red throated Pipit

Almost a midnight sun at Vadso

For the next few days we explored Varanger Fjord and the exciting coastline of the Arctic Sea from Vadso, and then Vardo where we spent three nights.  I had no doubt we were in the Arctic Circle by now!    Vardo is joined to the peninsular by a tunnel which replaced a ferry service some years ago.  I found the lighting effect of this lengthy tunnel quite eerie and so christened it ‘The Road to Hell’ in tribute to Chris Rea.  From our hotel room we were able to watch Glaucous Gull in the harbour and a short walk away we watched Kittiwakes on the harbour buildings, kind of ala North Shields.  Sam and I explored Vardo on relaxing evenings.  Hornöya Island is but a short boat trip away and we paid an all too brief visit here.   Having so little time to spend on this island was a rare disappointment on this tour.  At least we did have time to see Brunnich’s Guillemot along with Guillemot, Razorbill, Puffin, Kittiwake and Shag et al and we had a rather nice lunch with ice cream on return to the town.

Arctic Tern at Vadso



 The cliffs along the coast of the Varanger Peninsula offered perhaps the most dramatic vista of the tour and on one occasion as we watched the sea and nearby White-tailed Sea Eagle and waders, cloud and then mist rolled in over the precipitous cliffs eventually blocking out totally any previous sunlight and thus giving the feeling of mystery and drama.  The Chiffchaff (a rarity here) heard calling from the rare area of trees had now become silent.

White Tailed Sea Eagle
The sea provided us with many sightings, amongst them a single Pomarine Skua seen close to shore, and a single Great Skua which ensured our list of skuas was complete.  Both Great Northern Diver and White Billed Diver completed our list of divers, the latter species not without some substantial effort and in some cases the use of matchsticks to keep the eyelids open!  Sam found us our first King Eider amongst a flock of Common Eider, and notably he found the female bird first of all.  Unfortunately all Steller’s Eider had departed the area.  Then there were flocks of Common Scoter, Guillemot, Black Guillemot, Shag, Long-tailed Duck and hundreds of Goosanders et al.

White-tailed Sea Eagle of all ages were common place and often seen at close range.  Rough Legged Buzzard continued to be seen regularly but Gyr Falcon was more difficult to find and I heard that this species is suffering from the hands of egg thieves.  We did eventually find Gyr Falcon, a pair in fact and we did have decent scope views of them.  I seem to remember fellow birder Liz was very good at finding species on vast areas of cliff.  A pair of Peregrine Falcon was also found.

Bluethroat  display

 I enjoyed a brief sighting of breeding plumage Shore Lark and on one occasion we all spread out in an attempt to find Twite.  I glimpsed one after Sam had heard them and seen at least one fly in to the area we were standing.  As Sam and I moved back from rough ground towards the road I heard a Bluethroat flying into the area that we were standing.  Sam was onto it like a shot and my eyes were on it within a second or two afterwards.   We had seen numbers of Bluethroat by now but this sighting proved to be up there with the best of the trip as the male began displaying to the female.  Sam and I watched and photographed as we simultaneously called the rest of the group over.  As the male Bluethroat circled the female posturing as he went this provided one of the best photographic opportunities of the trip, not least because it is so rarely seen and these birds were not far from our feet.  The male bird so beautifully marked, used these marking as best he could to impress the female and as he twisted and contorted the sunlight upon him ensured that the colour as seen in different hues.  I remember Sam liking this to a lek and I myself felt it was like watching a Bird of Paradise displaying.  I know that watching this display was a new experience for all including Killian and Dick.  Carl Linnaeus historically referred to the Bluethroat as the ‘Swedish Nightingale’ and it does have a very distinctive song. 

Tundra on the peninsular

Our exploration continues for a few more days and included sightings of Snow Bunting and Lapland Bunting plus a find of a party of seven Little Stints feeding along with Dunlin.  Botanical interest was never forgotten and I believe Sam has pressed an individual of the world's smallest tree species in the form of Dwarf Willow Salix herbacea.   And still there is more to come!   wak Owl close up just above our headsHawk owl justHawk owl just abov

Do you believe
The clear white light
Is going to guide us on?

Running along the ground singing a song in the morning light
Follow flowery fields as far as out of sight
Turning your head to the clouds and the skies and the trees
'cause you never know what you might see.
 Lyrics by Lindisfarne


  1. Excellent report, and love the Bluethroat displaying.

  2. Thanks Brian. I'm hoping to get the last part of the report up in the next twenty-four hours. The Bluethroat display was indeed something very special. Cheers.