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20 June to 28 June 2015

By Stephen Burch, England

Northern birding has long held an allure for me, dating back many years to my purchase of the inspirational "Wild Wings to the Northlands" by Stan Bayliss Smith in which he recounts an epic adventure in the 1960's that went from England, south to the Mediterranean in April, and then north with the spring eventually reaching Varanger Fjord in arctic Norway by early June, before returning home! A remarkable journey indeed.

In contrast, with rather less time available, my trips northwards have been much shorter but more frequent! Since 2002 I have been fortunate to make a number of brief forays to central Sweden on the back of various business trips and then in 2010 there was a special trip to central Finland mainly for the northern owls. However the ultimate destination of Varanger Fjord remained on the back burner as it seemed to involve a lot of driving for potentially only modest returns. All this began to change when I realised it was possible to fly quite easily to Ivalo, via Helsinki, in northern Finland. From here it was only a short day's drive north to Varanger. This route could also be combined with the only reliable summer site in western Europe for Pine Grosbeak - one of the northern specialties that has eluded me in previous trips. Furthermore as I discovered only shortly before we departed,  return into Norway by a more easterly route offered the tantalising prospect of Arctic Warbler on their breeding territory.

So with other more distant destinations on hold for the second half of 2015, it seemed an opportune time to go north - almost as far as is possible in mainland western Europe! Careful research in advance showed that I had realistic chances for just four lifers - Pine Grosbeak, Arctic Redpoll, Brunnich's Guillemot and Arctic Warbler which was by no means guaranteed. Note that fortunately Stellar's Eider is already on my list - as I saw the bird on South Uist in 1984!

With only 8 nights available we had a busy schedule to follow, but we did manage to spend more than one night at most locations. I had little choice over the timing of this trip, due to a work commitment. By late June most birds even this far north are well into their short breeding season so that song and display levels, especially those of waders, are already in decline. But the third week is June is about the earliest for Arctic Warblers which are very late returning migrants.

English is of course very widely spoken and so we had no communication problems. These are expensive destinations to visit though, especially Norway although the current favourable exchange rates for both euros and NOK certainly helped.

Two important items to take to this part of the world in summer are a plentiful supply of insect repellant and eye shades/masks (as sold for sleeping on planes) - as the sun never sets and curtains can be ridiculously thin!

I booked through Finnair but due to the vagaries of code sharing only ended up on one fully Finnair flight. The outward flight from Heathrow to Helsinki was with BA (with their awful current European food option!). The following day the Helsinki to Ivalo Finnair flight was operated by Flybe and was in a smaller aircraft. Fortunately there was just enough room in the overhead lockers for my wheeled hand luggage containing all my optics. Our return from Ivalo to Helsinki was again Flybe operated with the final (same day) flight back from Helsinki to Heathrow with Finnair (who charge for in-flight food and alcoholic drinks). We had no problems with any of these flights. Ivalo airport wasn't large - and seemed to have only one flight in and out per day! 

Car hire
Our large saloon car was booked with SixT who seemed substantially cheaper than the few other companies that operate at Ivalo airport. Their service to this isolated outpost was efficient, although skeleton (on return nobody was present - you just drop the key in the hole provided!). The car (a Mercedes E Class!) was very comfortable but not ideal for some of the tracks in Norway I had hoped to get along, more of which later. There was no issue with driving between Finland and Norway but of course neighbouring Russia would have been a different matter as the rep remarked!

As with most recent trips, I relied almost entirely on my SatNav, using lat, long (GPS) coordinates I had stored in advance by careful study of Google maps and the Gosney booklet (see below). I give many of these coordinates below to help similarly equipped other birders. The 1:400,000 freytag & berndt Norway North Cape map covered the whole area of our trip and was reasonable for roads (there aren't that many options up there though!). A last minute purchase from Stanfords of a 1:50000 map of the Vardo area (Norge-serien 10185) was an indulgence and almost certainly not worth the extraordinary price!  

Birding information
The recently updated Gosney booklet, "Finding Birds in Lapland" was quite useful although, as I've found elsewhere, mentioned many more birds at most sites than can actually be seen! The detailed "A Birdwatcher's Guide to Norway" by Bjorn Olav Tveit was an expensive purchase but useful for the odd site not covered by Gosney, including the Neiden Arctic Warblers. I'd also like to thank Tom Bedford and Aulikki Nahkola for the useful information they provided. This area is of course regularly visited by legions of birders and so there are also plenty of trip reports of varying levels of usefulness to be found online.

The weather was literally very mixed! The first couple of days were remarkable for a good amount of sun, lack of rain and high temperatures. We even briefly recorded 23C driving north along the Tana river in Norway! These conditions held up for our first evening in Varanger but thereafter the more expected weather prevailed - with day time maximums barely reaching 10C with low cloud, sea fog at times, no sun and a bitter northerly wind. At least most of the rain was overnight! Not ideal for photography as the results below show. 

All the pics shown below were taken with my DSLR equipment - Canon EOS 7D Mk II with either my EF400mm/f4 DO lens (often with a x1.4TC) or my EF400mmf5.6.  All pics were taken in RAW format, and I use NeatImage for noise suppression, with PhotoShop Elements 9.0 for subsequent processing. For further details see the equipment and image processing pages elsewhere on this website.

Finland - Ivalo region north to the Norwegian border
Having spent Saturday night in Helsinki (beware - the weekend around 20th June is their midsummer holiday and the restaurants were packed), the next day the only flight to Ivalo got us there around midday. We were then quickly off in our SixT hire car with minimal formalities. 

1. Toivoniemi Bird Tower (GPS 69.070346, 27.104673)
This bird tower is very close to the main E75 north from Ivalo and about 15km south of our destination for our first 2 nights - see below. This site is hardly mentioned in any of the English language trip reports I found, but Aulikki Nahkola kindly provided some promising sounding information from Finnish reports so it seemed an obvious place to start our birding.

This turned out to be a better than expected site. We visited it again in the late evening of the following day, although not quite late enough to see the sun at its lowest point (around 01:00 local time in Finland I reckoned).

Birds were naturally very distant from the top of this isolated tower which is on a small hill overlooking a splendid area of marshes and lakes. Probably the best was a delightful flock of at least 8 Smew, of which 5 or more were males on a lake to the south of the tower. To the north west were Little Gulls and Arctic Terns in the distance. Various ducks were also seen - Teal, Wigeon, Pintail and Tufted. Closer to the tower in the nearer marsh below was a pair of Ruff (the only ones we saw) and the trees surrounding the tower had Pied Flycatcher. A short drive further west along the road through the marshes produced a splendid surprise in the form of a few Waxwings hawking for mosquitoes by the road in the fine sunny conditions!

Returning late the next evening we saw much the same species but with the addition of several drumming Snipe (but sadly nothing that sounded like the distant hoof beats of Jack Snipe - a species that eluded us completely in Lapland). The peaceful evening conditions also brought a couple of very distant young Elks out into the open on the far edges of the marshland.

Between the tower and Neljän Tuulen Tupa we twice saw a Spotted Redshank on a pool by the E75, but never got a photo of it.

Waxwing in breeding territory! Click to enlarge

2. Neljän Tuulen Tupa at Kaamanen (GPS 69.182450, 27.214723 )
This roadside establishment is mainly a cafe serving those travelling along the E75, but it also does perfectly adequate accommodation and all meals (necessary as there is nowhere else to eat for miles around!). Uniquely it also has numerous well stocked feeders that even in summer attract a good range of northern species, most notably Pine Grosbeak which are normally incredibly elusive and hard to find in the vast northern forests. These were my number one target for this trip and it was good to have some reassurance that yes they were still usually to be found even in late June. Apparently they are much more numerous and easier to photograph well in late winter (e.g. March).

So having arrived and checked in, the priority was a late afternoon session round the back of the building where there was an impressive collection of feeders in a sloping, roped off area. The best vantage point was slightly above and beyond the feeders from the nearer end of the building. Conditions were not good for photography due to the lack of light, absence of good perches and obscuration by leaves. Apparently things are much better in the snowy conditions in March. Nevertheless, it was a great relief that a brilliant male Pine Grosbeak appeared not too long after our arrival, to be closely followed by another male and a female. During our two night stay, it seemed these birds came and went but could generally be seen with patience at any time of day. They were much less obvious on the second day though. 

Pine Grosbeak Pine Grosbeak
Pine Grosbeak - male (left) and female (right). Click either to enlarge

Other notable birds here was a Siberian Tit (sorry - impossible to get off feeder shots) and more standard northern fare such as Brambling, Siskin and Common Redpoll. In winter Arctic Redpolls are apparently reliable here but we saw nothing that looked a good candidate. In fact the search for Arctic Redpolls became somewhat problematic for us, as described below.  Red Squirrels were also numerous here and something of a nuisance due to the noise they made running along the roof space all night long!   

Pine Grosbeak Siberian Tit
Pine Grosbeak Siberian Tit
Siskin Red Squirrel
Siskin Red Squirrel

To the right of the main building (which provide access to the feeders), there was a sign suggesting all sorts of other birds could be found in the marshes and lakes below and to the right. However a brief excursion produced almost nothing for us other than Pied Flycatcher breeding in a nest box, and a fleeting glimpse of one small unidentified wader!

3. Mount Ailegas near Karigasniemi (GPS 69.402892,25.973999)
This mountain is somewhere that the Bayliss Smiths' climbed all those years ago, and I was keen to follow in their footsteps! It is also featured in the Gosney booklet. We managed to drive up the approach track as far as a walk information sign just short of the barrier that prevents further progress. On the walk up we followed the track all the way, even though it goes a somewhat circuitous route, and Gosney recommends a steep short cut direct to the summit (which we followed on the way down).

Birds seen on the ascent were Whimbrel, several wary Golden Plovers, Wheatear, Raven and the odd Meadow Pipit. We reached the summit in superb weather and took in the great panoramic views including snow capped peaks to the north west - but somewhat spoilt by the radio tower and building. The summit area was quite bare and rocky and initially seemed devoid of bird life, but after a picnic lunch we stumbled across the main aim of this walk - a superb Dotterel, which was nesting a little to the south and west of the summit. It was suitably obliging and numerous photos were taken! There were also snatches of passerine song (possible Snow Bunting) but we never connected with its originator. 

Dotterel Dotterel
Dotterel Dotterel
Dotterel (click top right to enlarge)

On our descent we saw most of the same birds on the way up, with the surprising addition of a female Bluethroat briefly - well above the tree line. We also suddenly became aware of a spectacular halo around the sun which we later found is a rare event caused by ice crystals in the upper atmosphere. My Panasonic TZ35 captured this quite well! 

Solar Halo
A 22° Solar Halo!

Back at the car we found a singing Bluethroat that proceeded to lead me a merry dance but it eventually allowed the shot below to be taken. Thereafter we briefly explored the marshes east of this site described by Gosney but had limited success. Another track north of the main road produced nothing but Willow Warblers and Brambling. The one place on the main road we managed to stop had a Wood Sandpiper briefly but access to most of the marshes was very restricted due to Reindeer fences and lack of roadside parking. We didn't rate Gosney's suggestion of crawling under the fences and so returned to Neljän Tuulen Tupa for another feeders photo session and then after dinner went back to the tower as described above.

4. Track to Skalluvaara (GPS 69.814028, 27.172159 )
The next morning we departed Neljän Tuulen Tupa and headed north up the E75 bound for Varanger, but before reaching Norway we had a couple of sites to try in the continuing good weather. We saw nothing much from the E75 but turned off east along a track towards Skalluvaara as mentioned in one online trip report. Remarkably we almost immediately had a fleeting view from the car of a Siberian Jay  before it disappeared into the forest.  Further on we stopped just past a large building on the left and found another Bluethroat, Grey-headed Wagtails and some possible candidates for Arctic Redpolls but careful examination of the photos afterwards showed they were just Common (which was a continuing theme of this trip).

Bluethroat Yellow Wagtail
Bluethroat   Yellow (Grey-headed) Wagtail

5. Track up Mount Ailegas near to Utsjoki (GPS 69.913327, 27.083770  )
Further north up the E75, there is rather confusingly another Mt Ailegas - to the east of Utsjoki, and unlike the more southerly hill with the same name, there is a driveable track up this one, which we duly took (GPS coords above are for where this tracks turns off route 870). Some way short of the summit our way was barred by a sliding red metal gate which we respected and completed the ascent on foot.  At the top we found very little birdlife on the barren terrain, apart from a brief view of a nice Lapland Bunting (our only one of the trip, surprisingly) which departed before any attempt could be made at photography. There was no sign of any Long-tailed Skuas, Gyr Falcons or other goodies reported by others. Back at the metal gate there was however another Bluethroat.

Norway - Varanger Fjord

1. Nesseby

The white church at Nesseby is a famous landmark for birders making the trek north as it marks the start of the Varanger Fjord proper. For some it is apparently almost akin to reaching the promised land but was somewhat disappointing bird-wise for us. The bay, reputedly good for passage waders, held only a few distant Bar-tailed Godwits, and the pool beyond the church was devoid of Red-necked Phalaropes and anything else.

Nesseby Church and empty phalarope pool!

2. Vadso Island (GPS 70.067800, 29.748083)
Crossing the bridge onto the island at Vadso, we arrived in the late afternoon at the  Vadso Fjordhotel (which now rather optimistically calls itself the Birders Basecamp!) for our 2 night stay, and then promptly walked east from the car park through the gate and towards the pool at the eastern end of the island. Here were the Red-necked Phalaropes missing from Nesseby - and with the sunny conditions and their usual tameness they made good photographic subjects! After this, we tried a short spell of sea watching off the beach to the south of the island which was quite productive with two albeit distant Long-tailed Skuas going west (the only ones we saw on the trip).

Coming back, just before reaching the hotel, I spotted two Redpolls which settled briefly on the ground showing bright white rumps, with a pinkish tinge - surely 100% Arctic Redpolls, although I got none of the other features and no photos before they both flew off. But no matter I thought - they were "guaranteed" at the Varanger Bird Park - our destination for the next morning.

From the hotel there was a good view over parts of Vadso harbour which held plenty of Goosander but little else. Apparently there had been a single King Eider until a few weeks earlier, but it had now departed.

Red necked Phalarope Red necked Phalarope
Red necked Phalarope
Red-necked Phalaropes (click top two to enlarge)

3. Varanger Bird Park
I discover information on the Varanger Bird Park online shortly before we departed and was attracted by the reports of regular sightings of Arctic Redpoll even in summer. It consists of a private area containing a well designed photo hide suitably close to numerous feeders with strategically placed perches. The hide can be hired for a morning for NOK 500 each. The owner BR Oyvind also mentioned Hawk Owl was a possibility with a breeding pair on-site this year.

Unfortunately the excellent weather of the last few days had well and truly broken for our first full day in Varanger, and we saw little if any sun again until returning home! Fortunately early morning rain had more or less cleared by the time we arrived at the Park (which is between Nesseby and Vadso) and were installed in the hide. We were told that the Hawk Owl family was still in the area but on no account we were to approach them if spotted.

We were however still surprised to suddenly become aware of them about mid-way through the morning! Both adults and 2 or 3 owlets were showing somewhat distantly. Staying as instructed within the area close to the hide I still managed to get the results shown below. At one point the adult flew right into one of the small trees above the hide providing a remarkable close up view, albeit very much a silhouette against the leaden skies.  

Hawk Owl Hawk Owl
Hawk Owlets Hawk Owlets
Hawk Owl and Owlets!

These splendid owls were something of a distraction from the birds on the feeders and in particular the Redpolls that came with a bewildering variety of plumages. Most were quite clearly the flammea sub-species of Common Redpoll but just a few were much greyer and candidates for Arctic Redpoll, so I concentrated on trying to get some photos of them. A selection of these is given below. Having consulted with various people, and looked at various other shots of the same individuals, there is no consensus about the upper two birds. They have some characteristics of Arctic but have perhaps too much barring along the flanks, and the bills look quite large. The bird shown at the bottom appears to be the best candidate for Arctic Redpoll - it has much less streaking, may have a smaller bill, and looks slightly frostier than the others. The blurred shot of it in flight appears to show a large and very pale/white rump! Any other opinions welcome though - I do not claim to be a Redpoll ID expert.

Redpoll sp Redpoll sp
Birds showing some but not all of the characteristics of Arctic Redpoll
Arctic Redpoll Arctic Redpoll
The best candidate for Arctic Redpoll (click left to enlarge)!

Other birds on the feeders included masses of flammea Common Redpolls, a few Bramblings and the odd Northern Bullfinch. At feeders, it is always remarkably difficult to get good shots of birds in a nice pose, without seed in the bill or feeders in the shot!

flammea Common Redpoll Brambling (click to enlarge)
Bullfinch Bullfinch
Northern Bullfinch

4. Hills inland from Vadso (GPS 70.103396, 29.813649)
After a long morning in the Varanger Bird Park hide we the tried the hills inland from Vadso, as described by Gosney. A driveable track heads north from the E75 on the eastern side of Vadso and then heads a few miles into the interior. We got as far as a reservoir near to a hill with yet another radio tower on top. Our main aim was Long-tailed Skua but there was no sign of any, although one Arctic Skua briefly raised our hopes. We walked to the hills on both sides of the road but saw very little - no tundra species at all. The reservoir was slightly better with distant Long-tailed Ducks in summer plumage (a new one on me!) and a couple of Whooper Swans in the extreme distance, Red-throated Diver and Scoter.

5. Ekkeroy (GPS 70.076379, 30.102012 )
This is the location of a large sea bird colony but to reach it we went the long way, hoping to find some tundra species en-route based on info in Gosney's booklet. The track he mentioned wasn't driveable in our car and so we parked in the village at the GPS location given above, and walked first along a path that went east, parallel with the main track but further inland. We then found a faint track that took us over the top and down towards a point roughly midway along the sea bird colony on the cliffs below. This walk didn't unfortunately produce any tundra species. The views of the seabird colony were somewhat limited but there were masses of Kittiwakes, a few Guillemots and a scattering of Black Guillemots on the sea way below. No sign of any predators while we were there. We than walked west along the cliff top path until we reached the road that runs along the western shore at about 70.070566, 30.099830. Here there was a small colony of Arctic Terns breeding right by the road. So some targets for the camera at last!

Despite a fair amount of scanning, we could find no interesting sea duck in the bay, nor any waders on the beaches.

Arctic Tern Arctic Tern
Arctic Tern Arctic Tern
Arctic Terns (click all to enlarge)

6. Inland track to Lake Finnesvatnet (GPS 70.214300, 30.473031 )
I had high hopes for this track which leads 7km inland from close to a small headland called Kommagnes, as it was reputed to have many of the tundra species which we had missed so far, especially Long-tailed Skua. However with heavy overnight rain, it was very wet with formidable potholes. It was with considerable regret that even I had to admit defeat after about 3km of very slow progress. I suppose we could have walked in from there but we didn't - the weather was far from welcoming! There was just one bonus from this abortive detour - a most obliging beautiful northern Golden Plover that came very close to the car.

Golden Plover Golden Plover
Golden Plover (click right to enlarge)

7. Komagvaer (GPS 70.245815, 30.533087)
A little further north up the E75, the Tveit book mentions a headland that sounded promising so we paid it a visit en-route to Vardo. Parking on the approach track just beyond the small collection of houses, we did a circular walk that went first along the central track towards the coast and then round in a clockwise loop following the coast and then back to the car.

This turned out to be an excellent spot with various breeding waders that had eluded us until now. There were Redshanks above the marsh to the right of the main track. Further on there were Turnstones and Ringed Plovers nearer to the sea. A pair of Arctic Skuas were also in residence, harassing everything else! Back near the houses I went slightly to the north and found a confiding pair of Red-throated Pipits -the first of the trip. Down by the shore near the car were several Red-breasted Mergansers.

Arctic Skua (click to enlarge) Turnstone (click to enlarge)
Turnstone Redshank
Turnstone Redshank
Red throated Pipit
Red throated Pipit (click right to enlarge)
Red breasted Merganser
Moulting Red breasted Merganser

8. Kilberg to Vardo
The stretch of coast between Vadso and Vardo was also good for many White-tailed Eagles that sat around on rocks on other prominent look-outs.

White tailed Eagle White tailed Eagle
White tailed Eagles

The Tveit book also listed the headland above Kilberg so given the comparative success with Komagvaer described above, it seemed worth a try. However by the time we reached there the weather had deteriorated further and most of the walk was in fog! Despite this, there seemed to be very little around - nothing on the small lakes for example. I think all we could turn up in the gloom was the odd mournful Golden Plover and an extremely hardy Willow Warbler!  

Thereafter we headed further north in continuing foggy conditions to Vardo via its remarkable subsea tunnel. This small fishing town is on the extreme north eastern end of the Varanger Fjord. Remarkably it is further east than Istanbul, with a similar longitude to Antalya in Turkey which is where I was in April! In the cold, windy and foggy conditions of our arrival it was a particularly grey and desolate place, enlivened only by some bold graffiti - one example of which is shown below. Another read "Cod is great"! Apparently cold, foggy conditions are very usual here in summer. What it must be like in the perpetual darkness of mid winter is difficult to imagine.

9. Island of Hornoya
Fortunately by the next morning, the fog had lifted somewhat although it was still a cold, windy and very bleak day - requiring full UK winter birding gear! The small ferry to the nearby island of Hornoya departs at regular intervals during the day, with the first at 09:00 or 09:30. It is an informal service and reservations cannot be made in advance. We bought our tickets at the Vardo hotel but they can also be obtained from the nearby Information building on the quayside from where the boat departs. It is possible to get any of the returning boats back. We went out on the first morning sailing with just 3 other passengers and returned at about 11:30. This worked well for us - and many more people were expected in the afternoon. It is possible to stay all day until 17:00. The seating on the boat is inside, so relatively sheltered from the elements and the crossing only takes about 10mins. Once underway, I asked the boatman about the best way to see Brunnich's Guillemot which is surely what many coming to this remote island are interested in seeing, as it is the most convenient place for seeing them breeding in Europe! However he was surprisingly vague suggesting that perhaps they could best be seen by scanning the birds on the water.

This turned out to be an ill advised suggestion and I wasted a lot of time scanning the big flock of auks on the water close to the jetty without getting any 100% certain sightings. We then walked along the path to the right and up to where it met the skyline. This provided amazing and totally unexpected opportunities for flight shots of auks that were continually streaming past in large numbers at near eye level. Crucially they were flying into a strong head wind that was slowing them down sufficiently to make them easier than normal to photograph. The downside was the rotten light - not a hint of sun!

After spending some time here (with hindsight longer might have been better), and with our return sailing time looming we returned to the new shelter by the landing stage. Scanning the cliffs from here with my DO lens and new scope eyepiece combination, I almost immediately found several Brunnich's Guillemots on their breeding ledges. They were at about 1 o'clock from the shelter and from the lower parts of the cliffs up to about midway.

So for anyone keen to see Brunnich's Guillemots with minimal effort, I would suggest simply walking up the steps from the landing stage, sitting in the shelter facing the cliffs and carefully scanning the birds above. After about 5mins of arriving, you should get your target! It was only much later, back in the UK, that I found I had secured some flight shots of passing Brunnich's Guillemots from the same location as all the others!

Puffin Brunnich's Guillemot
Puffin (click to enlarge)  Brunnich's Guillemot 
Bridled Guillemot Razorbill
Guillemot   Guillemot
Shag  (click all above to enlarge)

10. Road to Hamningberg
After returning from the successful trip to Hornoya, we warmed up briefly in the Vardo hotel and then set out along the dead end road to Hamningberg. This road follows the north facing coastline and goes through some of the bleakest and most barren terrain I have ever experienced - made even more so by the weather which was cold, windy, wet at times and by the sea fog which had not fully dispersed and threatened to return at any time!

Our first stop was a quarry near to Vardo (GPS 70.3905,31.0046) that is said by Gosney to contain regular nesting Rough-legged Buzzards, but given the birds we hadn't seen at many of his other sites, imagine our surprise when we actually found a large immature in residence, just above the eyrie! Also present in the quarry was a very mobile Snow Bunting (our only one of the trip). On our return the Buzzard had gone, so maybe it had fledged and left the quarry that very day.

Slightly further on there is a vast area of marshes, mainly to the south of the road, with a strangely designed shelter giving very distant views. Here we saw our first Scaup of the trip and the odd Long-tailed Duck but we didn't stay long in the bitterly cold conditions.

Resuming our westward journey, we soon came across a smaller lake much closer to the road (possibly at 70.430883, 30.910437) that had a pair of Red-throated Divers and a Dunlin on the tundra. This was more like it!

Red throated Diver Dunlin
Red throated Diver Dunlin

At around 70.428823, 30.810705 there were some impressive cliffs on the south side of the road, which were reported to have had nesting Gyr Falcon in 2007. Unfortunately we could see no signs of this, although a falcon did fly into the cliffs at one point. However it looked too dark for a Gyr and reviewing my ultra distant record photos later showed it to be 'only' a Peregrine, which do occur even this far north in summer. Also present on these cliffs was a pair of adult Rough-legged Buzzards.

Probably the best site along this road was at Sandfjord which is a bay just short of Hamningberg with a river coming down from the hills. There is some shelter that has allowed a reasonable amount of willow scrub to survive in this inhospitable wilderness! This was supposedly a good site for Arctic Redpolls, according to both Gosney and Tveit. Indeed Redpoll were the first birds I saw after emerging from the car, but they showed none of the required characteristics and were clearly just yet more flammea. Going for a brief wander around I found none of the waders Gosney mentions on a small island in the river to the south of the road, but it was a pleasant spot with more Red-throated Pipits, another Bluethroat, the inevitable Redwings and Redshank. Also several more Common Redpolls - but with no hint of any Arctics.  

All along this road the bays are reputed to have possible White-billed Divers even in June, but we saw no sign of these although we didn't do a great deal of serious scanning for them. There were plenty of Goosander though!

Bluethroat Bluethroat
Another Bluethroat (click left to enlarge)

The small collection of houses (only occupied now in summer months) that makes up Hamningberg marks the end of the road and a more desolate spot is hard to find! Earlier in the year, this is top sea watching site, but as late June is far too late for this we didn't try, although at least one Gannet passed by.

11. Vardo to Inari via Neiden
The next day it was unfortunately time to start our return southwards. In somewhat better conditions than when we arrived, we departed from Vardo and initially headed south and west along the E75. This time the stretch of road just south of Vardo that rises slightly wasn't in fog, and I caught a glimpse of some Red-necked Phalaropes on the roadside pools. As before, several White-tailed Eagles were seen before reaching Vadso.

At Skallelv the small amount of mud along the river (70.185783, 30.325708) produced our only Temminck's Stints of the trip, but they weren't as tame as I was expecting and flew off too soon! There was also a Wheatear feeding young in a nest here. Between Vadso and Varangerbotn there were at least two roadside Rough-legged Buzzards. At Varangerbotn we parked by the museum and stretched our legs slightly by walking to the hides at the end of a short boardwalk, but the tide was out and there was nothing to be seen. However there was a briefly obliging Pied Flycatcher nesting in a box very close to the boardwalk.  

Pied Flycatcher
Pied Flycatcher

Along the E6, heading east towards Neiden, we spotted a distant flock of grey Geese in flight - presumably Bean Geese, but they were far too far away to be sure. There were also a couple more Rough-legged Buzzards. Arriving at Neiden, we turned left off the main road and followed the SatNav to the church (69.70213,29.38824). We were somewhat surprised to find the car park full - surely not with twitchers looking for the Arctic Warblers?! No they weren't - it took only a moment to realise that a wedding was in progress! Somewhat nonplussed, we headed back down the approach track and parked in an entrance to an inviting looking meadow below the church at about 69.702017, 29.389969. I then explored, walking slightly west of south parallel with the church and grounds above and to the right. At the end, the meadow narrowed and I found myself at an odd "encampment" consisting of a few unattended wigwams by a stream. Here I began to hear what sounded very like an Arctic Warbler, but it took me some time to locate it on the other side of the stream - singing for all its worth from the very the top of the tallest tree!! A really great find and one I really wasn't expecting. It was probably at about 69.700889, 29.389645. Not an easy photographic subject though - distant silhouettes against grey skies never are!

Arctic Warbler Arctic Warbler
Arctic Warbler in the top of a tree!

Thereafter, the 971 from Neiden to Inari was a perfectly OK road going through miles after mile of forest and lakes but we saw little as we sped along, apart from a very tatty Red Fox with a mouth full of prey (not sure what but looked like small mammals)!

Red Fox
Red Fox with a mouthful of prey!

The Hotel Kultahovi where we stayed had a feeder which was attracting only Siskins and while we were there, with a Pied Flycatcher in a nest box. No sign of any Pine Grosbeaks! The next day we drove the short distance to Ivalo for our flights home with the only notable birds being 3 Black-throated Divers on Lake Inari.

Nearly the midnight sun from the Toivoniemi Bird Tower!

Accommodation Details

Place Comment
Hilton Helsinki Airport This hotel provided a convenient place for our night in Helsinki en-route to Ivalo. It was a large, comfortable international hotel, within about 5-10mins walk of terminal 2. Not too expensive, especially given the favourable exchange rate. It is easy to get the airport bus into the city centre for the evening. 
Neljän Tuulen Tupa Probably the only roadside cafe in the world with Pine Grosbeaks in summer! The rooms in the main building were fine with a shower and two bunk beds, so neither of us had to climb up. Also a small table and chairs. All meals are served - the large portions for dinner mean you certainly won't go hungry. Pine Grosbeaks can sometimes be watched at a range of less than a metre through the window while having dinner! Did us perfectly well for 2 nights.
Vadso Fjord Hotel Was previously called the Nobile Hotel and was nicely situated with views of the harbour from our room (requested in advance). This place clearly has aspirations to attract birders and has a large sign saying "Birders Basecamp". Inside there is a small chalkboard in the reception with bird sightings on it. I'm not sure how often this is updated as there was no sign of the large numbers of Stellar's Eiders reported at Ekkeroy. Also few if any of the other guests appeared to be birders! In fact the whole place seemed quite quiet. The room itself was OK but seemed a bit overpriced given its moderate facilities. It only serves breakfast and dinner options in Vadso were apparently limited to some fast food outlets, the Scandic hotel (which was quite expensive and memorable only for the rawest steak I have ever been served!) and the Indigo Indian Restaurant - surely the most northerly Indian in the Western Palearctic at least?! We were the only customers here but the food was fine and better priced than the Scandic.
Vardo Hotel Seemed a bit like the inside of a ship but maybe that was due to all the insulation needed in winter! Our room was however fine and overlooked the harbour (again requested in advance). Dinner options in Vardo seemed even more limited than in Vadso - to this hotel only. The food was perfectly good though, from what I can remember
Hotel Kultahovi, Inari Our comfortable ground floor room was in a separate block and had a nice view towards the river. It wasn't that spacious but did have its own sauna! The dinner was by far the best meal we had on this trip with some entertainment provided by the feeders and the Pied Fly nesting in a box by the river. Recommended. Seems to only take reservations via

© All pictures copyright Stephen Burch 


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