Stephen Burch's Birding & Dragonfly Website
20 June to
28 June 2015
By Stephen Burch, England
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!
Finland - Ivalo region north
to the Norwegian border
1. Toivoniemi Bird Tower
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.
2. Neljän Tuulen Tupa at
69.182450, 27.214723 )
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.
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!
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
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.
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!
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
69.814028, 27.172159 )
5. Track up Mount Ailegas
near to Utsjoki
69.913327, 27.083770 )
Norway - Varanger Fjord
2. Vadso Island
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.
3. Varanger Bird Park
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.
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.
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!
4. Hills inland from Vadso
70.076379, 30.102012 )
6. Inland track to Lake
70.214300, 30.473031 )
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.
8. Kilberg to Vardo
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
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!
10. Road to Hamningberg
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!
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!
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
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.
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!
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)!
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.
© All pictures copyright Stephen Burch