Sunday, 27 March 2016

Norway 2016, Part I: forest birding in Øvre Pasvik National Park

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:

16th March

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

Siberian Jays

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

Another Mealy

Coue's Arctic Redpoll, mid hop

Siberian Tit

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...)

Tuesday, 22 March 2016

Back from Norway!

As some of you may know, last week I attended this year's Gullfest - an annual birding festival run by Biotope ( in the far north-eastern Varanger Peninsula in Norway. I joined fellow young birders Jonnie Fisk, Ed James, Tim Jones, James O'neill and Olly Metcalf to explore the amazing selection of birdlife on offer in the region, as well as attending the superb events run as part of Gullfest. It was great also to see Darren Woodhead (leading bird artist in the UK), along with Biotope coordinator Tormod Amundsen (also an awesome photographer), plus a whole host of other interesting people like ringer Kane Brides.

All-in-all it was a superb event, hugely enjoyable, and made very dramatic indeed by the arctic conditions! I will write a full review on my blog in the coming weeks, but for now here are a few images to wet your appetite!

Arctic birding! This was in pursuit of a white morph Gyr Falcon, shortly after Ed had spotted one mobbing a White-tailed Eagle out of the car window! #onlyinNorway

The aurora was pretty spectacular on our first night in to the south of Kirkenes in the Øvre Pasvik National Park 

One of the highlights of the trip -HAWK OWL (absolutely stunning birds, with such an inferior demeanor)

King Eider - these showed amazingly well in the harbour where Gullfest is based, on the island of Vardo

Siberian Jays were present in the sparse Birch and Pine forests in the Øvre Pasvik National Park 

The island beside Vardø is called Hornøya, and is home to tens of thousands of auks, including a fair number of smart Bridled Guillemots (above) and Brunnich's Guillemots

The NGB team

Sunday, 13 March 2016

Dolphin Encounter - a superb weekend wildlife cruise

I was lucky enough to be crewing an AK Wildlife Cruise last weekend, when we had a rather special encounter with numerous Common Dolphin pods and feeding frenzies off the coast around Falmouth. It was a pretty special experience, and so I thought I'd write up a blog post on the trip, including some of the other wonderful wildlife that we saw.

The day of our cruise dawned calm and cloudy - a slight breeze from the north and somewhat chilly, which were promising conditions for the day's trip. After preparing the vessel - 'Free Spirit' - for her day's work, and collected our clients for the day (a group of students from the university), we motored out of Falmouth marina with high hopes and anticipation for what the day might bring. 

St Mawes Lighthouse

Even just cruising through Falmouth harbour can be great for wildlife, getting close views of Little Grebes, Shags, Cormorants, Little Egrets and a broad selection of gull species; and further out in the bay can often reward with Great Northern Divers and the odd Black-necked or Slavonian Grebe. On this particular occasion, were weren't treated to anything extraordinary as we headed out to sea, but it is nevertheless great to see these smart and under-appreciated species.

Our immediate course for the morning took us in a series of zig-zags out from Falmouth Bay heading east past the Roseland Peninsula. Our aim was to scan the sea and pick up on some pods of dolphins. The sea was relatively flat, and the lighting reasonable for spotting our quarry, but disappointingly they just weren't there! We scanned and scanned for the best part of two hours, right and left; front and back; but there was no sign. Guillemots, Razorbills, Gannets and Kittiwakes sidled by, but our target cetacean species were just not out there. Somewhat disappointed at this lack of activity, we headed due north to take a look at the adjacent coastline, which is home to a diverse range of seabird and coastal bird species...

Working along the cliff-dominated coastline near Gerran's Bay, we stopped off at various seabird breeding colonies, where breeding adults were already busy constructing nests and congregating on the cliff ledges: Cormorants and Shags with their large messy nests of sticks and rope and seaweed; Fulmars pairing up on ledges with crying calls as squabbles between individuals became vocalised; and Guillemots lining up on their precarious perches too, though perhaps not thinking of breeding quite yet. We also had the fortune of coming across a pristine pair of Velvet Scoters in the bay, which gave a superb fly-by before heading out to sea. Great Northern Divers, Shags and Slavonian Grebes were great to see here too.

The gorgeous Velvet Scoters - a scarce species around the coast here, and a new one for me. The drake (left in the above image) is a stunning bird!

One of the breeding colonies of Cormorants. Apparently, the collective noun for these stocky seabirds can be a 'flight', a 'gulp', a 'sunning' or even a 'swim' of Cormorants. Which one to use depends on context I guess! What I do know, however, is that their long-winded scientific name (Phalocrocorax carbo) translates to a 'Bald Raven' (Phalakros and korax), with carbo translating to 'charcoal'. Not a particularly glamorous description!

There were plenty of Shags around the coast, and many of these glistening adult birds had already partially constructed their twiggy nests

After this great selection of birdlife, it was time to head seaward again, this time a little more E of the St Mawe's, but more or less to our previous position. As we headed out of the bay, we could see two gull and gannet feeding flocks on the horizon - no more than a mile distant - and so set our bearing and steamed off to find out more. Half way to one of these work-ups, the familiar dark shape of half a dozen dorsal fins broke the surface some 200 metres away: they were Common Dolphins. Finally! Obviously attracted to the fish the birds were feeding on, the dolphins were moving in that direction, but came to check us out and gave great views for everyone on board...but we didn't expect what ensued in the following two hours!

A short film that I compiled from video footage taken on the trip

Common Dolphins - always a delight to see, especially as they are particularly playful and will readily come and bow-ride 

The next two hours were utterly superb: where previously had been nothing at all, now it was full of cetaceans! The feeding flocks of birds were concentrated on bait balls of Herring, which was attracting more and more Common Dolphins in for the free-for-all. As we drifted alongside the developing feeding frenzies, dolphins began appearing out of nowhere and we spotted pod after pod all around us. We watched on as some of the pods closed in on the bait ball of small fish, working it into a tighter and tighter ball as the dolphins encircled on all sides. It was amazing to watch, especially with various other pods joining in and splitting off to come and eye us and the boat out - swimming alongside and riding the bow just a metre from our feet! Here is a video the shows some of the events unfolding: 

It really was pretty awesome, and not just because of the dolphins: just as much action was taking place above water, with Gannets and tens of gulls frantically trying to pick off any fish they could get a hold of. We came several of these bait balls, and in between the feeding flocks we were constantly surrounded by Common Dolphins, with our final estimate numbering some 180 animals! We were busy trying to get records inputted to our GPS database and sightings forms every few minutes - ultimately this data is going to be used to advise for areas of conservation importance for cetacean hotspots in the area, and allows for particularly good foraging areas to be pinpointed.

Some more images from the encounter:
A lovely juvenile, with rich yellow colouration
Most of the above images were taken of bow-riding dolphins, which species such as these Common Dolphin thoroughly enjoy! It is great fun lying on the bow of the boat, looking down on the sleek fusiform shapes of these superb creatures as they power ahead of the boat on the preceding wave

And a few shots above concentrating more on the feeding side of things, although the videos show this much better!

 I had great fun trying to photograph the Gannets as they dived like arrow shots into the water after the fish below. It is quite a challenge to stay locked on as they tuck in their wings and assume an amazingly streamlined shape. I was lucky to get a few reasonable images as they went about this brilliant spectacle

And so all-in-all it was a pretty cool day, with 180+ Common Dolphins, two Velvet Scoters, a host of fantastic seabirds and perfectly calm seas to accompany. AK Wildlife Cruises run throughout the year, and almost always see cetaceans on the trips out around the coast - they had 500 Common Dolphins on Saturday! If you are interested in coming along to one of these trips, then check out the website or facebook page for more details.