Monthly Archives: May 2011

Varanger’s Auk Island


Friday 13th May, it was the first day without the rest of the gang. An early morning walk on Vardø Island got me a flushed Woodcock and singing Shore Lark.  Summer plumaged Purple Sandpipers and a 3rd summer Glaucous Gull were in the harbour as I began a short boat ride. I crossed large rafts containing Guillemot, Razorbill,  Brünnich’s Guillemot and Puffins (as well as all them Eider). The boat passes an island of 40,000 argentatus Herring Gulls and you reach Hornøya. The last place in NE Europe. Beyond it Russia, Siberia and the High Arctic.

I had 4 hours on the island all by myself. Wonderful, and actually not enough time! It’s only small and unlike most other seabird colonies I have seen, the birds are above you and alongside you with a constant stream of close fly-by’s. Want to learn you auks? Come here! I want to do a couple of posts on interesting plumage features of Arctic Guillemot ssp. hyperborea and my flight impressions of Brünnich’s Guillemot. For now overall impressions:

Purple Sandpiper © Steve Rogers.  Plenty to be seen on the Varanger rocky coastlines, sometimes in flocks of 100’s. Plenty in the harbour.

This Glaucous Gull waved me off on the boat journey. Dark bill marks and brownish tones in wing coverts-guess it’s about third summer.

Arriving on Hornøya I was greeted by a line of clownish-looking Shag, nest defending ‘argy’ Herring Gulls and a seabird colony viewed from Tormod’s bespoke, strategically placed hide.

I think some of these hyperborea ‘Arctic Guillemots‘ might actually be identifiable if they turn up away from their core zones- e.g. Britain in winter. There is a specific feature I noted in the field. More soon.

The Brünnich’s Guillemots liked the higher spots on the cliff face. Scandinavian Rock Pipit, a greyish Chiffchaff at the lighthouse and an Otter were very nice ‘padders’.

The Varanger Crew


This is a pause mid-blog on the trip to say thank you. Brünnich’s Guillemot and friends still to come.

To Tormod Amundsen who organised the whole promotion tour. A very enterprising young Norwegian with load of vision and energy (and projects!). He descibes himself as a Birder and Architect with a vision to combine the two:

Tormod at Vardø Harbour. There’s an adult Glaucous Gull bathing in front of us and handful of King Eider further out with bunch of other seaduck. It’s a place where both Ross’s Gull and Sabine’s Gull were seen on the same day in May 2010.

To Kate Utsi of the tourism portal Destination Varanger for her excellent organisation and sorting out last-minute changes with constant smile.  see

and to this lot for companionship with all the shared birds, wildlife and scenery.

André van Loon. Dutch Birding:

Steve Rogers.  SWOptics: and

Ruud van Beusekom. Birding Breaks:

James McCallum. Wildlife artist:

Jörg Kretschmar. Ozellus:

Nigel Jones. Ornitholidays:

Chris Lansdell. Oenanthe Birding Adventures:

Hans Ueli Grütter. Liberty Bird:

Colin McShane. Avian Adventures:

Upcoming Speaking Engagements

This is where…

I will be giving talks between August 2011 and February 2012. If your interested in me coming to your group/ club in 2011/2012,  give us shout:

If you are in one of these areas at the right time – make and date and come along!

The Birdfair at Rutland Water

 19th, 20th and 21st August 2011. Each day in a Lecture Marquee in association with Swarovski Optic.

Spurn Bird Observatory

 East Yorkshire.  Early September 2011.  Date tbc.

Helgoland Bird Observatory

Germany. Around 20th-23rd Oct. 2011

Kent Ornithological Society

Thursday 10th Nov. 2011

Cheshire and Wirral Ornithological Society

 Friday Dec. 2nd 2011

Derbyshire Ornithological Society

Friday 24th February 2012

Siberian Snow Bunting

Should it be on the British List?

Heading up the northern shoreline of the Varanger fjord, Tormod and I encountered some fantastic flocks of seaducks. With some much food-rich water, most bays contain seaducks and gulls.  With a bit of looking a few Steller’s Eiderwere found and stragglers of the wintering King Eider population. In one bay we counted over 4,000 Long-tailed Duck. We also found a flock of Common Scoter which at one point came under attack by a White-tailed Eagle (quite a sight!) and a small pod of Velvet Scoter nearby (yes I did look for rarer vagrants amoung them!)

We then called in again at my insistence to see the redpolls at Skellelv. On the way out of the village we encountered a flock of c100 + Snow Buntings and I soon latched onto one with stunningly large area of white on the upperparts. Got Tormod onto it and told him I thought it was probably a Siberian bird (ssp. vlasowae). I have mentioned these before:

Siberian Snow Buntings apparently breed from the base of the Petchora river (NW European Russia through to far east Siberia – Chukotka etc). See a Japanese field guides to see what they look like. Well it would seem highly likely to me that some ssp. vlasowae could easily reach here regularly given how near the Petchora is from Varanger. I bet some even make it to Britain. The hardy Arctic buntings like Snow and Lapland are also mega- travelers. Here’s what it looked like (sorry the photos not great):

Siberian Snow Bunting, ssp. vlasowae, Skellelv, Varanger, 12 May 2011.

I don’t think Siberian Snow Buntings are viewed as mega rare in Norway. I guess they are occasionally encountered in flock of nominate nivalis– as we did. In Britain, with a bit of looking and asking, I learnt there have been candidates in Berkshire (old specimen), Worcester, Northumberland and North Norfolk, (especially thanks to Chris Kehoe).

Worth looking for don’t you think …!!??

There is talk of intergrades. Here’s another male  (bottom right of photo) Tormod and I had in the same flock which shows extensive white with small patch of warm butterscotch brown (sound tasty colour doesn’t it?). We discussed this bird at the time and I wasn’t inclined to claim this as vlasowae but hypothetically maybe this what an intergrade male might look like?

Fieldfare and Redwing are also the commonest thrushes with the occasional Continental Song Thrush. This Fieldfare was in the ‘Redpoll garden’

Mystery Photo:

I will be doing a longer bit of easy and tricky redpolls. For now a lovely male Arctic Redpoll with the most extensively coloured underparts I saw- but I never saw any  male Arctics  with deeper colour of pink than this.

So what is the ID of the bird below do you think? Mealy Redpoll or Arctic Redpoll?

Is it an Arctic or a  Mealy?? (my answer soon)

Hawk Owl

When bad news is really good news

Thursday 12th May. Up early for breakfast. Packed and ready to go. Mid way through the grub and some bad news: The flight back to Vardø for me and Kirkenes for the rest of the group had just been cancelled. Yikes! The guys had a flight to catch. That meant a pell-mell drive with Hans at the wheel over the iciest roads I have ever seen driven at speed. So over the ‘inland white-out’ we sped, noting (Rock) Ptarmigan, Reindeer and more Snow Bunting flocks en route. Then we entered the Hawk Owl zone. Not feeling so optimistic as we had already tried and failed, suddenly a voice rang out “stop the bus!!” Yep we could manage 5 minutes to look at this baby.  What a bird! In the end no less than 3 Hawk Owls were seen in seen over the course of 15-20 minutes driving including one I spotted on the roof of a house!

Hawk Owl, Varanger, May 2011.  Hans Ueli Grütter.  A cancelled flight can be such good news!

My efforts were less good than Ueli’s- but this one shows the extra black at the back (of the head)

The bus dropped me, James McC and Tormod off in Varangerbotn. We were then met by Kate Utsi our ‘fixer’ for the trip. Pause a minute: she did an amazing job. More here: We  headed on to Vadsø. A walk around Vadsø island was most memorable for c 12 Lapland Buntings including several stunning males.

Lapland Bunting Vadsø Island, May 2011.

Never taken for granted, we also took time to watch the Steller’s Eiders again in the harbour and were delighted to see an adult (summer) Iceland Gull. We then carried on towards Vardø with the wonderful loan of Kate’s car (to be continued…).

Hans Ueli’s photos again below (star man!)

Hunting White-tailed Eagle

It’s all in the wrist action

One of the more bizarre things I learnt was the way the some White-tailed Eagles hunt Kittiwake chicks. Indeed I saw one bird circling in narrow space very close to the cliffs. What they do is fly as close as possible and flick the wings down in rapid motion which creates a corresponding rush of air. This in turn blows young Kittiwakes off the cliff ledges where they are scooped up in the talons of the Eagle.

More starter than main course though surely?!

 One of 4 White-tailed Eagles at Syltefjord cliffs, where they hunt Kittiwakes using wing and wind power.  Hans Ueli Grütter