Monthly Archives: May 2011

The Blue Fulmar Pelagic

A New Western Palearctic Experience

After the Gyr Falcon we collected our gear and headed, via some ‘white-out conditions’ in land, for Batsfjord harbour.  A pioneering adventure had been dreamed up by our host Tormod Amundsen. A birding frontier! The plan was to take 70 km boat ride and chum the icy Barents Sea beyond land between Batsfjord and Syltefjord. The boat trip had been already put off the previous day due to windy conditions and rough seas. The wind had dropped- but not that much. All agreed however we were game for it!

This dapper little orange number is on over my coat and 4 other layers. I was told I would need it. (Tormod Amundsen)

The rest of the crew- time I introduced them properly (photo, Tormod Amundsen) :

Top Row, left to right:

James McCallum, André van Loon, Ruud van Beusekom, Jörg Kretschmar, Nigel Jones and Chris Lansdell.

Bottom Row, left to right:

Hans Ueli Grütter, Steve Rogers, Colin McShane and moi

A ‘double dark’ Atlantic Blue Fulmar. With a sea swell of 10-15 feet, icy cold winds and birds swooping past feet away it rocked! Once we had left land behind we soon encountered a fishing trawler and began chumming with fish livers. Within minutes literally hundreds of Fulmars, more than 70% of them ‘blues’ were in our wake and circling our little boat.

Is this Barents Sea pelagic the best opportunity to see Blue Fulmars in the Western Palearctic? Icelandic and Jan Mayen breeders are still predominated by white-headed birds. The ‘True Blues’ are birds of the High Arctic (Svalbard, Franz Josef Land, Novaya Zemlya etc). The Barents Sea however is a major feeding ground for the High Arctic populations (BWP). I must be the best place to look for Pacific Fulmar ssp. rodgersii to get the Western Palearctic first. I hope to go back and look again.

Blue Fulmar (Tormod Amundsen). Quickly dubbed the Blue Fulmar pelagic we also saw White-billed Divers, 4 auks species including  Brünnich’s Guillemot and Arctic Skuas. With perhaps c2,000 (majority Blue) Fulmars seen- they stole the show.

Unfortunately the considerable swell and need to keep moving (seasickness was present) photography was really tricky- sometimes it was better just to sit and watch with naked eye at the stunningly close views.

The next 2 photos give and idea of the height of the swell.

and the number of birds following and around us:

Ian Wallace’s term ‘Jumbo Blue’ sprang to mind a few times for some of the looking ugly brutes with extra black on the bill compared with white-headed (LL) type birds.

 Blue Fulmar (Jörg Kretschmar). Probably a D rather than DD (see below)

Ralph Palmers illustration I assume is based on James Fisher’s categorisation of Atlantic Fulmars.

Top left LL (Double Light).

Top right L (Light-we would call it a pale Blue Fulmar in U.K.)

Bottom left D (Dark or intermediate Blue Fulmar).

Bottom right DD (Double Dark)

I still find it a useful guide to roughly describing what a particular bird looks like- though the colour cline seems continuousness from double light to double dark.

Sated on Blue Fulmar we called by the seabird colony just north of Syltefjord. 1000’s of Kittiwakes, a Gannetry, auks and 4 White-tailed Eagle patrolled the cliffs.

A snow storm of Kittiwakes appeared for fresh fish livers

That would be an Atlantic (rather than Pacific) Kittiwake wing pattern.

…and finally arriving in calmer waters at Syltefjord where we were treated to hot dogs cooked over open fire in the middle of one of those wooden huts with fur-lined seats. And some Jamaican Rum to wash it down while we warmed up and dried off. Come on- you’ve got to join me next year  in Varanger just to experience this day!

All birding should be days like this!

P.S. They had to open the road for us.

The road leading out of Syltefjord had no yet been opened for the summer. Apparently they had been some reluctance and much persuasion needed to get the local council to open the road. Only as we drove down it did we realise why it was an issue. First photo in Syltefjord. Road clearance c 2-3 ft. depth of snow. A few miles down the road: road clearance perhaps 25 ft +. depth of snow. 2 diggers and sometimes dynamite is required to clear snow from the roads in Varanger.

Check out the 2nd photo. No wonder they were reluctant to clear the road for us!

Now who says we have problems with snow in the U.K?!!

Arctic Ocean Seawatch

Day One: Part Two

This is still the same day. Day one! We left Vadsø harbour eventually heading north via Nesseby and Varangerbotn. We searched in vain for Hawk Owl, but birds such as Arctic Redpoll, Brambling, Rough-legged Buzzard and White-tailed Eagle didn’t fail. Singing Redwing  and Fieldfare entertained too. Here’s where we ended Kjølnes Lighthouse, 6 km east of Berlevag:

Its worth zooming in and out on the map to get an idea of its location.

If you scroll down to the end- there’s a video clip of me waffling on about how great a seawatching place it is. First some en-route scenes:

Rough-legged Buzzard (©Steve Rogers) were regularly picked up from our bus. This one, an adult male I think, on account o’ them tail bars and bit more Common Buzzard-like body plumage.

Nesseby. Made more famous by a certain Mr G. Catley and a Soft-plumaged Petrel photographed from here in June 2009. In strong easterly winds it is perhaps one of Europe top seawatch spots- as yet little appreciated. Varanger Fjord is the largest in Norway and birds funnel in, reach Varangerbotn at the west end, and turn around flying close inshore past Nesseby. Fly-by Soft Plumaged Petrel, Spectacled Eider and possible Tufted Puffin bode well for future seawatches off here! The bushes look a good place for Eastern Palearctic passerine vagrants too…

While Hawl Owl searching, I left the chaps watching Northern Golden Plover and Whimbrel and found some exquisite singing Arctic Redpolls and more Brambling. Can’t complain.

It was  bit overcast and windy further highlighting how bleak and harsh it can be.

Starting to get used to regular Reindeer sightings. Indeed numbers may be too high, as there seems insufficient food to support them in the winter. Good news for sea eagles though. many Reindeer cadavers seems likely factor in increased numbers of Eagles. The rear deer is marked by Sami herders.

Kjølnes Lighthouse. North coast watching mecca. In about an hour and half in force 6 NW we clocked up some 6,000 Fulmar (c70% Blue Fulmar), 8 White-billed Divers (including flock of 7- most summer plumage adults) several Glaucous Gulls, plenty of auks of 4 species including adult summer and (presumed) first summer  Brünnich’s Guillemot, 70 Purple Sandpiper and White-tailed Eagle over.

It looked like this:

It sounded like this:

and this is what we ate: James McCallum models the year old piece of Cod. Caught last summer, dried outside, frozen outside over winter. Smashed with a lump of rock to loosen it up before our eyes and passed around as a refreshing snack!

Landward view of Kjølnes as James looks up at a Glaucous Gull flying over the lighthouse.

Coastline: Vadsø to Vardø

and back again!

Having travelled most of the day I arrived about 9pm on Monday 9th May in what I assumed was Vardø airport. At least that was the place I got off the plane and my luggage was also dropped off. The wind was blowing strongly and icy cold. From the airport’s ‘front’ door’, I could see plenty of  Kittiwakesargentatus Herring GullsArctic Skua and the odd Glaucous Gull heading out of Varanger Fjord. I waited patiently until all other passengers had been taxied away. No sign of my lift, I figured something wasn’t quite right- and it was 9:40pm. I approached a lone attendant. “This is Vardø airport?”

Vadsø. This is Vadsø. Vardø is 70 km that way” as he pointed NE. Thankfully he went, got his manager and before long a taxi was ordered and paid for by the airport (with full apologies- though I think i was partly culpable!) and I was on my way. I did my best to educate the driver about birds and he was more than obliging at making a few stops en route. Reindeer, Arctic Hare and Tundra Bean Geese told me where I was.

Vardø hotel later on in the week when the mini blizzard had subsided.

Arriving at the Vardø hotel around 11:00pm I was greeted very warmly by Steve Rogers and Hans Ueli Grütter. The hotel had prepared a plate of food, so I sat overlooking the harbour where, Black Guillemot, Long-tailed Duck, Common Eider, 2 Brünnich’s Guillemot and a bunch of Kittiwakes wrestled with strong winds. I shared a room with Ueli and only woke once around 2:30 am when the sun streaming through curtain gaps seemed surreal.

Harbour view from Vardø hotel restaurant

Breakfast at 7:00am and a nice surprise in the form of a grinning James McCallum;  I also knew André van Loon and Ruud van Beusekom from the Netherlands. A fly over White-tailed Eagle and Purple Sandpipers (plus other harbour-dwelling species) were fine backgound sights from the breakfast table.

A light blizzard greeted us outside as we embarked on a 5 hour drive and my first full day’s birding. We began by heading back along the very same route I had taken the previous evening; to Vadsø. The coastline here is exceptional. It would not be far off to describe it as a 70km long birding experience. Bay after bay holds wintering sea duck. White-tailed Eagles, Rough-legged Buzzard and Arctic Skua regularly draw your gaze. Flocks of Snow Bunting appear along the roadside. Busy, large gull flocks occur over the sea and along the shorelines; Bean Geese stand out in flattened grassy fields.

Varanger tundra birding

3 stops stand out in my mind:

randon bay south of Vardø

A larger flock of White-tailed Eagles (c12 birds- adults and immatures) were gathered, presumable around a Reindeer carcass. Nearby a flock of Tundra Bean Geese also contained a handful of Pinkfeet Geese. As we watched these a flock of c 120 Snow Bunting flew in containing a few (summer plumaged!) Lapland Buntings and a couple of Shore Lark were nearby.

White-tailed Eagles (lower photo © Steve Rogers). Hard to miss! Especially when they occur in flocks of up to 30. And they really do live by the sea. Later in the week I watched one hunting Common Scoter!

Arctic Skua and Kittiwake. 2 species commonly seen along the coast road. © Steve Rogers

Male Snow Buntings. Flocks emerge along the roadside sometimes numbering up to c200. These 2 are of the expected nominate form ssp. nivalis Later in the week, I did find at least one male whose plumage looked spot-on for the Siberian form ssp. vlasowae. More on that soon.

Tundra Bean Geese and Pink-footed Geese. © Steve Rogers. Can you identify the individual birds in the photo?  I also saw a handful of Taiga Beans in mixed flocks later in the week. More on these to come as well…

Skallelv Village

This was one of my favourite spots. A small river estuary is overlooked by a garden with bird feeders. Which means redpolls. Which means stunning little white fluffy things at very close range and probably some ID conundrums! Gaudy summer plumaged Brambling were also here. I’ll do a fuller post just on the Arctic and Mealy Redpolls later.

Adult males of  Arctic and Mealy Redpoll at Skallelv (Tormod Amundsen). See? They’re easy ; )  This place would draw me back more than once.

Adult male Brambling at Skellelv. © Steve Rogers

Vadsø Harbour

The Steller’s Eider mecca. While they can be found strung out elsewhere along the coast, this harbour is the number one spot on the Western Palearctic for this Siberian species. I wrestled with and tried to learn about the ageing and sexing (especially of young birds) and just enjoyed the colourful and slightly bizarre plumage attributes of this beautiful sea duck. Fuller post on age/ sex of Steller’s Eiders later.

Steller’s flock at Vadsø. Tormod Amundsen

adult male Steller’s Eider at Vadsø harbour.© Steve Rogers

As his offices overlooked the harbour, the local newspaper editor came down for a ‘scoop’. As I was being interviewed he must have been slightly bewildered when I bolted off at the sight of 2 Long-tailed Skua gliding over us. He even mentions it in his write-up!

P.S. in the smaller  photo at the bottom, the Steller’s Eider flock is not far out just over my left shoulder. Had the photo been a little better…would have been a gripper.

May 10 Varanger


How to take it all in. Taxi was needed as I got off at the wrong airport! Late night drive got me Reindeer, Arctic Hare, and Tundra Bean Geese. 11:00pm as ate late snack, I could see Brunnich’s Guillemot and Long-tailed Duck from my bedroom window. This morning 7am breakfast and straight out. A day filled not just with good birds but good scenes full of good birds of several species. e.g days end was marked by a seawatch in strong NW wind. best? flock of 7 (mostly full summer plumaged) White-billed Divers just off-shore, fly -by Brunnich’s in winter and summer plumage, hundreds if not thousands of Blue Fulmar of varying intensity, Long-tailed Duck, Glaucous Gulls etc etc.

The first birds this morning were White-tailed Eagles (one from breakfast table) including one flock of 12 birds with Snow and Lap Bunting, Shorelark and Tundra Bean Geese all in same area.

A couple of small groups of close range Arctic Redpolls– stunning!

A harbour  bespangled with Steller’s Eider and fly-over Long-tailed Skuas (I broke off interview with local newspaper to chase after them, leaving proprietor looking bewildered!

Tonight I am sleeping in cabin which Gyr Falcons hunt over- tomorrow looks like could be a good day!

Must get some sleep! night night. A few photos from today. Some have much better ones than me,  so more to follow.

A young lad’s dream

The Arctic Blog- beginning today

I am writing en route to Heathrow Airport.  3 flights via Oslo and Kirkenes will see me arrive tonight at Vardø, Varanger, over 300 km north of the Arctic Circle. Western Russia will be just across the water and south from me! This is the destination of dreams. Well, my dreams at least. This take some back to a time before birding (is there such a time?!). To a 9 year old who collected cards and albums from Brook Bond tea. From several albums collected I kept just one.

I still have it. There was something magical about the inhospitable lands of the north. Adjectives struggle to capture the sense of wonder it invoked. Bleak and rugged, fascinating people and most seemingly some of the most amazing wildlife. Creatures like Wolverine and Arctic Fox. Bird such as the Gyr Falcon and King Eider. well I am on my way there now and over the next week I will be writing down all my experiences there (internet permitting). Your welcome to follow the adventure…

This photos taken a couple of weeks ago by my guide, Tormod Amundsen. He emailed yesterday to say they had seen Brown Bear, Pine Grosbeak and Siberian Tit. Last week he was still reporting 2500 Glaucous Gulls and 4500 King Eider near the hotel I will be staying in tonight. How will I sleep?

And here is where this dreamer started- my Brooke Bond album with exerts from c 1973. My Aunty Margaret (who died earlier this year) use to send some of the cards from England to Canada. It’s very nostalgic- but that part of seeing dreams come true isn’t it?