A New Western Palearctic Experience
This was just over a year ago. one of my favourite ‘experiments’ last year. Thought I would rewind and show it again. It showcased Varanger and some of it’s wonder. As I write a Pallid Harrier and Golden Oriole have been recorded there this last week (May 2012). Tormod A. and I reckon it is packed with vagrancy potential too. A story yet to be fully told…
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?!!