Sunday, 30 March 2014

Cod is Great

Hornøya seabird cliff is a true wildlife spectacle.  In seabird terms it is like the Farne Islands with knobs on (and without the hoards of people).  As we approached the island, clouds of auks lifted from the sea around us.  Once on land, waves and waves of Puffins and Guillemots wheeled around, settling on the cliffs, fighting over a scrap of precious ground and then leaping off the cliffs en masse to descend to the sea again. The mass wheeling around is accompanied by fighting in all areas.  In particular the Puffins provide some amazing fight scenes .  However, if you want to witness this activity, it is relatively short-lived for a few weeks in early spring as the birds arrive back on the cliff and claim territory.  Surveys suggest that between 100,000 and 150,000 birds breed on the island, recent surveys show 20,000 pairs of Puffin, 6,000 - 7,000 pairs of Guillemot, 400-500 pairs of Brünnich’s Guillemots and 12,000 pairs of Kittiwake. 

Boats out to the island are provided by Vardo Harbour KF (, dropping you at a small jetty on the island.  A Biotope hide sits at the base of the cliff, cleverly designed to provide shelter in all weather conditions.  A path then winds along the base of the cliffs, with auks just above your head, and then rises up to the top of the island to provide eye-level views of the birds and then the most spectacular views of the wider area.  Undoubtedly, part of the attraction of this site is its wildness, but it should be possible to get more people to enjoy this spectacle. Increased visitor access could be achieved without detrimental effect if careful thought is given to access provision.

However, there are other less obvious and potentially much more important factors affecting the seabird populations. Luckily the seabirds in Varanger have been well studied.  The Guillemot population collapsed by more than 80% during the winter of 1986/1987, but has since steadily increased.  By contrast, there has been a large decline in Kittiwake numbers in the Varanger region since 1980.  Food availability has long been suggested to play a major role in regulating seabird populations. In general, seabirds feed on small pelagic fish and the younger age classes of larger predatory fish.   The fish species considered important on Hornøya are Capelin and Cod. When the Guillemot population collapsed in 1986/1987,  a long-term study showed that the abundance of the key fish prey was very low.  As the numbers of Guillemots increased, the study showed the annual variation in population growth could best be explained by the variation in abundance of Cod fry and Capelin. So what about the Kittiwakes?  Studies have shown that Kittiwake clutch size is a good indicator of feeding conditions.  Although clutch size of the Hornoya birds is good, they have continued to decline whilst other colonies in the region have increased.  The reason remains unclear.  However, on our own visit it was clear that Mink are numerous on the island and this should certainly be of concern.  

Fish populations are also of great importance to the local community of course; as it states on the harbour-side building at Vardo “Cod is Great”.  As you travel around the area, fish drying racks are an obvious feature. ‘Stockfish’ is an unsalted fish, especially Cod, dried by cold air and wind on wooden racks called hjell.  The drying of food is the world's oldest known preservation method and dried fish has a storage life of several years.   Stockfish is Norway's longest sustained export commodity and apparently the most profitable export over the centuries.  It is popular and widely eaten in Mediterranean countries (and by me!).

So Cod is indeed Great.   It supports the local community and the fantastic seabird populations.   The sustainable management of fish stocks are clearly paramount to this wonderful place.

Wednesday, 26 March 2014

Gullfest 2014

There is a lot of truth to the saying that there is no such thing as bad weather, just the wrong clothing.  If, like me, you generally feel that temperatures of -25o C, blizzards and cold winds are to be avoided, then think again.  With a couple of pairs of thermal long johns, a down jacket and wool socks on board, I was off to Varanger in arctic Norway to join in Gullfest 2014, the brainchild of Tormod Amundsen and Elin Taranger of

This year’s event was largely a tour of the key birding sites of the region, anchored by a series of talks and events in the communities along the route.  The first stop was a traditional Norwegian cabin in the Pasvik taiga ( ), or more correctly, the first rather rapid stop was a roadside Hawk Owl just outside the airport. A good start.  It was with some trepidation that we headed for the forest cabin - what it lacked in electricity, it made up for in forest birds - Pine Grosbeaks, Siberian Tit, Willow Tit, Arctic Redpoll, Northern Bullfinch and Siberian Jay.  All at point blank range - a feature of the whole trip.  With the feeders around the cabin kept nicely stocked with seed, birds were coming and going all day. A lack of light pollution, a starry night, -25o C, the Northern Lights and a Reindeer stew cooked by our hosts all added to the experience.

Hornøya seabird cliff is simply mind blowing. 100,000 seabirds were arriving to claim their tiny cliff ledge territories.  Waves and waves of Puffins and Guillemots wheeled around and around, settling on the cliffs, fighting over a scrap of precious ground and then descending to the sea again en masse. Brunnich's and Black Guillemots, Razorbills, Shag and Kittiwakes add to the throng, with Glaucous Gulls and, if you're lucky (we weren’t), Gyr Falcon overhead.

Then out by boat into the Eider Vortex. Now I am not an ‘OMG’ person; it's a bit cringe-worthy, but, OMG!  Around 25,000 Common and King Eiders flying past, over and behind you is one of THE wildlife spectacles to be found anywhere.  As it turned out, it was even more OMG than usual, as Tormod later spotted a Pacific Eider in his photographs that must have flown by us on the day. I’m still searching through mine!

Places like the Vadsø fjordhotel ' The Birders Basecamp' ( ) make it easy.  Bloat out on the local food (Reindeer heart and asparagus with crowberry for starters -yum) then sort out the next day’s birding.  The locals used to have two words for birds; måse and titting (big birds - little birds) but now they have a 'what's about' board in reception.  The best was saved for last – a morning in the floating hide at Båtsfjord – but more of this later.  Overall, this was a great trip; fantastic birds, fabulous birding company and frozen toes (okay just joking).  I want to go again.  Huge thanks to Tormod and Elin for organizing it all.

Thursday, 13 March 2014

Sunken hides

Meeting up with Tormod and Elin of Biotope last year has inspired a lot of discussion on the form and function of observation hides and viewing platforms.  We are looking at bringing some of their ideas to the UK and one of the tough parts of my job is that I now have to go up to Varanger, Norway next week for Gullfest 2014 in order to get a close view of some of their designs.

Recently, I was up at the RSPB Dearne Valley reserve at Old Moor running a soils and hydrology course.  It is always a pleasure to visit this well run and ‘thinking’ reserve. Two booming Bitterns in the small area of reedbed is their reward for good habitat management. The scrape management is excellent and underlined by the 30 species of wader recorded last year (the 4th best RSPB site). However, my attention this visit was drawn to their new ‘sunken hide’ – a hide with the viewing slots at ground level so you are eye-to-eye with the buntings, finches and Tree Sparrows coming in to a feeding station.  Last year, on my last visit, we had discussed how we could provide new types of viewing and photographic opportunities and no surprise, the team has delivered. More details here.

Also getting in on the act is Rye Meads. A new Kingfisher bank and bat hibernaculum is taking shape on the edge of the scrape, accompanied by a low level, close viewing and photographic hide.  But the best is yet to come….

Pics above - Old Moor reed bed (RSPB Dearne Valley), their 'sunken hide', Rye Meads Kingfisher bank taking shape.