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 Biotope.no.
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 ( www.dogpower.no ), 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' (www.vadsoefjordhotell.no ) 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.