Birding by snowmobile, a barbeque at -18o whilst listening to a Tengmalm’s Owl, and crazy boat trips to an amazing seabird island; all were on offer at Gullfest 2016 in Varanger, in arctic Norway. I was more than fortunate to be invited for a second time by ‘super cool’ Tormod Amundsen and Elin Taranger of Biotope.no, the brains behind this imaginative northern festival of birding. Gullfest aims to boost Varanger's international recognition as a premium birding destination. It aims to promote the regions birds and nature, and build an appreciation of their potential value to local communities through tourism. Gullfest is a great blend of international birders and artists meeting local people during five days of talks, exhibitions, trips, art, bird ringing and more.
Ok, there’s not a great range of species to see in March, but what you do see are stunning. The Varanger coastline offers amazingly close views of King, Steller’s and Common Eider, large numbers of Glaucous Gulls and seabirds including Puffins and Brunnich’s Guillemots, White-tailed Eagles and Gyr Falcons. Venture down the Pasvik valley and the specialities include Pine Grosbeak, Siberian Tit, Siberian Jay, Hawk Owl and Arctic Redpoll.
Biotope is an architectural business with special expertise on birds and birdwatching. They see architecture as a tool to protect and promote birds, wildlife and nature. Their distinctive windshelters are now dotted through the landscape at key vantage points. The ‘graffiti’ painting of birds and birders on buildings throughout Vardø is an ingenious and amusing addition to the scenery.
What Tormod and Biotope have achieved in a few short years is impressive. A birding trip to arctic Norway is now easy and welcoming. Hotels are geared up for birders. This time we stayed at the Vardø Hotel (all 3 eiders from the bedroom windows) while 2 years ago we stayed at the equally good Vadsø fjordhotel 'The Birders Basecamp' at Vadsø. Down in Pasvik we stayed at Øvre Pasvik Camping. Local foods are excellent; mainly Cod or Reindeer based! In a wider context, Gullfest has enthused locals, particularly youngsters, about birds and conservation. How often do you see a class of schoolchildren learning about and sketching Glaucous Gulls caught for ringing? Gullfest has made important connections with local fishermen and has helped develop a tourist infrastructure for the region.
Highlights for me this time? Well, close-up views of King Eiders in Vardø Harbour takes some beating, but the trip out to Hornøya island was stunning. We set out in a blizzard over a raging sea. As we landed, rather unsteadily, on the island we wondered how long it would be before the boatman was called back. After 20 minutes or so the blizzard blew through and the sky cleared. Almost immediately wave after wave of auks came up over where I was standing to land on the cliffs above. Thousands of auks flew over me, around me, and by me in the time I stood there. All set against stormy seas and stunning scenery.
And then we travelled down the Pasvik valley to the Øvre Pasvik national park. Covering an area of 119 km2, the national park is dominated by Siberian-like taiga consisting of old-growth forests of Scots Pine, shallow lakes and bog. In summer, the forest and lakes support Capercaillie, Black Grouse, Wood Sandpiper, Smew and scoters. Birds are harder to find during the rather chilly and snowy winter but well-stocked feeders provide close views of Pine Grosbeak and the other specialities. However, for me, the stunning views of Hawk Owls take the biscuit (or was it the carefully prepared mock lemming?)
Check out the Biotope website for more information, then go there, and enjoy.