Now, today was supposed to start with a breakfast and leisurely 10 minute drive to Batsfjord airport to start the journey home. What actually happened was a little different. Halfway through breakfast Tormod comes in to announce our flight from Batsfjord to Kirkenes had been cancelled due to illness in the crew and we had no option but to drive it in the minibus and hope we had enough time! A few minutes later we were in the bus with bread in hand and 'enjoying' a rather quick drive over the snow covered roads of the central Varanger Peninsular! 200 Snow Buntings were a blur from the window and then I got onto a Ptarmigan close to the road which luckily most people managed to see. It was going to have to be something exceptional for Hans to stop the bus as we were is so much of a hurry! And special it was when Ruud shouted 'stop the bus - Hawk Owl!' We all scrambled out and feasted our eyes on this beauty in the same area we'd been looking a few days previously. Amazingly another was then seen on the roof of a house a few miles further on. Never had the saying 'every cloud has a silver lining' been so true!
As a postscript we made our flight with time to spare.
Hawk Owl, Tana Valley (copyright Hans Ueli Grutter)
What a start to the day breakfast at the Kongsfjord Guesthouse was. Never did I think I'd see the day when a group of dedicated birders sit down to eat Herring Gull eggs! And jolly good they were too! The locals in Finnmark collect these eggs in a legal and sustainable way it being a tradition with it's roots in necessity that goes back a long long way.
Asa at Kongsfjord Guesthouse with her Herring Gull eggs! (copyright Martin Garner)
The first couple of hours of the day were spent walking around the headland to the north of the village. Our main target was Gyr that use this area as a hunting ground from their breeding cliffs inland. Eventually it paid off and we all got some great views of this superb bulky falcon hanging and gliding in the wind by the western cliffs. We even thought we had another but it proved to be a 'tundra' Peregrine that dashed past over our heads. Actually a rarer bird here than Gyr! 3 Twite also flew over calling and around the guesthouse building Snow Buntings twittered and flitted around.
Kongsfjord with a Gyr on that distant rock - honestly!
Snow Buntings, Kongsfjord (copyright Martin Garner). The left hand bird is a Siberian bird of the race vlasowae
Leaving this special place was a bit of a wrench but leave it we had to because we had a date in nearby Batsfjord. On the way were yet more Snow Buntings, 2 Red-throated Divers, a couple each of White-tailed Eagle and Rough-legged Buzzard and then a Merlin dashed it's way onto the trip list. And so, to Arctic Tourist at Batsfjord http://www.arctictourist.no/ and our date with the Barents Sea - a 4 hour, 70km pelagic on an oversized dinghy out into arctic waters which quickly earned the nickname 'The Blue Fulmar Pelagic'! After donning out all in one arctic suits things began quietly in the harbour with Glaucous Gull, Black Guillemots, Purple Sandpipers and Common Eiders. Out beyond the harbour however things began to get rough and seasickness kicked in for some! We estimated the swell to be between 10 & 12 feet which made for some wet passengers! The birding was amazing though, soon we were surrounded by hundreds, if not thousands of Fulmars of which about 80% were blue phase birds varying from slightly dark to very dark. Conditions for photography were awful but between us we did manage a few decent shots. Added to that were a White-billed Diver, loads more auks including 2+ Brunnich's Guillemots and 2 Little Auks before we headed round a headland to the east and into Syltefjord. This is the home of a huge Kittiwake colony and the worlds most northerly Gannetry so we were quickly right amongst them all. Hunting the Kittiwake colony were 3 more majestic White-tailed Eagles. When we'd had our fill we motored the final 15 icy minutes back to the tiny harbour in Syltefjord and were welcomed into the boat owner's cabin for a BBQ meal and warming rum. A good job too because we were all soaked, freezing and hungry! Even the drive back round to Batsfjord wasn't without it's highlights. This was the first day of the year the road had been opened and when we drove though a cleared snowdrift between ice walls twice the height of the minibus we could see why!
That night we chilled in the Polar Hotel in Batsfjord http://www.polarhotel.net/polarhotel/ (pun intended!) thinking our birding for the trip was over. But as we found out in the morning - it wasn't quite yet...
Martin joined us today after a flight in the previous evening. With news that the coastal ferry known as the Hurtigruten wasn't an option due to high seas we needed to make the drive to Kongsfjord. This meant going back along the shores of the Varangerfjord to Vararangerbotn and then heading north along the Tana valley. This of course gave us some birding opportunities en-route. It seemed a shame not to stop in Vadsø as we were passing so we had another gawp at Steller's Eiders, this time with several Long-tailed Ducks.
Long-tailed Duck, Vadsø
We notched up more or less the same species as before along the shore of the fjord. White-tailed Eagle numbers were down to just 15 in the spot from yesterday but nearby 2 gorgeous Otters entertained us just offshore. We couldn't resist another stop in Skallelv village where the feeders now hosted 4+ Arctic Redolls, just 1 Mealy Redpoll and presumably the same male Brambling as yesterday. Our long drive gave us another Shorelark, c300 Snow Buntings, 3 Rough-legged Buzzards, a close-up Red Fox and loads of Reindeer before a couple of unsuccessful searches for Hawk Owl in the Tana valley as we headed north towards Kongsfjord.
birding in the Tana Valley
Arctic Redpoll, Skallelv
Red Fox, Varanger
After checking into the lovely Kongsfjord Guesthouse http://www.kongsfjord-gjestehus.no/html/welcome.html and having a very late lunch of reindeer meatballs we all headed back to the bus and made the 30 minute drive west to Kjølnes Lighthouse for some seawatching. This area was the furthest north we ventured and truly felt like it was on the edge of the world! Nothing stood between us and the North Pole except miles of icy sea. Seawatching in the lea of the lighthouse was excellent. Not necessarily for variety but certainly quality and volume - 1000+ Fulmars of which c70% were 'blue' phase birds, 4 Arctic Skuas, 6 White-billed Divers, 2 Glaucous Gulls, c6 Brunnich's Guillemots, several Puffins, a Gannet and many Black Guillemots.
Glaucous Gull, Kjølnes Lighthouse
near Kjølnes Lighthouse
Oystercatcher, Kjølnes Lighthouse
Tormod enjoying his dried fish! Kjølnes Lighthouse
Seawatching, Kjølnes Lighthouse
Back in the welcoming warmth of the guesthouse we were warmly welcomed by Asa and treated to a superb dinner of cod followed by baked apples and plenty of wine.
After a DIY breakfast at our cabin at Ekkerøy we made our way further east along the fjord birding as we went. Frequent stops along the road were very productive. Top marks to Hans for several sudden stops and hasty reverses! Over 30 White-tailed Eagles in the same small area (concentrated on what must have been a carcass of some sort) was some sight as they wheeled over the road, nearby ridge and foreshore. Another sudden screech to a halt as I called Willow Grouse and we went on to enjoy 3 of these great birds by the roadside (2 females and and fantastic male). Other roadside birds included several Tundra Bean Geese, c6 Arctic Skuas and on the water 8 Steller's Eiders, 1 Velvet Scoter, 3 Common Scoters, 7 Tufted Duck, c10 Long-tailed Ducks and scattered Common Eiders and Red-breasted Mergansers. No wonder it took us ages to get to Vardø!
Pink-footed and Tundra Bean Geese, Varangerfjord
Tundra Bean Geese, Varangerfjord
White-tailed Eagle, Varangerfjord
Willow Grouse, Varangerfjord
Birding the Varangerfjord tundra
Before reaching Vardø we called in at the small village of Skallelv where some feeders in a roadside garden were certainly drawing in some hungry birds. We spent an extremely enjoyable hour here watching and photographing an Arctic Redpoll, c6 Mealy Redpolls, c10 Snow Buntings and a stonking male Brambling. Also in the area were a number of Greenfinches, a solitary Northern Wheatear and a small group of Steller's Eiders looking good on an floating ice flow.
Arctic Redpoll, Skallelv
Arctic Redpoll, Skallelv
Mealy Redpoll, Skallelv
Mealy Redpoll, Skallelv
Snow Bunting, Skallelv
Reaching Vardø (as far east as Istanbul apparantly!) we checked into the Vardo Hotel http://www.vardohotel.no/index.php?lang=eng early and had some lunch. From the hotel we clocked up c8 Black Guillemots, Glaucous Gull, 2 White-tailed Eagles and several Purple Sandpipers in the harbour before boarding the boat http://www.vardohavn.no/ which would take us on the short trip to the island of Hornøya and its famous seabird cliffs. We'd only just got off the boat when Tormod found our only King Eider of the trip, a 2nd summer drake. The next 3 hours on the island were a complete auk-fest in a squally snow blizzard! Simply thousands of Puffins, Guillemots, Razorbills and top of the wanted list Brunnich's Guillemots whizzed around with huge numbers of Kittiwakes. A White-tailed Eagle fliew in and demonstrated how it hunted Kittiwake chicks (flapping its wings by the cliff ledges to blow the poor chicks off!). A couple of Ravens cruised menacingly by as did a 1yr Glaucous Gull. Then a 2nd Orca was spotted by Ruud, this time closer and even breaching - wow!
'bridled' Guillemot, Hornøya
Brunnich's Guillemot, Hornøya
Brunnich's Guillemot, Hornøya
Glaucous Gull, Hornøya
Great Black-backed Gull, Hornøya
White-tailed Eagle, Hornøya
Here is a Youtube video by Han Ueli showing some of our adventures around Hornøya and Vadso
After a rather rough boat crossing back we just had enough time to wander to the edge of town for some evening birding by Vardø Fortress (the most northerly fortress in the world) where 4 Glaucous Gulls loafed on the tideline and we added Skylark and Shorelark to the triplist.
Dinner at the hotel that night was accompanied by a pint of the local beer - Mack. But at £9 a pint it would be the only one I had!