Saturday, 13 August 2016

Postcard from Finland and Norway...Twitch and Tundra

No one gets rich from sleeping
Sami proverb

Four of seven Little Stint feeding along with Dunlin (alpina ssp)

I'd just had lunch of reindeer venison and came out to find amazing light caused by sunlight through the breaking cloud, but difficult to catch a true image.
By now all tour participants felt enriched!

White-tailed Sea Eagle

White-tailed Sea Eagle

White-tailed Sea Eagle
Our continuing watch along the Arctic coastline brought ever more sightings including regular White-tailed Sea Eagles and Rough Legged Buzzards.  Our final two nights on the Varanger Peninsular were to be spent at a more northerly point at the Polar Hotel, Batsfjord, but before heading in that direction we were to experience what can only be termed an Arctic twitch.  There was a White –winged Scoter in the area and we were off to see it.  I was told it was a male of the sub-species Melanitta deglandi stejnegeri from Eastern Siberia.  Who’s this guy Stejneger I wondered?  Well now, having read Audubon to Xantus, The lives of those Commemorated in North American Bird Names by B and R Mearns (one of my best reads this year now that I have finally got round to reading it fully), I find that he was quite a significant character and I’m now after getting my hands on his biography of Georg Steller.  I’ll be writing a blog about Stejneger in the future, such is my interest in the naming of bird species.  Getting back to the actual White-winged Scoter I can say we did find it quite easily, although our initial sighting was a poor one as the bird was seen against a dark background on the shore line.  Initial disappointment soon evaporated with further excellent and close views of the bird being obtained.  Through the scope the head shape and bill colouring (significant pointers for telling the two sub-species apart) were clearly seen.  I’ve seen the other sub-species in British Columbia and now await the expected split.  I did wonder why we were alone and why we weren’t surrounded by excited Nordic twitchers, then I found out that the bird had been around some time.  An excellent sighting and a bird which is almost creeping into my top ten rated bird species of the trip.  A Bluethroat appeared as we were watching the sea.

White-winged Scoter.  Heavily cropped but I believe still showing ID markers outlined in Collins Bird Guide indicating stejnegeri ssp
On arrival at Batsfjord I found it rather bleak, but I soon warmed to the place and the Polar Hotel was warm and comfortable.  If bleak in June I wondered what it would be like in winter.  Well I may find out as Sam and I have thoughts about a return.  There was a Russian boat in the harbour and we found another Glaucous Gull here too.  Our exploration of the surrounding high fell/mountain and tundra area was yet another highlight of the trip.  My minds playing tricks, but I think it was here that we found a group of three Golden Eagles above our heads and then later a single Golden Eagle.  The lakes held species such as Black-throated Diver, Red-throated Diver (good to see on a background of snow), Long-tailed Duck, Pintail and Scaup et al.  I have to say at this point Nordic chocolate is wonderful and can probably be thanked for helping us stay warm, along with Dick’s constant supply of bananas.  I tasted reindeer/venison on one occasion, but the thought of eating whale steak was a step too far and all of our group members ensured a change was made in the menu.

Golden Eagle

Rough Legged Buzzard 

Long Tailed Duck
I had my closest ever encounter with Ruff but sadly stuck in the back of the van at the time I could only photograph them through glass.  Yes, it could get frustrating at times.  I had much better opportunities with Snow Buntings actually seen on the snow and with snow in the background.  Lapland Bunting and Shore Lark were also seen again.  Ptarmigan showed really well, at times in pairs, and on one occasion flew across the road in front of the van.  Willow Grouse were seen again but on this occasion far more distantly.  Dotterel were seen again, but this time not well enough for photographs.  A lone Wood Sandpiper showed wonderfully and Whimbrel was also seen well.



Wood Sandpiper

One species which seemed to elude me was Arctic Redpoll, but I eventually did have a sighting.  I have to admit that the sub species of Redpoll still present me with difficulty of identification.  The difference between Arctic Redpoll and the other species of Redpoll was first noticed by Carl Peter Holböll, a Danish zoologist associated very much with Greenland.  A description of Arctic Redpoll appeared in the 1840s and the bird was named after J W Hornemann, a Director of the Botanical Gardens, Copenhagen.

Snow Bunting with snow


Sam photographing birds in the snow.

  The mammal list had continued to grow and over a few days we had sightings of Red Fox, Mountain Hare, Otter, Common Seal, Grey Seal and Harbour Porpoise.  During a discussion that Sam and I had with fellow guests we heard that they had seen two Humpback Whales in the area, but sadly they were not recorded by us.

June snow on the Varanger tundra

Apart from Sam and I, the group had not found Twite, but eventually success came and we all had good close sightings.  Despite some hard work Ring Ouzel also proved difficult to find.  Eventually calls were picked up and later two male Ring Ouzels were recorded.  Gyr Falcon and Peregrine Falcon were also seen again.  We also had more practice in identifying geese species.  Tundra Bean Geese (or were they taiga? :-)) along with Pink Foot Geese, were seen as was another Glaucous Gull.

Pine Grosbeak female

Pine Grosbeak male

I was really enjoying being in such habitat but our time on the Varanger Peninsular was drawing to a close and we were now to head back to Ivalo, Finland for an overnight stay before catching our flight to Helsinki in the morning and for Sam and I our onward flight to Heathrow and then to Newcastle (on what turned out to be a very relaxing flight back to Northeast England as the sun set).  We didn’t leave Varanger before on one occasion recording thirty-one individual sightings of White-tailed Sea Eagles during one day.  Thanks for the count Ken.  Apparently far from a trip record.  Our journey back to Ivalo included a stop off for more sightings of Pine Grosbeak, Siberian Tit and Brambling.

Siberian Tit 


 During our final evening Dick christened the group the banana group such was the number of bananas we had eaten.  We found that we had covered 3,100 kilometres in the vans during the two week tour, so the bananas and the chocolate were both needed (note to self…check to see if the chocolate is available on Amazon).  My personal count of bird species seen on the trip was 192 with 19 of them being lifers for me.  Bird of the trip?  Well I think it has to be Great Grey Owl.  I’ll get a list put on my blog at some point for anyone interested.  My expectations of the trip had been high, but having had a long time now to reflect upon it I can honestly say that even those high expectations were well and truly surpassed and this, with me having almost no run in with mosquitoes, which for someone like me who reacts badly to them showed how well the tour had been timed.

Tana, Norway
I’d like to thank Killian and Dick for their leadership.  Both of them being top blokes, each with a good sense of humour, and it felt as though we were out birding with mates.  Long days in the field always felt relaxed. The individual participants all added to the positive feel of the group and we had many laughs, so my thanks also go to Joyce, Doug, Chuck, Lillian, Carolyn, Roy, Lesley, Ken, Terry, Liz, Nick, Robin and of course especially Sam.

Tana Cliffs, Norway
I’m two thirds of the way through the book about the Sámi peoples and will move on to the Lapland book next.  My local birding has been limited over recent weeks but I did get to see the Bonaparte’s Gull in Northumberland and of course had the visit to Coquet Island.

If you have stuck with the saga I hope that you have enjoyed reading it as much as I have enjoyed writing it.  It brought back some great memories.

Beaivi Sun God
Bieggalmimái Wind God
Ancient Sámi Gods

On a painted sky
Where the clouds are hung
For the poet's eye
You may find him
If you may find him
On a distant shore
By the wings of dreams
Through an open door
You may know him
If you may……………….
As a song in search of a voice that is silent
And the sun
God will make for your way
Lyrics Neil Diamond from the album Jonathan Livingston Seagull

Monday, 8 August 2016

Postcard from Finland and Norway...Arctic Explorers

Knowledge from the outside does not stay in any head
Sámi Proverb

Where did you say we were Sam?

The border crossing that we took into Norway could well have been missed if we had blinked as it was marked only by a change in road surface colouring.  It did seem that nearby habitat stretching for what seemed many square kilometres of trees had been ravished by an invasive moth species, showing just how fragile such environments can be.  Our Destination today was to be Vadso on the shore of the Varanger Fjord.  Over the next week our days of viewing were to encompass vast areas of fjord and sea, cliff and mountain, tundra and pool and all seen in changing weather conditions ranging from calm and wind, mild and cold, clear light and mist, sun, snow, hail and rain.  The mix of conditions showing the area in many of its dramatic moods.  Thankfully dry clear conditions prevailed more often than not, but everyone soon realised that those extra layers had not been packed in vain, as that wind could get to the bones!  Everyone also realised that the back seats of the van give a perfect opportunity for a short spell of shut eye on long days in the field, so on occasions it wasn’t talking heads, but perhaps would be better described as nodding heads.  Eyes could not stay closed for long however, such was the dramatic landscape and of course wildlife.

Long Tailed Skua 

Long Tailed Skua
As we passed through the area of Varangerboten and Nesseby on the Varanger Fjord sightings of White-tailed Sea Eagle and Long Tailed Skua became quite common place.  Sam and I enjoyed our first feel of the biting air as we walked out to the point past Nesseby Church, counting Wheatears along our way.  Our first night in the area was spent at Vadso and despite our tiredness Sam and I were unable to resist a walk after dinner across the bridge to the island of Vadsoya and how pleased we were to have taken the chance as we were met by the most perfect clear white evening light of the entire trip.  As we walked onto the island we found a flock of Knot which looked stunning in the bright sunlight.  We watched rafts of gulls lift from the fjord as they were disturbed by numbers of Arctic Skua and lesser numbers of Long Tailed Skua.  We also found our first Red-throated Pipit of the trip and had close encounters with Arctic Terns.  We were drawn to the small pool on the island as it looked ideal for Red-necked Phalarope and sure enough we were soon settled down to watch these birds at close quarters as they fed. We noticed what had been the airship mast where Roald Amundsen and Umberto Nobile had set out from on ‘balloon’ explorations of the North Pole.  In 1928 Nobile had set off from here in the airship Italia on an expedition during which on the 25th May 1928 the airship crashed onto the ice causing some fatalities.  As Sam and I walked back towards the hotel after 11.00pm reflecting upon the fact that this evening had been a highlight of the trip, the sun shone brightly behind the arch of Vadso Church and we agreed that one night we would get up around 3.00am (not for the first time on this trip) and take photos of ‘night birders’.  Unfortunately tiredness ensured that this idea was not acted upon!  The following morning we were back out onto the island watching the birds again this time with the group, but that light of the evening before could not be repeated.

Red necked Phalarope 

Red necked Phalarope

Red throated Pipit

Almost a midnight sun at Vadso

For the next few days we explored Varanger Fjord and the exciting coastline of the Arctic Sea from Vadso, and then Vardo where we spent three nights.  I had no doubt we were in the Arctic Circle by now!    Vardo is joined to the peninsular by a tunnel which replaced a ferry service some years ago.  I found the lighting effect of this lengthy tunnel quite eerie and so christened it ‘The Road to Hell’ in tribute to Chris Rea.  From our hotel room we were able to watch Glaucous Gull in the harbour and a short walk away we watched Kittiwakes on the harbour buildings, kind of ala North Shields.  Sam and I explored Vardo on relaxing evenings.  Hornöya Island is but a short boat trip away and we paid an all too brief visit here.   Having so little time to spend on this island was a rare disappointment on this tour.  At least we did have time to see Brunnich’s Guillemot along with Guillemot, Razorbill, Puffin, Kittiwake and Shag et al and we had a rather nice lunch with ice cream on return to the town.

Arctic Tern at Vadso



 The cliffs along the coast of the Varanger Peninsula offered perhaps the most dramatic vista of the tour and on one occasion as we watched the sea and nearby White-tailed Sea Eagle and waders, cloud and then mist rolled in over the precipitous cliffs eventually blocking out totally any previous sunlight and thus giving the feeling of mystery and drama.  The Chiffchaff (a rarity here) heard calling from the rare area of trees had now become silent.

White Tailed Sea Eagle
The sea provided us with many sightings, amongst them a single Pomarine Skua seen close to shore, and a single Great Skua which ensured our list of skuas was complete.  Both Great Northern Diver and White Billed Diver completed our list of divers, the latter species not without some substantial effort and in some cases the use of matchsticks to keep the eyelids open!  Sam found us our first King Eider amongst a flock of Common Eider, and notably he found the female bird first of all.  Unfortunately all Steller’s Eider had departed the area.  Then there were flocks of Common Scoter, Guillemot, Black Guillemot, Shag, Long-tailed Duck and hundreds of Goosanders et al.

White-tailed Sea Eagle of all ages were common place and often seen at close range.  Rough Legged Buzzard continued to be seen regularly but Gyr Falcon was more difficult to find and I heard that this species is suffering from the hands of egg thieves.  We did eventually find Gyr Falcon, a pair in fact and we did have decent scope views of them.  I seem to remember fellow birder Liz was very good at finding species on vast areas of cliff.  A pair of Peregrine Falcon was also found.

Bluethroat  display

 I enjoyed a brief sighting of breeding plumage Shore Lark and on one occasion we all spread out in an attempt to find Twite.  I glimpsed one after Sam had heard them and seen at least one fly in to the area we were standing.  As Sam and I moved back from rough ground towards the road I heard a Bluethroat flying into the area that we were standing.  Sam was onto it like a shot and my eyes were on it within a second or two afterwards.   We had seen numbers of Bluethroat by now but this sighting proved to be up there with the best of the trip as the male began displaying to the female.  Sam and I watched and photographed as we simultaneously called the rest of the group over.  As the male Bluethroat circled the female posturing as he went this provided one of the best photographic opportunities of the trip, not least because it is so rarely seen and these birds were not far from our feet.  The male bird so beautifully marked, used these marking as best he could to impress the female and as he twisted and contorted the sunlight upon him ensured that the colour as seen in different hues.  I remember Sam liking this to a lek and I myself felt it was like watching a Bird of Paradise displaying.  I know that watching this display was a new experience for all including Killian and Dick.  Carl Linnaeus historically referred to the Bluethroat as the ‘Swedish Nightingale’ and it does have a very distinctive song. 

Tundra on the peninsular

Our exploration continues for a few more days and included sightings of Snow Bunting and Lapland Bunting plus a find of a party of seven Little Stints feeding along with Dunlin.  Botanical interest was never forgotten and I believe Sam has pressed an individual of the world's smallest tree species in the form of Dwarf Willow Salix herbacea.   And still there is more to come!   wak Owl close up just above our headsHawk owl justHawk owl just abov

Do you believe
The clear white light
Is going to guide us on?

Running along the ground singing a song in the morning light
Follow flowery fields as far as out of sight
Turning your head to the clouds and the skies and the trees
'cause you never know what you might see.
 Lyrics by Lindisfarne

Tuesday, 2 August 2016

Postcard from Finland and Norway...Crossing the Circle

Time is a ship that never drops anchor.
Sámi proverb

The journey to Kuusamo was a long adventure and included our first Reindeer sighting, Taiga Bean Geese, Common Crane  and an exciting encounter with a black Adder,  We’d begun the day with a sighting of a pair of Slavonian Grebes and towards the end of it we had sighting of at least seven nesting Red Necked Grebes, an evening that brought us many Whooper Swans, flypast Common Cranes and Muskrats in the water beneath our feet,  That evening we had almost taken over a viewing platform and I remember the look of astonishment on an elderly  local man’s face, as he was clearly more used to having this spot to himself.  Dick confirmed a distant long winged harrier as a Hen Harrier and no one was going to dispute it!  The next few days involved early mornings, great habitat, exciting species and a crossing of the Arctic Circle.

Black throated Diver and Red throated Diver sightings began to grow and how different these breeding plumaged birds appeared to our usual sightings off the Northumberland coast in winter.  Raptors included a pair of displaying Osprey, a pair of tree nesting Merlin and after a walk into the forest led by a Finnature guide, a pair of Goshawk, the female sitting on the nest.  It is the calling of the Goshawks I shall remember most of all.  It became very apparent that without the assistance of expert guides a number of species would not be found.  These guys must put in a great deal of effort and work over many years.

Tengmalm's Owl
Owls were very much still our target and after a very long drive along roads that we imagined Finnish rally drivers practicing on, we were watching Tengmalm’s Owl at the nest.  I was surprised at how small this species is.  Dick had earlier made us aware that it had been a good year for Hawk Owls and it wasn’t long before we were watching our first Hawk Owl close to the Russian border.  It was in typical habitat that we found the female first and then the male bird.  We were able to get close to the birds, but Sam and I backed off as soon as we found the male becoming agitated.  It was in this area that we searched with out success for Rustic Bunting.  Then as we drove off with me in the front of the van I caught sight of a bird fly onto the ground right in front of the vehicle and within seconds fly off.  No one else saw it and I’m not aufait with Rustic Buntings, but on reflection I am positive that is what it was as the head marking was unmistakeable, so it went on my list if not the group’ list.  Little Bunting gave a rather better and longer sighting later and a few in the group managed to find Rustic Bunting on another day.  Our second sighting of Hawk Owl was made whilst watching Siberian Jays and in fact the owl was mobbed by a jay.  The Siberian Jays were seen in close up as they flew to the ground to feed from handouts, but I preferred watching them in the trees.  I can confirm however that they liked the apple put down for them by Sam.  Siberian Tit was seen on another occasion.

Hawk Owl

Hawk Owl 

Siberian Jay

A special highlight was watching a Hawk Owl in the tree just above our heads, with Waxwings, Brambling and Wood Sandpiper in the adjacent trees.  This was indeed a memorable sighting.  The Waxwings occasionally mobbing the Hawk Owl which was one of seven that we saw during the tour.  A less successful evening was spent in a field waiting for a great Grey Owl which didn’t arrive as two bewildered Reindeer looked on.  The time was not wasted however as the light that evening was wonderful and changing patterns of light across the scene reminded me of an impressionist painting.  It was a light perhaps seen only in the UK after a thunderstorm.  It was another late evening when the sun blazed in a clear sky and I was too enchanted by the sight to close my tired eyes.

Smew, drakes so rarely seen in Northumberland, is a favourite species of mine and drakes were much in evidence on some of the pools and lakes we visited and on one occasion they were joined by seven Velvet Scoters.  I could have happily spent a whole day at any one of the many lakes we visited.  The wellingtons were on again for a late afternoon to a bog where we stood shin deep in water.  The open bog land previously visited by Killian (and it was clear he had something special in store for us) suddenly appeared as we walked through forest with the sun at our backs, and we watched the likes of Common Snipe, Ruff and a jet black Spotted Redshank as we listened to the calling Cuckoo.  This time Broad Billed Sandpiper did go on the list, as we watched them displaying over our heads and I realised what all the fuss had been about! 

Sam with Dick Forsman watching Broad Billed Sandpipers

At yet more pools I remember having Common Sandpiper, Green Sandpiper and Wood Sandpiper lined up in front of me, but it was at the sewage works where a close up Temmincks Stint stole the show and where the likes of Yellow Wagtail (thunbergi) and Rough Legged Buzzard showed so well.

Wood Sandpiper preparing to fly from top of trees 

Temminck's Stint

  I would not have visited Finland in expectation of watching a Stone Curlew, but that is exactly what happened.  It did take a bit of concentrated group concentration and some guidance from the farm owner to find this unexpected species in the large area of grassland, but find it we did.  Only one Stone Curlew in maybe 10’s to have ever been recorded in Finland and found as the farmland aromas cleared the nostrils.  Very different habitat on higher ground give us an idea of what to expect in coming days as we  found at least two pairs of Dotterel.  I understand the name Dotterel stems from the fact that this species allowed hunters of the past to approach closely, hence the name Dotterel from ‘dotty enough to allow capture’.  Our first pair certainly allowed close contact and therefore the chance of some half decent images.  Those in our group who were confused as to the sexes of the pair were soon offered clarification when the male mounted the female.  (See here for a blog at least partially inspired by these Dotterel and written by fellow participant on the tour). 



 Sam and I were rewarded with some fine sightings of Green Hairstreak Butterflies and Holly Blue Butterflies.  I also had a glimpse of in flight of an orange flash which I assumed to be a skipper type species and was later informed that it was Northern Chequered Skipper.  I hadn’t seen it well enough to really claim a sighting.  Moose was added to our growing mammal list.

Green Hairstreak Butterfly
In my opinion without doubt it is the circumstances and atmosphere that a species is found in that remains in the mind more so even than the species itself and that was very much the case with Red-flanked Bluetail.  After a rather steep climb up a well defined route we found ourselves at the foot of higher ground and pine trees as the mist dropped down over the tops of the trees.  Red-flanked Bluetail eventually appeared and so one of the really desired species had been found, and in breeding plumage so different from the one I had seen in Northumberland in winter.  I now had my top two wished for birds of the trip on the list in the form of this species and Great Grey Owl.  On our descent we came across a rogue Capercaillie which performed wonderfully for the camera.  Will the meeting of Dick and the Capercaillie appear on U Tube I wonder?  The bird certainly took a dislike to him for some reason!  Sam too can also claim now to have been chased by a Capercaillie.  We learnt later that a member of another group had been bitten (should that be pecked) by this bird…ooowww.  The female of the species was not to be out done (are they ever?) and on another day I was very impressed by a close up sighting of the female Capercaillie’s plumage.  Willow Grouse performed well for the camera and Black Grouse were also seen.  A little more effort was required before we tracked down Hazel Grouse on the morning that we passed by border guards around an open fire in the forest.


Willow Grouse

The crossing of the Arctic Circle on a clear warm day had the cameras out in force.  I was beginning to think all these extra layers of clothing in the bag weren’t necessary, but I was to be shown that they were at a later stage of the tour.  Our two night stopover at Ivalo was enjoyed and just north of here we had sighting of Pine Grosbeak and Siberian Tit at the lunch stop.  Sam and I weren’t too keen on the thoughts of fish soup (by now I was wondering if survival was possible in Finland if you didn’t like salad and fish!  Only joking as I enjoyed my food) so were given a large plate full of sausage and chips (and I swear I saw some envious looks from fellow travellers).  Now that’s more like it…luvvly jubbly.  Our next long journey was to be northwards and across the border into Norway and eventually distant sightings of the Norwegian mountains give a hint as to what was to come.  We enjoyed a short visit to the Siida Museum, the Sámi National Museum.  Sadly we only had a short time here as I would have like to have taken more time to consider this wonderful and well laid out display concerning Sámi culture where much attention was given to the natural history of the area.  If you visit this area do not miss this modern site.    It had become apparent to Sam and I that natural history and the environment is taken seriously in Finland.   Whilst the focus of the trip was of course wildlife and birds in particular I believe one should always focus some attention on wider issues, although I have to admit I was so taken with the birding that many other things passed me by.  In part I am now putting that right by making my August reading A Social and Cultural History of the Sámi Peoples of the North by Neil Kent and Poyser’s Lapland.

Two great birders, Sam and Brian at the Arctic Circle

Two 'great birders' joined by Dick Forsman (L) and Killian Mullarney (R) :-)
So onward we go towards Norway and the Varanger Fjord and Peninsular where it really does gets exciting!

Like a circle in a spiral
Like a wheel within a wheel
Never ending or beginning
On an ever-spinning reel
Like a snowball down a mountain
Or a carnival balloon
Like a carousel that's turning
Running rings around the moon
Lyrics…Bergman and Bergman