Saturday, 28 May 2016

NORWAY 2016: Oulu to Varangerfjord (22-28 May)

This post covers the first part of a trip Megan and I made to Northern Norway and Finland. On Sunday 22 May we flew from Gatwick to Helsinki and then Oulu where we collected our hire car.  We drove into town and checked into our hotel at 18:30 before walking around town and buying some food in a convenience store. The streets were busy with flags flying as Finland were in the Ice Hockey World Cup Final against favourites Canada. Sadly they lost.
over Heksinki
Monday 23 May. After some shopping in the local Lidl (stocking up for the more expensive Norway) we drove north to Hetta (Enontekio) via Rovaniemi and Muonio. It was about 500 kms and took most of the day. The roads were good and generally very quiet although it was hard to keep up with frequently changing speed limits. We disturbed a Wood Sandpiper from the road and 5 Bean Geese flew low over it. Hooded Crows and Fieldfares added to the feeling of being somewhere different. We stayed in a well equipped luxury cottage at Ounasloma, set in wooded grounds on the edge of a small town and next to a lake. Bramblings were very vocal, I would hardly describe them as singing while 2 male Pied Flycatchers were the first black and white ones I'd seen for ages. On and around the lake were Whooper Swan, Goldeneye, Goosander and Grey-headed Wagtail. We had crossed the Arctic Circle just north of Rovaniemi and it did not get dark at all which took some getting used to.
modern church at Rovaniemi
wooden church at Muonio
our hire car and 'cottage' at Ounasloma, it was very well equipped and cosy
Goosander at Ounasloma
Tuesday 24 May. I was up early and wandered around Ounasloma for a couple of hours before breakfast seeing similar birds to the previous evening wit the addition of a fine summer male Long-tailed Duck. We drove a short distance to the far side of town and walked up through decent but rather open forest to the top of Jyppia Hill (nice views but few birds). We filled up with petrol and drove north, soon climbing out of the conifers and onto more open moorland before crossing into Norway where we gained an hour. We then descended following a river through a gorge before arriving in Alta where visited the World Hertiage Rock Art site at the head of a very spectacular fjord. A singing Bluethroat was a pleasant surprise and made up for some of the 2500-6000 year old rock carvings appearing slightly artificial. We visited a mini-bank and supermarket before retracing our steps slightly to the very welcoming and luxurious Trasti & Trine's lodge where we were the only guests. It was set beside a small patch of mainly conifer forest adjacent to a river. I walked to the river seeing little while Megan sat in on Trine's talk to a visiting tour group about her husky racing team. It had been heavily overcast all day but at 11pm the sun broke through on the western horizon, midnight in Finland which was an hour ahead so good enough for us.
Goldeneye on the lake at Ounasloma
Pied Flycatcher
Whooper Swan
Jyppia Hill
Hetta Church
male Brambling
waterfall north of Hetta
Alta Fjord
a superb setting for Rock Art

the German battleship Scharnhorst holed up in one of the adjoining fjords in WW2 before being lured out to attack an Arctic convoy and sunk in December 1943 in the Battle of  North Cape. Only 36 of its crew of almost 2000 survived.
discovered in 1973, many of the carvings were 'coloured in' to show how they might have looked originally

I liked the fish on the end of a long line
some of the unenhanced carvings were much harder to make out

singing Bluethroat. Against the light it could have done with some colour enhancement
Wednesday 25 May. A Redstart was singing outside the lodge as I took an early walk down to the river, otherwise the few birds seen birds were similar to before with Pied Flycatcher, Redstart and Tree Pipit the best. After a superb breakfast we slowly drove north to Honningsvag through some impressive tunnels, the last 4km long to the island of Mageroya. Honningsvag was a pleasant town to walk around, more so as a Ring Ouzel was singing from the scree slope above. We drove on to Nordkapp, paid the slightly extortionate entrance fee (about £25 each but there was a good film show) and wandered around. Whether the time of day (late afternoon), time of year or dull weather it was nothing like as busy as I had feared. We returned to the perfectly adequate hostel like Nordkapp Camping just outside Honningsvag where Megan took advantage of the well equipped kitchen to cook a meal.
Goosander on the river at Trasti & Trine's
bleak moorland north of Alta
White-tailed Eagle near Honningsvag
one of four seen on the journey
it was soon off

Honningsvag's main street
fish drying racks at Honninngsvag, a bit niffy

our first encounter with a Hurtigruten coastal ferry/cruise ship.

fjord on the way to Nordkapp
Nordkapp entrance, 71o10'21", the furthest north you can reach by road in Europe
for a few minutes we were the most northerly people in Europe
no sun, midnight or otherwise, today
rounding Nordkapp
the view west, the far promontory is actually a km further north than Nordkapp but can only bbe reached by an 18km round trip across boggy moorland
deserted road, most were like this
the nearest orange building was our hostel for the night

Thursday 26 May. We resisted the temptation to return to Nordkapp for the midnight sun, not that we would have seen it as it remained overcast. We had a long day ahead driving across the top of Norway. It was 500km to Vadso on Varangerfjord on generally good, if somewhat slow roads, and took most of the day. On Varangerfjord we stopped and walked around Nesseby and Mortensnes before driving on to Vadso and the Fjordhoteli. Other birders were staying here but disappointingly it seemed there were no rarer eiders around. I was particularly hoping to see Stellar's Eider again after almost 40 years. Megan and I walked around behind the hotel seeing six Red-necked Phalaropes and other nicely plumaged waders. 

roadside White-tailed Eagle, five were seen today
back below the tree-line
Rough-legged Buzzard
Nesseby, usually a good area to see Steller's Eider but none appeared to be hanging around this spring
Arctic Skua at Mortensnes, the archaeological sites here were somewhat underwhelming.
Arctic Hare at Vadso
very endearing
summer-plumaged Bar-tailed Godwit at Vadso
summer-plumaged Knot
dark glasses recommended
we were told it was an early spring and I feared I was a couple of weeks too late for these
Friday 27 May. I was up at 04:00 seeing similar birds to the previous evening. After breakfast we walked into town and up to the main church hoping it might provide a viewpoint, it didn't. We left Vadso and drove east to Ekkeroy where we walked around the island to the seabird cliffs seeing mainly Purple Sandpipers and Kittiwakes. We continued on to Vardo, reached by a 3km tunnel. Perhaps the strangest town I have been to and firmly in the weird and wonderful category. The Vardo Hotel was excellent, helped by our room having a superb view of the harbour. We enquired about visiting Hornoya but decided it was too expensive and viewed it from Hasselnes, the nearest point on Vardo. The fort/museum was interesting as was the 'witches memorial'. After tea we then walked out to the northern tip of the island. Later I revisited Hasselnes and then tried the southern tip. I was out to 10pm, it was tempting to keep going all night but I didn't have the stamina to do so.

early morning at Vadso 
more Arctic Hares, I found them irrisistable
even in kangaroo mode
male Common Eider is a very smart bird but not really what I was hoping for
Fieldfare at Vadso
Red-necked Phalarope at Vadso

view from our window at the Vardo Hotel
view to Hornoya from the superb hide at Hasselness. At £35+ each for the 10 minute boat ride we decided not to visit the famous seabird cliffs instead 'scoping them. Lots of Guillemots and some Puffins and Razorbills but too far for me to pick out a Brunnich's Guillemot. There were plenty of eider so check through too ...
including this unexpected beauty
showing its 'sails' very well

Vardo Fort/museum, just as we were leaving a group of tourists from the Hurtigruten ferry arrived
Vardo witch memorial, a bit far for most Hurtigruten passengers to make during their brief stop-over

plaques listing 'crimes' of each of the 91 victims of the Vardo witch trials in 1600s
Hurtigruten ferry about to depart, the same ship we had seen at Honningsvag and Vadso on the northbound journey to Kirkenes now heading south
more views from our window

looking back from the north of the island
Little Stint near the witches memorial
and Ringed Plover
Saturday 28 May. I was up at 03:45 and quite surprised to see people standing around in the street outside the hotel, until I realised the Hurtigruten ferry was making a very brief stop. I drove back through the tunnel to the mainland and north over the moors before following the coast to Hamningberg, birding along the way. The weather was indifferent, at times raining lightly, but it was very enjoyable birding seeing Great Northern Diver, Scaup, a seaduck, Temminck's Stint, displaying Ruff, Red-throated Pipit and male Lapland Bunting. I had allowed myself two hours each way for the one hour journey but it was soon clear I could have spent all day and I regretted not getting up earlier. I made it back to the hotel two minutes late for breakfast, due to being held up slightly to let the only two other vehicles I saw by on a section of single track road. After breakfast we reluctantly left Vardo, wishing we could have had longer. Another time perhaps. We drove back along Varangerfjord, used our remaining Norwegian Kroner on petrol and headed south to the Finnish border .
Hurtigruten northbound, next stop Vadso
Bluethroat singing in the rain at Sandfjord

Bluethroat near Hamningberg

and gnat
White-tailed Eagle near Hamningberg
my fourth consecutive day with 4 or 5 sightings of this impressive species

mainly left to the reindeer until summer
the coast near Hamningberg
it looked good habitat for Snow Bunting and Twite but I did not have time for more than a cursory look 
part of a large flock of about 500 seaduck in the bay at Persfjord, despite several stops I had only seen Goosander flocks (225 and 145) on my way to Hamningberg
these were predominantly (450 out of 500) Long-tailed Duck
another drake King Eider was with them too
at times the nearest bird

Red-throated Pipit north of Vardo