Sunday, 31 March 2019

My Wheatear wait is over (March 30-31)

Sunday 31 March. Two hours seawatching at Splash Point, Seaford from 07:05 had just about enough to keep my interest but nothing of any consequence. I saw 28 Brent and 5 Greylag Geese, 2 Pintail, 165 Common Scoter, 2 Red-breasted Mergansers, 4 Red-throated Divers, 39 Gannets, a Little Egret, 5 Sandwich Terns and 22 auks. A smart White Wagtail was briefly on the groyne and what looked good for another flew in. I went over to Beachy seeing two Swallows fly north up the Cuckmere on the way. Five Wheatears were west of Birling keeping low in what was now a fairly strong NE wind. Another Swallow flew north and there were 2 Chiffchaffs in the wood, otherwise it was very quiet. Later Megan and I took Cookie up to Mill Hill where I heard a Chiffchaff.

Saturday 30 March. I arrived at Shoreham Harbour at 06:45 to find the gate to the west arm locked allowing no possibility of seawatching from there. I relocated to Shoreham Beach but nothing was moving in a cold north wind although my attention was soon drawn to some Wheatears on the beach. I counted ten and followed them as they moved steadily west along the beach towards Widewater. Males were outnumbered by females but still a very nice sight, although somewhat later than usual as Megan and I had been in Finmark for a week. Feeling on a bit of a roll I took Cookie up to Ashdown Forest looking for the wintering Great Grey Shrike and for the second time failed to see it. Later a distant Goshawk was some compensation. Cookie and I finished the day on Beeding Hill seeing four Stock Doves.

Wheatear on Shoreham Beach
one of ten seen, a decent fall
Friday 29 March. An early trip to Shoreham Fort, Beach and Widewater hoping for a not so early Wheatear produced nothing. I then took Cookie to Charleston Reedbed where after an hour the pair of Garganey performed a prolonged flypast with a sizable flock Teal. The floods north of the reedbed held a selection of wildfowl including an adult Lesser White-fronted, two Barnacle and two Egyptian Geese.

Thursday 21 to Thursday 28 March. Megan and I were in Finmark which I hope to blog soon.

Wednesday 20 March. Megan and I flew from Gatwick to Oslo, arriving late morning. We caught the train into the city, booked into our hotel and spent the afternoon seeing a few sights including the Vigland Sculpture Park, Royal Palace, Cathedral, Harbour and Akershus Fortress. Avian highlights were four Goldeneye, 25 Hooded Crows, 30 pale Nordic Jackdaws and four Tree Sparrows, the latter in complete contrast to their status in Sussex.
still snowy in southern Norway

Tree Sparrow in Oslo
Vigeland Sculpture Park


Goldeneye in Vigland Park
Oslo City Hall
Oslo Harbour
Akershus Fortress

Thursday, 28 March 2019

NORWAY 2019: To Vardo and back (24-28 March)

Sunday 24 March. We had breakfast then walked the shot distance up to the church, mostly on the road as the pavements were quite slippery. We checked out and drove back to Vadoya where there were now 31 Steller’s Eiders in the harbour. We walked out to the north end of the island seeing eight Arctic Hares and a male King Eider in a distant eider flock. We slowly drove east towards Vardo stopping at Ekkeroy and then Kiberg on the way. Ekkeroy was quite but Kiberg was better with a fly-over juvenile White-tailed Eagle and 18 Steller’s Eiders in the harbour. We continued to Vardo, an island reached by a 3km tunnel. There we checked into the Vardo Hotel and were given one of the rooms overlooking the harbour. A flock of ten Steller’s Eiders were a welcome distraction as we settled in as were a few Purple Sandpipers on the exposed rocks below. We drove to the NE corner of the island looking across to Hornoya, 1.2km away. Even this early in the season the cliffs were covered with thousands of auks. They would be mostly Guillemots, although they were too far away to identify. Hundreds of auks were on the sea between Vardo and Hornoya including an estimated 500 Puffins mid channel. I was surprised to see them given the slopes of Hornoya where they’d most likely have their burrows were still covered in snow but perhaps that was why they were on the water. Also Dave Cooper had yet to see any on Shetland. Most other auks stuck to the far side of the channel but I did manage to identify a couple of closer Razorbills and saw a handful of birds I thought might be Brunnich’s Guillemots. Megan walked back to the hotel to allow me to stay out until dark, seeing another White-tailed Eagle causing some pandemonium over Hornoya. Sadly not the Gyrfalcon seen to take a Puffin by those on a trip there the previous day. I felt the chance of a repeat showing was rather remote, plus it was quite expensive to visit and rather time consuming unless one was really keen on guillemots so was content to try my luck from Vardo but it was not to be. After a mainly sunny day a blanket of clouds rolled in. With the chance of seeing the aurora again at only 12% we didn’t venture out. 
Steller's Eider in Vadso Harbour

Vadso from Vadsoya

Arctic Hare on Vadsoya

Megan on Vadsoya
Vadso Church
with resident Raven
White-tailed Eagle on the way to Kiberg
Kiberg Harbour

Kiberg had a flock of (mainly) Steller's Eiders too
first view of Vardo
the view from our window at the Vardo Hotel
it was as impressive as we remembered it
with a male Steller's Eider making it more so

looking across to Hornoya 
guillemots on Hornoya
Hertigruten Ferry Kong Harald passing Hornoya on the way into Vadso Harbour
Monday 25 March. All day on Vardo. After breakfast we walked to the Stielneset Memorial being caught in a blizzard as we approached. We sheltered in the ‘mirror’ building and it soon blew over. The ‘cocoon’ memorial was quite moving listing the ‘crimes’ of the 91 people (mostly female) burned at the stake for witch craft in the 1600s. We walked to the SW tip of Vardo where a large distant raft of duck, presumably Common and King Eider, were too far away to identify, not helped by bright sunlight. Returning to the hotel we saw a couple of juvenile Glaucous Gulls. We drove a km to the NW and walked out towards the NW tip of the island as far as an impressive sculpture that we’d not remembered from last time. It was constructed in Summer 2016 so might well not have been started then. We saw few birds and opted to walk back on a path heading to the other side of the peninsular. It soon became hard going with patches of soft snow and was equally birdless. We drove back across town to a supermarket then had lunch in our room seeing an adult Glaucous Gull, two Brunnich’s Guillemots and nine Steller’s Eiders from the window. After lunch I drove back to the NE tip where I spent an hour scanning across to Hornoya. Birds were similar to last evening but with many fewer Puffins on the sea and no White-tailed Eagle although I did see another Glaucous Gull. I drove back to the Stielneset Memorial and walked to the SW tip where I finished the day watching the distant Eider flock for 90 minutes until the light started to go. The flock was still very distant but at least the light was better than it had been in the morning. Prolonged observation made the identification of flying males possible once I’d got my eye in although I was regretting having brought a travel scope to save weight. I estimated the flock to number about 1800 birds and based on the males identified estimated the proportion to be three or four King Eider to every Common Eider. Very impressive, or it would have been had they been even half the distance. There were several hundred Long-tailed Duck in the area too. I took a number of photographs but they were awful with hardly any birds identifiable at all. I’d become quite cold despite being in one of the shelters. I hurried back to the car and put on the heated seat and steering wheel to help me warm up although as it was only three minute drive back to the hotel they didn’t really have a chance to prove themselves. While I’d been away Megan had visited the Fort and walked around town. It had been an enjoyable ‘easy’ day although views of duck were disappointing. Another heavily overcast night with a low chances of seeing the aurora kept us in again.
Stielneset Memorial in a blizzard
me trying a selfie in the 'mirror' building 
Megan sheltering in the 'mirror' building
view south from the Stieleneset Memorial
Stieleneset Memorial and 'mirror' building after the blizard had past
Megan in the Stieleneset Memorial, a light and plaque for every 'witch' burned alive

reflection of Vardo Fort
Glaucous (first and second-winter) and Herring Gulls on the coast near the Stieleneset Memorial
the second-winter Glaucous Gull
adult Glaucous Gull in Vardo Harbour
Hooded Crow on Vardo
Vardo sculpture
Viking Longship x Whale hybrid carcus?

Megan on Vardo
Hornoya from a slightly different angle
Vardo Harbour, radar and church
more Steller's Eiders from our window

Brunnich's Guillemots in Vardo Harbour 
King and Common Eider off the southern tip of Vardo
King Eider off Vardo, sadly this was as close as any came
Tuesday 26 March. I sneaked out of the hotel at 05:25 and returned to the SW tip of the island and the distant Eider flock but if anything they were even further out and the light was no better. This time, based on a very much smaller sample of identifiable birds, there might have been marginally more Common Eider than King Eider while Long-tailed Duck outnumbered both (but were easier to identify). There were hundreds of Guillemots including a handful I was confident were Brunnich’s a varying distances offshore and two Glaucous Gulls flew by. After an hour the light was noticeably worsening as the sun moved round so I headed back to the car and drove to the opposite end of Vardo for a final scan of Hornoya. I saw three Glaucous Gulls but very many fewer Puffns than previously and the light was not so good. I was back at the Vardo Hotel just before 08:00 for breakfast and after we packed (six Steller’s Eiders from the window) and left. We’d had a very enjoyable couple of days at Vardo, firming up its position as one of my favourite places in Europe. We were returning around Varangerfjord to Kirkenes but had plenty of time for the journey and stopped first at Vadsoya walking out to the airship pylon hoping the small Eider flock might be closer in. It was in a similar position but did not have a/the King Eider with it. Back in the harbour were 12 Steller’s Eiders. We continued to Nesseby where we drove down to the church but I was thinking ahead rather than paying enough attention to the snowy road down to it and the car slipped to the side of the road and into a hidden rut where it became stuck. The rut was a tyres width, full of soft snow and deep enough to ground the car. We tried digging it out with picnic plates as we didn’t have a shovel but to no avail. Fortunately a very helpful passing local stopped to help and after a look around decided to go and find a shovel. In the short time he was away I found a towing eye in the car’s tool kit and when he returned he eventually fitted it to the front bumper – the thread being the opposite direction to that I was expecting. He had a tow –rope and on the third of forth attempt pulled us out. No damage done and we continued to the church which was very quiet. We continued around Varanger fjord and back to Kirkenes with a couple of brief stops on the way. We stopped in the Rema 1000 supermarket in Kirkenes for a few bits of shopping and back at Sollia where we were given the same room. I walked up the snowmobile track to a ridge for the last hour of daylight seeing nothing but met a couple from New Zealand who had seen the aurora the previous evening which unlike in Vardo had been clear. After we’d eaten Megan and I walked a bit further along the snowmobile track but a blanket of heavy cloud prevented us from seeing the sky. Surprisingly we didn’t need a torch as there was an eerie light appearing trapped between the snow and the cloud.
the eider flock off the southern tip of Vardo
Long-tailed Duck too


Vardo Harbour in a blizzard, fortunately it didn't last
clear skies before we reached Vadso
Purple Sandpiper on Vadsoya

Arctic Hare on Vadsoya
as photogenic as ever
International Rescue at Nesseby
Varangerfjord from the south
Wednesday 27 March. I left the hostel at 06:10 to walk the snowmobile track and just made it to the ‘aurora camp’ before having to turn back for breakfast. It was only about 15 minutes further than we’d walked the previous evening and views to the northern horizon did not appear to be appreciably better. I saw two Pine Grosbeaks and several Willow Tits which made the walk worthwhile. After breakfast we drove into Kirkenes and visited a cashpoint in town and then the museum. There were several historical displays including a WW2 Russian Fighter-bomber that had been salvaged from the lake it had crashed into, the pilot surviving but his crewman misunderstanding the order not to bail out when not high enough for their parachute to open. One display of several old bikes caught my eye. Surprisingly it was the most topical as they had recently been used by refugees from Syria using Arctic Norway as a gateway to Europe. Russia doesn’t allow pedestrians to cross the border here and Norway prosecutes drivers bringing refugees in but hose on bikes could cross. Apparently it was easy to fly to Murmansk from southern Russia and travel to Nickel (a smelting town near the border, two of its chimneys were visible from above Sollia). Here a clapped out bike could be bought for an extortionate £200 with which to cross the border and then dump. Norwegian authorities destroying them as not being roadworthy. It sounded a lot safer than crossing the Mediterranean in an inflatable raft but still rather sad that much of the world was such an unsafe place to live. We returned to Sollia for lunch, again looking out for the Hawk Owl seen on our first morning, and driving along the minor road where it had flown to but again drew a blank. Megan was keen to visit Kirkenes Snow Hotel and after lunch we drove out to it, almost into the wilds on the other side of Kirkenes. A tour would have been prohibitively expensive, more so if one had a meal which we didn’t fancy (Reindeer, King Crab ...). We took advantage of the daily entrance fee of 300 NOK each (about £30!) which also gave us a fee warm ‘berry’ drink. The Snow Hotel was impressive although why anyone would want to stay in one of its twenty or so ice caves with hard bed, no toilet and rudimentary lighting is beyond me, particularly if it was one of the rooms with a troll carved into the walls. The stuff of nightmares, although one room did have a Hawk Owl centre stage which was much more to my liking. With it fresh in my mind we again detoured on the way back to Sollia with no success. We continued past Sollia, for all of 500m deciding we ought to see what the Russian Border looked like. It was pretty much like any other with fences and warning signs and a quick circuit of the car park was more than enough for us. We then thought it worth driving a short distance along road to Grense Jakobselev to see if there were any decent aurora viewpoints. The road is closed in winter but when opens runs for 50 km, the last section alongside a stream which marks the Russian border. We were only 100m down the road when I came to an abrupt stop. The, or another, Hawk Owl was sat in the top of a fir tree opposite. Fortunately there were few vehicles on the narrow road and we watched it for ten minutes without issue. It was sleeting for a while and was quite dull which made viewing and photography difficult. I’d also left my telescope at Sollia. The owl looked pretty settled and I took a chance and drove on to find somewhere to turn around and take Megan back to Sollia. There I collected my telescope and returned to the owl. It hadn’t moved and I spent half an hour watching it through my telescope. It wasn’t easy to digiscope from within the car and I was worried if I got out it might fly. Photos were a shade disappointing, although I don’t do too well digiscoping these days, but it was a great bird to finish the trip with. It seems likely to have been the same individual as it was only 1.5-2km from our first sighting a week before. The wind picked up and its tree started to sway. The skies darkened and the sleet returned so I reluctantly dragged myself away. We looked to be finishing on another cloudy night and had pretty much given up on seeing the aurora and watched an hour of TV. I then looked out and saw it was completely clear. My aurora app showed a25% chance of seeing something, the highest it had been all week, so we went out and walked up the snowmobile track towards the ridge for ten minutes. Surprisingly it was much darker than the previous night and I was glad of my torch. We caught up with a Thai girl from Sweden who told us she’d seen the aurora five minutes earlier and showed as a photo of a couple of vertical green streaks. Why hadn’t we come out sooner? She saw it again a minute or two later but we missed it, then Megan saw something and we realised it was not as obvious as we were expecting (although we had been told this by others). The Thai girl explained it was like a pale vertical wispy cloud and pointing us in the right direction we saw what she was looking at. I took a photo and as the image flashed up on the screen saw it was green, at least to the camera. Having our eye in we saw several aurora effects over a ten minute period, some of which photographed quite well although I was wishing I’d brought my tripod to try some long exposures. Attempts with my smart phone captured nothing. Clouds started to roll in and the aurora, or what we saw of it, faded. Megan went back but I stayed out and walked up to the ridge and waited around a bit. The clouds cleared again but I saw no more aurora activity and headed back. It had been an excellent end to a very enjoyable trip.
Male Arctic Redpoll at Sollia

thanks to Dave Cooper for allaying my concern about the one dak undertail covert feather, otherwise the bird was all one could wish for of a Coues's

following the snowmobile track above Sollia 
Sollia Aurora Camp

Hooded Crows at Kirkenes Snow Hotel
giving me the evil eye
Megan in the Snow Hotel reception
one of the family rooms
Megan liked the Moomintroll room
I preferred the owl room, but didn't realise it would be an omen ...
Hawk Owl near Sollia
it seemed likely it was the individual seen less than 2km away six days previously 
a brilliant bird to start and finish the trip with
aurora effects above Sollia, none appeared green to the naked eye and some (like this one) would have been overlooked if we hadn't been helped to get our eye in by a Thai girl from Sweden. 

Thursday 28 March. I went out for an hour before breakfast, seeing a Pine Grosbeak fly over and hearing another and two Willow Tits. The journey home went smoothly – filled car with petrol and dropped it off, checked in for our flight to Oslo, collected bags and checked in for our later flight to Gatwick, cleared the airport in time to catch an earlier train home and back indoors at 20:40 …
a bird feeder above Sollia, a Willow Tit had been on it until I raised my camera
the Snowmobile track above Sollia

chimneys in Nickel. We were told they spew out more pollutants than the whole of Norway combined

our plane arriving at Kirkenes
leaving Kirkenes
Southern Norway
still snowy near Oslo