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A Report from

Varanger (Norway), June 1-6 2001,

Ignacio Yúfera

From a birder's point of view, the Varanger Peninsula is a fantastic place. In five and a half days of birding I saw 74 species, maybe not a lot in terms of numbers but being my first time in Northern Scandinavia, almost every bird was a big thrill. Although some of the species listed below can be seen in Spain and Southern Europe in winter, here they were all in full breeding plumage. Of my target species I only missed Yellow-billed Loon Gavia adamsii and Snowy Owl Nictea scandiaca (apparently this hasn't been a good year for the latter)

I had planned a longer trip, but finally I could only have 5 days. I flew from Oslo to Kirkenes, and there I rented a car and drove around the perimeter of the peninsula up to Hamningberg and back.

From what I've heard from other birders touring the region in similar dates, I was very lucky with the weather. Only two days prior to my arrival it was still snowing in Kirkenes, but during my stay there was hardly any rain. Temperatures were very low up north, but the good weather made it very bearable. I strongly recommend lots of warm and windproof clothing though, since even a slight breeze can be freezing in the tundra.

Being early spring there were no mosquitoes, a great advantage if one spends all day outdoors in wet areas. On the other hand, some migrants hadn't arrived yet, some were present in very small numbers, and the landscape was mainly yellow and brown, with snow still covering large areas. Trees were still leafless.

I didn't have time to visit any forested areas, and I spent the full 4 ½ days birding in tundra and low mountains, always near the coast. Roads are very good, and although I explored some rather remote areas I never missed having a 4 wheel drive car. The map I used is the 1:400 000 Cappelen #5, it is very good and can be bought at both Oslo and Kirkenes airports.

With regards to accomodation, my schedule was so tight that I didn't spend time comparing prices and in most cases I just checked into the first decent-looking place I saw, so I can't offer much in terms of advice. As a rule, hotels and food were quite expensive.

In the following report I have written in bold the names of the species for quick reference, and underlined the locations. I include the scientific name the first time the species is mentioned, for the sake of non-English speakers who may not be familiar with English common names.

June 1. Arrived at Kirkenes and picked up my car. From there I drove to Neiden, where I checked into a hotel (expensive). A walk around the area near some fishing cabins on the Munkelva River produced two Wood Sandpipers Tringa glareola. Fieldfares Turdus pilaris and Redwings T. iliacus were plentiful. Near Neiden is the Munkefjord Nature Reserve, supposedly an area where, during spring, the largest concentration of Loons in Norway takes place. I didn't see any (just some Oystercatchers in Spring), perhaps they arrive at a later date.

June 2. Drove north. Near Varangerbotn I saw Common Scoter Melanitta nigra, Red-breasted Merganser Mergus serrator , Goosander Mergus merganser, and Eider Somateria mollissima. Followed the road to Nesseby, a well-known spot for Red-necked Phalarope Phalaropus lobatus and other area specialties. I didn't see any Phalaropes in the pond behind the church, but later I found one swimming in the bay. In front of the promontory past the pond there is a large Arctic Tern Sterna paradisaea colony, and Arctic Skua Stercorarius parasiticus, Shelduck Tadorna tadorna , Bar-tailed Godwit Limosa lapponica, Dunlin Calidris a. alpina  and Purple Sandpiper Calidris maritima were found in the area. Common, Great Black-backed and Herring gulls Larus canus, L. marinus and L. argentatus, and Kittiwakes Rissa tridactila were also present in large numbers. These were all common throughout the trip. This is one of the two places where I saw Black-headed Gull Larus ridibundus. Shortly before I left a single Bean Goose Anser fabalis rossicus landed in a meadow nearby.

After that I drove to Vadso, where on the island of Vadsoya there is a nature reserve. Although small, the number and variety of birds found was astonishing: on the beach facing the bay there were thousands of Arctic Terns making a deafening sound, with Purple Sandpiper, Turnstone Arenaria interpres, hundreds of Red-necked Phalaropes in a breeding frenzy (several matings were witnessed). On the bay I saw my first Steller's Eiders Polysticta stelleri, with two groups swimming among Eider, Red-Breasted Merganser and Goosander. The drakes offered a fantastic view in full breeding plumage.

On a nearby pond there were Redshanks Tringa totanus, Tufted Ducks Aythya fuligula, Wigeons Anas penelope and Pintails Anas acuta.

Close to the pond there is a lek where male Ruffs Philomachus pugnax held intermittent fights. Golden Plovers Pluvialis apricaria were numerous and bold, following me around. Red-throated Pipits Anthus cervinus were seen in the grassy slopes, and an extra treat was the several groups of Blue Hare Lepus timidus in transition furs. In a group of four or five their colors ranged from bluish gray to brown, and they allowed quite close views, sometimes approaching with apparent curiosity.

From there I drove to Ekkeroy, where there is a breeding colony of 20,000 Pairs of Kittiwake. Flying over the cliffs were three Ravens Corvus corax, probably enjoying a feast of eggs. In the sea some Eiders, Black Guillemots Cephus grylle and a Razorbill Alca torda. From the top of the cliffs there was a great view of the colony, and up in the sky I saw a Short-eared Owl Asio flammeus engaged in aerial combat with a Rough-legged Buzzard Buteo lagopus. Behind the cliffs there is a nature reserve with Arctic Skua, Red-throated Pipit, Golden and Ringed Plover, plus a Short-eared Owl (probably the same one I saw flying) and groups of Whimbrel Numenius phaeopus.

In the beach at the village of Ekkeroy there was a great assembly of waders, with masses of Dunlin, Purple Sandpiper, Ringed Plover, Bar-Tailed Godwit and Turnstone.

Drove north to Vardo, where I checked into a hotel.

June 3. At the hotel I tried to find a way to reach the Island of Hornoy, a reserve for breeding colonies of alcids and gulls. Unfortunately it was a national holiday and no boats were operating, so I headed to the north of the town, where there are some high cliffs with old German fortifications from W.W. II. The grassy slopes and shrubs were very good for Bluethroat Luscinia s. svecica, Twite Carduelis flavirostris, and Snowbunting Plectrophenax nivalis. Pied Flycatchers Ficedula hypoleuca of the grey-brown variety were also found, and Red-necked Phalarope (which by now seemed to be everywhere). A single Steller's Eider was spotted from the cliffs in the sea.

Drove north-east toward Hamningberg, at the end of the Varanger Peninsula. The road from Vardo crosses some great tundra areas, with several ponds not too distant from the road. In these ponds I saw Long-tailed Duck Clangula hyemalis, Black-throated and Red-throated Loons Gavia stellata and G. Arctica. Also along the road there were Lapland Longspur Calcarius lapponicus and Snow Bunting, apart from the ever-present Golden Plovers.

Hamningberg is an incredible place, with a moonlike landscape made of sharp rocks facing rough sea. The beaches and bays are full of waders and sea ducks, and the settlement at the end of the road makes a great seawatching point. From there, I spotted Guillemot Uria aalge, Puffin Fratercula arctica, Gannet Morus bassanus, and Great Skua Stercorarius skua. Later I was told that Yellow-billed Loon had been seen from this same spot a couple of days earlier. Unfortunately by then it was late in the evening, and although light was very good it was very cold and windy, so I headed back to Vardo. Before leaving the area I could see Temminck's Stint Calidris minuta doing some display flights, Brambling Fringilla montifringilla in beautiful nuptial attire, and Bluethroat. Night at the same hotel in Vardo.

June 4. I could finally get a place on a boat to Hornoy, together with an Australian couple and two French birders. From the boat we saw a pair of King Eiders Somateria spectabilis. The island has huge colonies of Brünnich's Gillemot Uria lomvia, Guillemot, Puffin, Razorbill, Shag Phalacrocorax aristotelis, Cormorant P. Carbo and gulls. Some Black Guillemots were seen swimming around the island, but none breeding. We saw another King Eider drake from the island, and Twite and Bluethroat near the lighthouse. Among the many Great Black-backed and Herring Gulls in one of the island's beaches we saw a second winter Glaucous Gull Larus hyperboreus.

Back to Vardo, then drove back toward Tana bru. On the road I pulled over several times to see Black-throated Loon, a group of 9 male Ruffs displaying to a female, and a male Ptarmigan Lagopus mutus in beautiful transition plumage.

A quick stop at Nesseby produced Long-Tailed Skua Stercorarius longicaudus and Fulmar Fulmarus glacialis. Arrived at Tana bru late in the evening.

June 5. From Tana bru I took the Road 890, following a tip I had been given for Gyr Falcon Falco rusticollus. I located an immature female perched in some cliffs, and then I had her in the scope for some time. After a while she flew towards a group of Herring Gulls, but they all turned against her and starting to mob her until she turned around and came back to the cliffs, where she offered great views against the dark stone background.

Driving northward, Road 890 crosses a birch forest area, and I saw two female Elk Alces alces in a meadow by the road. Redpolls Carduelis flammea were common. Further east the terrain turns into arctic plains again, and from then the landscape is fantastic, endless tundra with frozen lakes in which the ice was just starting to melt. This is one of the best areas I saw during the whole trip. Long-tailed Skuas were abundant, and along the road I could see Temminck's Stint, Redpoll, Arctic Redpoll Carduelis hornemanni, Bluethroat, Lapland Longspur, Ruff, Willow Grouse Lagopus l. lagopus, Teal Anas crecca, Whimbrel, Long-tailed Duck, Golden and Ringed Plover and Black-throated Loon. I saw a large, brown-colored falcon chasing a Willow Grouse (unsuccessfully). It definitely wasn't a Gyr Falcon, and the only thing I could think of was an immature Peregrine Falco peregrinus, although I couldn't be sure. Rough-legged Buzzard was also seen. The road continues and in Gednje it forks toward Batsfjord and Berlevag. Apparently very near this town Snowy Owl had been spotted some days before, but I didn't have the time to give it a try.

Back to Tana bru, and then to Neiden to spend the night.

June 6. I gave the Munkefjord Reserve near Neiden another try, and saw Goldeneye Bucephala clangula, Greenshank Tringa nebularia, and Bar-tailed Godwit, but no divers. An American Mink Mustela vison came swimming in a small creek and spent some time grooming on the opposite bank. Blue hares were also seen in the area, and the only Kestrel Falco tinnunculus I saw in the trip.

Back to Kirkenes, where I took the plane back to Oslo.

Ignacio Yúfera

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