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A Report from

Birding Northern Norway in Winter by Hurtigruten - March 2013,

Rosemary Royle

I have always wanted to see Steller’s Eider, King Eider, Gyr Falcon and the Northern Lights. We decided that there was good chance of achieving at least some of these ambitions by travelling on a Hurtigruten ferry from Tromso northwards to Kirkenes and back again in the winter. The ferry route crosses Varanger Fjord which is known as the best place in Europe to see Steller’s Eider, and is also good for King Eider. The ferry also calls in at Vasdo and Vardo, both of which harbours are well-known sites for these birds.

So we bought an “Arctic Highlights” package tour which included a charter flight from Manchester direct to Tromso, 3 days on the ferry (more like a cruise ship really) and two days back in Tromso. For an outside cabin this cost about £1300 per person, thought I note that prices for 2013/14 seem lower. We booked for mid-March on a date when the moon was not too full as this seemed to offer the best compromise for good birds and good Northern Lights.

The ship we travelled on was Trollfjord, one of the two biggest in the fleet. It had very good viewing lounges with plenty of seating and the cabins were comfortable with plenty of storage. There were also viewing areas outside on the 6th deck and on the top deck but realistically it was too cold to use these areas for birdwatching except in harbour. The food was excellent with a first class buffet breakfast. However, drinks and any food which was not included, for example lunch,  were fearsomely expensive – we took a travel kettle, instant coffee, cup-a-soups, drinking chocolate and Tracker bars which turned out to be very useful. And a non-alcoholic week seemed like a good idea!

The ship left Tromso at 18:30 on the first evening, just as it was getting dark. After dinner we wrapped up in copious layers and waited for the Northern Lights. At first it was too cloudy but at 12:00 they appeared and put on a good show – so objective one was achieved. (And in fact, the Northern Lights did not really appear for the rest of the trip as the sky was cloudy) Now for the birds!

Travelling north from Tromso the common birds on the water were Herring and Lesser Black-backed Gulls with a few Greater Black-backs and large numbers of Kittiwakes. There were also a few small groups of Fulmars. Hooded Crows and Ravens were common in the ports. There were small flocks of Mallard in many harbours plus small flocks of Eider and one small flock of King Eider. On several occasions we came across a pair of Black Guillemots.

We stopped at Honnigsvag and went for an excursion to a fishing village – this was interesting in itself, but we also had good views of a White-tailed Eagle there.

We entered Varanger Fjord and Vardo harbour in the dark – it did not get light enough to birdwatch till we left Vardo and unfortunately it turned out to be a very windy day with very thick cloud and poor light conditions. We started to see small flocks of auks on the water and flying but we were never really able to get good enough views to tell if they were Guillemots, Brunnichs Guillemots or Razorbills. Some were definitely Puffins however. At Vadso harbour there were small flocks of Long-tailed Ducks in full spring plumage with Eiders and one King Eider. There was a brief frustrating fly-by of 3 birds which we thought were Steller’s Eiders – luckily we saw them again and were able to confirm the ID though it was not a very good view. This was an important sighting as they turned out to be the only Steller’s Eiders we saw on the whole trip – and there are supposed to be thousands of them in the area! They are a shore loving duck which are often found in harbours so we scanned all likely places to no avail.

The crossing to Kirkenes was uneventful and Kirkenes itself was iced in with thin broken ice so there were no birds on the water – though we did see a Harbour Seal. A walk into Kirkenes in unpleasant conditions  - minus 12 degrees with about 10 degrees of wind chill – was interesting as we picked up a few passerines in the town where there were bird feeders – Great Tit, Arctic Redpoll, Feral Pigeon, Greenfinch and House Sparrow.

Our return to Vardo was half an hour late which meant the light was fading as we approached – but there were a lot of birds around. Biggish flocks of Eider with plenty of King Eider mixed in, plus Kittiwakes in their thousands and flocks of Auks and occasional Shags. Also a few Gannets. But no Steller’s Eider – we thought they were pretty well guaranteed there! The bonus bird, however, was a Gyr Falcon which whipped along a stony beach (presumably on the prowl for a Purple Sandpiper) then up and over the town and away, giving us good but brief views.

The next day travelling back to Tromso we had good views of Porpoises (about 50 in total) accompanied by enormous flocks of Herring Gulls and Kittiwakes, plus a couple of Glaucous Gulls.

At Honnigsvag there was a distant small flock of Scoters in the harbour – Velvet I think. Also a small flock of Purple Sandpipers flying around – we had seen the odd one before but I guess we may have missed many as they are well disguised on the rocky shores. At Hammerfest there was a brief morning of sunshine and the Kittiwakes started calling and nest-building on the roofs, despite that fact that the temperature had still not risen above zero and it had snowed most days!

So then it was back to Tromso and the end of the voyage.

We judged it a successful trip – we had seen all of our targets. However, the mystery remains as to where all the Steller’s Eiders had got to. (As a footnote, we have found a trip report from several years ago around the same date which failed to find any King Eiders, but they found about 2000 Steller’s! I have also since read that the numbers of Steller’s Eider which winter in Varanger fjord are vary variable from year to year, and that it is not actually known where these birds breed)

Non-birding footnotes:

1) The Hurtigruten ferries are interesting to travel on – most of the passengers are on a “cruise”  but as the ferries call in to a number of small harbours there are still some foot passengers, a few cars and plenty of goods using the ferry for its proper purpose. We found it fascinating to watch the fork-lift trucks taking goods on and off (typically fresh veg, plasterboard, cement etc off and fish on.)

2) The scenery was excellent – snow-covered mountains. The little ports and villages en route are very attractive.

3) There are several “optional excursions” offered on the trip. We did the one to the “most northerly fishing village” which was interesting. Others are on offer such as dog-sledding and snow-mobiling – some of these give you the chance to travel between two ports overland. However, these were cancelled on our voyage because of the strong winds. In general it is probably better to book dog-sledding and snow-mobiling on-line with operators in Tromso and do them on the spare day(s) there as they are likely to be smaller operators and smaller groups than those run from the ships.

4) We flew from Manchester on a charter flight run by Jet2. We cannot fault Jet2 at all but Manchester airport Terminal 1 was a shambles – it took us over an hour to get through security and the queue was about 100 yards long.

5) Sea-sickness – not an issue on our trip as though the winds were strong they were blowing from the land and there was no real swell. The route that the ferries travel is mostly sheltered and they are stabilised but I guess there are one or two exposed parts which could be a bit bouncy if there was a NW gale.

6) Footwear – it was necessary to wear non-slip footwear as the Norwegians do not bother to clear snow from pavements or even the boat decks! This could result in quite slippy conditions at times.

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Rosemary Royle

Pembrokeshire, Wales, UK


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