The first four birds listed below are from Week 14. But you know, when it comes to gulls, they are just darn hard to tell apart. I had to spend a little more time than I wanted comparing my photos and notes to my books. Plus, gulls are not my thing.
New birds: 5, Journey to date: 64
Gråmåke (Larus argentatus)
Fiskemåke (Larus canus)
Polarmåke (Larus hyperboreus)
Krykkje (Rissa tridactyla)
Snøspurv (Plectrophenax nivalis)
There is a call in the wind
Back from my hike to the top of the island it was time to rest. I dropped my backpack at the birding shelter and contemplated my experiences. I recalled the old maxim, “Take only pictures, leave only memories.” Check, I even managed to take a couple pieces of trash. As I reached to rummage in my rucksack I noticed something else I would be taking with me, a healthy bird dropping on my bag. The dried remains will become a prized artifact of my visit to Hornøya.
I beg forgiveness because I know it’s a sin to covet, but I wanted a booking so bad to Varanger. And like something you covet, it is usually unattainable. I wanted to get to the end of Norway for many reasons. One, because it was possible given my job. Two, I really could say I had visited with Norwegian pupils from every corner of the kingdom. Three, it would be cool. And four, there was a rare duck that was predictably in the area. Feel free to speculate on my priorities.
My booking for teaching in Vardø was perfect. Mid April would be soaked with sun but still good light with shadow and richness. My target bird would still be in the area. I would get to meet a birding inspiration. And the pupils would still be far enough away from “Russ” time to pay attention in class.
Kautokeino was hard to get to last week, nobody goes there by mistake. Vardø is a little easier. Following my day at Samisk VGS I hopped the evening bus to Kirkenes by way of Finland. I saw a lot of trees and two wandering cariboo. Vardø has a commercial airport and is also a port of call for the Hurtigruten. But it is still an island in the far north so there is a balance between the exotic and the accessible
Vardø and the greater Varanger area are anomalies. Theirs is the only true arctic climate in Europe. Trees are rare, on Vardø there is only one, it is in the special protection of the Norwegian Army at the Fortress. Speaking with a resident who’s been to Nome, he said the places are very similar but that the water around Vardø doesn’t freeze shut. Snowmobiles appear to be a necessity.
But the birds, Vardø is about the birds. Exotic arctic birds that might cost your life or fortune in other parts of the world are right here. You can fly in, take some pictures, spend some time in a peaceful and safe Norwegian village and then go home. Maybe it’s too easy?
As a birder I will admit to my sloth and idiosyncrasies. I would do my best but I wasn’t going to risk my life to see everything possible. Besides, I only needed to see one bird to be totally satisfied. Of course, a duck.
The key draw to Vardø is the amazing bird breeding island of Hornøya. It is a small rock located just northwest of Vardø, a boat ride of less than 10 minutes. But the moment you cross the breakwater in the harbor you are entering another world. A world of big cold waves. A world of rich marine life. And finally, a world colonized by multiple species of seabirds, theirs friends, and their predators: Hornøya.
The cliff face is visible from town but it gives you no sense of the density of birds living, flying, squawking, and crapping there. Walking up the gangplank the noise was the first tell, the smell was the second, this was a foreign country.
I was the only person on the island, the only noon rider on the ferry. I felt undeservedly proud of myself. The pilot would return in 3 hours. I was dressed for the weather, no worries.
Goal number one was to find a Lunde, a Puffin. 30 seconds, check. They are curious little birds, a color scheme designed by a kindergarten class and the terrestrial habits of prairie dogs. My camera is the best we have, the truth is I also covet a more powerful lens.
Across the cliff face were the species I had prepared to see, it was so hard to take it in because I could not focus. If there had been one special bird or one special nest in a distance spot, then it would have been easy, everything else would have faded into the background, the great blur of life.
But here everything seemed exciting and important. My eyes needed that special panoramic lens and a sharp memory to take it all in. Overwhelmed by stimulation I went for a walk.
The island has a restricted pedestrian area to ensure the welfare of the birds. I took the path that would lead me south along the cliff face to climb up and over the island to visit the lighthouse on the other side.
The walk afforded me the opportunity to move and change my perspective, as well as get scared to death. I heard an avian commotion to my left, but paid no mind. All these birds were in breeding mode. It was war on the cliff over mates and territory, like the worst of a honky-tonk getting visited by the battalion on the first night back from extended training.
And then they hit me. A pair of gulls in full tussle fell off the cliff on TO ME! More apologies to God for my language. Unfazed, the combatants continued their struggle down the hill. They found a moment of detente and then flew back to the nesting area only to begin the struggle again. I wasn’t going to wait for a repeat performance.
Ducks are my thing, and in Varanger one can safely predict seeing the rare Steller’s eider. It’s a color looking duck with a neat story. They spend winter in the area and then in May return to the melting lakes of Siberia to nest. It was almost noon on Sunday and I was waiting for the boat to take me to Hornøya when I noticed a raft of ducks in the harbor.
Ah, common eiders. Cool ducks in their own right but not too exotic; I saw this group yesterday. But what could some new pictures hurt, digital shots don’t cost nothing.
Click, click. what! I switched to my higher magnifying binoculars and saw it, a steller’s, no two, no three! Two drakes and a hen in the group of Commons. I know there was the grin of an 8-year-old boy on this middle-aged face.
I was more than satisfied with my time on the island. I got sun, I got snow, I got to see fantastic and unusual birds up close and personal. I think three hours would be the minimum a person would need on the rock if they had any abiding interest in birds. The raptors were absent, that was a small bummer but not a disappointment. My day had already be made.
Later in the week I tried different location on the islands. The firm Biotope designed birding blinds around the islands, they are the only architectural firm in the world devoted to birding. They have an international presence but their goal is to turn Varanger into a destination birding location. I think they are well on their way.
On my last day on Vardø, the sun was shining again on new snow. The sun rose at 3:52, I managed to stay in a bed a little longer. My morning stroll on this working island of fishermen was to the area called Skagen. I scored one new bird species, the Snow buntings were present but shy. Additionally, the striking scenery was just humbling. I took pictures of what I could but it would just be better if you paid this special place a visit. There is a call in the wind: take it!
Looking up, looking ahead, and keeping my pencil sharp.