ARCTIC NORWAY
 

29th MARCH 2016 - 4th APRIL 2016
 

King eiderKing eiderBåtsfjord, Norway - March 2016                                                                      King Eider - Båtsfjord

Time to get out as much cold weather clothing as possible, for this much anticipated trip to Arctic Norway, which had been in the planning for the last two or three years. As for the winter trip to Iceland in February 2014, this one was a joint venture with JHo.

Had hoped to go in 2015, but when that wasn't possible, it was rearranged for this year. As it happened, it was advantageous anyway - restricted to a visit in the window of the Easter school holidays, falling earlier this year at the back end of March, there was a better chance of King Eider being around. Still borderline, but a trip in April runs a higher risk that some King Eider would have already moved on towards their tundra breeding areas.

As usual a day lost in travel either side of the trip, weather permitting leaving five full days in the field.

Being so far north, a 1,000 miles or so north of southern Norway and about 250 miles north of the Arctic Circle, and at virtually the northernmost point of Continental Europe, there wasn't going to be a huge number of species to see - highlights in the Varanger area were expected to be Arctic sea-duck, Steller's & King Eider in particular, as well as maybe Willow Grouse, Gyrfalcon, Hawk Owl and Brünnich’s Guillemot. A trip further south into the forests should hopefully produce photo opportunities for Pine Grosbeak, Siberian Tit, Siberian Jay and Arctic Redpoll.

Before I planned the trip, I hadn't realised quite how far Norway veers around to the east at its north end, to the extent that it's actually further east than Istanbul.  

Mammals were expected to be few and far between. Other than Red Squirrel and Mountain Hare, a very slim/no chance of Arctic Fox, Wolverine, Lynx & Wolf - more likely were Reindeer, maybe the Bearded Seal that has been seen the last couple of winters at Skallelv, and depending how much effort was put into staring out to sea, possibly the odd cetacean. Brown Bear would still be hibernating.
Pine grosbeakPine grosbeakPasvik Valley, Norway - March 2016

                                                                                           Pine Grosbeak - Pasvik Valley

No idea what the temperatures would be - potentially between 0°C and -5°C around the coastal areas of Varanger, falling down to -5°C to -10°C if venturing into the forests. Perversely, we still needed the area to be in the grip of winter - mild conditions could mean lower numbers of wintering birds.

Daylight hours should be around 5.00am to 7.30pm.

A showing of the Northern Lights would be nice, but having seen them previously in Iceland, and as recently as a few weeks ago in North Yorkshire, I wasn't anticipating staying up too late or putting in too much effort on this front.


Logistics

The original idea around Christmas time had been to book a flight from Manchester to Ivalo in Northern Finland with Finnair, which would give us the chance of taking in the feeders at Kaamanen for taiga species en route to Varanger, but that idea was scuppered when the costs of a return flight even at this early stage increased to in excess of £500. Just too big a hit in addition to the other expected costs.

A rethink was needed, and came in the form of Scandinavian Airline Systems (SAS) which were offering a return flight from Manchester to Kirkenes in northern Norway, via Oslo, for £202 including hold baggage of 23kg, with a 12.05pm departure and arriving at 8.00pm. Only an hour and a half from Vadsø, it seemed a little too good to be true, but we took the punt anyway - the potential saving outweighed the risk.

A hire car was booked via the SAS/Hertz partnership, with a VW Golf or equivalent at an expected cost of around £260.

All accommodation was booked via booking.com, apart from at Båtsfjord, which was done via Arctic Tourist.


Itinery

Tuesday was a travel day, with an expected arrival time of around 10.00pm at the accommodation in Vaggatem, a settlement about 60 miles south of Kirkenes.

Wednesday would be spent in the forests of Pasvik Valley, a finger of Norway the runs southwards, bordered either side by Russia and Finland, to look for taiga species, as well as Hawk Owl - no specific info, it would be a case of pot luck (if we failed here, then a potential trip to Kaamanen would come back into the equation).

                                                      Varangarfjord, Norway - virtually as far north as you can get in Europe

That evening we were due in Båtsfjord, a five hour or 205 mile drive to the north, for the following mornings visit to the hide in the fjord for sea-duck, as well as a cruise around in a RIB for flight photography.

From there on Thursday, a two and a half hour or 110 mile drive south to Vadsø on the north side on Varangarfjord, which would be our base for the next four nights.

 
Friday was earmarked for a visit to the island of Hornøya, just offshore from Vardo, which would then free things up to explore the general area on the Saturday & Sunday, before an early departure on the Monday morning for the airport.


Day 1 - Tuesday 29th March 2016

Left East Ayton at 4.30am, picking up Jon on the Yorkshire Wolds at 5.00am, then the slog on the M62, followed by the expected heavy slow moving commuter traffic around Manchester, but still arriving in plenty of time at a freezing airport carpark.

If you fly via Oslo, you need to pick up your hold baggage there, and go through the whole booking in and security process again for the onward domestic flight. It might make a difference when considering potential connecting flights.

A window seat on the plane gave good views over Norway, mountainous in large parts, vast snow fields starting to melt and the ice on the large lakes were already showing cracks.

A glow in the horizon on the aircrafts approach to Kirkenes after dusk gave some optimism that the Northern Lights were a possibility.

Collected the car from Hertz, right next to the baggage conveyor belt - this seemed to be the only car hire company open at this time of day, and gave us a hit of around £35 for out of hours collection. The car was a Nissan Quashqai, complete with studded tyres, and fortunately a diesel, as unlike in the UK, there was a big difference in the cost of derv compared to petrol. Also had in-built Sat Nav - we knew the routes we were going to do, but the Sat Nav was useful in giving accurate time scales for the journeys.

The drive down into the Pasvik Valley was a slow one, with none of the hoped for mammals appearing in the headlights. Took around one and three-quarters hours, on a bit of a tricky road, which after a couple of days of relatively mild weather was a mixture of snowy and icy conditions.
Northern lightsNorthern lightsPasvik Valley, Norway - March 2016

                                                                                             Northern Lights - Pasvik Valley

As expected arrived at Øvre Pasvik Camping in Vaggatem at around 10.00pm, the late check-in time being a bonus (can book in up to 11.00pm), then sorted out access for the four bed cabin. If you ask in advance, they'll just leave the key in the door, and a relative bargain in Norway at just 550 Krone per night - very, very basic yes, but it was warm and clean, and suited our needs, which was basically somewhere to get our heads down, before being out birding first thing. Straightaway the Northern Lights were on display - stunning views as they arched, throwing down curtains and shafts of light. Plenty of photos taken with the 18-55mm kit lens, which did fairly well considering it's just a cheap zoom. A bit surreal taking shots in such mild and still conditions, especially compared to using frost bitten fingers in a gale force wind in Iceland back in 2014 - despite the time of night, gloves weren't needed.


Day 2 - Wednesday 30th March 2016

Right in the border zone here, with Russia just three miles to the east and Finland seven miles to the west - at it's closest the 885, the road that heads south down the Pasvik Valley, passes within half a mile of Norway's giant eastern neighbour.
Pasvik Valley, Norway - March 2016Pasvik Valley, Norway - March 2016

                                                                                         Øvre Pasvik Camping - Pasvik Valley

An early 5.00am start, with the sun rising over the Russian border to the east. First thing was to try and pick up the Hawk Owl that was regular around the cabins, but no sign (in fact it eluded us all morning). Birds that were here and from the adjacent frozen lake and road, included Greenfinch, Great Tit, Willow Tit, Magpie, Hooded Crow, Raven, Pine Grosbeak (the first lifer of the trip), and Jon also had Siberian Tit (another lifer), two Jay and four Black Grouse. A drumming woodpecker sp eventually led to brief, distant and poor flight views of a probable Lesser Spotted Woodpecker - the other highlight was a calling Tengmalm's (Boreal) Owl.
Siberian titSiberian titPasvik Valley, Norway - March 2016

                                                                                        Siberian Tit - Pasvik Valley

A walk along the 885 next to the camp looking for Hawk Owl was disastrous, with a slip on a single patch of meltwater on an otherwise clear road, leading to the Canon 7D body being smashed, with the 500mm lens jammed into it, rendering both unusable for the trip - they'd only taken a couple of record shots of a distant male Pine Grosbeak.
Pasvik Valley, Norway - March 2016Pasvik Valley, Norway - March 2016

                                                                                   Øvre Pasvik Camping - Pasvik Valley

Shell shocked, and further attempts to remove the 7D from the 500mm failed, so no chance of switching to another camera body. Plan B was to use the borrowed back-up kit, consisting of a Canon 100-400mm, and to do the best I could in getting images - if I hadn't of taken this lens, it would have been a nightmare.
Siberian jaySiberian jayPasvik Valley, Norway - March 2016

                                                                                        Siberian Jay - Pasvik Valley

By now the light was getting better photography wise, so we took a twenty or so minute walk along a snowy forest track down to some feeders in the hope of photographing taiga species - en route flushed by accident a female Capercaillie, quickly followed by a second female, and other birds included a brief female Bullfinch (only one of the trip) and a trio of Siberian Jay, which was another lifer. The tracks themselves were OK, but any attempt to stray usually led to being trapped knee or waist deep in the snow, and to free yourself was an absolute nightmare.
Hawk owlHawk owlPasvik Valley, Norway - March 2016

                                                                      Hawk Owl - Pasvik Valley - one of the birds of the trip

The feeders were superb, with constant and reasonably close range views of 3+ Siberian Jay, 4 Siberian Tit, 12-15 Pine Grosbeak and 2 Willow Tit - a brief visit also from 3+ Mealy Redpoll. Ended up being a decent session with the camera, and also meant that we could forget about Finland, concentrating instead purely on the Varanger area from tomorrow onwards.
Black grouseBlack grousePasvik Valley, Norway - March 2016

                                                                                         Black Grouse - Pasvik Valley

Back at Øvre Pasvik Camping, a chance to pack up and start to get ready for the long drive to Båtsfjord. It had been a risk heading into the Pasvik Valley - forest birds could have been difficult to find or photograph (especially compared to Kaamanen, where they were expected to be guaranteed), but fortunately it had paid off with the key species all seen well.

Left Vaggatem at around 12.30pm, deciding to drift slowly north along the Pasvik Valley, and to stop in any areas that looked interesting. Ended up being pretty good, with Hawk Owl (at last), a very smart male Black Grouse, and maybe 4+ Willow Grouse all picked up.
Willow grouseWillow grousePasvik Valley, Norway - March 2016

                                                                                         Willow Grouse - Pasvik Valley

One bird we hadn't seen so far was Arctic Redpoll, and we should really have stopped at the feeders at Birk Husky for these, assuming access would have been OK. Instead we moved on to Svanvik, but the feeders here were disappointing - tonnes of seed out but just House Sparrow and Greenfinch, and no redpolls or the expected Red Squirrels. Maybe we hit it at the wrong time of day, and early morning probably would have been better.

So that was the end of Pasvik, from there on it was the drive to Båtsfjord, and no problems crossing the high tundra. In poor weather a slow convoy system leaves every couple of hours to get across the mountains, so we were quite lucky really. Didn't see much on the drive, and no sign of any roadside Hawk Owl in the Tana Bru area, plus the Tana River itself was frozen.

Booked into the Polar Hotel, and met Ørjhan from Arctic Tourist just to confirm tomorrows arrangements for the floating hide. The bad news was that good numbers of King Eider had left in recent days due to the mild weather, something we'd feared on the drive up, though a few were still around, and in addition we were to meet up at 4.00am, so we really needed to be up at 3.15am. With all the travel over the last two days, and with an early start tomorrow, gave looking for the Northern Lights a miss.


Day 3 - Thursday 31st March 2016

Up early, then arrived at the slipway in darkness just before 4.00am as arranged, together with our pack up breakfast from the hotel. Wasn't too cold at all considering the time, and the sky looked clear, so potentially we could be in for a day of decent light. Kitted out in a survival suit, there was the four photographers for the session - me, Jon, plus birders from Denmark and Sweden.
Stellers eiderStellers eiderBåtsfjord, Norway - March 2016

                                                                                             Steller's Eider - Båtsfjord

No sea-duck initially, but gradually they flew in, and a few attempts to get some shots despite the lack of light - shouldn't have bothered as the views later were great, at point blank range at times, and in much better light.

The floating hide was container like, with various removable cut out squares as photography points, mostly at sea level. It wasn't what you would call comfortable lying down on dank carpet for hours on end. With four of us in there, it was reasonably OK to change position and move around the hide, but you really wouldn't fancy it with a higher number of photographers, and being stuck in a set position, irrespective as to where the birds were.
King eiderKing eiderBåtsfjord, Norway - March 2016

                                                                                              King Eider - Båtsfjord

Birds on view were changing all of the time as they came and went but at a guess maybe 10+ King Eider (a 1st year male, 3 or 4 females and 5+ males), 25-30 Steller's Eider, 2 Long-tailed Duck, plus numerous Common Eider. I'd only seen Steller's Eider once before, a solitary drake three years ago in the north-east of Iceland, and on that occasion I'd managed to over expose the photos in strong light conditions, so it was good to have another chance to get things right.
 

Stellers eiderStellers eiderBåtsfjord, Norway - March 2016                                                                                          Steller's Eider - Båtsfjord

Not sure what the sea-duck were feeding on, but it appeared to be scraps of fish discharged from the adjacent landing quay, which was also useful in bringing in Glaucous Gull and argentatus Herring Gull. Might have just been my imagination, but some of the Glaucous Gulls looked huge.
Glaucous gullGlaucous gullBåtsfjord, Norway - March 2016                                                                                                Glaucous Gull - Båtsfjord

A Rock Pipit seen a couple of times around the quay, as were a few Hooded Crow, and in the fjord both Black Guillemot and Great Black-backed Gull present. The hide itself was stable, albeit in very calm conditions.
Båtsfjord, Norway - March 2016Båtsfjord, Norway - March 2016                                                                                  Jon on the RIB scanning for sea-duck

Ørjhan turned up on time at 10.00am to pick us up, and then take the RIB around the fjord, with a few flight shots taken - it was flat calm, almost glass like, with beautiful light, and even felt warm. Steller's Eider was the hardest to photograph, being smaller, in a tight flock, they were also faster, and tended to be erratic as to which direction they flew - I missed the best flypast being on the wrong side of the boat. The much heavier King Eider took a while to get airborne, and were an easier target. Four Oystercatcher in flight were new. It's not a cheap activity to do, which is the case with most things in Norway, and involves some additional driving, but with hindsight it was worth it, especially considering I'd lost the longer lens yesterday.
King eiderKing eiderBåtsfjord, Norway - March 2016                                                                                                  King Eider - Båtsfjord

Back on land, booked out of the hotel and spent lunchtime around the harbour area - still the odd Glaucous Gull lingering, but the sea-duck were by now generally fairly distant.

Mid-afternoon, and back over the mountains towards Varangerfjord, with the next four nights booked for the Vadsøfjord Hotel, not surprisingly in Vadsø, which is a fishing port of around 5,000 people, and the biggest town in the area. After being on the move for the last few days, it would be good to have a proper base for the rest of the trip. A new bird was an all white Ptarmigan on the tops flushed when we stopped to take a few scenic shots (presuming we got the ID correct, which was heavily based on location), and still no sign of any Hawk Owl in the Tana Bru area.
High tundraHigh tundraVaranger, Norway - March 2016                                                                                      High tundra, luckily with a clear road

Booked into the hotel, with a couple of Steller's Eider in the channel just in front of it, then taking advantage of the glorious conditions, went to explore the east end of the island. Must have been Jon's perfect place to stay, with at least 10 pure white Mountain Hare present - calling them Mountain Hare as opposed to Arctic Hare, with the latter a North American species?

Other than that, just another group of 12+ Steller's Eider and lovely views across to Vadsø itself worth a mention.

Stocked up on supplies at the local supermarket, then a relatively early night. Birding wise, it had been a superb couple of days, each one an entirely different experience.


Day 4 - Friday 1st April 2016

This was the time set aside for the visit to the seabird colony at Hornøya, an island just offshore from Vardø, which was right at the eastern end of the Varanger peninsular. Another cracking day weather wise.

I sorted through a few photos first thing, while Jon had an early session stalking hares. A buffet breakfast at the hotel, with a good selection on offer, and a window seat gave the chance to scan for wildlife on the fjord, with a new addition being an early returning pair of Whooper Swan.
Hornøya ferryHornøya ferryVarangerfjord - April 2016                                                                                                        Hornøya ferry

A drive along the coast gave the first Reindeer of the trip, and other than a few Raven and Hooded Crow on a carcass, not much else of note. Just before the tunnel to Vardø, on the left is the harbour of Svartnes, and there were stacks of gulls in this area, but being pushed for time, didn't get the chance to check them out. Made Vardø before 9.00am, sorted out the ferry tickets at 400 Krone each, making it for the first boat over as the only two passengers. Over the weekend, the first boat goes out at noon, which was a bit late for what we wanted. As it was, with an agreed pick up time of 3.00pm, we had nearly six hours on the island.
Hornøya landing areaHornøya landing areaVarangerfjord - April 2016                                                                                              Hornøya landing area

The clarity of the water in Vardø harbour was incredible, and you could see right down to the bottom. A few Glaucous Gull present, and I thought I had an adult Iceland Gull on the way over to the island, but as we didn't see this species during the remainder of the visit, one to write off. Brünnich’s GuillemotBrünnich’s GuillemotHornøya, Varangerfjord - April 2016                                                                                             Brünnich’s Guillemot - Hornøya

Main target was always going to be Brünnich’s Guillemot, an arctic breeder, and that was the first bird we started scanning for. Initially tough going, eventually managed to find a cliff face to the left of the landing area with decent numbers, on their own rather than mixed in with the other auks. A bit distant and in the early morning shade for photography, but a few seen at closer range later in the visit mixed in with the Guillemots.
Hornøya lighthouseHornøya lighthouseVarangerfjord - April 2016                                                                                               Hornøya lighthouse

There was a risk today could have fallen a bit flat - living so close to Bempton RSPB, we're pretty used to seeing good numbers of seabirds, but it was a superb visit, and well worth making the effort, especially in such a beautiful setting. At times auks would stream past overhead, and along the paths you could virtually reach out and touch the Puffins. Great views also of Shag, Guillemot, Razorbill and Kittiwake, with Raven regularly patrolling along the cliffs causing chaos, and Jon had a distant White-tailed Eagle - one bird we expected but missed was Gyrfalcon, which was a shame. You also had the option of photographing from the base of cliffs, or else take the right-hand track to the lighthouse and view the birds from above. The rules changed today regarding access areas, as up until yesterday you could go wherever you wanted to on the island, whereas from today, to avoid disturbance to breeding birds, you are restricted to footpaths - don't think it made any difference to us as to what we did, as it's all common sense anyway.

One thing I had intended to do, but didn't, was to take some time out to scan for White-beaked Dolphin and Orca, which should have been a good possibility in such calm conditions.
PuffinPuffinHornøya, Varangerfjord - April 2016                                                                                                     Puffin - Hornøya

Missed the broken camera kit today, with brilliant photo opportunities on offer, and struggled badly without the faster lens to get any useable images of the auks in flight.

Back in Vardø harbour, took the chance to have a late lunch on the quay whilst scanning the gulls. Glaucous Gull was relatively easy to pick up, with three birds at close range, but the really big numbers of gulls were at the fish quay on the far side, and we should have driven over to have a proper sort through. Had a Grey Seal here as well, to add to a Common Seal seen off Hornøya.

The plan now was to drift slowly back westwards along Varangerfjord towards Vadsø, exploring anywhere that looked interesting, and the key bird was going to be White-billed Diver. Back through the tunnel, and the large numbers of gulls seen earlier at Svartnes had dispersed, so next stop was Kiberg. The tide was out, and with just a few lingering Steller's Eider, moved on pretty quickly.
White-tailed eagleWhite-tailed eagleVaranger, Norway - April 2016                                                                                             White-tailed Eagle - Varanger

The fjord was really easy to scan, as it was completely flat with not even a ripple, but we couldn't pick up any divers. A search of the river at the pretty village of Skallelv for Bearded Seal (one being present the last couple of years), but no sign today - did pick up a flock of 5+ Snow Bunting. Highlight on the drive back was a White-tailed Eagle sat next to the road - really lucky with this one, as by the time we'd found somewhere to turn around and come back, we were able to use a lay-by to photograph it.
ReindeerReindeerVarangerfjord - April 2016                                                                                               Reindeer - Varanger

Didn't see a Reindeer in the first two days, but now being seen on a regular basis in small groups, especially on the coastal strip where the snow was in retreat. The main herds, which are still looked after by the indigenous Sami people (Lapps or Laplanders), are to the south of Varanger waiting for the main snow melt before moving north, so what we're seeing is the animals that for one reason or another, either too weak, or just got separated from the herd, didn't make the migration south in the autumn. Semi-wild or semi-feral, stop the car to look at them, and straightaway they'll move on.

Along the coast had a stop-off at Ekkerøy, a potential spot for White-billed Diver, but no joy - a fair number of Red-breasted Merganser in the bays, and waders included two Redshank, plus the ubiquitous Purple Sandpiper.
VadsøVadsøVarangerfjord - April 2016

                                                                                                          Vadsø

Back in Vadsø, time to take a break in what had already been a long day. We'd been so lucky with the weather so far, certainly around 5°C or more most of the time, and in the sunshine, with no wind, it felt really pleasant.

A look out for the Northern Lights about 10.00pm, and they were on. Not as strong as a couple of nights ago in Pasvik, but still great to watch.


Day 5 - Saturday 2nd April 2016

Having had four full on days where the agenda was all preset, a change today in that we didn't have any specific planned activities. Having done so well on the photography front so far, we had total flexibility, and could do as we pleased.

After a late breakfast (8.00am till 10.00am at weekends), decided to concentrate on the west end of Varangerfjord today, an area that we'd previously only driven through. With a couple of Hawk Owls having been seen to the south of Varangerbotn, we'd start from there and gradually make our way eastwards back towards Vadsø.

Directions for the Hawk Owl were a bit vague, but we guessed if we drove up and down the main road, that would give as good a chance as any. Not sure what we were doing wrong trying to see Hawk Owl, but we failed here and again in the Tana Bru area, whereas the odd birders we came across had seen 'several' during their trips - we were still stuck on one.
Nesseby, Norway - April 2016Nesseby, Norway - April 2016                                                                                                   Nesseby Church

Next stop Nesseby, more in sightseeing mode than anything else. A good seawatching point in the right conditions, but as in previous days, today was totally still, so we didn't give that any effort. Had a walk around the church, dating back to 1858 and one of Varangers iconic landmarks, as well as the adjacent fish drying racks, which like all the ones we saw on the trip, were empty. Amazing even in the short time we'd been in the area, how much snow had thawed.

Moved on heading east, in what had been cloudy conditions, but gradually breaks were starting to appear. Had been a really quiet morning bird wise, but a young White-tailed Eagle brightened things up as it flew and circled over a ridge just inland, eastward bound, so we drove on past it with the intention of pulling over in the first available layby. Seemed to drive a fair distance before we could safely pull in, then it was a waiting game to see if the eagle would appear.
White-tailed eagleWhite-tailed eagleVarangerfjord - April 2016                                                                                       White-tailed Eagle - Varanger

Looked like we were going to draw a blank, when a tight flock of four White-tailed Eagles were picked up over the edge of the fjord heading in our direction from the west, and flying so low that even with a 100-400mm zoom, they were close enough to photograph - included one that wasn't that far off full adult plumage (a few black tips to the tail feathers).

Great to get such good views of these.

Further on to Vestre Jakobselv, planning to have a look at the birch woodland areas for Hawk Owl, woodpeckers and redpolls. As we approached the village, all of the gulls had just been flushed from the river, and a quick scan of the sky immediately gave the reason why, a pair of adult White-tailed Eagle - that was between six and seven individuals in the previous twenty odd minutes.
Lesser spotted woodpeckerLesser spotted woodpeckerVestre Jakobselv, Varangerfjord - April 2016                                                                          Lesser Spotted Woodpecker - Vestre Jakobselv

Turned left after the river, then headed inland, eventually coming to a carpark, from where a track carried on inland through the birch. After so much driving over the last few days, this was the chance to stretch our legs. Kitted up, then set off to see what we could find, which initially just meant Great Tit and Greenfinch. Carried on and eventually picked up the distant sound of drumming, which we managed to pin down as a male Lesser Spotted Woodpecker. Can't remember the last one I saw in the UK, and to get a couple of decent record shots of a species I hadn't photographed before, was a real bonus.
Vestre Jakobselv, Norway - April 2016Vestre Jakobselv, Norway - April 2016                                                                                     Snow mobiles - Vestre Jakobselv

Amazing just how popular snow mobiles are in the Varanger area for off-road travel, both for leisure and work. Lots of cars have trailers specifically for these items, and numerous people were using them as we walked the track in Vestre Jakobselv. Seemed like a long walk in the snow, maybe three or four miles round trip, but despite this, we picked up next to nothing.

Back to the hotel for a coffee break, then a walk around Vadsøya island. Four or five Mountain Hare, plus offshore plenty of Eider, including 35+ Steller's Eider, and at least a few King Eider in the mid-distance flocks. Without a telescope, those eider sp further out were left unidentified.
VadsøVadsøVarangerfjord - April 2016                                                                                        Vadsø - intense Arctic sunset

After a fifteen or so mile drive eastwards to check a couple of the bays, headed back to Vadsø with an intense arctic sunset on show.

The emphasis was on landscape photography today - bird wise, with the exceptions of Gyrfalcon and Arctic Redpoll we'd seen everything we expected, and generally views had been excellent.

The Northern Lights were active tonight, with a rating of 5, but when we were looking later, the cloud cover was 100%, so no chance.

A quieter day compared to the others, and an opportunity to take a bit of a breather after the hectic start.


Day 6 - Sunday 3rd April 2016

Very near the end of the trip now, and we'll be packing first thing in the morning to catch our flight.
ReindeerReindeerVaranger, Norway - April 2016

                                                                                            Reindeer - Varanger

Breakfast at 8.00am, including hot food in the form of egg and bacon, then loaded the car to redo Vardø for the gulls and the east end of Varangerfjord. First stop, ignoring the ones for Reindeer, was the huge harbour at Svartnes. Not surprisingly, being a Sunday, with few fishing boats around, gull numbers were low, but did include the odd Glaucous Gull. Main draw was Steller's Eider, with some of the 75+ birds present giving reasonably close range flypasts next to the pier - having not been too happy with the flight shots from Båtsfjord, this gave a second chance. The light was still fairly poor, and we were getting the odd snow flurry, so thought we'd try again later.
Svartnes, Norway - April 2016Svartnes, Norway - April 2016                                                                                   Svartnes - cabins partially buried in the snow

Just inland, some of the properties were partially buried in snow, so presumably in use in the summer only.

Through the tunnel onto Vardø, a pretty town in parts, including some fascinating buildings, but with other areas in real need of regeneration. Did go to the fish quay this time around, but it was dead activity wise, no fishing boats landing catches, and so just a few gulls lingering from the species we'd had over the rest of the trip. With hindsight, should definitely have checked it out properly on the Friday.
KittiwakeKittiwakeVardø, Norway - April 2016                                                                                              Kittiwake - Vardø

Back to Svartnes to have another bash at the Steller's Eider, and never easy, with some patience did manage to get a few more flight shots - the light was better than earlier, but a shame it was still overcast, giving a grey background to the images.
Stellers eiderStellers eiderSvartnes, Norway - April 2016

                                                                                            Steller's Eider - Svartnes

By now it had gone noon, and time was literally starting to run out on the trip. The decision was made to try for Hawk Owl again at Varangerbotn, so started the long drive westwards. Skallelv was worth a stop en route, with the light giving a perfect reflection of the buildings in the river.
SkallelvSkallelvVarangerfjord - April 2016

                                                                                                      Skallelv

Still no Bearded Seal on the river, but did pick up a flock of 45+ Snow Bunting.

On to the Varangerbotn area after a long drive, and irritatingly still no Hawk Owl - even tried the Tana Bru area again, getting the same result. Wouldn't have minded having seen just a single Hawk Owl, but when we'd specifically looked for them since the first day in good areas, and failed, it was annoying.

Back to Vadsø, and our first look at the harbour area. Nice light still, and other than having a look at the Steller's Eider flock, took the chance to take a few photos of the landscapes and boats.
 

Northern lightsNorthern lightsVadsø, Norway - April 2016                                                                                      Northern Lights - Vadsø

The forecast was decent tonight for the Northern Lights, with a 4 rating - not quite as good as last night, but this far north, should still be nailed on  if we had clear skies. Had a look out at 9.45pm, and they were on show, so got the camera kit together, including the tripod, and made our way to a layby on the hill just to the east of Vadsø to get away from the glare of the towns lights. Great views really, changing shape constantly, intensity varying, even getting a few hints of purple.
 

Northern lightsNorthern lightsVadsø, Norway - April 2016                                                                                     Northern Lights - Vadsø
Northern lightsNorthern lightsVadsø, Norway - April 2016

                     Northern Lights - Vadsø - airship mast used by Roald Amundsen to explore the arctic just to the right of centre

Too fast for the camera at times, when it faded, we headed back to the hotel, only for it to pick up again, so a second chance of photos. Definitely by far my best showing to date, and a great way to end the trip.


Day 7 - Monday 4th April 2016

Flight out of Kirkenes to Oslo was 11.30am, so had time for breakfast, leaving the hotel at 7.30am. Everything was packed and loaded into the boot, apart from the camera kit, which went on the back seats, just in case we came across anything worth photographing.

Colder today, around freezing, but with the wind from the east and a heavy cloud cover, a bit chilly, and it looked as though we'd had the best of the weather. We even had a few snow flurries on the higher ground.
Hawk owlHawk owlKirkenes area, Norway - April 2016                                                                                            Hawk Owl - Kirkenes area

Needless to say no Hawk Owl as we passed the Varangerbotn area (fourth attempt?), and after seeing very little on the rest of the drive, luck changed with a Hawk Owl sat on wires about five miles from the airport. Not as confiding as the one in Pasvik, but still good enough for a few record shots - another bonus, we also had it call and saw it fly.

Dropped off the hire car after filling the tank, then the long haul home via Oslo, Bergen and Manchester, arriving there at 7.30pm. Plenty of sitting around at airports today, and a tiring drive back to Yorkshire via the M62 & A64.


Summary

You can plan as much as you like, and virtually everything went as expected, but to slip on ice in the first hour or so of the first day, losing both the camera and 500mm lens was a hammer blow, and to be honest at the time I didn't think I'd recover from it.

To have that happen, and still end up having a fantastic trip, shows how good it was.

The borrowed backup kit gave the chance to rescue a disastrous situation, and with the use of feeders, hides, plus the benefit of generally confiding wildlife, coupled with great light, somehow I managed to get through.

The photo opportunities were superb, the variety of species was excellent, as were the Northern Lights displays, and all in a pretty special setting.

To have the weather the way it was, with mild temperatures, clear skies and no wind, meaning for 99% of the time, neither gloves or even a coat were required, was totally unexpected. It also meant we had no problems with any of the driving in respect of the road conditions.

Photos of the trip will eventually end up in this album - http://www.eastaytonbirding.com/p445498381.


Maps

Took Freytag & Berndt's map of Norge Nordkapp at 1:400,000 scale. Didn't need it as the hire car had Sat Nav, and even if it hadn't of, it's very easy to navigate using road signs - in fact we only drove on five roads in the entire trip.


Reference Books

Birding Varanger by Biotope, available from here - http://biotope.myshopify.com/.


Links

Øvre Pasvik Camping & Vadsøfjord Hotel were booked via Booking.com, but alternatively the direct links are - http://pasvikcamping.no/ and  http://www.vadsoefjordhotell.no/v3/index.php/en/.

Hornøya - http://www.hornoya.com/about.

The photography hides at Båtsfjord and the nights stay at the Polar Hotel were booked through Arctic Tourist - http://www.arctictourist.no/.