Wednesday 11 April 2012

Some Arctic scenery…

I’m just about done with the bird photos from Norway and Finland now, though the odd Grosbeak may be thrown in on slow photography days through the next few months, so it seems a good time to post a few scenic shots to complete the picture.

First up, a view of Finland from the air. Even from thousands of metres above the ground, you can see the key elements of the landscape…


…namely blue skies, forest, snow, and frozen lakes. There’s not really much else there apart from that!

One of the most-photographed landmarks around Varanger is the beautifully positioned church at Nesseby, on a little peninsula jutting out into the western end of Varangerfjord. (In birding circles, it will also be forever associated with Graham Catley’s extraordinary encounter with a Soft-plumaged Petrel). Like just about everyone else who visits, I took a few pics:




The final one is surely an iconic image:


“Nesseby church, with man photographing extralimital miniature panther.”

Don’t ask me what this is all about – I have no idea.

Roadside birding was very much the order of the day around Varanger, since the snow was too deep elsewhere to walk any distance. This type of scene was roughly typical, and also serves to illustrate average main road conditions. Thanks to regular snow-ploughing, there was never more than an inch of snow to negotiate, but in most places the road surface was basically packed ice. With metal studded tyres and virtually no traffic anywhere, though, driving was pretty fuss-free.



The previous photo illustrates the landscape on the south side of Varanger, on the road to Kirkenes. Here, there’s much less visibility over the fjord, and the terrain is generally rockier and more rugged. We didn’t see a huge amount over here bird-wise, but the amazing sight of a White-tailed Eagle leisurely swimming (looked more like rowing, in fact) >50m to a rocky outcrop with a still struggling female King Eider in its talons made the journey worthwhile.

And finally, some shots of my part of London taken on our approach from Helsinki. First, the Lee Valley reservoirs, including KGV and the Girlingin the distance, then the nearly circular Banbury, and Mr Whiteman’s Walthamstow patch to the south:


… followed, as we flew south-east, by a small and apparently unremarkable green space, shown in the middle distance on this photos. What could it be?


Tuesday 10 April 2012


A visit to Hornoya was another significant highlight of our trip to the Arctic Circle – you just can’t beat visiting seabird colonies, especially when you can get close to the birds and take in the whole experience – the constant to-ing and fro-ing of the birds, the sound, the smell! Looking across, or down, at a colony from a distance away just isn’t the same.

The island is particularly well known as arguably the easiest site for Brunnich’s Guillemot in Europe… so the first thing we did after an entertaining RIB ride across from Vardo was to scan through a big raft of auks just offshore. Can you see any? (If you want to make life a bit easier, click the photo for a larger image!)


I reckon there’s at least 8 in there!

With a bit of practice, they were actually quite easy to pick out in flight, too – compare these two shots: Brunnichs first, then Common.


The Brunnich’s best-known feature is the white ‘tomium stripe’ on the gape line – but in practice, it was the flank and underwing pattern differences that stood out most readily. Common Guillemots are well streaked on the flanks, and tend to have a variable amount of dirty smudging on the base of the underwing – by contrast, Brunnich’s is pretty clean. They’re also a subtly different shape, more compact and dumpy and with a clearly shorter, thicker bill. Finally, they’re genuinely black and white, very crisply coloured compared to the somewhat brownish Common Guillies.

In several regards, then, they’re a bit like a Razorbill with a slimmed down bill. Razorbill were not especially common when we were there, and Puffin were scarcer still – they hadn’t started returning to their burrows yet, we were probably just a few days too early.


For some much better photos of Puffins, and other Arctic seabirds, take a look at Tormod Amundsen’s ‘Biotope’ website. In particular, his series of shots of the young Gyr turning on an over-bold Raven is superb – would’ve loved to have seen this unfolding above us! See this Gyr vs Raven page.

We contacted Tormod in advance of our trip, hoping to benefit a little from some local knowledge, and were absolutely delighted with the amount of detailed info he passed our way – many thanks for your help!

In praise of Kittiwakes…

The furthest point from home on our trip was Vardø, at the eastern end of the north shore of Varangerfjord. With snow squalls blasting through the few streets as we arrived, it felt something like the end of the world – and that was in daylight. Imagine what it must be like in near 24-hour darkness through the winter. Brings a whole new meaning to the word ‘bleak’! I shall try to never complain about cold weather in the UK again.

However, once the snow stopped, some weak sunshine had emerged, and we’d arranged our boat trip to Hornøya, there was time for a bit of birding and photography around the town. Rock Pipits, Hooded Crows and Ravens were active around the harbour, but the clear highlight was a Kittiwake colony on traditional Norwegian wood-faced buildings. There was always so much going on, birds coming and going, squabbling with neighbours, greeting their returning mates, getting a drink from snowy rooftops, and gliding effortlessly around overhead. I could happily go back and spend a bit more time there and take even more photos…


A couple of these photos were taken on Hornøya itself, where the Kittiwake colony was much larger – probably over 1000 birds. These were fairly regularly being scared witless by a visiting Gyrfalcon – the resulting pandemonium and chaos was quite a spectacle!


Monday 9 April 2012

Back to the Arctic… Hawk Owl pics, song and video

As in the snowy forests of Finland, birding on the Norwegian side of the border didn’t feature a high diversity of species… but there was no shortage of quality. And that quality didn’t come much higher than Hawk Owl, one of our most wanted birds!


Jono spotted both of these birds from the car along the road north of Tana Bru – neither were concerned by our presence, and one even gave an unexpected burst of song. Now we know where the ‘ulula’ part of the Latin name comes from!

I also took some video footage, from which you can conclude that Hawk Owls don’t do much, apart from rotate their heads… but what a bird!

Friday 6 April 2012

Thayers Gull in Lincs: Map & Directions

Very successful day out in Lincs today, with pretty decent views of the Thayers Gull. It really is as distinctive as the photos suggest, and if this isn’t one, then I struggle to know how you’d ever pick out a 1st winter bird in the UK.

I’ve put together a quick sketch map that illustrates the general area where the bird has been seen, since it’s quite mobile with up to 1000 large gulls. See >this PDF document<…

Wednesday 4 April 2012

No-one likes a show-off… but everyone loves a Sibe!

Let’s face it: Pine Grosbeaks are rubbish. They’re fat, greedy, ostentatiously brightly coloured, noisy, argumentative and too bloody lazy to fly across the North Sea to Norfolk when you want them to. If they were humans, you’d probably find them sitting in a trendy bar in the City all day wearing expensive designer suits and fat signet rings, drinking Cristal while braying to their mates about whether to get a second Bentley or an Aston.

Clearly, most birders are far too discerning to fall for such gaudy trinkets. Their ideal species would be more delicate, decorated in subtly varied tones, harder to see, and vocal only on occasion, when it genuinely had something to say. More like a Siberian Tit, for instance.


Now these are absolutely stunning little birds in my book! What they lack in primary colours is more than compensated by charisma and character. Two pairs at Tuulen Tupa presented a considerably greater challenge to photograph than the grosbeaks, despite occasionally showing down to a couple of feet (inside my minimum focus distance a few times). The first of the shots below was taken at a focal length around 200mm, when it landed on a bucket of sunflower seeds after flying directly between me and Jono at head height!


Continuing on the theme of subtle Sibes, Siberian Jay is a pretty superb bird as well, one I’ve long wanted to see. Again, there were a couple of pairs around the hotel feeding station, favouring strips of fat pinned in the birch trees for their benefit. They tended to show most consistently early morning, when the light wasn’t so good, but also ghosted in from the surrounding forest now and then during the rest of the day.


Tuesday 3 April 2012

The Hotel of Grosbeak Happiness…

…is little more than an hour’s drive north of Ivalo airport, well inside the Arctic Circle at Neljan Tuulen Tupa in Kaamanen. We’d heard some great reports of this location’s bird photography possibilities from various people, including Hugh Harrop and his wildlife photography tour participants, and seen some cracking results – but would the reality live up to expectations?

Undoubtedly: go there! You will not regret it.


Arriving in Ivalo in near darkness and light snow, there was no chance of any birding on day 1. So we were keen to be up and out early (in temperatures around –14) the next morning, to get on the road north and see some of the Lapland forest specialities. By mid morning, we’d dumped our cases off into a comfortable room (as the only guests in the hotel), unpacked our optics and assembled our camera gear.

Next stop – the feeding station. I had never in all my life seen so many black sunflower seeds! But nor had I seen so many Pine Grosbeaks, or in fact any Pine Grosbeaks! Numbers were probably around 30 in total, with up to 15 feeding together at a time, all within 5m. They regularly few within a few inches of our heads. Imagine tiling a dozen copies of this video side by side, with all the birds singing, calling, and interacting constantly, and you have the scene.

This shot of Mr L hard at work also serves to illustrate the layout – the snowy seeded bank on the right is in sunshine from mid morning onwards, and the birds are unconcerned even if you position yourself much closer. A 500mm lens is definitely not a necessity. (Also note the carefully selected camo hat!).


And for when your feet have turned to ice, your shutter finger is frozen solid, and you’re simply just too cold to carry on, you can retreat inside for a coffee or hot chocolate while watching a second feeding station from the comfort of the restaurant. Here, you’re basically nose to beak with the birds, as they visit tables immediately outside the windows.

Anyway, it won’t come as a surprise to hear that over the next four or five hours, some photos were taken. Rather a lot in fact. Here’s a few for starters – and don’t worry, I’ve got plenty more where they came from!


There were a few other quality birds as well, mind… but since it’s taken me so long to plough through the first pass on this lot, they’ll have to wait until tomorrow!

Monday 2 April 2012

Coming in from the cold

My Dad, Jono and I have just returned from a brilliant six-day trip to Arctic Finland and Norway – so there’s lots of photos to be deleted sorted, and a trip report to be written soon. The basics were return flights to Ivalo, a forest bird feeder photography extravaganza, and then a drive up to the legendary Varangerfjord for seaduck and a few superb birds of prey. Watch this space for more details in the next few days…

In the meantime, fresh off the memory card, enjoy the first of what will probably be many Pine Grosbeaks!