Friday 28 March 2014

Tripple dip, and a near hit

Birding is exciting and full of surprises and not to mention unpredictable. This is what makes this hobby so great! Bird has wings, and you never know when the bird uses them. I've just returned from a one week trip to Southern Norway. The main goal was to pick up some long staying wintering birds, and also to look for a red kite (glente) - a rare bird with 15-30 records a year in Norway. The absolute best time to see this species is the last week of March and first week of April, and the best place to do so is the famous birding area at Lista in the very south of Norway. So here we go...

20 March
On the island Sandsøya in western Norway, a Yellow-legged gull (gulbeinmåke) has been visiting since 12th of Februrary. This species is still a huge rarity in Norway. The problem with this bird though, is that it has been very elusive and irregular at the harbour where it has been seen. It tends to be out at sea fishing for long periods and then follow the fishing boats into the harbour when they come to deliver their catches. But it rarely stays for more than a day or two, so I have been awaiting my great opportunity to get this one. So today, I went. The weather couldn't possibly be worse. Pouring meters of rain and a forecast of 55 knots wind! But the gull had been seen three days in a row, so my hopes was up. Sandsøya is not particularily easy or cheap place to get to by the way - as you need 5 ferries from my home to get there, and the travel from Trondheim actually takes about 8 hours. Anyway off I went. The local birder and discoverer of the gull - Ingar - was searching the harbour all day. The rain didn't stop for one single second since I left home, but luckily the wind was a bit easier than forecasted.

Of course, this ghost of a gull had decided to leave since yesterday, and it was nowhere to be seen despite our optimistic effort. However, we did manage to see a local Eagle owl (hubro) on its dayroost in the distance and a pair of White-fronted goose (tundragås) which became the only Big Year tick of the day!

White-fronted goose flying in the rain.

In the evening - I turned south.

New species: 1
Total: 132

21 March
Finding myself in eastern parts of Norway after a long drive for most of the night. My plan was to search all flocks of Whooper swans (sangsvane) that migrates through this area this time of the year in hope of finding a Bewick's swan (dvergssvane) that so far has eluded me this year. Needless to say, I did not succeed, but luckily no rain anymore. However, I did manage to find a flock of Mistle thrush (duetrost) and a single Reed bunting (sivspurv) that both were new to the Big Year list.

Further south, I stopped briefly by the long staying Black duck (rødfotand) near Tønsberg, that I saw already 2 January. However, at that time, it was raining so hard, so I didn't manage to document it for my Big Year portfolio. I am not a hundred percent sure of the true identity of this bird, but will await the decision of the rarity comitee if it will count on my list or not.

The somewhat disputed, American black duck.

I also stopped by the famous bird area Borrevannet, to see if there were any raptors about (red kite - remember? ) I had a fly by Little woodpecker (dvergspett), which was also a new addition for the year.

A cold notherly was blowing and the only raptors seen during my two hours visit was a Buzzard (musvåk) and Goshawk (hønsehauk). I hurried down to meet my friend, to join him for some insect trapping with his fancy light trap. Waiting for the dark to come, a Woodcock (rugde) displayed over our head in its typical laps around what probably will be its territory,

New species: 4
Total 136

22 March
The idea was to do some raptor watching, but weather was not very cooperative being cloudy and with a icy cold northeasterly blowing quite strong. We quickly changed our tactics, as it was clear that there was lots of passerines about in the bushes despite the wind. A fly by mistle thrush (duetrost) was the bird of the day, even though a couple of Linnet (tornirisk) was the only addition to my Big Year list.

In the evening I headed more south and west. I was going towards the jewel of birding areas in Norway - Jæren. Here, the plan was to see the American wigeon (amerikablessand) that had been  present since last November as well as the long staying Surf scoter (brilleand). Both of them, rare but annual visitor from the US. On the way there, in the very last of light, I manage to stop by a Caspian gull (kaspimåke) that has stayed in the harbour area of Mandal for some time. Contrary to when I had to seach two days for it Fredrikstad, and ticked this species for the first time 12 Februray - this one came immediately. I guess my bread throwing excersice in Fredrikstad payed off, and my previous 1600km drive to tick the species in Fredrikstad could have been spared.

Caspian gull, Mandal. This bird is even colourringed. It was marked as a chick
in a pure caspian gull colony in Belarus! 

A very caspian gull like bird, also seen in Mandal havn. Black bill, whitish head
and breast and the general pale and contrasty and elongated appearance makes this
a good candidate for caspian gull when scanning through a flock of large gulls.
However, details in feather markins on the secondaries and secondary coverts,
as well as on the back reveal its true identity - herring gull (gråmåke).

New species: 3
Total: 139

23 March
After a short, but comfortable night sleeping in the car, I was ready at the wigeon site at first light. Both this one, and the surf scoter have been our so long, that people have become a little bit relaxed about reporting them on the different bird news networks. None of the birds had been reported for a while, but I (stupidly) assumed they anyway were around. It turned out the last sighting of the American wigeon was 9 days ago. It had decided to leave its wintering site much sooner than normal. A strong wind picked up, and even though I searched three hours for the surf scoter this was nowhere to be seen either. The surf scoter normally dont depart its wintering site before  April some time, but appearantly it the birds are getting affected by this very unusually warm and dry winter as well. Two major dips in one day - birds that I felt was going to be easy pickings. I should have learned by now - nothing is easy. I can only hope these rarities will return back for next winter in time to be included on my list.

At a field, nearby I did find a Black crow (svartkråke) which turned out to be the best year tick of this whole trip.

Black crow (svartkråke) - shape of wings, and bill are some of the features that
distinguish this from a juvenile rook (kornkråke). Also, when seen well, it lacks
the shiny colour of that the rook sometimes show.

New species: 4
Total: 143

24-26 March
Now I was really in Red kite (glente) territory. A bird, that for all these years of birding has eluded me on all its visits to Norway. I was spending most days standing on the one spot to look for  raptors. A total of some 30 Buzzards (musvåk), 6 peregrines (vandrefalk) and at least 2 white-tailed eagles (havørn) wasn't very impressive numbers, but it kept my hopes up. Especially since there was a sighting a little bit east of Lista the day before. Normally, birds sighted east of Lista, tend to end up on Lista the next day, and here I was - ready for it to appear and shine! Red kites are a bit difficult, as it is kind of a there and then bird. Meaning, it rarely stays around for others than the one who sees it first to be enjoyed. Weather was shifting and by the third day, it strond winds and even rain set in. Forecast for the next days didn't look promising either, so I decided to change tactics. I was heading north, just after reassuring myself that a long staying Gyr falcon (jaktfalk) that had lingered around for months had decided to leave two days before I arrived.....

Lista light house, a famous land mark both for seamen and birders.

The news about Big Year coming to Lista, and I had appearance both in the regional radio in prime time, as well a page in the local newspaper. The Big Year project is really reaching out to the people!

New species: 5
Total: 148

27 March
I suddenly find myself just south of Oslo, at a place known to be good for raptor migration and where red kites have been seen now and then. This morning, hopes was good, as the weather forecast was promising with blue skies and no wind. Everybody knows, at least if you are coming from the west coast of Norway, that weather forecasts rarely get it right. This was also true for this day, when a heavy cloud cover layed as a thick carpet over the landscape. It even rained a bit, and ice cold notherly breeze set up just to make sure to stop every single raptor that even remotely was thinking about soaring a little to stay on the ground. A passing white-tailed eagle was anyway trying its wings, and is actually a local rarity in this area. I stayed for 3 more hours, and one single sparrow hawk (spurvehauk) and single buzzard (musvåk) was all that stretched their wings this day. Weather forecast quite similar for the next days, so I decided to start the 7 hours drive home. So I did.

At 10am the next morning - a message peeped in that a red kite migrated past the exact spot I was standing yesterday only 22 hours ago..........Birds can certainly pull some practical jokes on birders some times...

Total: still 148.

Monday 17 March 2014

Owl magic

Parts of South Eastern Norway has always been attractive for those of us that has a little bit more than an avarage interest in owls. A friend and myself set off from Trondheim rather late, and after the six hours drive we had arrived at our destination - the owl forest - at 10pm. The two main targets for this trip was two of Norway's both most sought after and rarest breeding birds. Both Great-grey (lappugle) and Ural owl (slagugle) has a breeding population of 10-50 pairs in Norway, and both are difficult to get even when you know where they are. Great-grey because its song is of such a low frequency that it is audible for human ears at no more than about 500m distance. And even though a very few can be seen hunting during daytime, most of them are actually strictly nocturnal. Ural owl is not only rare, but also a very silent owl. It is amongst the owls with the biggest sound repertoire, but at the same time most seldom sing.

Both of these owls are amongst the larger owls, and need lots of old forest in their territory. They are relatively common in our neighbouring countries like Sweden and Finland, but in Norway, they continue to be an extremely rare sight. Why this is isn't completely understood, but the fact that only about 3% of Norway can be classified as wilderness, and that even though we have lots of forest, we have extremely little old healthy forest left certainly must be part of the reason.

One of our main target, the Great-grey owl. So rare, so mythical and so ghost like.
Often just referred to as the shadow of the forest. As the only one we saw, crossed
the road and was visible only for a second or two, I do need to dive into my archive
to find a picture to set the atmosphere. Hopefully, a true great grey big year owl will
show up on the blog later some time.

So here we are, on a small forest road in a remote corner of Norway. The sky is clear and crisp, dotted with million of stars that fight between them to shine brighter than the full moon that is just about to rise. We stop the car next to a forest clearing, and not only ten minutes go by before we both hear something that none of us has ever heard before. A rythmical woof-woof-woof sound. So unmistakable and characteristic - yet totally new to both of us. The first owl magic had happened, as we realised that a great-grey owl actually was singing only a few hundred meters away from us! I've seen the species several times before, but never heard it. A tengmalm's owl was hooting nearby as well - just to add a little to the atmosphere!

We had decided to spend two nights in the forest, but with one of the targets already safely bagged we drove to another area we knew would give us a decent chance for hearing ural owl (slagugle). We arrived at site at midnight, and waited. Then we waited some more, and after that even some more. A distant tengmal's owl was singing, and the full moon was now accompanied by a northern light high on the sky - something very rare to see this far south. It was a special atmosphere staring up in the sky, listening to all the different sounds that the forest reveals during night. Despite standing there for two hours, no ural owls were heard. The forest certainly could hide its secrests well. We decided to search a bit around in the area before returning later in the morning. Another tengmalm's owl, singing close to the road was whistled in by my mimickry, and gave us some brief views before it realised I was no owl. On the other side of a forest clearing, some calls of a mammal started to fill the air. I have been working on a lynx project (radio tracking) earlier, and are well used to the calls of this rare forest cat from some captive animals at my University back in the student times. This one was certainly the right tone for it, but lacked the steady rhytm that lynx usually gives. The call from Red fox is very variable and can sometimes be is very similar. Even though I feel almost certain that what we heard was indeed a lynx, I won't exclude red fox one hundred percent....but it certainly helped the adrenaline rush up a bit! Bits by bits, the nocturnal secrets reveal itself.

Back for another hour at the ural owl site, but without any calls heard. Very silent indeed. The temperature had now dropped to about minus 5, and with a strong flu that had grew on me the last day, it felt rather cold. We decided to try again tomorrow and rather to search for other territories.

A couple of weeks ago, there were reports of more than 30 tengmalm's singing in this area - we only heard 5 for the whole night out in perfect conditions. This mean they have most likely already laid their eggs, and so have started the breeding season early this year.

A picture from the archive a few years back. Not as big as
the great grey, but the tengmalm's owl is certainly worth a piccture
or two as well. This bird was singing next to the road, just as several
of the tengmalm's we had on this trip were doing.
When light slowly faded out the exciting dark hours, the powerful drumming from black woodpecker (svartspett) started to sound like machine guns going off all over the forest. At one place, we had a male three-toed woodpecker (tretåspett), two Great-spotted woodpeckers (flaggspett) and one or two Black woodpeckers calling at the same time. Talk about quality birding! We continued to drive around on the small forest roads in hope of seeing the grey shadow of the forest. It was excitement around every corner, as we never knew what was waiting.

And then - suddenly - at 11:30 in the morning - a grey large owl flew across the road. Great grey! What an amazing bird. Fantastic, though frustrating at the same time as it dissappeared as quickly as we saw it. It flew straight across the road and went into the forest. We searched the area for an hour without any luck of finding it back. We did however find a big stick nest, where it might choose to breed later in the season.

Great-grey habitat. Despite searching for a couple of hours on nearby marshes and in
nearby forest, we never managed to find back the great grey that just was in too
 much of a hurry to truly let us enjoy its whereabouts and ghost like soul. 

Reports of a bewick's swan (dvergsvane) further south, and still no sleep since we left home made us leave the magic forest for a while. Searching through 500 whooper swans saw no signs of the bewick's that only hours before was present. This is the second time in a couple of weeks that I miss this species by a few hours only....maybe this is going to be my bogey bird in my Big Year?

3pm, and we now decided to get some much needed sleep - it had been 32 hours since last time....
Since the weather was so nice, we decided to camp out and just put our sleeping bags out in the forest close to a well known breeding site for Eagle owl (hubro), which was our next target. Three hours later, we both woke up by an eagle owl singing not far away - the best alarm clock one can possibly imagine and another great experience and big year tick!

After enjoying the eagle owl for some time, and since owl song activity usually is at its best just after dark - we decided to head straight back to the ural owl site. Eight o'clock we arrived, and what we waited more than 3 hours in vain for yesterday night, we now only had to wait about 10 minutes before contact calls from a female ural owl started to echo through the forest! Wow! As we enjoyed this for a few minutes, we suddenly heard a call in another direction that made both of us simultanously shout (in a whispering way) Great grey owl! This is way out of any known areas for it, and we decided to investigate this further and went in the direction of the call. While standing there, trying to hear more of what we only heard one time, the male ural owl decided to start singing from up the road. This is one of the most magic bird calls you can ever hear. A hollow, deep hooting - yet musical in a way was echoing from far away. The strong call can easily be heard a few kilometers away, and now, after a total of more than four hours within hearing distance of its territory, we got our reward. The male was singing for no more than 10 minutes tops, before it all went as silent as if there was never an owl around. This proves just how difficult it can be to locate ural owls during night time. After this amazing experience, we decied to leave the area and listen for any singing great greys where we earlier in the day saw one flying over the road. We stopped about 500m away and heard a distant, great grey singing. However, the direction where this birds was sitting might very well mean it was yet another great grey - but it is difficult to say for sure. Rest of the night was spent searching for more forest magic, but apart from a tengmalm's, the forest was very silent. Some sleep, and more searhcing on the forest roads the next morning gave 3 singing Pygmy owls (spurveugle), a hunting Hawk owl (haukugle) a fly by Hazel grouse (jerpe) and then finally another Big Year tick when 8 males and at least 3 females Black grouse (orrfugl) were feeding in top of a roadside tree.

One of three pygmy owls, that entertained us on the many forest roads. 

A total of 1340km on smaller and bigger roads, and we were back home. Despite almost not a single image taken, this certainly rank as one of the most exciting and successful birding trips in my career. We were welcomed home by a blizzard, but who cares - we had witnessed owl magic!

New species: 6
Total: 131


Wednesday 12 March 2014


During a birding year, one comes across many great experiences with wildlife and birds. Some of these, are glued to my mind a bit stronger than others. Within a birding year, there are also many seasons. Different times of year which have different things to offer. One of these seasons, and my personal favourite is the owl season (ugle). The owl season is essentially the month of March. Thats when these fantastic birds start their breeding season, and their song activity is at its peak. Most of the owls only sing after dark, and luckily, daylight hours are fairly short in Norway at this time of year, so we are getting plenty of great owl time!

However, this year has been a bit slow so far in my home area. A steady easterly has ensured to shut down the owls. In my experience, if the trees make any sound - it is too much wind and owls won't sing. The last week, I have been three trips to try for Eagle owl (hubro) nearby, but nothing to be heard except a couple of Tawny owls (kattugle).

The next days though, even though there are forecastet  50 knots wind at home, in southern Norway the forecast seems perfect. Not too cold, a nearly full moon and absolutely no wind. The birds I will be looking for is not only one of my favorites, but also one of the rarest and most difficult breeding birds in Norway to see. I will make sure to keep you posted on how my little owl adventure goes!

This ural owl I photographed in Finland a few years back. It was actively
hunting in the forest edge, but to make it perform like this
in front of the camera we used a bait. 

The last week, has, apart from preparing for the upcoming owl trip been very much a office week. A few short trips to make another tv interview, look at the local gulls (found an iceland gull! (grønlandsmåke) ) and working on the upcoming book some colleagues and myself are working on. Hope to get it out there before migration season seriously kicks in!


Monday 3 March 2014

Big Year - Saturday night entertainment!

It has been a while since the last update. The reason is that I have been on a rather nervous trip to Turkey. Nervous because Turkey is a rather long way away from Norway should a mega bird suddenly turn up. But, timing was chosen well, and late Februrary are usually fairly quiet times for rarities. This trip was more about relaxing and getting to know the area than a birding trip, but the binoculars was of course with me as usual and my father and myself managed to take a few days up in the mountains. Turkey has amazing mounttains and very interesting bird life - especially from mid April onwards when summer migrants start to return and the snow up in the mountains melt away.

In total I got 7 lifers - meaning birds I have never seen before anywhere in the world. I managed to complete my European woodpecker (hakkespett) list, but the star for me was the incredibly beautiful Krüper's nuthatch (tyrkerspettmeis).

Krüper's nuthatch  (tyrkerspettmeis) - a long wanted lifer on my world list! 

Nuthatchess are always cool to watch, this one is a bit different than
his sister species in the way that he lives mainly on rocks. Rock Nuthatch (klippespettmeis).

Turkish mountains. This almost treeless landscape is the preferred habitat for
 Rock nuthatch (klippespettmeis). 

The day before I left back to Norway, I got an exciting phone call from the team of one of Norway's most famous TV talk-shows. They wanted Big Year to be Saturday night tv entertainment on national tv! So off I went, and made my best possible effort (birding style) to entertain the Norwegians.

Since birding is such a small hobby in Norway (only about 15 000 members in NOF, but only about 300 twitchers), some of the idea with my Big Year project is to visit different media and to bring birding as a hobby and the joy we have with it in all different forms and shapes out to the public. Hopefully, this can bring some most wanted recruitment into this fantastic activity. And in the end, the more birders, the more power, and the more we can help the birds that for some reason struggle here and there. So a big thank you to the host Anne Lindmo for devoting 10 minutes of her famous talkshow to birding! Well done!

Anne Lindmo - the tv host - and myself amongst some famous and not so
 famous people. Even though it might look like I am incredibly busy taking
photo of Anne's curly hair, we did actually talk about birds. Maybe she,
herself will end up being a birder some day....Thank you Anne for having me on your show! 

While there, getting ready for the fame of tv, I tried for a Bewick's swan (dvergsvane) which had been seen just outside Oslo the day before and early morning the next day. I was at the site at 10:15, but by then this winter rarity had flown off and I missed it by only an hour or two. This species is getting increasingly difficult to see in Norway, and best time to see it is when some migrating birds pass Norway in March. I hope some more will turn up soon....I did tick off Greylag goose (grågås) for my Big Year though.

In the weekend I've been busy guiding an English birder. We got quality birds and stunning views of king eider (praktærfugl), male Hazel grouse (jerpe) feeding in a tree, Siberian jay (lavskrike) on an arm's length and Arctic redpoll (polarsisik) together with both lesser, and mealy just for comparison. The wind was unfortunately too strong to score high on owls, but we mananged a singing Long-eared owl (hornugle) and brief views of a Hawk owl (haukugle). Little auk (alkekonge) and the long staying Water pipit (vannpiplerke) also contributed in making this weekend birding a great time. All in all, I managed 7 new species for my Big Year the last three days.

Siberian jay (lavskrike) in its typical old forest habitat. A locally common, but always
hard to find bird in the Norwegian forests. 

March is already started, and the next two weeks will be devoted to owling and maybe some woodpeckers. Spring migration has just started, with the first oystercatchers (tjeld), shelducks (gravand) and skylarks (sanglerke) already returned. From mid March onwards, the real busy times starts, and I am ready!

New birds: 7
Total: 123