Wednesday 30 July 2014

Svalbard again

The last week I have spent again guiding around Svalbard. This time a group of primarily Australian passengers went with me and my colleagues from Aurora Expeditions. Polar bears were again high on the agenda, and we went had several crowd pleasers out on the sea ice. We manage to reach the remote Kvitøya as the first ship this season. All of the 9 bears but one came close to our ship or zodiacs, and all passengers were of course very happy. It is all about finding the right kind of bears, not the total number of bear sightings.
We also found at least four Blue whales (blåhval) on this trip, actually almost as many as our Fin whales (finhval). But then again, we did search out the good areas for Blues and didn’t go so much after the fins this time. Blue whales have, if you know where to go, become fairly easy to find around the Svalbard waters. Apart from great bear and whale sightings, we had Arctic foxes (fjellrev) hunting geese, Walrus (hvalross) fights and both Ivory gull (ismåke) and Sabine’s gull (sabinemåke) made it to the trip list as well. The most remarkable sighting bird wise, even though not a new species for my Big year list, was three Great-northern divers (islom) in a possible breeding area at the east coast. A species that is very rare in Svalbard indeed. We also found a new spot with very accessible Puffins (lunde) for photography. Something I have been searching for in Svalbard for some time. Puffins are always very high on foreign tourists’ wish list when they come to Svalbard.

Next week, I will have another guiding tour for Aurora Expedition. Hopefully I manage to add something to my Big Year list this time – but it will have to be a rarity.

This bear stayed with us for an hour, and apparantly he liked being taken
pictures of. No, it is not a circus bear, just a crowd pleaser.

Even though being big and heavy, polar bears can be cery gentle as well. This
one was showing its body control by climbing along the ledges feeding on
 guillemot chicks. He even manged to take an adult!

The world's largest mammal ever lived on earth. We found four blue whales
on our voyage. 

Brünnich's guillemot (polarlomvi) throwim himself out from the bird cliff. 

This voyage, we found a very nice spot for puffin photography. A colony of
about one hundred birds, and many of them in only a fewww meters distance.
For sure the best place to photograph this species in Svalbard.

Until next time....


Sunday 20 July 2014

Demoiselle crane and then some!

25 June – 5 July
I have again been guiding nature photographers for WildPhoto Travel, and besides trying to find great things for them to photograph I also had a goal to tick off the last breeding species up here for my Big Year list. Over the years I have learned the favorite hangouts for the rare Sabine’s gull in Svalbard.  The species is a fairly late arrival up here, and this is its eastern border of distribution. Already the first evening, we manage to find one, maybe two adults feeding in front of a nice glacier cliff.  Later in the trip, we even found 3 breeding pairs. Great success, and also big applaud from the clients as this was a group a bit more than average interested in birds. Even the famous Finish bird photographer Jari Pältomaki was amongst the crowd cheering. We also saw several Brent geese (ringgås), Ivory gulls (ismåker) and all four skuas (joer), as well as some great Polar bear (isbjørn) encounters (as usual on the WildPhoto trips).

I know this is not a bird. But having a bear mother with two cubs around our
zodiacs for more than an hour was a nice experience even without any feathers

Sabine's gull (sabinemåke) in full breeding plumage is one of the more handsome
gulls of the world.

New birds: 1
Total: 273

6 July
Already on 5th July, the day we finished the photography trip, the news of a Demoiselle crane (jomfrutrane) in southern Norway came out! The bird had been foraging in a field near Larvik already for some days. It is only one previous record accepted as a wild bird in Norway, and that was all the way back in 1966 from Varanger as far as I know. No need to say I was already eager to get there. Flights from Longyear was already arranged, and just before take off, I got a message about a little egret close to Trondheim. Despite almost one hour delay, I arrived in Gaulosen just as the sun was setting, and another birder had already found the egret so this became a very easy Big Year tick! Enjoying the Little egret in red coloured sea from the sunset was very nice indeed, but I had to get going. Eight hours driving during night to Larvik laid ahead of me, and I could only hope the crane stayed for a few more hours. The weather forecast was horrible, with a downpour of 50mm rain in just a few hours. I needed to tick off the bird before this weather came in!

Little egret (silkehegre) in far distance but this was actually the first in
Norway this year and only my second time I see it in Norway.

New: 1
Total: 274

7 July
At eight o’clock, I arrived at scene, and luckily the crane was still there! One of my easiest Big Year ticks, but at the same time one of my best experience so far into my Big Year as the Demoiselle crane is a bird that has for a long time ranked high on my “want to seeˮ list. It was even a lifer for me!
By doing this twitch I also made a record as the longest twitch ever made in Norway – From Longyearbyen, Svalbard to Kjose, Larvik. A trip no less than 1400km one way.
I got to enjoy the bird for an hour before the down pour started. I got soaked in water within few minutes. I started the drive home, towards my next target that was a long staying Pacific plover (sibirlo) at Smøla.

The beauty itself. Actually the Indian name for it is used to describe beautiful
girls and women - it fits well. Demoiselle crane (jomfrutrane) for the second
time in Norway.

New birds: 1
Total 275

8 July
Arrived Smøla late evening and spent all day searching for Pacific golden plover (sibirlo) on the various fields on this island. A couple of times, I had my suspicion about the right kind, but the feeling was never a 100 percent. My experience with the difficult species that are sometimes very similar to one or more common species is this: If you are in doubt – it is for sure the common one. Once you see the real thing, at least I, always get an eye opener and can’t really understand I have spent so much time checking the more common ones when it really is this easy.
So was the case here as well. I left the island with some probables, but the feeling was not hundred percent. I needed to come back.

A happy white-tailed eagle (havørn), an angry herring gull (gråmåke) and a
sunset. Smøla is the White-tailed eagle capital in Europe.

9 July
Trying for Manx shearwater (havlire) at my local sea watching patch outside Molde. But unusually hot weather with 30+ Celsius and some easterly wind made things difficult.
The next days were mostly spent relaxing. Some birding in between, but without anything big happening.
14 July
I returned to Smøla, and this time – after a 3 hours search – I got the “a-ha” experience I was looking for. A small slender built plover with extremely long legs. No doubt in the world about it – Pacific golden plover ticked off as species number 276 this year!

A perfectly documented Pacific golden plover (sibirlo) finally! Grey armpits, long
legs, and slender built

New: 1  Total: 276

15 July
Big Year is again on national tv in prime time! This time on the talk show Sommeråpent, with the super friendly and professional host, Haddy N’jie, which made it to a very nice experience indeed. According to the statistics, it was watched by 498 000 viewers. Part of my plan with my Big Year project, because birding is such a small hobby in Norway, is actually to show enthusiasm and excitement with birding and that birding can be much more than protesting against habitat loss and disturbance to the birds due to industry development etc. Birding is a fun, healthy and social hobby. If more people were birding, we would also get more people interested in taking care of the birds. Together with Haddy, I think we managed to get this message trough, and they even showed some of my images and videos of rare birds during my Big Year.

Haddy and me - I think I managed to get her at least a little
bit interested in birds....

While on tv, I got a message about another mega in Norway! A well documented Egyptian vulture (åtselgribb) had been seen a few days in a mountain area about 5 hours away from Trondheim. I was still in Oslo, but quickly got home and into the car to start the drive as soon as the locality was released. Unfortunately, no bird seen….but while there, another very good bird came out on Bird Alarm. A pratincole (ubestemt brakksvale) had been seen in flight only. Unfoturnately, the observers had seen it too poorly to make a positive id. After realizing that the vulture was nowhere to be seen I started to drive towards the pratincole – not too far away from Trondheim. Next morning I searched 5 hours, but also this one seemed to slip away…
I hurried home to make it in time for my flight north again. For the next weeks, I will be guiding for Aurora Expeditions in Svalbard and Big Year need to take another break. Hopefully, I manage to pull out something good here in the Arctic during the next weeks. Who knows, maybe a spectacled eider (brilleærfugl) is hiding around the next corner?


Thursday 10 July 2014


I will just start this post with apologizing for not keeping it all up to date. I have the last weeks spent all of my time out in the field, and had no proper access to phones or internet for most of the time. Some happy news since the last update is that when ticking off the Lesser white-fronted geese in Valdak we saw a wigeon that both my friend and myself identified as an American wigeon (amerikablesand). This is an American vagrant to Europe, and only the second bird in Norway this year. The distance was very long indeed and the day before, another very experienced birder had seen it much closer and identified it as a possible hybrid because of its drab looking appearance and lack of extensive green in the head. My friend and I both agreed on that we could not see any clear signs of hybridization of the bird but could not rule out hybrid either because of the distance. Anyway, as the weeks have passed, more birders have seen and photographed the bird on a more comfortable distance, and the bird is indeed an American wigeon. The tricky part with this bird was just that it was in very early molt compared to the accompanying Eurasian wigeons (brunnakke) and therefore was very hybrid like in its appearance in the beginning of its stay. I therefore have chosen to include this bird on to my list.

After the last update, I did another 10 days guiding photographers in Svalbard.  As mentioned in the previous post, I only had two birds that I was pretty sure to add to my list up here – namely the Long-tailed skua (fjelljo) and the beautiful Sabine’s gull (sabinemåke). I got lucky with the skua, but the gull needs to wait a bit.

Long-tailed skua (fjelljo) resting on an ice floe in Svalbard.

After this, I went straight to the magnificent Varanger area. Varanger is arguably one of the most interesting birding areas in Europe during summer. Here, the west meets the east and the Arctic meets the south. The number of rare birds recorded in this area over the years is just amazing. Kirkenes, the town I flew into is actually situated as far east as Istanbul in Turkey. Because of its eastern locations, this area also hides a few breeding species difficult to find anywhere else in Norway. At least one visit to Varanger is just a must during a Big Year.

17 June
Arriving in the evening, I did the one hour drive straight to a famous location for Arctic warbler (lappsanger). This species has its westernmost distribution in this area and this is one of Norway’s most range restricted breeding birds. It is very rare on migration in Norway, and this species was the very reason I booked my ticket up here already a month ago. The Norwegian population is probably less than a 100 pairs. As Neiden is visited by many birders, I didn’t want to do playback to the birds to make them start singing. I therefore had to wait for almost 3.5 hours before I finally could tick this one on my list. This species also is a late arrival into Norway, and this bird was actually the first one known to arrive this year. It was heard for the first time only a few days before I arrived, so my timing could not have been better.

Arctic warbler (lappsanger) - one of the most range restricted breeding
birds in Norway. Its total population is probably less than 100 pairs.

Apart from the song and contact call, Arctic warbler is recognised by its
long supercillium (which often goes upwards at the end), and obvious wing bar.

As the news of a male Harlequin duck (harlekinand) had been on for almost 10 days, I continued straight to Sandfjord, close to the famous Hamningberg area. I was stopping here and there along the way, as the decent number of Rough-legged buzzards, Short-eared owls and young foxes and Moose along the road made the two hours drive quite entertaining. The richness of this area is like coming to another country compared to the rest of Norway. Very exciting indeed! I arrived Sandfjord at about 2 am, and started to search the area immediately. The bird was reported yesterday, so my hopes were high to add this bird onto my list. This is actually the third year this extreme rarity is seen in the area. It is probably the same male that is returning, and it usually stays a couple of weeks until the ice goes away on the lakes higher up in the mountains. I searched the area and all its rivers until about 10 am, but could not find the bird. Many Red-throated pipits (lappiplerke) singing was nice to see, and was of course an addition to my Big Year list. As was a pair of Red-necked phalaropes (svømmesnipe). Despite searching again after a few hours sleep and again the following days by several others and myself it seemed that this time I was a day too late….

New birds: 3
Total: 265

18 June
After another search for the harlequin duck, I did the short drive out to the famous abandonned fishing village of Hamingberg. This remote place is famous not only for its narrow access road going through a bizarre moonlike landscape, but also for being one of Norway’s biggest rarity magnets. The treeless landscape makes the birds normally fairly easy to find. I have never had any great luck here, and so was it this time as a few more red-throated pipits was the best birds on my visit as well as two tree-sparrows (pilfink) – the latter a local rarity even though there are very small population in the nearby towns. A willow warbler (løvsanger) was optimistically singing from the only bush in the area.

New birds: 0
Total: 265

19 June
As this area has midnight sun, I like to turn the day around as birds tend to be more active during night time. They normally have a quiet period between 22 and 02, and then very active during the early morning. I try to adopt my day (night) rythm to this as well to get the most out of my short stay here. This day was spent searching for waders and shore birds along the coast. Stopping wherever it looked promising and walk along the shore line ensured numbers in the hundreds of birds like Little stint (dvergsnipe), Ruff (brushane), Bar-tailed godwit (lappspove), Red-necked phalaropes (svømmesnipe), Dunlin (myrsnipe) and a few Red knot (polarsnipe), Sanderling (sandløper) and of course the ever present Temminck’s stint (temmincksnipe). All in beautiful breeding plumage. The little stint was a big year list addition. Inland there were hunting Rough-legged buzzards and Long-tailed skuas here and there. I guess it is unecessary to mention that I had a very good time!

In the evening I arrived to Komagbukta, a several kilometers long beach where there had been reported a White-rumped sandpiper (bonapartesnipe) a week earlier. Since then, it had not been any updates, but I thought the area anyway might be good for waders so I decided to try my luck. It didn’t take long before I found the nearctic vagrant amongst the other species. This was only the second time I see White-rumped sandpiper (bonapartesnipe) in Norway, and I enjoyed it very much despite the hard north easterly wind picking up.

Maybe not so easy to see in this picture, but elongated backwards, and pure
white underneath, with arrow shaped black markings along the flanks makes this
bird relatively easy to pick out amongst the dunlins. In flight, a pure white rump
confirm the identification of this White-rumped sandpiper (bonapartesnipe).

Alarming other birders in the area that this rarity was still on site, I suddenly got a message that a long staying Ross’s gull (rosenmåke) that had not been seen in a few weeks was back in a village only 4 hours drive away. I speeded up….and despite the horrible weather setting in with blizzard over the mountain and only 50 meters visibility and strong gale force winds I made it over the mountain safely and arrived Berlevåg at 23:00 about an hour after the bird had left the roost. However, as this river outlet was well visited by thousands of kittiwakes, and as most of them left on high tide I decided to stay at least until low tide. The only problem was that low tide wasn't scheduled to happen before 4 am. I was thinking to go to sleep for a few hours until low tide at 04am, but as there was constantly birds arriving back to the roost I changed my mind. I parked my car, with a good view to the roost and carefully checked every kittiwake coming in from sea. Five long, but exciting hours later a beautiful 2nd year Ross’s gull was suddenly sitting at the edge of the flock! I must have missed it coming into the roost as it was already sitting. My plan about going to sleep until 04 am could have worked as the time of rediscover was actually 03:58….I enjoyed this enigmatic bird for over an hour before I left the bird and found a time and place to park the car and get some long needed sleep.

Ross's gull (rosenmåke), a dream for every European birder to see. This is a
first summerbird, and albeit having its neck ring, it still lacks its pink
color underneath. The bird is the one swimming on the right.

In flight, it is quite similar wingmarkings to the young kittiwakes of same age.
It can be tricky to find - especially considering there was some 4000 kttiwakes at this roost...

New birds: 3
Total: 268

20 June
I woke up at noon, and my plan was to drive back up in the mountains and search for Snowy owl (snøugle). These areas are amongst the best in Norway for this species, and I was here also in February (see my February blog). Despite the weather had eased quite a bit, it was still heavy rain and partly snowing, and visibility was far from ideal. I searched the rivers and lakes in the area as this is also a place the harlequin duck had been seen in previous years. I managed to find a male Gadwall (snadderand) – a local rarity up here, and a flock of bean goose (sædgås) as well as many long-tailed skuas. However, the only mountain bird I need for my big year list is snowy owl. Because of the very bad visibility, I decided to rather go back to the Varangerfjord area in the lowland to search for birds there.

New birds: 0 
Total: 268

21 June
The day and night spent searching the coast for gulls and waders. Nothing very exciting to find. Since I still miss Gyr falcon (jaktfalk) on my list I decided to do a proper search for this fairly rare breeding species. Before long, I was actually watching a pair mating! Incredible to see Europe’s largest falcons like this. This was an unknown nest site for me, so a proper find as well and it just shows that with some knowledge about species ecology and a systematic searching technique one can succeed with most species. The usual, but still very exciting, selection of Varanger birds was seen here and there and I did another visit to the harlequin duck place without any luck before it was time to head towards the forest of Pasvik. The westernmost taiga forest of Europe, and a very exciting place indeed.

New birds: 1
Total: 269

22 June
Arriving into the Pasvik forest at about 23pm the 21st June, I decided to just keep going through the night. Birds I was especially interested in was all Taiga forest specials like Little bunting (dvergspurv), Pine grosbeak (konglebit) and Siberian tit (lappmeis) which all will be new to my list. I started at Strand - the place I saw Little bunting for my very first time all the way back in 1994. I still remember I had to do a 4 km bicycle ride one way to get match sticks to fire up our “storm kitchen” when camping here. When arriving back to the camp, after succeeding in getting matchsticks from the local pub, my two friends had found a lighter in one of the many pockets in the backpack…Anyway – I digresse. I didn’t get my reunion with the bunting from 1994, but met 3 very big but friendly moose instead. I continued south upwards the valley, and was amazed by my friends' and my own effort back in the days when we cyckled this route with heavy backpacks. It went a bit easier with car, and in the Skrøytnes area, there was lots of short-eared owls (jordugle) hunting. At least five different territories over just a few kilometers road. As any owl species, this is one of my favorite species to see. I had decided to get to the Little bunting hot spots at about 02 am as this time onwards is the peak song time for birds. Just before Vaggetem, I was stopped by the police. He was curious of my slow driving but quickly understood what was going on as this was not his first meeting with birders this year. It turned out he had stopped my friends a few weeks earlier!  When out birding like this in the middle of the night – often at strange places it is not unusual I get stopped by the police. This is actually the fourth time this year. I usually end up having nice conversations about birds and wildlife with them, and I am happy they are as vigilant as they are. This time I got the information of the latest bear sitings as Pasvik is probably the best place in Norway to see Scandinavian brown bears. Later in the evening I found tracks from a small bear cub, but did unfortunately not manage to meet the bear himself. However, at Vaggetem I found a hunting Hawk owl (haukugle).

Hawk owl (haukugle) hunting from a power line.

The most important bird for this area was Little bunting, and during the next hours I managed to find 6 localities with singing birds - only two of them which I knew of from before). In total 9 birds. Very good indeed. Later in the morning I found a pair of feeding Pine grosbeak (konglebit) as well, but the flew away before I manage to take any pictures. Because of their silent way of living, this species is actually one of the hardest one to find of the forest specialties. Having had great success with the little buntings, I started to search more for Siberian tit (lappmeis). It didn’t take long before I heard the contact call from a few birds and searching them up made some very nice views of this forest speciality. Adding a few Bohemian waxwings (sidensvans), Three-toed woodpecker (tretåspett), a Hazel grouse (jerpe), some displaying Willow grouse (lirype), a few groups of Siberian jay (lavskrike), 3 displaying Jack snipe (kvartbekkasin) and a pond with Little gulls (dvergmåke) and Bisam (Bisam – Pasvik is the only place in Norway it is possible to see this introduced beaver like rodent) it should be obvious that my night in these amazing taiga forest was very successful indeed. At 10:00, it was time to park my car and get some sleep.

Singing little bunting (dvergspurv).  A very rare breeding bird in Norway.

Chestnut colored cheeks, and a white spot on the ear covert along with
its "ticking" like contact call is often how one identify this species outside
breeding range. 

New birds: 3
Total: 272  

23 June
I started this night visiting Noatun – famous for housing the cabin of the early explorer named Schaaning who was amongst the earliest “twitcher” in Norway travelling all around Norway to try to find and collect as many birds as possible to map their distribution in the 1920s. His work is still today important for understanding the avifauna of Norway and how it has evolved. At Noatun, Norway’s largest Little gull colony is also present, and I counted at least 27 adults hunting insects in the area. At Kjerringneset, close to Noatun, one of the very few breeding records for Red-flanked bluetails in Norways was done a few years ago. I spent several hours in the evening searching this area for singing birds without luck. A few Siberian jays and  a singing Pine grosbeak made the effort worthwhile anyhow. I had to leave the area already at two o’clock in the morning to make sure I was in time for a 5 o’clock flight to Svalbard where I was due to guide another group of photographers the coming week. On the way I found lots of more hunting Short-eared owls, and a new locality with two more singing Little buntings. I spent quite some time staring out over a couple of marsh areas for brown bears without any luck. However, on my way north again a Pine maarten (mår) crossed the road in front of my car. This is actually only the 4th time I see this hard to see yet fairly common species in the wild.

In the evening I was back in Longyearbyen ready for some evening birding and counted no less than 12 Grey phalaropes (polarsvømmesnipe) along the road. This year, about 20 pairs of this beautiful species are breeding nearby Longyearbyen. A few King eiders (praktærfugl) and Brent geese (ringgås) was still around, but otherwise fairly uneventful.

New birds: 0 
Total: 272

24 June
The day spent mostly in the office, but a short trip out to search for a Pectoral sandpiper seen a few days ago yielded no other result than the usual species up here as well as my first Svalbard ptarmigans for the season. This is just a subspecies of the mainland ptarmigan, but is very different built (much heavier and bigger) and who knows in the future – maybe my Big Yearl list increases because of a split?

New birds: 0
Total: 272