Sunday, 25 June 2017

Varanger 21st - 24th June

We left Ivalo at around 10:00 in hard driving rain with a cold N wind and a temperature of 3℃, it was still raining when we stopped at Neljan Tuulan for a coffee. At least 4 male and 4 female or immature Pine Grosbeak were at the feeder and a Siberian Tit, which was ringed, also paid a visit. Pam was impressed with the Grosbeak but even more so with the Red Squirrel on the feeders. Plenty of Redpoll but all Mealy. As we crossed the higher ground towards Utsjoki the rain turned to sleet. We passed a Red-throated Diver on a roadside pool and a distant Rough-legged Buzzard hovering over the wooded hillside and a Merlin dashed across the road. 
Rough-legged Buzzard
Utsjoki was a row of wooden properties with a small well stocked supermarket just before the river crossing into Norway.
We followed the River Tana with clusters of fishermen on the shore where the river narrowed forming rapids and stopped at Tana Bru. Norway is even more expensive than Finland so we made do with a Pizza to share at the equivalent of 14€ which, when delivered was plenty for two anyway. Fuel was about 150€/litre but fortunately we had filled up in Inari at 129€/litre.
We quickly arrived at Varangerbotn and our first sighting of the Arctic Ocean. The rain had just about stopped but it was still cold. Pam spotted the first White-tailed Eagle on the shore and we saw four more as we drove towards Nesseby.
White-tailed Eagle
Flocks of birds on the water were mainly Goosander but we had one group of 50 Velvet Scoter which was impressive and there were groups of Eider strung along the shoreline.

At Nesseby there were 3 summer plumaged Little Stint feeding on the shoreline and several Arctic Skua and a single adult Long-tailed past along the coast. 
Little Stint - summer plumage
I met a dutch birder travelling back down the coast towards Pasvik and we exchanged sightings. He had seen King and single Steller's Eider at Vardo and more King Eider near Hemningsberg which was promising.
We stopped overnight at JV Camping at Vestre Jakobselv. There were bird feeders by the reception with more Redpoll but again all Mealy. The occasional Willow Tit made a visit but otherwise it was House Sparrows and Greenfinch. Around the harbour we had Temminck's and Little Stint, more Goosander and small parties of Long-tailed Duck.
We stopped at Vadso and had a good look around Vadsoya Island. The Mountain Hares were the highlight, the birding was difficult in the cold N wind but again there were Wheatear and Meadow Pipits and 8 Red-necked Phalarope on the pool.
Mountain Hare
Moving up the coast we visited Ekkeroy which was worth the stop just to witness the clouds of Kittiwake nesting on the cliffs. 
Kittiwake on Ekkeroy
I walked all over the island looking at the Pipits and managed several Meadow and a couple of Rock there were also Wheatear here and nice views of Arctic Skua stood.
Arctic Skua
We drove on to Vardo with a few stops on the way. The tunnel lights were out so we had to wait for a convey shuttle that was leading cars through the 3km tunnel and we parked up for the night at the Tourist Information in the North Bay. There were Black Guillemot, Eider and plenty of Kittiwake which were nesting on the buildings close to the Tourist Information. I checked South Bay for the King and Steller's Eider but if they were there they were to far away to distinguish without a telescope. I hadn't brought mine and this was one of several times when I regretted that decision. We ate in the Pokora Restaurant which was surprisingly good, a meal for two for about 40€.
It was another cold night, I got up around 06:00 and did another check of the harbour but the tide was out now and the birds were even further away.
The cold, rain and dark sky was getting a bit oppressive but we pressed on. My spirits were lifted when at Pam's suggestion we stopped on the first decent bog area north of Vardo and had several Lapland Bunting. 
Lapland Bunting
The males looked fantastic in their breeding plumage, quite different to the dull winter attire in which we usually see them in the UK. 
The drive around the coast towards Hamnigsberg is spectacular. We saw several groups of Reindeer feeding by the roadside and large groups of Goosander offshore at Persfjord there were some closer eider. The first ones I looked at, a group of half a dozen, looked like King I scanned for more Eider for comparison and came across a group of about 100 but scanning through these they looked the same as the first group then I saw a fine male King Eider. 
King Eider - male
They were all King Eider, a group of about 150 moulting males and females. I scrambled around on the seaweed covered rocks and eventually got some photos although there were never going to be close. There were a couple of males in the group that were still in more or less adult summer plumage but the rest were dark with various pale areas. 
King Eider - part of flock
The females looked to be in typical plumage.
There were gulls on the rocks at Sandfjord and included ad adult Iceland, first for the trip.
Iceland Gull -adult
As we neared Hamningberg a Red Fox crossed the road, still in its thick winter coat, it stopped and turned to look at us just as the sun was starting to brighten the sky and it looked amazing before slowly walking away along the edge of a pool.
Red Fox
We parked in the large car park and I went across to look for pipits in the heather clad area. Almost immediately a pipit flew up and called overhead, a cheeping call, I followed it until it landed. Red-throated Pipit at last and a fine male. It flew around landing about 50m away and was joined by another Red-throated Pipit, in all there were at least four Red-throated Pipits in quite a small area.
Red-throated Pipit
I watched them feeding and the Red-throated chased off another slightly larger buffy coloured pipit. It didn't fly far and when I got on it I was amazed to see that it was a Tawny Pipit. I took photos and managed some reasonable record shots. What was the chance of finding a Tawny Pipit here at 70°North! I sent the record through to Finnmark Birding and Tormod confirmed that it was only the second record for the Varanger area, with the first at Ekkeroy in 1999!
Tawny Pipit
We had a walk around the deserted village and a male Snow Bunting made a brief appearance. 
Snow Bunting
With the weather still poor we drove back to Vestre Jakobselv and stopped again at JV Camping. In the morning my walk around the village produced the first owl of the trip, Short-eared, a first summer Glaucous Gull and another Mountain Hare. Back at the feeders I bumped in to a birder from Norway Birding who was leading an American lady around the area. He had no additional news but surprisingly had already heard of my Tawny Pipit, the power of social media! 
With the weather forecast still poor we decided to head back towards Finland, as we drove between Tana Bru and Utsoki we saw a Rough-legged Buzzard hovering over the hillside then Pam called out Moose and sure enough there it was stood in a field by the roadside, starring at us. It looked like a young male with horns starting to appear on its head. It starred at us for perhaps 5 minutes before slowly walking back in to the forest. 
Moose or Elk as they are sometimes called
As we were about to make the turn to cross the river to Utsjoki another young Moose appeared by the roadside a great end to our short visit to Norway.
From here we are travelling south towards home and plan to work our way down the Swedish coast.
I'll add some scenic shots when I get chance.

Tuesday, 20 June 2017

Siberian Tit and Arctic Warbler 18th - 20th June

I had some time to spare and decided to revisit Kiilipaa to look for Willow Grouse again, I stopped overnight on Kaunispaa and heard the Dotterel calling as I dozed around midnight. At 03:30 I climbed out of my sleeping bag, got dressed and pulled down the roof of the camper and headed for Kiilipaa. I was there by 03:50 and set off up the hill, for the third time! It was overcast but still light as I headed up the boardwalk. Before I got to the top I could see the male Ptarmigan by the side of the track. No sign of any Willow Grouse but I took some more photos of the Ptarmigan. At one point it jumped on to the boardwalk and sat there quite happily as I took photos with the 300mm lens it was just after 04:30 so I walked further up the path but still no Willow Grouse.
Ptarmigan - male, now with a few more dark head feathers

Having spent quite a bit of the morning on Kiilipaa I was still close to the Kuttura Road and decided to try again for Siberian Tit. I found a pair that were now feeding young and there was much more activity with both birds bringing food in at regular intervals. It was still very overcast but the photos came out ok and were much better than my last attempt.

Siberian Tit
On the 19th I was collecting Pam from Ivalo airport, it rained almost all day. I had time in the morning to look for divers and mergansers on Lake Inari. The birds were there but too distant to make any sort of interesting photo in the rain.
Having collected Pam and spent a night at the Kultahippu Hotel in Ivalo we drove up to Inari on the morning of the 20th to visit the Sami Museum. Having just been round the museum and received a text for Jan (Jan Nordblad); Arctic Warbler Inari 68.6503 27.5401. I put the coordinates in the GPS, it was for the Ivalo Hotel in Ivalo just a few hundred metres from our hotel! We set off back, as we drove towards Ivalo we came across a group of deer by the roadside which looked much larger than the Reindeer I had been seeing. I took some quick photos but wanted to get back to Ivalo. 
At the hotel I had a quick look round but there was no immediate sign. We decided to get a bite to eat then I would return for a more thorough search. 
After eating I started in a group of trees close to the river just north of the hotel. No immediate sign so I decided to try a tape of the song. Almost immediately a small bird flew in to the bushes and started singing. Arctic Warbler, it continued to sing and came in the closest trees to me. The song delivery was much like Wood Warbler with the head raised, sometimes almost vertical. I had amazing views as it sat out in the open both calling and delivering its rather monotonous song.

Arctic Warbler
Looking at the deer photos when I got back to the hotel they were clearly the forest race of the Reindeer which is considerably larger. I wasn't happy with the photos so we went out again and fairly quickly found a small group of 12 or 13 individuals in the forest N of Ivalo which allowed me to get some reasonable photos. The photos are still on the camera, this is one of the earlier photos and I'll add some more when I get chance.
Forest Reindeer

Friday, 16 June 2017

Karigasniemi 14th - 16th June

I had read about Karigasniemi and Mount Ailigas in Wild Wings to the Northlands and whilst I wasn't sure I would have time to get there I had hoped to do so and in the end I have!
I met a Scottish bird photographer, who was particularly interested in photographing nesting birds, at Valtavaara and he told me of his previous trips to Karigasniemi which made up my mind to go. I arrived late in the evening of the 13th June and parked up by the roadside next to a large bog. In the morning I did a short walk along the road and soon picked up a small wader feeding in the wet grassland by the roadside - Broad-billed Sandpiper, a good start! The grass was about 10cm long so the bird was always partly obscured and, having taken hundreds of photos of them in Estonia, I decided to move on.
Spring water passing by the road at Karigasniemi

Parking by the entrance to the Kevo NP I explored the area on foot. More roadside pools produced at least 7 Red-necked Phalarope and countless Wood Sandpiper which were display calling from all directions.
Wood Sandpiper

There were a few ducks on the pools; a pair of Pintail, 8 Goldeneye and a pair of Wigeon. In the bushes Bluethroats were out in force with at least 6 birds singing along a km of roadside. Brambling and Redwing were the new Thrush Nightingale and Common Rosefinch and the former were singing everywhere whilst the latter have now entirely disappeared.
There were large number of wagtails, mostly thunbergi, the Grey-headed version of our Yellow Wagtail but also plenty of White Wagtails. I attempted to photograph all the variations in Yellow Wagtails on my trip round Europe to was keen to get decent photos of both the male and female.

Grey-headed Wagtail - male upper, both sexes show variable dark upper breast markings
A new sound to me in the last few days has been the 'galloping horses' display call of the Jack Snipe, I haven't actually seen any of them but there calls can be heard across the bogs.
I decided to walk some of Mount Ailigas in glorious sunshine. On the way up through the dwarf birch scrub there were even more Bluethroat and I spent sometime attempting to get a bird doing its display flight, not perfect but a reasonable attempt I think.

Bluethroat upper male giving display flight
As I left the trees a lone Siberian Jay called and sat on one of the last bushes before returning in to the wood. 
As I ascended the track over the heather moorland, which looked a lot like home, there were few birds to see (much like home!) but a Whimbrel called and Golden Plover were about the only other bird I saw. In the past Long-tailed Skua have nested on the slopes of Mount Ailigas but no sign today.
I parked up by the spring water that flows past the road and watched the Wood Sandpipers and wagtails, a Sedge Warbler was a surprise moving through the scrub and several Sand Martin flew over. Whilst sat at the roadside a British registration vehicle passed and pulled over, it was Ewan the photographer I had met at Valtavaara. We exchanges our recent sightings and in passing he mentioned an area nearby where he had seen some decent birds last year, it was by a Sami village called Erotusaita, it sounded worth a look so off I went. Whilst we were talking I saw a movement and white in the bushes; Stoat still in ermine, another mammal for the trip.
Stoat in winter ermine
The village of Erotusaita is only occupied in the winter when the Sami people herd the Reindeer and coral them. It was a strange place, empty wooden huts that must be home in the winter and a complicated array of fences to enclose the deer when they bring them in. 

The Sami village of Erotusaita
Plus huge floodlights to light up the winter darkness, it was eerily quite when I was there but it must be entirely different in the winter with the sounds and smells of the animals being herded.
Reindeer pens at Erotusaita
I set off to walk towards the bog area to the north of the village but scanned some of the large fenced areas and was very surprised to see several Long-tailed Skua walking across the grass. As I looked further there were pools and wet areas that were teeming with shorebirds; Ruff, Golden Plover, Ringed Plover, 5 Bar-tailed Godwit in bright summer plumage and several Red-necked Phalarope on the open water. 
I curtailed my trip to the bog and spent the next few hours photographing the skuas and waders.
There were 8 Long-tailed Skua and as I looked at them more closely it looked like 6 adults, and heavily marked bird that I took to be a 2nd calendar year and another almost adult like but with a slight breast band and pale bill base that is perhaps a 3rd calendar year. What superb birds they are!
Long-tailed Skua - adult
Long-tailed Skua 2nd calendar year
Long-tailed Skua adult in foreground with 3rd calendar year behind
I went back to park up for the night by the Kevo NP entrance, or for some sleep, it seems wrong to call it night without darkness just as it started to rain. It rained heavily for a couple of hours and at around 22:00 it stopped and started to clear when I heard the distinctive ringing calls of the Waxwing in the trees by the camper. They were fly catching and I guess with no berries at this time of year that's probably a significant food source at this time of year. I managed a few photos and went back to bed.
The following morning I went back to Erotusaita and completed the walk to the large lakes which was only 3 or 4 km. I finally caught sight of Willow Grouse, a fine male with rufous head and neck and which body and wings. Just as I was preparing to get his photo he was off never to be seen again. The bog areas were otherwise fairly quiet beyond the Redwings, Brambling and Bluethroats with a few Meadow Pipit added but no sign of the Lapland Bunting which also occur here. Back at the pools I photographed the Ringed Plover which here are the smaller and slightly darker race Charadrius hiaticula tundrae which pass through the UK on their migration.
Ringed Plover of the northern breeding race tundrae

I'm spending the next couple of days around Ivalo, Pam arrives on a flight on Monday and we will then be heading up to Varanger for the final leg of the journey.
the journey so far

Correction: Steve Mann has kindly pointed out that the English name for the thunbergi race of Yellow Wagtail is Grey-headed not Ashy-headed as I keep calling them. Ashy-headed is of course the Italian race cinereocapilla which I have previously featured 

Tuesday, 13 June 2017

Neljan Tuulen Tuppa - 10th - 12th June

What Era Eero is for Wolverine Neljan Tuulen Tuppa is for Pine Grosbeak. It is a roadside motel north of Ivalo that has bird feeders that have become synonymous with Pine Grosbeak. 
Feeders at Neljan Tullen Tuppa
In the winter there can be as many as 40 to 50 birds with many fewer in the summer but I saw at least 8 birds and there could have been more. What makes the place so good is how close you are to the birds. From the cafe the birds will feed happily just a metre or so away. It's incredibly easy to get photos on the feeder but a little harder to get them on natural looking branches and in good light. 
Pine Grosbeak top two males bottom female
As well as the grosbeaks there are Siberian Jay, Siberian Tit (although none showed whilst I was there) many Greenfinch and superb male Bramblings, Mealy Redpoll (and in the winter Arctic Redpoll) Red Squirrels also regularly visit the feeders.
Brambling - male in summer plumage

To camp it cost me 15€ with a further 8€ for breakfast which included use of the sauna. I got a bit of a surprise when coming out of the toilet in the sauna to face two naked men but that seems to be the Finnish way, many of the campsites have saunas and even some of the hotel bedrooms.

Pyhantunturi and the hills of Kiilopaa and Kaunispaa 9th/10th and 13th June

Continuing North I drove through Sodankyla and back down to the ski village of Pyantunturi, I'd missed a turning that could have shortened my journey but not to worry.
I chose a parking spot just outside the village by a lake with 50 Whoopers on it, very picturesque but I'd forgotten how noisy a herd of Whooper Swan can be and they trumpeted on and of thought out the night, by 3am I'd had enough and decided to make an early start. 
Whooper Swans - note to self - don't park overnight near them!
I was intending to walk the nature trail by the ski resort and I was glad a did, beautiful ancient pine forest gave way to wet woodland and open bog all in the space of about 5km. 
The nature trail at Pyhatunturi
At 4am it was so peaceful with just the birds and me. Wood Sandpipers displayed on the marsh and Greenshank called from the tree tops! It really was a beautiful walk but again no sign of the Rustic or Little Buntings which are sometimes found there.
Wood Sandpiper
Greenshank - calling from the trees
Back in Sodankyla and drove to Lake Kelujarvi again searching for the elusive buntings but again without success. 
My next stop were the two hills of Kiilopaa and Kaunispaa. I walked up Kiilopaa late in the day first and saw nothing, apparently an early morning visit is called for. I parked up at Kaunispaa and in a short walk around midnight had brief views of two Dotterel in flight, these were my target for the following morning. It was T Shirt weather when I arrived but the weather changed overnight and it was just above freezing the following morning with a mist on the hill. I delayed my walk until about 07:00 by which time it had brightened a bit. It wasn't long before I could hear the pipping calls of the Dotterel and I located first one pair then two more. 
What beautiful birds these are and it was a real treat to be able to sit so close and watch them. At one point the female sank low to the ground then started to rotate - she was creating her nest scrape! 
Dotterel - female making nest scrape
I watched them for several hours, occasionally there was interplay between the three pairs when one must have come too close to anothers territory resulting in a brief dispute.
I returned to Kiilopaa on the 13th June planning an early start but my phone packed in and the alarm never sounded so it was 06:30 when I rose not 04:00 as planned. Walking up the hill I met another Finnish birder who had made the early start and had been rewarded with Ptarmigan and Willow Grouse but both had disappeared. The Ptarmigan was a male still in all white plumage and with most of the snow gone he should certainly stand out if he was around. It took an hour but eventually he was located and I got some nice photos with a range of backgrounds but with a very overcast sky. 
Although I walked for a further 10km there was no sign of the Willow Grouse, but surely I'll see these further north.
On the 12th June I tried again for Little Bunting on the outskirts of Ivalo and finally with success! I located a pair just off the Murmansk Road on the outskirts of town the male was in song but the female was also present so they had perhaps not completed a nest yet.

Little Bunting
That afternoon I made another search for Siberian Tit, and I was clearly having a good day as I located several birds on the Kuttur Guhtar Road west of Kiilopaa. 
Siberian Tit
This is probably not the best time to look for them as half the population is sitting on eggs and the other half are probably less vocal then earlier in the Spring. Still it was great to finally catch up with them.