Thursday, 9 July 2015

The long drive north

After a week in Beitostølen tradition has it that we visit the north of Norway and bring the good weather with us. This year I chose to drive the 1300km to Bodø and do a bit of birding on the way. The driving on Norway’s winding, narrow main road, the E6, is slow progress and one rarely has the chance to think that 80km/h is a ridiculously slow speed limit. Including birding stops one needs two days to make the journey but it does go quite quickly especially with a good book to listen to and a view out of the windscreen that gets progressively more exciting the further north one comes.

My first stop on the journey was at Hamar where I year ticked an American Wigeon. This must be a very exciting bird to find but as a twitch it was very uninspiring as it fed distantly in long grass with a handful of its European cousins. Continuing north in heavy rain I stopped in the car park of Fokstumyra nature reserve but chose not to get out of the car and drove instead further north where  I visited Orklesjøen for the first time. The long drive into the area through very barren mountain landscape was very promising but the lake itself did not live up to any of the expectations I had and it ended up being a rather frustrating waste of two hours that I could have used elsewhere.
After this I just kept driving and finally stopped to sleep just after midnight somewhere in Nordland County. At 9am the next morning I finally made it to the area that I had been looking forward to for the last 24 hours: Saltfjellet. This is a great tundra area right on the Arctic Circle and one I have visited a few times over the past two decades and seen lekking Ruff, Short-eared Owls, Red-necked Phalaropes, Rock Ptarmigan, Long-tailed Ducks and always had the thought that there should be something rarer to find. With this year being a good owl year in Northern Norway I had a hope that maybe I could find a Snowy Owl here (a google search showed that the Norwegian owl researchers had also though the same as they had requested permission to use helicopters in the National Park SHOULD there be breeding Snowy Owls there this year).

The sight of a number of Long-tailed Skuas (fjelljo) was very encouraging, in fact more than that very exciting! This is a species that I saw regularly on our first visits to Valdresflya around 10 years ago but which has not been present (for me at least) for the last five at least and which otherwise I have only seen in adult summer plumage in Finnmark. As a lemming specialist the present of at least 7 birds in a small area was a very encouraging sign but the strange thing was there were no Short-eared Owls, only a couple of Rough-legged Buzzards and I didn’t actually see a lemming (although did heard one in the undergrowth). So it was perhaps not surprising that I didn’t find a Snowy Owl.
The skuas were hunting by flying around and frequently hovering and would often call which would suddenly draw my attention to new birds. I had one bird that mobbed a Rough-legged Buzzard and this bird was then mobbed by an Arctic Tern which surprisingly are to be found high up on the tundra. My best encounter with the skuas came when I had seen a bird hunting a few hundred metres away which looked to land out of my sightline. I walked up towards it and then suddenly saw it perched not too far away and not too concerned by my presence. It allowed fairly close approach before flying off calling where it was joined by another bird. Both birds landed in a difficult to observe position but were clearly engaged in some courtship and I believe the other bird had brought in some food which was confirmed as one of the birds afterwards had a bit of pink meat stuck to its bill. I made my way closer to the birds and suddenly I realised I had come too close as I got the same treatment that had been meated out to the Rough-legged Buzzard before. I saw no sign of a nest or young but this pair was clearly very territorial and were maybe about to begin breeding.

Waders were not very numerous and I did not see a single Golden Plover which struck me as a bit alarming. I did have a couple of female Red-necked Phalaropes who were probably finished with their breeding duties and will soon be heading south again. I have previously had lekking Ruff up here and records suggest that there is still a small breeding population up here but it was probably too late in the year for me to see this species so my hopes of seeing lekking this year are well and truly over. Other waders I had were a flyover Dotterel, Whimbrel, Wood Sandpiper and Common Sandpiper.
There are surprising numbers of passerines high up on the tundra here with Willow Warblers, Yellow Wagtails, Redwings and Fieldfares feeling very out of place. More expected were good numbers of Lapland Buntings and Bluethroats. I had heard a single Bluethroat singing and played its song hoping to see it. What really surprised me was that at least 7 males appeared out of a small area of dwarf willow. They were obviously interested in the song but only a couple sang back and most seemed most interested in feeding. There was not a single female amongst them and I cannot believe that there could have been 7 pairs breeding in such a small area so I’m not quite sure what all these males were doing and what it means in terms of breeding success.

After Saltfjellet the next quality birding comes from the fjord at Fauske. This area can offer good numbers of waders and sea ducks, grebes and divers. It is a bit early for large numbers but I did have a male King Eider plus small numbers of Velvet Scoters, Common Scoters and Slavonian Grebes.
I had time for one more location before picking up the female contingent who were flying up and visited Seinesodden. I have been here once before and really liked it without having seen very much. A week ago though a Black-winged Pratincole was found here and the next day a female Steller’s Eider plus there being breeding Red-necked Phalaropes so it was well worth a visit. Of the three afore-mentioned species I only saw a single phalarope but the locality is great and I also met another birder which in itself is a rare occurrence in these parts. There were very good numbers of Redshanks here which were clearly breeding and I cannot remember ever having some across so many in such a small area. I encountered very few up on Saltfjellet and it can well be that the late snow melting has caused birds to nest lower down this year.

The drive up might be long (it takes me a couple of days to recover) but the changing scenery and occasional great birding on the way makes it worthwhile and I have the return trip to look forward to.
Long-tailed Skua (fjellfjo)
a poor picture of the two in some sort of courtship feeding
here with some meat stuck to the bill after the courtship feeding


"get orf my land"

hovering very much like a Kestrel whilst searching for food

mobbing a Rough-legged Buzzard

many pictures ended up with only a bit of the bird  in shot
an incredibly long tail

another failed shot which was a shame as it was sharp! Note the black feet


Bluethroat (blåstrupe)

this one was too close

they have toungues

male King Eider (praktærfugl)

together with a young male Common Eider in Black Guillemot plumage

female Lapland Bunting (lappspurv)

note the typical lower mandible of a bunting. There seems to be a lot of crap stuck to the bill of this bird

one of the Red-necked Phalaropes (svømmesnipe) on Saltfjellet

the (Common) Redpolls on Saltfjellet are for me a good case study in the fact that redpolls are just a clinal species that gets paler the further north one comes

Puffins (lundefugl) near Bodø. To see adult birds here at this time of the year is bad news as it means they have left their breeding colonies (most likely Røst) in search of food. Apparantly it is 14 years since the colony on Røst had fledged young
this picture of a Common Sandpiper (strandsnipe) was probably the highlight of a two hour detour to Orkelsjøen

Arctic Tern (rødnebbterne) at Orkelsjøen
and a Temminck's Stint
record shot of the American Wigeon (amerikablessand)

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