Saturday, 31 March 2012

Finnmark trip report

I have created a new page with a summary of the recent trip to Finnmark

Friday, 30 March 2012

Woodlarks again and fewer geese..and little else

I repeated Wednesday’s trip today hoping get better pictures of the Woodlarks and maybe to find some interesting ducks:  Garganey or Green-winged Teal would have been nice.
I arrived at the Woodlarks shortly after dawn so the light was not perfect for photography and I will not say that I managed better pictures but you can judge. There were 3 birds today, 2 singing and a third which i just saw on the deck.
Woodlark at dawn
Onto Udenes/Horgen and the Bean Geese. Two Beans and five Greylag were on the river which has risen leaving a much reduced mud bank and 17 Beans were on the fields (a group of five and a group of 12). It looks like vast majority have moved on and the remaining birds are breaking up into smaller groups before heading to their breeding grounds - is this a sign that the breeding grounds are close by? One of the southern breeding outposts in Sweden? One of the Bean Geese on the river was collar ringed but distance was too great to read the number.
neck collared Bean Goose digiscoped at 1km

In Aurskog Høland the Pink-footed Geese had moved on but I found a flock of 210 Whooper Swans - I suspect these are new birds as the flocks from a few weeks ago seemed to have moved on. Also 20 odd Cranes here and around 50 Teal which is a clear increase. In one field I had grazing Whooper Swans, Cranes and a herd (?) of 7 Roe Deer.

Roe Deer, Cranes and Whooper Swans
A Mistle Thrush was the only member of its family and still no flocks of Bramblings have arrived.
Moving on south there was little of note at Hellesjøvannet although the Whooper Swans looked like they were already making a nest.
At Hemnessjøvannet 7 summer plumaged Red-throated Divers were very early and a pleasant sight.
Kallaksjøen still held the 13 Bean geese and 30+ Cranes. The Great Grey Shrike here was very cooperative but of course as I raised my camera its lack of life told me the battery was flat. I had to be content with taking a picture with my mobile through the scope.
The most excitement of the day came as I checked the Teal to see if any spoke with an american accent. One sleeping bird seemed to have a vertical white stripe down the flank and I moved in closer for a better look only to find it was a blade of straw sticking up in front of the bird!
Finally a flock of 13 Twite feeding with two Linnets and 30 odd Chaffinches was a welcome addition to my year list.

Wednesday, 28 March 2012

Woodlarks and geese

My weekly outing with Rune Z today offered the delights of eastern Akershus with a detour into Østfold.
We started with the Woodlarks near Gardermoen airport which have returned since my last visit. We witnessed a great display from two singing birds which sang above our heads and perched on fences and the ground nearby. They favour the northern boundary of the airport by the express train line where they are open sandy areas.

Then onto the Bean Goose/Bewick’s Swan site to see if I could read anymore colour rings. There were no geese or swans on the fields and on the mudbank roost in the river there were now only 42 Bean Geese (I could see none with colour rings) alongside 8 Greylags and 10 Pink-footed. The other Bean Geese and the large swan flock could have been feeding at a new site but more likely the warm weather has encouraged them to continue northwards.
Onto Aurskog Høland where we had over 40 Cranes in the valley, a Great Grey Shrike and a couple of Buzzards and a nice grazing flock of 164 Pink-footed Geese with a smaller number of Whooper Swans at Kjelle.
Pink-footed Geese, Whooper Swans and Greylag Geese, Kjelle

Driving down to Hellesjøvannet we had another couple of Buzzards and a new Great Grey Shrike. Hellesjøvannet is now ice free but not many birds have returned yet. A couple of Great Crested Grebes were early but no interesting raptors here yet. Hemnesjøvannet still had patches of ice but there were few birds here aswell although there was a scattering of Whooper Swans and geese. Best of all was an adult male Peregrine that gave great views as it first circled near the road, then perched, then went into a dashing hunting flight before departing before I managed to take a picture.
At Kallaksjøen the (Taiga) Bean Goose flock we discovered last week was still present now with 3 White-fronted Geese aswell. No other geese here though. The Great Grey Shrike was also still present here, 4 Cranes flew over and 30 feeding in a field, 3 Wigeon and 50 odd teal which were busily displaying and best of all a female Peregrine which buzzed the area. It flew right over our heads but of course I failed to get the settings on the camera right and just managed to photograph a shadow (my photoshop skill do not allow me to make it any better).
3 White-fronted Geese (left), 13 Bean Geese and Teal


A wasted opportunity with a Peregine

The two Peregrines we had and at least 2 of the Buzzards were I believe passage birds although I have not seen any other records suggesting there was a large raptor movement going on today.

Tuesday, 27 March 2012

Crazy Blue Tit

I noticed when getting into the car today that there was a lot of bird poo on the passenger side window and mirror. I wondered who the culprit was but didn’t give it too much thought. Then just as I was about to start the engine a Blue Tit landed on the driver’s side door and began attacking the mirror. Classic stuff – a crazy Blue Tit scared of its own reflection. It then saw me and flew to our neighbour’s car to attack another “intruder”. As you see in the picture there is a fair amount of poo so it must get quite agitated during these encounters.
Get out of here - this is my territory!

The chosen nesting box (the one without the camera) is only a few metres away so presumably he is ultra territorial.
At my parents house in Sussex, England they have a Blue Tit that repeatedly hovers and pecks at the corners of windows (also very close to the nesting box), I assume that this bird also is seeing its reflection and therefore a competing male.

An afternoon walk around Fornebu in temperatures of 20C (a bit of a contrast to Finnmark!) was lacking in birds although I did have my first White Wagtail and Linnet of 2012 and a flock of migrating Cormorants.

Monday, 26 March 2012

Steller's Eider video

Here is a video I took of a flock of Steller's Eider in Kiberg Harbour.

 Unfortunately I didn't get to film them diving which is quite a sight. The whole flock normally dives as one and they resurface at great speed and pop out of the water like a cork. Steller's Eider really is a marvelous bird. It is an incredible looker and occurs in remote areas of outstanding natural beauty - surely a candidate for my favourite bird.

Today, back in Oslo, I only had time for a quick trip to Maridalen but quite productive it was too. A flock of 55 Pink-footed Geese flying north was incredibly early although the migration actually started on Thursday when the first flocks were reported on their way north from Denmark.
My first Mistle Thrushes of the year included a flock of 10 flying north and one singing. The local male Goshawk was displaying over the area and an early Buzzard didn't necessarily look like he was passing through. A flyover Green Sandpiper appears to be only the second record so far this year in Norway and a Grey Wagtail was also a year tick. At least 4 Hawfinches were around the farmhouse at Nes with much song.
There is still little open water but the Whooper Swan pair is still present, 10 Goldeneyes were in full display and a male Goosander looked resplendent. Chaffinches are now common and I also had my first Brambling of the year for Maridalen. Still no flocks of Fieldfare or Redwing though.

Now that I am getting the hang of You Tube I have also uploaded a highlights video from my trip to Finnmark last year:

Day 4 Finnmark March 2012

The changing of the clocks meant we woke up at 0530 this morning. Vadsø was gloomy with strong winds and snow but this soon changed to blue skies although later in the day the winds picked up and we had more snow. Temperatures were around -2C all day.
Before breakfast we managed to check the harbour in Vadsø and then drive half way to Vardø to Komagvær bay checking the bays along the way. Good numbers of Steller’s Eiders today with 170 at Vadsø and a flock of 200 near Ekkerøy. Two Black-headed Gulls in Vadsø harbour were maybe new in although 2 were also reported a month ago to the day. A single adult Common Gull also but otherwise only a handful of gulls in the harbour. It looks like the industrial fishing harbour has closed down here which would explain the lack of gulls.
Two White-billed Divers together at Krampenes were a nice sight although as with all our other sightings were too far out for a picture. We had two sightings of the same Red Fox which looked to be in very good position except for a tail which lacked fur in a big ring (see pictures). We also had a pod of around 100 Porpoises which were actively hunting a shoal of fish.
After breakfast at 11am we headed south towards Varangerbotn. Little of interest along the way but a single adult White-tailed Eagle made up for their complete absence yesterday. In Varangerbotn we made the choice to head up towards Tana Bru and check the valet here where we knew we would have a chance for Hawk Owl, Siberian Tit and Gyr Falcon.
We scored big time with Hawk Owl with a bird right by the road. We watched it very well at a range of about 75m as it sat in a tree on the look out for food. It made a hunting attempt whereby it flew to the middle of a field and hovered very low over the snow where it must have heard a mouse but it didn’t dive into the snow. Whilst watching we occasionally heard a quite screeching which sounded very like a female Hawk Owl (which I heard nearby last May) but we failed to see another bird. We then continued along the valley to a well known breeding site for Gyr Falcon. This is a well visited site although birds have apparently not bred here since 2008. We found the nesting ledge quite easily due to the large amount of white excrement on it and a nearby rock. No birds to see here however.
On our return the Hawk Owl was sitting in a tree only 20metres away and gave great views although vegetation prevented a great photo. It then launched itself into a hunting flight and again hovered over the field but without making a dive into the snow (unfortunately trees stopped me from being able capture this digitally). It returned to perch close by before again moving to the other side of the field. We again heard the screeching and this time located the female sitting 150m away by an old crow’s nest. She called often and this was presumably “encouragement” to the male to bring her food which is presumably part of the pair bonding ritual or maybe a precursor to egg laying. We had some great views of the owls and it was interesting to watch the male who took no notice of us or passing cars and just seemed intent on picking up the sound of a mouse under the snow . We waited a long time here hoping to be able to watch and photograph a hunt but to no avail. During this time the female was calling more and more frequently although the male seemed to be playing it cool.
The male Hawk Owl close to the road

Hawk Owl

Here you can just see the female Hawk Owl by the old crows nest

It began to snow whilst we watched the owls

Hawk Owl plumage is actually quite good camouflage

After this we tried Tana Bru for Siberian Tit but only located Great Tits, a circling pair of White-tailed Eagles and a Sparrowhawk (a good bird so early).
Adult White-tailed Eagle
After this we were running out of time and had to make our way to Kirkenes airport without time to visit Pasvik which had been our intention.
Never mind though, a most enjoyable trip was had even if we lacked the “big” rarity. Finnmark and Varanger in particular is a truly exceptional birding destination with a special landscape and remoteness that just makes you want to plan your next visit (June?).
Red Fox with abnormal tail. Proving that there is something to eat for predators!

Snow swirling over the road. Driving conditions were sometimes tough today

Saturday, 24 March 2012

Day 3 Finnmark March 2012

Another long day. Up at 0430 and in the field from 0500 until 1730. Were we rewarded? Not really. Two adult Iceland Gulls, a very early Rock Pipit, over 50 Glaucous Gulls, finally some satisfying pictures of Steller’s Eider and another White-billed Diver were the highlights apart from more hybirds and subspecies (see blow). Very surprising was a complete lack of raptors, not even a single White-tailed Eagle.
Male Steller's Eider

Flock of Steller's Eider

Viewing conditions were very good with little wind such that it was easy to see what was on the sea and also good light for studying the birds. We spent most time on gulls particularly the two sand beaches near Svartnes (on the mainland looking over to Vardø) where streams provide fresh water for bathing/preening gulls. There is much movement of gulls here with many hundreds of gulls passing through. At any one time there were around 400 Herrings Gulls with upto 20 Glaucous Gulls. By looking at the ages of the Glaucous Gulls present at any one time it was easy to see that there was much movement of birds. It was here we faced our most interesting identification challenges.
 Firstly with a couple of adult Common Gulls one of which we was ringed and we had first seen on Vardø. The ringed bird at least was a very good candidate for Heinei with a pale iris, long yellow bill and yellow legs. It also looked different to normal Common Gulls with a bit of Ring-billed Gull look about it. The other bird had a dark eye and a more normal jizz but did also have noticeably yellow bill and legs.
Adult Common Gull showing characters of Russian subspecies Heinei. Although the eye looks dark in this picture it was pale in real life (see next picture). Also note yellow bill and legs. The white eye lids of this bird helped give it a special appearance

Note pale iris visible in this picture

2 adult Common Gulls. The right hand bird which was ringed is shown in the other photos and showed Heinei characters. Notice in this picture it is slightly darker on the wings than the other bird which had a dark eye.

Wing pattern of the right-hand bird

We also spent some time with a 2nd winter gull that initially looked like a Glaucous but on closer inspection was probably too dark with a dark tail, dark secondary bar and primaries that were not quite pale enough. We discussed Glaucous Winged Gull and the bird appeared to have a dark eye but did not get conclusive views or good photos (see the best below which are hugely cropped) due to distance and in the end veered towards it perhaps being a hybrid between Glaucous and Herring.
Mystery Gull. Hybrid Glaucous x Herring? Dark Glaucous? or something rarer

Another 3rd winter bird in the flock was also a probable hybrid but we got no photos of this bird. It was a far more intermediate bird with a Glaucous like bill, pale grey scapulars, creamy coloured coverts and tertials and brown primaries. It was also a large bird at the top end for Herring Gull.
It was interesting looking at the Glaucous Gulls and noting the large difference in size with some birds smaller than the largest Herring Gulls and others the size of Great Black-backed. The 2 Iceland Gulls we had we both very small birds, notably smaller than adjacent Herring Gulls and therefore likely to be females.

The day ended with a vindaloo in Vadsø – the world’s most northerly curry house?

Friday, 23 March 2012

Day 2 of Finnmark March 2012

A long and fairly productive day although if we measured quality bird per minute then we wouldn’t score so highly.
We started at 0530 and were back at 1730, so 12 hours in the field. Our target species group of gulls, gulls, gulls were unfortunately hard to come by today. Maybe the weather was too good (sun and little wind) such that they were happily feeding over the open ocean (we could definitely see many large gulls way out to sea) or maybe there is little food (a trawlerman we spoke to said there were far fewer birds this year than last due to there being fewer capelin (lodde in Norwegian), which is a small fish.
We did a bit better with ducks though although the rare eider, that needs help reading, escaped our attention.
We spent the whole 12 hours between Vardø and Vadsø which is a 75km stretch and checked every single bay and harbour.
Highlights were thousands of King Eiders (we had 3 flocks of over 1000 birds, plus scattered small flocks), over 1200 Steller’s Eider (surely a significant % of the global population), 3 White-billed Divers, 23 Glaucous Gulls, many thousands of Guillemots with a few Brunnich’s (maybe 1% of the auks we saw), plus a few Puffins.
Then we had the interesting birds all of which were subspecies or hybrids:
In Vardø harbour we studied a close group of Common Eiders and had at least 5 males with “sails” plus also some females with bumps. One male was a real classic “borealis” with large sails and an orange/yellow bill. Also the frontal processes were clearly more pointed than on the normal eiders.
Adult male northern Common Eider, sub species Borealis. Note "sails" and yellow bill

Another subspeices of interest was Common Gull. We relocated a 1st winter Common Gull we had seen in Vadsø Harbour yesterday which is a very early sighting. The bird was quite shy and had no interest in the bread we threw in its direction. The bird appeared to be large and dark (retained juvenile feathers?) with a long, pink based bill all of which point towards a Russian origin. An adult Common Gull also flew over and I managed a couple of pictures which also seem to match the Russian sub species Heinei.

1st winter Common Gull probably of subspecies Heinei

Adult Common Gull. Primary pattern: dark P8 and black band on P5 match criteria for adult Heinei

At Krampenes we had a hybrid Common x King Eider. This bird was very distinct but also surprisingly close to Common Eider when compared to images of hybrids I have seen. A hybrid was seen and photographed nearby in 2005 which was far more classic and I wonder whether the bird we saw could be the offspring of this with a Common Eider. Note that the bird we saw has a far more obvious black mask, more Common Eider like bill and lighter grey back. There was however also a single male King Eider in the flock which otherwise consisted of 200 Common Eiders.
Hybrid King x Common Eider

Hybrid King x Common Eider
I took many other pictures today but still failed to get any decent pictures of Steller's Eider despite us seeing so many. Steller's Eider was my dream species whilst growing up and reading accounts of exoctic places like Vardø and Vadsø so I hope I will get to take some close ups during the trip.

Common Eiders, Vardø

Grey Seal Vardø

Steller's Eider, Vadsø

The Hurtigruta ship was in Vardø and made the town look far more impressive:
Finally, there was some unusual street art on an old building in the harbour at Vardø. I tried to retrospectively be the model:

Thursday, 22 March 2012

Day 1 of Finnmark March 2012

A quick summary of today’s sightings:

We landed at Kirkenes to fantastic weather, blue skies and hardly a breath of wind. Making our way towards Varanger there were surprisingly few birds to see and incredibly few gulls, just small numbers of Herring, Great Black-backed and Kittiwakes. Every now and again the fjord held some seaduck with Eider the commonest (ca. 500 seen), then Long-tailed Duck (ca.100), King Eider (ca.50), Mallard (ca.50), Red-breasted Merganser (20), Velvet Scoter (4) and Goldeneye (1). We also had Steller’s Eider at 2 sites: Nesseby (50) and Vadsø Harbour (16). Just 3 White-tailed Eagles and no other raptors or owls. Passerines were of course very few and far between but we did have House Sparrow, Greenfinch, Great Tit, a single Willow Tit calling in a way I have never heard before and 2 Arctic Redpolls.

Mammal wise we had a few Reindeer, a single Bearded Seal (mammal tick), 2 Grey Seals, some other seals which were probably Common Seals and some small cetaceans that may have been White-beaked Dolphins.

The days are quite long already but the sun doesn’t rise very high so the evenings are long. Light-wise it started to be evening before 4pm but it didn’t get dark until after 6pm.
Today’s pictures were rather poor but here are the best of them:
Steller's Eider, Vadsø Harbour

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Purple Sandpipers

Steller's Eider

Bearded Seal, the beard being very visible

Arctic Redpoll. Crappy picture but you can at least see how white they should be