Monday, 31 March 2014

GULLFEST 2014 - Part 4 - Eiders, Eiders and a few Long-tailed Ducks!!

What can I say...this trip would simply not have been the same if it wasn't for the enchanting Eiders! In particular, the arctic gem that is the Steller's Eider.
The first eiders of the trip left quite an impression. On the coastal express ferry from Kirkenes to Vardo, we were gobsmacked by the raft of up to 25,000 eiders sitting and feeding close together in the fjord. As we passed, they became backlit and you could clearly see a spray from within the flock which was actually a combined splash created from diving eiders. To be able to see this from at least a mile away was amazing!

As there was not a single moment on the trip where I was bored, it seems strange to pick a highlight, but given that Grahame's wife Jacqui was almost more entertained by my 'kid on Christmas morning' excitement from within the King Eider photography hide than the actual birds, I will have to say that this was the highlight of the trip for me.

Ørjan Hansens runs a floating Eider hide in Båtsfjord harbour, Northern Varanger. This allows you to sit/lie comfortably within a floating bird hide whilst 3 species of Eider and Long-tailed Ducks feed on scraps outside the fish factory just feet in front of you. Whilst I am used to seeing Common Eider at close quarters at Martin Mere WWT etc (not the same, I know) it was fantastic to see these completely wild birds going about their business, oblivious to your presence! 

A memory that will always stay with me is looking up from the camera after photographing a drake King Eider 4-5 metres away and seeing a drake Steller's Eider literally close enough to touch right outside the window of the hide!  

Needless to say, I got an awful lot of photos, so I will post a selection of each species on show, starting with my personal highlight of the trip. 

Steller's Eider

These birds are just the best birds going! I have rarely ever been enchanted by wildfowl (except Coot for obvious reasons!), so I was completely captivated by this gorgeous jewel of the arctic! The males are just stunning birds with a new fantastic feature every time you look at them, including their hilarious green 'bed hair' on their nape.
Female Steller's are really different to the males and remarkably dark when sat next to the white and orange beacons! I set myself a personal goal whilst in the hide to get a decent photo of the females and capture their subtlety. I was really pleased with the above photo as I think I've captured the bird in a nice pose and nicely exposed showing the warmer flecking to the plumage. Beautiful birds in their own right!

King Eider
Whilst this hide mainly advertises Kings, we were mainly treated to Steller's with at least 30 feeding out in front. Kings were much quieter with the occasional bird making a brief appearance. Towards the end of the 3 hour stint in the hide, we were treated to a 'flock' of 8 including two lovely adult males. They really are gorgeous birds, especially at this distance.

I have to admit, I was more interested in the 1st winter birds. The above two are both of the same age, but look very different indeed! I was more interested in these from an ID point of view as, let's be honest, the males don't pose much of a head scratching identification! The dark 1st winters were really interesting though. I wonder how similar these would look to drake Common Scoters if they were out 'on the horizon' in loose association with a distant scoter flock (size not taken into consideration of course!)

As a wow factor, the drake Steller's really did steal the show, but I have to say, 'Queen Eiders' really did leave a big impact on me. First of all you have that 'cute' face with the upturned smile, but then you look into the fine detail of the plumage and you see the incredible black chevrons on the warm rufous flanks and the little sails on the back. Very beautiful birds indeed!

Common Eider
I'm afraid the twitcher inside got the better of me and I didn't take advantage of the Common Eiders achieving less than 10 photos. I guess I thought I could always go to a WWT centre and take decent photos, whereas the same can't be said for King and Steller's! Great birds though when you really look at them.

Long-tailed Duck

It was a real treat to get great views of Long-tailed Ducks at this close range too, as well as hearing that amazing call! There were a couple of adult males in front of the hide, but for these, I just put the camera down and watched! These were very shy birds though and rarely stayed in front of the hide for long. I feel I achieved a couple of nice photos of these 1st winter males though.
Away from the eider hide, there was a really confiding flock of 21 Steller's in Vardo harbour which travelled around in a very tight flock which looked mainly white when the males were ready to dive with their white wing coverts exposed.
Arctic water is spectacularly clean, so it was fantastic to see the Steller's feeding underwater on the harbour floor about 30 feet down. A great experience that I certainly won't ever get to see in a UK harbour!

The above pic was taken from the restaurant of the hotel we were staying in in Vardo town! Not a bad view whilst you're eating!
The Eider vortex is now a thing of legend! We went out on a 'safari' in the Varangerfjord and it took what felt like an age and one seasick casualty before we found the raft. As you approach, the entire flock lifts to the sky and starts circling around the boat and you witness the Eider Vortex! There was a great showing of all three species with the main focus being Common Eider and very closely followed by Kings. 
It was to my horror that, on the day we came back, Tormod was looking through his vortex photos and refound the Pacific Eider first discovered a month before Gullfest, meaning I was less than 50m from a first for the Western Palearctic and I didn't even know about it! A real shame as it's a stunning bird, but it doesn't detract too much from the amazing birds I actually did see. 
Pacific Eider aside, an amazing spectacle!

Enough of all this frame filling nonsense! I was very interested in this interesting Steller's Eider that was within the flock of 21 in Vardo harbour. I suspected it was probably a 1st winter male as I don't suppose there are any birds left in eclipse plumage any more? It was interesting because it didn't seem to fit any plumage in any of the books, so I was a little perturbed by it. A thought that went through my mind was possibly a very very mature female as I know older females can show hints of male-like plumage and in the flesh, it was hard to see anything other than the orange breast, male-like tertials and a very female-like body. Needless to say, subsequent research has shown that this is most likely a 1st winter male given the white flecking coming through on the wings and head. The start of the nape 'crest' is also evident.
Of the birds I scrutinised, I only actually saw 2 other 1st winter males (both of which had some white flecking on the median and lesser coverts. 
A fantastic trio of ducks and the three species that really do make Gullfest one of the best birdwatching festivals in the world. Incredible.

Saturday, 29 March 2014

GULLFEST 2014 - Part 3 - Fjord and Tundra Birding

One thing that I will always remember from Varanger is how you don't just get a handful of a single get a very impressive number! Living in Lancashire and North Wales, away from most Purple Sandpiper populations, it was a real joy to be around such fantastic numbers of Purps. I would estimate over 600 Purple Sandpipers seen. Not only was there a great number, but they were also remarkably tame. We had a fantastic stop at Ekkerøy being less than 5 metres away from a feeding flock of 180 Purps.

Also along the coast were up to two White-tailed Eagle. Having been in Sweden and Scotland several times, I am certainly no stranger to White-tailed Eagles, but every time you see one 'eclipse the sun', they make an amazing impression!

Also, whilst birding as many bays as we could, Tormod picked up a very distant Diver sp but lost it almost instantly which was frustrating. I scanned and scanned as hard as my eyes would stretch and within 5 minutes I picked it up again. It was strikingly pale headed with a strange 'custard' hue. It soon became apparent that it was a White-billed Diver (a lifer!) and it proved hard to do, but we eventually got everyone onto it. Even though it was over a mile away, it still left an impressive impression on me!

Moving around across Varanger, we went through some incredible habitat or should I saw lack of habitat! The high tundra at this time of year was just a white sheet as far as the eye could see with 1m deep snow all around. Every so often, the snow would come in and it would be almost impossible to see the horizon which was quite unsettling! Anyway, it didn't take too long before we came across several grouse flocks. Closer to the coast, these proved to be Willow Grouse with their white lores and chunkier structure, however closer to the top, we stopped a single bird in a bush...this seemed pretty chunky but being a female, it was hard to ID due to both Ptarmigan and Willow Grouse have white lores in females. Suddenly some birds took flight and after a few opportunistic record shots, I was very pleased to see the black lores of male Ptarmigans! A really nice flock of 15 birds. What the bird in the bush was, we're not entirely sure given the chunkiness and the sitting in a bush. I wonder if there are ever mixed flocks?

It was also really nice to observe up to 400 Reindeer throughout the trip. Beautiful animals and surprisingly small!

The resounding memory of arctic tundra has to be 'white!'. They was incredible amount of snow which made travelling, walking and birding all the more novel.

Wednesday, 26 March 2014

GULLFEST 2014 - Part 2 - Seabirds of Hornøya & Ekkerøy

Brunnich's Guillemot - One of the coolest lifers of the trip. Great to see so many. While there are 'only' 500-600 pairs breeding on the island of Hornøya, the non-breeding flocks on the Varangerfjord are something out of this world with several thousand seen (mainly 1st summer/non-breeding plumage types.) While Common Guillemots are usually pretty showy on the island, Brunnich's generally nest in more inaccesible places, however the above and below bird put on quite a show and strutted around like a little penguin at point blank range.
Really clean flanks on Brunnich's compared to Commons (which is even more obvious with the heavier flank and belly markings of hyperborea Guillemots),
The white bar on the secondaries is more broad on in the inner secondaries, but unlike Razorbill, the Brunnich's wing bar tapers as it gets to the outer secondaries so it us more of a comma shape.
The number of breeding Puffins on Hornøya is ridiculous at about 15,000 pairs! Got fantastic views of lots 'playing' in the snow and then having c7000-8000 circling above our heads.

It was great to see breeding plumage Shags again and even more curious to see them in the snow. Really lovely colour tones coming through with the interesting light reflections.
While there was a fantastic population of Kittiwakes on Hornøya and pretty much every coastal building with ledges on the Varangerfjord, the colony at Ekkerøy was superb! A ridiculous number that would flush together from the cliffs as Ravens patrolled.

Beautiful birds when you get a proper chance to look at them.
German birder Jörg Kretschmer showing the edge of what is possible with digiscoping....flight shots in a seabird colony with a hand held scope! So amazing to watch! He even showed us a shot he took of a flying Small White butterfly! How is that even possible?! 

hyperborea 'Arctic' Guillemots
I would say that Brunnich's, being the one lifer from the seabird colonies was the best, but I was very interested in the Common Guillemots. They are of the race hyperborea, at least the identifiable ones were. On the paler end of the scale, they are hard to split from the Southern race of Guillemot that breed in England.

The above two and single below photos show individuals at the high end scale of hyperborea. The vast majority have some heavy barring on the flanks, but I noted at least 20 individuals with markings quite as heavily barred as the above birds. Some had a couple of fleckings in the breast, but the above birds were fantastic! I also noted that the dark birds were lacking a wing bar on the secondaries which accentuated the darkness.
In addition, all of the really dark birds appeared to be Bridled that I saw. The split in the colony was about 50/50 though between Bridled and non. I wonder if the non-bridled birds can show up as this dark?
I noticed an awful lot of Guillemots on Hornøya having orange legs. The same applied with Brunnich's with 50% of Brunnichs' feet observed were orange...another possible feature of northern birds perhaps? I'll have to scrutinize UK birds from now on.
As previously mentioned by Martin Garner, he noted spotted on the otherwise white underwing coverts.  I only got a chance to scrutinize c10 and I wouldn't say this was a standardized feature throughout as several seemed all white.

As previously mentioned. The flank streaking was extraordinarily variable with several Guillemots looking rather pale which occasionally made picking out the clean Brunnich's more difficult.

Very interesting learning in a fantastic place!

GULLFEST 2014 - Part 1: Pasvik Taiga

So, I've just got back from GULLFEST and what a time I had! I will do a few blog posts splitting them up into obvious groups.
Jonnie Fisk and I were invited up to arctic Norway in Varanger by Tormod Arundsen to represent Next Generation Birders at the event. It was a huge honour to be invited as it's a place I've always wanted to go to, however never actually thought I'd ever go!
I am unbelievably grateful to Tormod for the invite and I can't thank him enough for the opportunity!
We flew up to Kirkenes airports after changing at Copenhagen and Oslo (with a night in Oslo) and got picked up by Tormod's wife Elin. We then drove an hour and a half to a 'electricityless' cabin deep in the Pasvik Taiga forests.
After arriving to -9oC and heavy snow on the ground, it was quite astonishing that the very first bird we saw on the car journey was a HAWK OWL! It was a cracking bird sat on top of a pine tree (the above bird was from later on in the trip!)
Also seen from the car was an awesome flock of 15 Willow Grouse which were great to see and very educational. The females are pretty difficult in winter plumage as they're very similar to Ptarmigan, except for a chunkier bill and stockier body. The males are again all whit, but have red comb above the eye and white lores which distinguish them from Ptarmigan. Although not split from Red Grouse, it was great to see this new plumage.
In addition, something I was hoping for, but didn't expect what to be along the edge of the Pasvik river and see the Russian border on the other side with lots of observation towers looking back at us! Being only 40-50m away from the border at one point, it was so close to being a 'Country Tick!'
Arriving at the cabin, we met up with fellow 'Gullfesters': Hans Larsson (Artist and Gull Expert), Richard Crossley (Crossley ID Guides), Graham White (RSPB Chief Wetland Ecologist) and his wife Jackie, Anders Maeland (Birding Norway tour guide) plus the main man himself Tormod (Biotope).
We all gathered around the active feeding stations to watch all the incredible birds including the above Coues's Arctic Redpoll (1 of 3 but only 1 male) which was a lovely lifer and fantastic to watch. The male was like a little snowball!
Probably the most obvious spectacle was a crazy number of Pine Grosbeak with up to 20 around the feeders. There were about 8 gorgeous adult males in total with several 1st winters and several female types.

The above individual was a superb bird that was unbelievably tame and the two shot above are how they look on the memory cropping needed! This bird had no tail which made for a strange flight shape!
I couldn't get over just how big the Grosbeaks were. I thought they'd be like a Hawfinch but they're as big as a Redwing if not bigger! With sun in the air too, the males were sat in trees singing away almost constantly. Absolutely magnificent!

While the obvious spectacle was the pure number of Grozzers, there was a small handful of Siberian Tits that came in often to feed. These really stole my heart and until the very last day, this were my favourite bird of the trip (I'll explain why that changed later!)
Willow Tits in Varanger are remarkably interesting. For starters, this species is my favourite UK resident, so it was great to see. Not only this, they are a different race. borealis is the main race up in the arctic circle which is fantastically pale. Even paler still is uralensis which is race that we saw quite often. Interestingly though, it is quite hard to pin down what the birds at this cabin were. The slight warm tones lead me to believe borealis, however are the warm tones too extensive? Siberian Tit x Willow Tit hybrids have been recorded up there, so maybe we were experiencing non-pure Willow Tits? Either way...what a beautiful bird!
We also had several Northern Bullfinch, Great Tit, Great Spotted Woodpecker and the amazing grey Red Squirrels visiting the feeders.
Our first night of the trip saw up in a cabin that had no water or no electricty and just a fire. This made for a great ice breaker. However at -17oC at night, we had to break the ice a lot! Around 9.30pm, we all went onto the middle of a frozen lake outside the cabin to watch the Northern Lights. This is my first time and it is pretty magical! The activity was quite low whilst we were in the arctic, but still bloody amazing! I can't begin to imagine what it's like when you can even see it during the day! Waking up the following morning, it was -25oC which really sorts the men from the boys!
Camera batteries dying after 30 minutes, walking inside and your optics condensate and then freeze over, getting ice in your nose and struggling to breathe whilst breating on your scarf and that gets covered in frost! An amazingly unforgettable experience!
Whilst on the way back up to Kirkenes to get the Coastal Express ferry to Vardo, Richard spotted what he thought was a Siberian Jay flying across the road

Later on in the trip, on the way back to the airport, we came across a Hawk Owl...before long it took flight and was joined by a second owl. The started fighting in the air and circling around like corvids mobbing something! It was quite an amazing sight! What fantastic birds!

Generally speaking, the rest of the trip is pretty coastal, but for now, I thought a taster of Taiga forest was like as I've said since I was a small child that Taiga Forest in winter is literally the absolute dream habitat for me to visit.