Wednesday, 26 March 2014

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.

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