Sunday, 27 April 2014

NGB at Gullfest 2014: the Arctic birding festival! -Part 1-

Hello Varanger in March, where the reindeer roam, where the eiders are king and where where locals take 30 minutes off their journey by cutting across frozen rivers. A place where seabirds swamp the senses, where Cod Is Great and where your eyes tire from scanning the tops of trees for owls.

It was early February when Tormod Amundsen from Biotope; a pretty unique company of architects specialising on birds and birdwatching, sent Zac Hinchcliffe and myself the email that dropped like a big, Scandinavian bombshell: "Gullfest 2014 - you in?"
There was really no question. To be in one of the coolest birding locations in the world, with some of birding's rockstars, watching the avian awesomeness of the Arctic - YES PLEASE!

So little over a month later, we found ourselves Oslo bound, seeing the weather get colder and the ground snowier as we travelled Manchester - Stockholm - Oslo. Our final destination was Kirkenes, a town 69° North and close to the Pasvik taiga forest where we were to spend our first official day of Gullfest 2014, but that was tomorrow and right now our first night of the trip was spent in the Scandic Oslo airport hotel. A spot of compulsory evening birding in the surrounding snowy forest and fields brought Yellowhammers, Blue and Great Tits and Starlings doing a good job at imitating Redwing song. Most impressive, however, were the human head-sized Moose prints in the snow, as well as mounds of Elk-crement. Scarlet Elf Caps were found as a Sparrowhawk slinked through the trees.   

Morning dawned with snow flurries over breakfast and a building sense of excitement. Before boarding the shuttle bus back to the airport for the flight to the Arctic Circle, we met Graham White and his partner Jacqui. Graham (aka The Grumpy Ecologist) is a senior wetland ecologist with the RSPB and would later show just what an incredible task the RSPB undertakes on its reserves -and beyond-! A very closely-cut sprint through security and customs was unnecessary when our plane was delayed some 40 minutes. 
The iced-cake scenery from Oslo - Kirkenes plane
Kirkenes is in a very interesting area of Norway. Further East than Istanbul and a stone's throw from the Russian border (in fact, for much of the drive to the taiga forest, the only thing separating us from Russia was a frozen river), it was occupied first by the Nazis, then by Russia's Red Army in WWII and it has a large Norwegian military presence even today, with watchtowers and cameo-clad Norwegians milling about the airport. We were met by Elin Taranger, of Biotope who filled us in on all things Varanger; the birdlife, human life and way of life (the mining side of this was evident, with large areas of scarred grey rockface in the snowy hills) as we drove to our first destination. 

It was here we had our first 'proper' Arctic birds, both causing us to lurch forward as the brakes were slammed on. Our first was sitting pretty at the top of a fir tree, like a fiery-eyed predatory Christmas angel: Hawk Owl or Haukugle (pronounced "Hurk Urgler"). The only time I've ever been stared at so terrifyingly was when I was caught cheating in a French exam. I would not like to be a lemming here. 
Hawk Owl cubism ©Jonnie Fisk
Our second Arctic special jumped abruptly in front of the car in a forested area. It could well have been a floating pair of eyes and a black beak, the Willow Grouse was Predator-like in its invisibility with the environment. It was followed by another and a few seconds later, a whole flock of 13 erupted from the birches like a barrage of fat, black-tailed white pigeons. 

We shortly arrived at the first 'base' for Gullfest 2014, the electricity and water-less Ellentjernkoia, where the toilets were outside and fires were perpetual. The first words we heard were from Jacqui who simply stated "It's birds on tap." That pretty much covered this place. I nonchalantly raised my bins to a nearby feeder and promptly had a visual assault of Pine Grosbeak, Siberian Tits and Coues's Arctic Redpolls alongside more familiar (but undoubtedly hardy) Great and Willow Tits. No words were exchanged between Zac and I, just witless grinning. 
What a feeding flock!
The cosy cabin was a very good way of getting acquainted to the other Gullfest 2014 contributors, who, for the moment, consisted of Graham and Jacqui, Tormod Amundsen and Elin (of Biotope), Norwegian birdguide and (often unintentional) comic Anders Mæland, artistic gull-god Hans Larsson from Sweden and the charismatic and characterful Richard Crossley (of Crossley ID guides), an Englishman living in the USA. Meals were hot and filling, cooked by Marit Sundt, owner of the cabin, who walked about the sub-10°C in just salopettes, thermal tshirt and a smile. 
Reindeer stew and incredible company
From introductions over food, the conversation remoulded into typical birder topics and I managed to capture snippets from subjects as diverse as modern field guides, albatrosses, thermal imaging cameras, the use of Twitter and cod. The Arctic nights fall quickly and the light fades to deep blue by 5pm, but this brought perhaps the most excitement: Aurora time! Hours of electrical-phenomenon-appreciative fun were had on a frozen lake by the cabin, as we watched the green troughs and spikes in a star-spilled sky, before breaking out the headtorches for some light-painting. 
Scandinavian sky-grafitti

©Zac Hinchliffe
The temperature had descended to -25°C, the coldest I had experienced and it showed - inhalation through the nose became painful as ice crystals formed. Our custom Gullfest hats were very welcome! After a good few nocturnal hours in the taiga, and with the aurora imprinted on our eyelids, we turned in for our first Norwegian night. 
Ellentjernkoia - magic!

The clear ringing song of Pine Grosbeak filters through the wood panels and I'm wearing 3 layers in my sleeping bag; no, yesterday was not a dream. Biting cold pre-breakfast birding gives a good chance to fully appreciate the Arctic taiga specialties. The 15-or-so Pine Grosbeaks hop about the feeders like inflated sparrows; part Bullfinch, part Crossbill, full raspberry, being the messiest eaters of any bird I've seen, dribbling sunflower husks everywhere. One female bird had no tail, looking even more like a small avian balloon than the rest of them. 

Female Pine Grosbeak ©Zac Hinchliffe
Male Pine Grosbeak ©Zac Hinchliffe
Tits were well represented with the charming Siberians (or Lappmeis) and frosty Willows, which opened up a taxonomic paradox as to whether they were race borealis (Northern Europe and Arctic) or uralensis (SE European Russia and W Siberia), joined by 2 puffed-up Great Tits (Kjøttmeis). Just to further add to the party, a pair each of fat Northern Bullfinches and Arctic Redpoll plus a vocal GSWoodpecker and an icy two-toned Red Squirrel joined the massed ranks. 
Abominable Snowpoll/Arctic Roll  field sketches ©Jonnie Fisk
Siberian Tit ©Zac Hinchliffe
A jaunt across the frozen lake was halted when a stream of reindeer crossed in front of us, some sporting GPS collars, others spray-painted hides - all in the arsenal of a modern Sami herder. 
Zac and the reindeer train
A minibus pick-up later and we were on our way to Kirkenes to board the Coastal Express ferry which would take us to Vardø - the 'home' of Gullfest, via a few choice birding stops. Siberian Jays, three of them, were eventually tracked down yapping to and fro across a forest road and the first of many Richard Crossley "STOP THE BUS!" moments brought us a pale male Sparrowhawk perched in a tree - a very scarce bird in the Pasvik area. 
At Kirkenes docks we met Mark Thomas, Senior Investigator at the RSPB, a man who's had to deal with enough brutal bird persecution cases to stop a lesser birder sleeping for life. Introductions were sporadic on the Coastal Express as every hundred metres of black sea would throw up another storm of Brünnich's Guillemot or Long-tailed Duck squadron. Keeping tally of the journey's birds became death by lines of 5. 
NGB Coastal Express seflie - deckchair birding

Point to the Brünnich's Guillemot...and the other...and the other...
The sea-crossing took a turn for the phenomenal upon nearing Vardø, as we entered the realm of the 'Eider Vortex'. The name is not an exaggeration; the entire sea seemed to lift upwards as several thousand each of King and Common sprung from the water simultaneously, like a summer English river thick with mayflies. Even non-birders on deck were pointing. 
(From L to R: Tormod Amundsun, Hans Larsson, Zac Hinchliffe)
After that experience, I have to admit that our first Steller's Eider, a loly drake bobbing about Vardø harbour after docking, seemed a little tame in comparison, even when joined by 2 friends. 

Home for the night was the Vardø Hotel, right on the harbour front, complete with a stuffed Shag in the reception. After unpacking, a bit of bonding with the locals was had as I was taught the Yukidance routine, part of the Yukigassen competitive snowballing festival held in Vardø, by a group of girls. Naturally Zac filmed me dancing for future embarrassment/blackmail. 
Vardø Hotel - Zac and a skyscanning mate (he was a little inanimate)
A fantastic meal consisting of 2 different species of fish as well as Sea Urchin roe was wolfed down before skidding down the road to the Nordpol Kro (= North Pole Pub) for the first of the Gullfest Talks. The pub was stuffed to bursting with international memerobilia and locals, as well as the recreated skin of the World's last Great Auk (RIP the 5 Razorbills it took to make it). 
Tucking into Scandi scran: Sea Urchin
After a warmup by Tormod, the artist Hans Larsson took us through 'The Joy and Obstacles of Depicting Gulls'. This Swedish Viking ("even if I don't look like one") was merciless with self-criticism of his frankly perfect plates but also regaled us with his knack for finding fantastic visual cues to help identify gulls. A Glaucous Gull is a "flying pig"; a Heuglin's a "bull terrier". Caspian Gulls resemble "Blanka Vlašić" and what do juvenile Herring Gulls look like? George Constanza of course!
Hans is currently working on a new seabirds guide, illustrating the gull, terns and skua families and we were treated to viewings of a few plates - original Larssons! 
Hans Larsson and his Black-headed Gull plate (with Med and Slender-billed Gulls looming behind)
Richard Crossley was up next with a rollercoaster of a talk covering bases from growing up, the psychology of bird ID, all things Cape May and even serenading us with the first verse of Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons' "December 1963 (Oh, What a Night)". We were shown the meticulous process that goes into the Crossley ID guides and a taster of the birding scene in the USA, including an exciting sounding scheme called Pledge to Fledge, where a non-birder is taken birding by a friend in the hope that they will gain enthusiasm for the hobby. To finish, Richard recounted a poem that he felt reflected his favorite bird, the Sanderling, as stunning images of these clockwork-legged hydrophobics were shown behind him. 
The Nordpol Kro - with Polar Bear sign.
Our minds buzzing with euphoria for the future of birding, we made our way back to the hotel via the darkened star-shaped Vardøhus Fortress with Mark Thomas for a spot of light-painting photography with the Northern Lights, a lot fainter than in Pasvik but still (in the words of Tormod) "super amazing"!
Tormod rounding up the evening
-Jonnie Fisk and Zac Hinchliffe
Jonnie is an 18 year-old Yorkshire-based birder, invertebrate enthusiast and frustrated artist. When not being oblivious to every local rarity, he enjoys autumn vis-mig and being distracted by bugs.

When Zac's not counting birds on patch, he's usually ringing birds on his regular Bangor site or is depressed that he does't have the money or time to twitch the latest big thing. Zac is 22 and currently studying a Research Masters at Bangor University and investigating Welsh Twite; adding a touch of science to his birding.
(links to Zac's take on Gullfest 2014 can be found here, here, here, here aaand here)

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