Thursday, August 18, 2016

Beyond 66.5 Degrees North - Days 6 and 7: The End of Europe

I woke on Day 6 to what sounded like rushing water outside the hotel room. It appeared unfortunately that the weather forecast was correct for once, and the predicted blast of the wind from the north had arrived. Rolling up the black out blind my suspicions were confirmed by the low scrub on the island being pummelled by a brutal, icy blast. We were going to be struggling with any photography in this weather. The wind was not like a windy day in the UK when you get gusts this was just blowing at a constant and unrelenting 40-50 mph.

Having decided any bird life would be well hunkered down and sheltering the only thing which was a possibility was to try for some Mountain Hare on Vadsoya Island. The previous day I had found some old WWII trenches that would allow a potential route to get in amongst one of the hares preferred areas unseen. It was worth a try and sort of worked but even the hares were unsurprisingly not very active in this crazy arctic wind.

It was a hopeless situation with the weather for photography and the the above images are the only ones I took on Day 6. The weather is always a risk factor when travelling so far north. We headed back to the hotel for breakfast whilst the wind seemed to be increasing in strength to a constant roar from the north. We looked at maps and decided we would go on a reconnaissance trip up the valley above Vestre Jacobslev in the half hope that it may offer be more sheltered from the wind but it was not the case. The twisted black birch woodland up the valley was being shaken to its roots and bird life was keeping a low profile with only the occasional Brambling heard and seen deep within the undergrowth. We headed back to the hotel knowing it was fruitless to try any photography in the deteriorating conditions and had a relaxed afternoon going through some photos and Adam increasing his rapidly growing photography knowledge. After some early food in Vadso which meant we had a greater choice than just  pizza on the menu, we decided to go fishing.

Adam had brought in his case a small travel fishing rod and so in the evening, despite the continuing strong wind, we had a session with the fishing rod. Firstly fishing off some rocks into the fjord but with no success before having a brief spell on a small windswept lake on the tundra. Adam was  casting around a small spinner to no avail and passed me the rod and first cast I caught a beautiful looking brown trout of around 3/4lb. That was the first and last fish we saw on the bank . Adam had two large Arctic Char in the crystal clear water follow the spinner right into the bank but failed to take it. We returned to the hotel. Not a very productive day but it was good to have a little relaxation time to recharge the batteries.

The weather forecast for the following day looked better in terms of wind but it was going to be a cloudy day. Friday was looking a lot more promising.

After a fairly slow start on Day 7, we hit the road and headed north towards Vardo as there looked to be interesting sites to check in that area. At least the wind had eased down to something more manageable but a low blanket of grey cloud stubbornly covered the sky throughout the day..

Our first stop was for a roadside Redshank to get warmed up and back into the swing of photography.

We headed northwards and out to Vardo Island through the 3km long tunnel that resembles an oversized sewer pipe. I had arranged to call into the Biotope Office to have a brew and chat with Alonza who works there. Biotope are all keen birders and it is an architect business that designs bird watching hides. They also produced a excellent guide book for anyone wanting to go on bird watching or photography trip on the Varanger Peninsula.  Some maps were pulled up on the computer and discussed some sites worth visiting. Alonza also showed us some of the wonderful photographs he has taken during the 6 months of the year when there is some light! The photographs included a family of foxes in the abandoned village of Hamningberg. Having seen a photograph taken by one of the hotel guests of an amazingly beautiful red fox there a couple days previously, and armed with some extra information from Alonza, we decided it was worth the hour trip to the most north-easterly point of Europe to try and see if we could find them.

Just before heading off to Hamningberg, we stopped in the dune area along the coast close to the mainland side of the Vardo tunnel where a locally rare bird in the shape of a Citrine Wagtail had been reported. We found the bird although didn't stay very long to get photographs as the thoughts of fox moved us on. Whilst trying to get a photography of the yellow-headed wagtai,l a Wood Sandpiper, the first I had seen on the trip, emerged at the edge of a small pool.

We stopped again briefly a little further along the road where we had spotted several Ruff but they were too distant to get any reasonable photographs, especially given that we had been so spoilt with Ruff previously on the lek site.

The road to Hamningberg, apart from being shut due to snow for a good proportion of the year, is a little like stepping off the planet as the landscape changes to one of odd barren rock formations and huge drifts of glacial moraine.

We made our way along the narrow road the snakes along the coast and were about half way to Hamningberg when we spotted a Red Fox at the site of the road. This was one of the best looking foxes I have seen with its long fur. Given this was June, I can only imagine what one must look like in full winter coat. We were with the fox long enough to capture a few images before it disappeared over a shingle and rock ridge.

Always concerning when they look right at you and start licking their lips

Unfortunately these beautiful long-furred red foxes may not be a sight of this area in the future as there is an active culling programme being currently undertaken in a bid to try and enhance the smaller Arctic Fox numbers.

We carried on to Hamingberg. Occasionally the barren rock gives way to green as you drop into a valley with a river channel. These areas act as an oasis for wildlife with their grasslands and short willow scrub. In one of these areas we came across some Reindeer and stopped briefly to take a few photographs before continuing our journey.

Eventually we reached Hamningberg, at the end of Europe, which is quite an eerie place as it is a long abandoned fishing village which only gets the occasional person staying there in the summer (although probably not in this property).

Despite searching around extensively for the village foxes we saw no sign or evidence of them. In the end we moved up to the far end of the village where there is a parking area for campervans in the hope that the foxes may have been lurking around humans and the rubbish bins but it was not to be. However, we did locate a pair of Arctic Skua, both dark and pale phase, and spend some time getting our best photographs of the trip of these birds.

Trying to get flight photographs of these birds against a grey sky was pointless.

It was time to wind our way back towards Vardo and we picked up a female Golden Plover at the side of the road. On some photographs of this bird it can be seen sporting a leg ring which indicated in had been ringed in Holland.

We stopped for a while in one of the willow scrub 'oasis' set in a shallow valley which seemed to have plenty of birds moving through including Redpoll, Redwing, Brambling and Bluethroat. One of the Bluethroat seemed particularly obliging and so I spent a while trying to get some images of it which proved challenging in the vegetation and poor light conditions.

Brambling in full wheezing song

Back in the dune area near Vardo, we tried to find a Shorelark, which we managed but our encounter with it was too fleeting to achieve any decent photographs. This was a shame as it was a superb looking bird in full breeding plumage. As consolidation, a return visit to the Citrine Wagtail was made which remained elusive and so settled on a lovely looking Snipe at point blank range. They are such attractive birds and it is always wonderful to look at their intricate patterning on the feathers when they are so close.

Our last stop for the day before heading back to Vadso was a fairly large lake just to the south of Vardo. I headed off with the camera while Adam went off round the lake with his fishing rod in the hope of catching an Arctic Char. He managed a fine looking brown trout for his efforts. The light was fairly poor for photography and I spent the next hour or so photographing a Temmincks Stint on the lake shore, together with a Ringed Plover and spent the rest of the time trying to photograph some wary Golden Plover on foot which is never an easy task.

Overall the day had not been too bad despite the conditions being far from ideal. The forecast the following day was looking favourable and it was our intention to head up to the high tundra area. This would include finding the last main bird on the photography 'hit list', and a notorious bogey species of mine, the Dotterel.

Monday, July 25, 2016

Beyond 66.5 Degrees North - Day 5: Mission Accomplised

Before we went to sleep, I asked Adam what time he wanted to get up the following morning for our return to the Ruff lek,  'I will leave that decision to you' came the reply.  Something that he might not ask me to do again as I set the alarm to 2:30 am. On waking after a brief sleep, I looked outside to be surprised by seeing the warm soft glow of the low night time sun and light winds which was at odds with the forecast. Conditions looked ideal for our morning session.

We hit the road eastward and only paused briefly en route to the lek, to photograph a Willow Grouse next to the dirt track across the tundra. This was the first time I had managed to get one of these birds in front of the camera and also a first of photographing wildlife at 3 am! These birds are identical to the UK's Red Grouse except of course for the white feathers on the body.  A good start to the day.

Eventually our slow bumpy journey came to an end and we reached the end of the rough dirt track and despite our earlier start there were still three Ruff on the lek. We were slightly better prepared for this visit as we had use of a pop up dome hide but still slightly under-equipped for a comfortable hide session as we only had one chair and one monopod between us. We gathered our kit together, popped up the hide, got inside and with it balanced on our heads and slowly shuffled towards the lek. We kept an eye on the birds throughout move towards them and occasionally paused to allow them to get accustomed to the advancing 'shrub'. To someone viewing it would no doubt have been a comical sight. Our slightly raised position from the pop-up hide gave us a good view across the slightly undulating terrain of the lek.

I suppose this would be a good time to try describe a ruff lek in a bit more detail to give you a feeling of what was in front of us. The lek is a relatively small area where the male birds gather and display and fight to try and show their dominance and increase the number of females they breed with. The male ruff are all individual in the colour combination of their look but can be broadly divided into three types. Those with black or ginger coloured neck and head feathers tend to be territorial on the lek and hold and defend a small area of around 1 square metre.

Those with white coloured neck and head plumage are known as satellite males and are non-territorial on the lek.

Also about 10 years ago it was discovered there is a third type of male that resembles a female. The white satellite birds are tolerated by the darker territorial birds as the great number of birds present on the lek the great number of females that will generally visit. Not all mating occurs on the lek and only a small proportion of the males attend the lek site, the birds also employ other strategies including direct pursuit of females or wait for them at good feeding sites.

With ruff it is all about visuals with the males and they go through a wide range of elaborate posturing to each other which includes jumping, standing upright, wing fluttering, lunging and crouching all of which is generally performed in an eerie silence.

Sometimes a male will crouch and another will go up to it and they will be literally head to head.

For a lot of the time the lek will be relatively quiet with males stood around, occasionally there will be some fluttering and posturing as one of the satellite males moves around. It is when a female arrives at the lek that everything bursts into life and frenzied activity of display. An incoming female will often have two or three males in pursuit. Fights between males are infrequent, short in duration, ferocious and messy affairs. The fights are also difficult to photograph as they can erupt anywhere across the frenzied activity going on across the whole lek.  They were made more difficult to capture as we had camera in silent mode to reduce potential for disturbance with the corresponding reduced frame rate.

During the session Adam said he had seen a photograph in a book of a Ruff which had a purple iridescence around its dark collar and that was one he would love to see. He named this bird 'The Purple Prince'. There was no sign of such a bird on the lek and after humming 'Purple Rain' a couple of times I suggested that 'The Purple Prince' was prehaps a myth. A few more photographs below to finish off from the many we took that morning. I make no apologies for the number of photos in this post of these fascinating, beautiful and flamboyant birds.

A ruff lek is truly one of nature's spectacles and a honour to witness at close quarters. Our primary goal of the trip was well and truly mission accomplished. The memories of that morning session with the ruff will stay with me forever.

With the morning progressing and activity subsiding we decided bring the session to an end and backed away under the hide. Back at the car it was good to get out of the confines of the hide. While battling with packing the springy hide away into its bag, I heard a Bluethroat singing in the willow scrub near the car. This was another species high on my list to photograph whilst in Norway. So I spent the next 30 minutes trying to get some images of what proved to be a very mobile bird but managed to get a few images in the end.

The early start and intensity of the morning session were starting to take their toll and fatigue was setting in rapidly, so we decided we would make our way back to the hotel for some rest and try and catch up on some missing sleep. It was probably nearly lunchtime, after the usual image download and back-up process before my head hit the pillow. We re-emerged late afternoon and decided we would get some food in Vadso before heading out for a local evening session on the nature reserve next to the hotel. As we were  at the restaurant before 6 pm it meant we had a wide choice of food available beyond the post-6pm pizza only menu. We both settled for a huge steaming bowl of pasta.

After dinner, we took a drive up around the hills and lakes to the north of Vadso to see if there was much photography potential up there but it was relatively quiet. So we headed back to Vadsoya Island and the nature reserve.  Once on the reserve, we headed our  separate ways. Adam decided to make the use of the remaining pop up hide hire and try and  photograph some Hooded Crows, albeit unsuccessfully as it turned out, and I spent my time stalking the Mountain Hares on foot which went reasonably well. The Mountain Hares proved to be typically tricky to approach and I did have one lucky moment when one came right by me and I managed to get some full frame images.

During that evening session the weather was already starting to deteriorate with the a freshening wind developing from the north. The forecast for the next day was looking very grim with 40 mph winds and heavy rain forecast and photography prospects looking very poor. Would the generally unreliable weather forecast be right? All would be revealed when we rolled up the black out blinds in the morning.


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