Friday, September 09, 2016

Beyond 66.5 Degrees North - Day 8: High Tundra Junction

As the forecast had predicted, we woke to some better weather conditions on day 8.  The wind had eased to a gentle whisper and the cloud above was broken. We had decided that the photography mission for the day was to head to the upland tundra areas with our prime target hopefully being Dotterel.  Given the previous wind conditions we had avoided the upland areas, on the basis that if it was bad at sea level it would be twice as bad at some altitude.

Before I describe the day, I thought I need to mention a little about Dotterel which have remained elusive to me. All bird photographers have a personal 'bogie species', a bird they would love to photograph but despite their efforts, seems to stubbornly refuse to appear in front of the camera. I have tried for Dotterel in the UK,  with the spring passage birds on their northward migration. However, each attempt has ended in failure with the birds departing just before I arrived. To be fair though I have only tried on a couple of occasions so my absence of success is mainly due to a lack of concerted effort on my part. For wildlife photography, as in many of life's pursuit, the more effort you put in the greater the rewards.

We left the hotel and headed west along the fjord befor taking the road northwards along the Tana River Valley, before heading upwards on to the high tundra. Our destination for the day was the road junction at Gedjne which offers a range of upland tundra bird habitat including a series of pools and lakes. Below is a couple of photographs to give you an idea of the landscape. There were still areas of deep accumulation of snow in places and the snow cliff along the small river valley in the photograph below was about 6 metres high.

On arrival at the road junction, we spotted a male Long-tailed Duck in the roadside pool with which to start the day's photography.

On the pool on the other side of the road was a pair of Red-Throated Diver but we would return to them later after we went looking for our main target bird of the day, the Dotterel. We headed directly to an area where we had been told we may find some of the 'elusive' birds and  came off the main road and headed up to a plateau area along a dirt track. As we came up to the summit, there in plain view by the side of the track was a male Dotterel.

After taking a few photographs from the car and scanning round we also found the more boldly coloured and marked female. We parked up and then spent around 40 minutes carefully photographing the birds on foot, aware that this is a sensitive time for the birds and not wishing to cause any disturbance. A selection of these images are below.

A great start to what would be our last full day in Norway. As we were up on the plateau passing bird watchers must have seen us and decided to travel up the track to see what we had found. Soon three cars were heading up the track towards us. When asked if we had seen any Dotterel, we replied that we had seen one flying off as we did not want the birds to be subject to the pressure from this sudden deluge of people.

We came off the plateau and parked up by a lake next to the main road and decided it was time for some food and we raided the diminishing supermarket supplies in the boot. It was pleasant sat by the lake eating cheese and crackers watching the antics of ruff in the reeds on the far bank. Even the sun was doing its best to try and break through the clouds overhead.

Returning to the road junction area it was obvious that these lakes were alive with birds. Suddenly the lack of birds on the coast through the week all started to make sense. The  unusually warm spell a couple of weeks early had caused the snow and lakes to melt up in the high tundra area and the birds had moved up in response to start their breeding earlier. We spotted some Ruff on the shore of a lake with a low ridge to tuck behind to photograph them from. I only took a couple of photographs as I had my eye on some other species and left Adam to them. I moved back up to the small pool where the Long-tailed Duck was and started photographing some Red-necked Phalarope and also had a Wood Sandpiper working along the lake margin in front of me. Occasional the sandpiper would burst into a short display flight only quickly to return to resume its feeding activities in front of me.

My next target was in the small pool on the other side of the road where there was a pair of Red-throated Diver. It was cloudy at first so I waited there for a while for the sun to break through. Always a pleasure to spend time with these birds.

I then crossed the road junction again and across onto the willow scrub along the margin of the bigger lake where I could hear Bluethroat singing and the trill display flight calls of Temmincks Stint. The Bluethroat were typically being awkward, frequently appearing briefly on the top of the vegetation but always slightly too distance. After a bit of perseverance I managed to get close in on the birds on a couple of occasions with them in a decent setting.

The Stints were hyperactive and whizzing around in fluttering display flights and occasionally landing on top of the low scrub.

Whilst trying to photograph the Bluethroat, I noticed a Ruff working it ways along the edge of the lake towards me. As it got closer I realised it had the colouration of the bird that Adam had been talking about for the past few days. The one he named 'The Purple Prince'. I must admit that I had suggested that such a bird didn't exist but there it was now in all its glory in front of the camera.

The  weather was starting to close in and it had been a long drive to get here so we decided to call it a day on the high tundra and head back to Vadso. After the daily dose of Pizza, we headed back to the hotel. Outside the weather and more importantly the light had become really good. The wind had dropped to nothing and golden light bathed the landscape. We picked up the cameras once again and headed out on to the nature reserve next to the hotel on Vadsoya Island. I was aware Adam had yet to photograph any Red-necked Phalarope and so we headed directly to the pond.

I left Adam with these hyperactive waders and decided to go for a wander to see if there were any other waders along the shoreline. Whether there were any I will never know as I was stopped in my tracks my Arctic Terns. It looks like the absent birds had finally returned and were prospecting an area to set up their nesting colony.

The light was now beautiful and with some gathering dark clouds in the distance made a perfect setting for photographing some of these elegant long-distance travels in flight. Up to this point in the trip opportunities for any flight photography had been virtually non-existent due to conditions. As the birds were inspecting the area for next locations they were frequently hovering over a spot which allowed for some more interesting poses with their wings and tails stretched wide.

One notable difference with the warmer stiller conditions was that it suddenly brought the mosquitoes out. To give you an impression here is Adam walking amongst them.

Circling back towards Adam, I came across one of the resident Mountain Hares and took the opportunity to get a few photographs in some warm soft back-lighting before bring the days events to an end. It had been a long but rewarding day.

Back in the hotel we started packing as we would be checking out in the morning to start the long journey home. By the time I had finished it was around midnight and it was still light and sunny outside. For those of you who haven't seen what the midnight sun is like I took a quick photograph outside the hotel at 12:15am.  As you can see it really does create beautiful light.

There will be one more post to come on this trip which will just tie up the journey home which included a brief stop-off back at Gosbeak Motel.

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.


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