Thursday, 23 March 2017

BTO (and others) Arctic Norway trip

Following a very successful BTO birders trip to Estonia in 2015, this year myself, Sarah Harris, Nick Moran, John Marchant (now ex-BTO having retired last year), artist Alan Harris and Norfolk Birding owner Chris Mills decided to embark on a trip to the Varanger Peninsula in Arctic Norway to look for seaducks, Siberian Jays, Siberian Tits, Gyr, owls and woodpeckers.

The intrepid team, from left to right: John Marchant, Sarah Harris, Chris Mills, Nick Moran, me and Alan Harris 
(photo by Nick Moran)

16th March

After a night in a Premier Inn near Heathrow, we caught the flight to Oslo where we spent 4 hours between our connecting flight staring out at the runway trying to start a Norway list but only managed a few Jackdaws, Hooded Crows, Magpie and Buzzard.  From here we boarded our next flight to Kirkenes, where we arrived but unfortunately due to faulty hydraulics, they weren't able to get our luggage off the plane - not a great start.  After an hour of organising to get our bags delivered next day we picked up our hire cars and drove a couple of hours south to Øvre Pasvik Camping, arriving at around midnight.

17th March

Despite the late night and due to it getting light at about 4.30am, we were out very early in the surrounding woods.  Almost immediately on looking out of the cabin window and some of the group who were out first, a group of Pine Grosbeaks were soon on the list along with some Arctic and Mealy Redpolls, Bullfinches and Greenfinches.  A walk along the road towards a large frozen lake and husky centre soon revealed our first Siberian Tit, though very mobile but once we arrived at the husky centre, found a feeding site where a dozen Pine Grosbeaks, 2+ Siberian Tits and several Arctic Redpoll were all coming to feed only a few yards away from us allowing excellent photographic opportunities.

Pine Grosbeak

 Siberian Tit

Arctic Redpoll

male Bullfinch

After a thoroughly enjoyable hour photographing we headed north towards Svanvik, seeing a very brief Willow Grouse flying across, a couple more Pine Grosbeaks by the road, but very little else.  As we drove around a loop road, a quick stop by a house produced 2 Siberian Jays feeding on a bird feeder in the garden.

Siberian Jay

Thankfully, and rather miraculously, when we got back to the cabins, our lost luggage had been found and delivered, and we were able to dig out some proper cold weather clothing.

18th March

Another early start and another excellent hour or so spent at the husky centre feeding site, which again held at least 16 Pine Grosbeaks, 3 Siberian Tits, several Willow Tits and Arctic Redpolls as the snow began to fall more heavily.

male Pine Grosbeaks 

 Siberian Tit

Willow Tit

Other good birds seen by the group during the morning included a Hawk Owl that Nick was lucky enough to see briefly before it was chased off by two Siberian Jays, a probable Three-toed Woodpecker John heard then saw in flight only, Black Grouse for Nick and John, and a Lesser Spotted Woodpecker seen by Alan, but I wasn't quite so lucky.

The rest of the day was spent driving in horrendous blizzard conditions up to Ekkerøy, on the Varanger Peninsula, unsurprisingly with very few, if any, birds seen except the odd Raven and Hooded Crow.  A few Reindeer were seen by the road, but the conditions didn't allow for much in the way of photos, this one I photographed while we stopped by the road to remove ice from the windscreen wipers.

Reindeer in a blizzard

 A quick stop at Nesseby Harbour produced little but a large flock of Herring and Great Black-backed Gulls following a trawler and a flock of c20 Snow Buntings.

19th March

In complete contrast in weather to yesterday, we awoke to gorgeous sunshine and soon found our first drake Steller's Eider, right behind the accommodation in Ekkerøy.  Our first stop was the nearby harbour where John found the first King Eiders of the trip, but I got distracted by a group of Purple Sandpipers performing brilliantly in the morning sunshine, as did several Kittiwakes from the massive colony.

Purple Sandpiper


From here we headed east towards Vardø, stopping to scan the bays where another drake Steller's Eider was seen.  A chance stop near Krampenes where a couple foxes drew our attention soon got much better when a male Gyr appeared overhead and then the female was seen perched on a rock before also flying off over the bay.

male Gyr Falcon

Arriving in Vardø Harbour, an Iceland Gull flew over the car and a small group of Steller's Eider were present very close in giving amazing photographic views and further round a small group of Long-tailed Ducks and Black Guillemots too virtually posed for the camera, but the King Eiders present were all too distant for photos.  At least 5 Glaucous Gulls were also in the harbour, one flying quite low overhead.

 Steller's Eiders

drake Long-tailed Duck

 Black Guillemot

Glaucous Gull

On the other side of Vardø, a viewpoint looks across at the island of Hornøya, which we had hoped to get a boat across to but we didn't have time.  Hundreds of auks were visible from the Biotope hide at the viewpoint, mostly Puffins but also many Guillemots, and also many King Eider, a distant White-tailed Eagle, a Gannet and a distant acrobatic pod of White-beaked Dolphins.

Scanning across to Hornøya Island from the Biotope Hide
(photo by Sarah Harris).

On the way back to Ekkerøy, a scan of various rocky outcrops eventually produced 2 more Gyrs and a couple of White-tailed Eagles, but both were very distant and spent the majority of their time perched.

In the evening, the Northern Lights were visible, by eye looking very uninspiring, being a dull green cast to the sky, but the camera on a long exposure pulled out many more colours than our eyes could see.

The Northern Lights

20 March

A more thorough scan of the bay behind the accommodation in Ekkerøy produced 250+ Steller's Eider close in along with a few Velvet and Common Scoter, Red-breasted Merganser and the rest of the group who had 'scopes had a Red-necked Grebe here too, but despite a good search, no White-billed Divers that had been reported in the area recently.

Steller's Eiders

Just west of Ekkerøy lies Vadsø Harbour, but although there were a few groups of Common, Steller's and King Eider, Long-tailed Duck and a flyover White-tailed Eagle present from the Biotope hide, nothing was that close in to be worth photographing.

A little further west we went for a walk along a trail at Vestre Jacobselv, which was generally extremely quiet, though several White-tailed Eagles were seen, including one low overhead.

adult White-tailed Eagle

Another quick stop for late lunch in Nesseby Harbour produced a single Iceland Gull among the gull masses following a trawler in, but the highlight was an adult White-tailed Eagle that drifted over and then swooped in, almost striking at a Grey Seal that had its head poking out of the water before flying across in front of the breakwater being furiously mobbed by gulls.

White-tailed Eagle with Herring Gull escort

21 March

Our final morning was spent driving to the airport. As we drove south of Bugøyfjord, 2 Willow Grouse (or possibly Ptarmigan, given how similar they are in winter) flew across the road, one landing, by the treeline and almost vanishing in its white plumage among the snow, with only its black beak and eye visible.  A few more Reindeer were seen, but none in places to photograph them.

Willow Grouse, or possibly Ptarmigan
(photo by Chris Mills)

Although the final species list was just over 50 birds and 5 mammals, it is a quite stunning part of the world and a place I will have to revisit, both in summer and again in winter.  Thanks go to Sarah for her organising and researching for this trip.

Monday, 2 January 2017

Out with the old, in with the new

I'm sure a lot of people were glad to see the back of 2016, and with the new year's weather forecast in Norfolk less than appealing, I spent the new year with Toni in Yorkshire.  Although New Year's Day is traditionally the big day, the sunny weather on New Year's Eve was too nice not to be spent out and about with the camera and what better subject than Waxwings.  A flock of about 30 had been around Hessle for several days and typically in supermarket car parks where they showed well to birders, photographers and bemused shoppers alike.  Today was no different with the flock having now increased to 42 and showed very well as did a few Blackbirds, also feasting on the berries.

On the way back to Laxton, we stopped off at Saltmarshe Delph where there was an amazing Starling murmuration of about 20,000 birds right overhead before dropping into the reedbed.

New Year's Day dawned dull and wet and enthusiasm was so low that we even stopped for a McDonald's breakfast rather than rushing off to rack up as big a list as possible.  Thankfully by the time we got up to Skinningrove on the Cleveland coast, the weather had improved but was incredibly blustery.  The Eastern Black Redstart that had been there for several months must have been wondering why it had stayed as it huddled in among the rocks when we arrived, but eventually became more active and very confiding, at one point landing a few inches from my foot as I sat on a rock.

We finished the day in Scarborough with a short fruitless look for a Glaucous Gull at Scalby Mills but then more success with the Black-necked Grebe and Great Northern Diver in the harbour along with a few Red-throated Divers and a Guillemot.

The weather on the 2nd was much nicer and a pleasant hour was spent at Saltmarshe Delph were the regular pair of Willow Tits were again around the now empty feeders, but frustratingly tricky to photograph, only the bird with the white flecks in its cap showed well enough in the sunny patches of the woods.

Friday, 21 October 2016

Siberian rhapsody

While I was enjoying my time in Canada, looking at Twitter and Facebook, news of a Siberian Accentor on Shetland seemed to be getting a lot of folk back home in a bit of spin, being the long awaited and anticipated first record for the UK.  While exciting for the diehard twitchers, it was not a bird I would think of flying up to Shetland for; a Hawk Owl on the other hand.....

A few days later as I was back home, snoozing on the sofa as I recovered from the jetlag, I got a message from Sarah (who annoyingly for her was on a train down to Cornwall at the time) telling me that another Siberian Accentor had been found at Easington near Spurn Point in Yorkshire - much more twitchable for the masses.  Next day, estimates between 1,000-2,000 birders descended on Easington with queues round the block with the bird still present and showing to all comers but I decided rather riskily to wait until the weekend to go.

Saturday morning dawned and thankfully with the cat thrown out all night I got a good night's sleep to get over the remaining jetlag and with news that the accentor was still present, I set off, arriving shortly after 1.30pm.  Annoyingly, about 10 minutes before I got there, the bird had flown from the garden it had been frequenting and into the adjacent gas compound where it was much harder to see.  Thankfully with only 100 or so twitchers there and ample viewing space, the bird showed well on occasions but viewing and photography in particular were difficult being through wire fence.

The conditions that had brought the accentor (and even more amazingly, at least 4 others to date) to the country had also brought a good selection of scarce migrants, with Spurn seemingly getting the majority.  A a couple of hours spent walking around the triangle at nearby Kilnsea was excellent, with Robins and thrushes everywhere and Pallas's and Yellow-browed Warblers showing briefly between the churchyard and pub car park and better still, a very showy Dusky Warbler that gave amazing close views along the canal.

With half an hour of decent light left, I decided to go back to have another look at the accentor which had now moved back to its favoured garden and with only half a dozen other birders there.  Here the accentor showed much better, at first flitting around behind a large yellow skip before eventually feeding with a few Dunnocks 5m away, though the light was fading fast but with the ISO cranked up, photos were still possible, an incredible way to spend the end of the day.  

Friday, 14 October 2016

What a howler!

The aim of this trip to Canada was to photograph Grizzly Bears, and if we were lucky, Wolves, though we knew the latter would require a huge slice of luck to see, let alone photograph. Having spent a few days in the Bella Coola valley photographing Grizzly and Black Bears, we headed across to the Rockies. Here we started in the south at Banff National Park for three days, visiting likely spots where the three resident packs were known to favour, with no success. Moving north to Jasper National Park for another three days, we again searched for potential sites where wolves may be found but with time running out and with no useful information locally or from the web, our hopes of finding wolves were fading fast and we pretty much resigned ourselves to failure.

On our last evening, we revisited a spot where we had seen Coyote, Elk and Bighorn Sheep a couple of days earlier to try for photographs of these species in the freshly fallen snow.  As we arrived in the area, we noticed the few sheep that were present were halfway up a hillside and not looking particularly photogenic and so pressed on to look for the Elk and Coyotes. Not more than a few seconds down the road, Toni suddenly shouted "Coyote!" as we approached the spot where we had seen a couple of coyotes previously. Looking where she was pointing further down the road, I saw four dark figures running up a hillside away from the road and quickly correcting her said, "They're wolves!!" and quickly slammed the brakes on. Toni managed to compose herself to grab the camera and take some record shots through the windscreen as the four black wolves disappeared into the trees, and lost to view.

We drove down the road to where they had run up the field, their footprints fresh in the deep snow and parked for a few moments in the hope they may reappear, but after a few minutes it was clear they had carried on into the trees. We drove back up the road to see if we could get a better angle on potential areas where they could reemerge out of the back of the wood but nothing presented itself so spun the car round and headed back down the road. We had hardly passed the spot where we had just been parked when I noticed a path of footprints in the snow across a hillside on the opposite side of the road and said "something obviously uses that path", and almost immediately saw a black wolf running along the hillside through some sparse trees alongside the car and along that very same path. Slamming the brakes on again, we both grabbed our cameras and rattled a load of shots off then raced to get ahead of it, hoping it would reappear on the clear area below the tree line and right on cue it appeared not 40m from the car, running through the snow, stopping briefly to give a locator howl to try to find the rest of its pack, before carrying on along the hillside and disappearing into the tree line.

While we were both looking at the images on the back of the camera in a state of complete disbelief at what we had just seen, another mostly black with some obvious silver wolf appeared in the exactly the same place as the black one had and followed the same path across the hill, again we quickly grabbed a series of photographs of it before it disappeared into the trees.

We stayed in the same spot, which had a good view of a nearby hill where a ram Bighorn Sheep and a group of Elk were looking nervous, not far from where the original four wolves had gone. It was soon obvious why they looked nervous as two black wolves trotted distantly along the hillside, though seemed more intent on finding their comrades than hunting. As we were watching these, me having decided the open sunroof, despite the falling snow, was the best vantage point, I noticed movement out of the corner of my eye and looked round as a grey wolf emerged from the trees where the previous two had and followed the same path, clearly scenting and stopping to howl to relocate the others before again heading into the trees.

With the light beginning to fail, the sound of howling echoed around the hills as the two black wolves were joined by a third that crossed the road behind us, scaring the life out of a buck White-tailed Deer that exploded out of a small copse, though thankfully for it, but maybe not us photographers, the wolves didn't pursue it.

From the locations and timings of the sightings, we estimated there were 6 wolves in total, 5 black (which apparently predominate in that part of Alberta) and the single grey. In total, we were probably in that spot for two hours of the most exciting and exhilarating wildlife photography we have ever experienced of one of the most charismatic species imaginable, and one that will last long in the memory.

Monday, 3 October 2016

Owls about that!

Although the reason for coming to Bella Coola was to photograph Bears, the birdlife, although sparse, can be equally spectacular.  This morning we left our accommodation and headed towards the bear viewing platform, pausing briefly to pay our respects to the Moose and the mum and cubs Grizzlies that were by the road.  As we neared the turnoff to the platform, I saw something drop into the grass by the road.  Thankfully with no other traffic around us, I slowed right down until up from the grass flew an owl, and thankfully perched in a tree right by the road.  Frantically trying to open the sunroof to poke my lens out of, pulling my groin in the process, there completely unbothered by us was a stunning Barred Owl.

Having spent an fruitless hour on the platform with nothing but a singing American Dipper and a family of Downy Woodpeckers to pass the time, we started the long drive back to Williams Lake.  Just after the crest of 'The Hill', I slammed my brakes on, when sat on top of a dead tree by the road was a Hawk Owl.  It flew across the road and perched on another tree though not particularly close to the road where we could watch it for several minutes.