Monday, July 30, 2012

Starting at road's end

Many thanks for all the messages and comments received so far in response to the blog; when i get some more 'office' time i will respond accordingly. 

Having spent a few days in Vardø, I set out for Hamningberg, which lies a further 40 km to the west. Hamningberg is referred to as ‘Road’s end’, as it is literally where the road in this part of Varanger ends. Hamningberg used to be a busy fishing village in its day but was eventually forced to close down nearly four decades ago for various reasons. It is now mainly a vacation and tourist destination, and a very nice one at that too. 

A view over Hamningberg, showing nearly half the village.

I set out for Hamningberg at 22h00 on 24 July as the weather was great and traffic would be quiet on the narrow winding road. I was blown away by the magnificence of this rugged coastline under the midnight sun, absolutely fantastic! I cycled a total of 42 km in under four hours (actual cycle time), and arrived in Hamningberg at around 05h00 the next morning. So I spent quite a bit of time birding and photographing the magnificent scenery.

The midnight road to Hamningberg

I saw my first mainland Snow Buntings along the way, as well as Red-throated Divers in the small lakes beside the road, and large rafts of Red-breasted Mergansers and Goosanders in the small bays.  A number of White-tailed Eagles added to the excitement of cycling such a great route.

On arrival at Hamningberg, I squeezed in a couple hours of rest, before resuming the birding. Heading out to the small headland at Hamningberg quickly produced good numbers of Black Guillemots, Kittiwakes, gulls, Common Eiders and Gannets passing by, as well as the odd Arctic Skua. It was great to see gannets again; which reminded me of the Cape Gannets I was viewing on the West Coast of South African not that long ago. After scanning the ocean a little longer, i saw what I was hoping to get here; a group of five Yellow-billed Divers! Two adults and three immatures. Unfortunately they were too far to photograph or get cracking views of, but the next day I did get scope views thanks to a kind birder from Germany. I now know why European birders use scopes almost all the time when birding!

A juvenile Red-necked Phalarope was found wading in the small pond not far from my tent, and then later also a flock of five Black-tailed Godwits along the rocky shore in front of the village. Another one for the mainland list. Common Redshanks, Golden Plover, and Ruff were all seen around the camping site.

Black-tailed Godwit at Hamningberg.

What was strange is that I did not see a single House Sparrow in the village, but rather Tree Sparrows, which are far out of their range here.

On a short afternoon cycle on the road leading to Hamningberg, i added Black-throated Diver to my lifer list, and again got good views of Arctic Redpolls at Sandfjorden, located 5 km before Hamningberg. 

On the second day, however, it was time to leave and start the ‘official’ journey, by making my way from the 'end of the road' to Vadsø and further south. The return trip along the Hamningberg road to Vardø was again fantastic, with the weather being very kind most of the way. 

View of the sea and lagoon mouth at Sandfjorden, 5 km from Hamningberg.

After stopping at Vardø to get supplies, I headed south on the road to Vadsø getting as far as Kiberg, where I had seen the Steller’s Eider the week before. Next morning after breaking up camp, i headed down to the harbour and managed to relocate the bird, and got some photos. A single Purple Sandpiper was also hanging out in the harbour, adding another species to my mainland list. 

Female Steller's Eider at Kiberg harbour.

Cycling further south I recorded the following species, Long-tailed Duck, Red-breasted Merganser, Goosander, Whimbrel, a pair of Magpies, and then the highlight of the day, a pair of Long-tailed Skuas. The birds where busy feeding on berries and where quite approachable. I had my best views yet of this elegant species. 

Long-tailed Skua hunting berries.

Time moved on, while cloud cover moved in, quickly. Within the short time i spent with the skuas, the sun had vanished. Cycling on I got to see a Rough-legged Buzzard, another lifer. However, the cloud cover that had set in a little earlier produced a strong drizzle that set me off again on the road, subsiding a little later to allow me to admire a Short-eared Owl hunting over a marsh and its surrounds. This reminded me of the Marsh Owls I had seen not too long ago around Kimberley back in South Africa.

While watching the owl, I notice another birder setting up his scope beside the road. After some quick introductions (he was from south Norway) I joined him for some shorebird viewing along the beach. Much to his delight, we flushed a Snipe from some moist grassland on our way to the beach (a Finnmark tick for him!). At the beach, which had great potential for shorebirds, we picked up Common Ringed Plovers, Dunlin (mainly juveniles with pale bellies), Oystercatchers, Common Redshanks, gulls (Herring, Common and Great Black-backed) and a Black-throated Diver. With the drizzle returning in force, it was time to move on, so we parted ways. 

A good shoreline for shorebirds. Just mind the weather!

While cycling in the rain, I realised my hard shell jacket was not as water resistant as I had hoped, so i was soon looking for shelter! After an attempt to do some shorebird watching in the rain at the town Skallelv, i finally decided to pitch the tent and call it a day.  Next morning a visit to the beach produced some good birds, including a pair of Grey Plovers (with characteristic black ‘arm pits’ in flight), Ruddy Turnstones and a pair of Red Knots amongst the rocks. Bar-tailed Godwits, Oystercatchers, Common Ringed Plovers, Dunlins, and Whimbrels were also patrolling the shoreline. Cormorants, Shags, Common Eider, Red-breasted Merganser, and Goosander were in the deeper waters.

I headed for Ekkerøy in the hope that I could get there while the good weather lasted, but this was not to be. On arrival the rain had set in for good, so it was time to pitch the tent again and wait it out. A break in the clouds late in the evening gave me a chance to admire the Kittiwake colony one more time, and to scan the beaches and rocky shores for waders. A single male King Eider, in eclipse plumage, was a big surprise. The reduced ‘knob’ on the bill and the ‘sails’ on the back were quite obvious, despite the dark plumage. I had probably missed several King Eiders on my way to Hamningberg and back, due to not having a scope. Observing eiders bobbing in the water at a distance calls for more glass! But to carry a scope would be too much extra weight on the bike.

The next morning the weather held and I had another chance to visit the Kittiwake colony to get photographs and to watch the juveniles getting flying lessons. After that, I was off to Vadsø to start the next leg of the journey.

A young Kittiwake learning to fly at the Ekkerøy colony.
Kittiwake adult and young at the nest.

Friday, July 27, 2012

The other side of Vardø

What really struck me about Vardø was the number of buildings covered in graffiti, which i have not noticed in other small towns in Norway (not that i have seen many so far). So unfortunately for the bird fanatics, i did not get many bird photos, if any... Instead i will give a brief overview of some of the graffiti that adorns the buildings in this old town (Vardø is the oldest town in Norway, and also the most eastern in the country). I spent four days in town (two were rained out), so when not birding i cycled the streets trying to get photos of the local art work.

Back to the graffiti, i am sure the artist of this one had a whale of a time working on it...

Whale art in Vardø

Some of the graffiti in town was quite complex to interpret, while others were straight forward. Compare the two examples below...

Complex graffiti in Vardø

Straight forward, easily understood!

So who are the real birders in Vardø?

And more whale art

Before i get too caught up in the graffiti, let me at least mention some of the birds seen. The harbour was teeming with Herring, Common and Great Black-backed Gulls, as well as Kittiwakes which actually nest on some of the older buildings at the water's edge. Cormorants and Shags were continually passing by the ends of the island between their foraging, breeding and roosting grounds. 

From the eastern-most look-out spot one can see numerous cliff nesting birds moving between the entrance of the harbour and the breeding cliff on the island Hornøya (just a kilometer east of the island on which Vardø is established). These included Brünnich's and Common Guillemot, Puffin, Razorbill and Black Guillemot; all a bit too far to photograph. However, it was good to see these species for my Norwegian mainland species list. 

Part of Vardø town with Hornøya island in the back, on the right.

Closer view of Hornøya island with light-house, and facing breeding cliff.

Two species i was hoping to see at Vardø were Glaucous Gull and King Eider, which are occasionally seen here in summer. I may still have a chance at some other sites in northern Varanger Peninsula. Another i was after was Yellow-billed Diver, but this one has also eluded me thus far. As mild compensation i got to see Arctic skuas harassing kittiwakes to get them to regurgitate the food intended for their young. Some interesting acrobatic movements involved with this kind of behaviour.   

One of the specials for the area i did get to see was Arctic Redpoll. Though sometimes similar looking to the Redpoll, the Arctic Redpoll differs in having only a red forehead, only fine or no streaking on the flanks and a pure white rump (the size of a lump of sugar). The bird was together with some Redpolls and Greenfinches. Red-throated Pipits were common.

Arctic Redpoll, with only faint streaking on flanks and pure white rump.

And finally, my office chair...the best yet!

And my campsite of course...!

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

In the beginning...

I arrived in Vadsø on the Varanger Peninsula of northeastern Norway on 12 July, with the bike still firmly wrapped in its box. I had spent the previous three weeks in Svalbard counting seabird colonies on Hopen Island with my Norwegian colleagues (many thanks to Eirik Grønningsæter for the arrangements). Now i was on my own, and needed a place to stay while i waited for the touring wheels for my bike to arrive from the UK. I had a decent set of wheels made to stand the test of long-distance bike touring.

I happily camped on Vadsøya, the island in front of the town. This gave me ample time to explore the surrounds on foot for the few days that i waited for the wheels. On the island itself it was easy to see the following breeding species: Redpoll, Common Redshank, European Wheatear, Willow Warbler, and  Red-throated Pipit. The latter was certainly the highlight for me. 

Male Redpoll on Vadsøya

Red-throated pipit on Vadsøya
Along the shorelines there were Common Eiders, European Oystercatchers, Goosanders, Great Black-backed, Herring and Common gulls, while there were good numbers of Bar-tailed Godwits and Dunlins (a major rarity in South Africa by the way) patrolling the shores at low tide. Cormorants and Long-tailed Ducks kept to the deeper parts of the bay between the island and mainland. I also saw my first White-tailed Eagle, gliding effortlessly over the island. I was to be impressed even more with later sightings of this species. There is something majestic about a very large eagle perched on rocks with waves crashing close by...

East side of Vadsøya island showing Red-throated Pipit habitat

The small dam on the island held up to 40 Red-necked Phalaropes and a small group of Tufted Ducks. Although i have seen Red-necked Phalaropes in South Africa, it was good to see them at the other end of the world. Now i know what they are up to when they are not spending the South African summer feeding at the Velddrif salt work ponds on the West Coast.

Is it one or two? Red-necked Phalarope on Vadsøya
The small dam on Vadsøya, with a part of Vadsø town in the background

With the arrival of the bike wheels on 17 July (thanks to Stian and Svein at G-Sport!), it was time to leave Vadsø for a more northerly destination, Vardø. A cycle up the coast to the extreme north east of the peninsula was sure to deliver some good Arctic birds. After a weekend with generally fantastic weather at Vadsø, i departed for Vardø with a good headwind for company. The best way to describe the relentlessness of the wind would be to report that my average speed was consistently below 10 kilometres per hour, dropping to 5 km/h when faced with a gentle incline. Despite the wind and regular drizzle, i steadily made my way to the first stop along the way, Ekkerøy, some 15 km further north along the coast. Once a fishing town, it now serves as a popular holiday destination. For birders, the main attraction is the large cliff on the east side of this 'semi-island' (connected to the mainland by only a sand bar). 

The Kittiwake cliff on Ekkerøy

The cliff supports up to 20 000 Kittiwakes, although smaller numbers of guillemots and Razorbills also occur. Having seen many Kittiwakes in Svalbard, what i was really looking for was the resident pair of Gyr Falcons, which made a brief but impressive display of their skill at harassing kittiwakes. With another sighting of White-tailed Eagle, i was ready to continue north into the wind. I never made the 72 km from Vadsø to Vardø in one day, mostly due to the lengthy stop-over at Ekkerøy, so ended up camping beside the road after covering 50 km. Beaten but not defeated!
The wind continued until the next morning, and throughout the rest of the day. I must admit i was in not much of a mood for birding most of the day; must have lost it with the wind... However, i was generously rewarded with a single female Steller's Eider at the small harbour of Kiberg. With renewed excitement i headed out of town, only to be called over by a curious resident. He had been watching the Tour de France, so insisted i come in and knock off my shoes for a while. After some Norwegian salmon, boiled eggs and homemade bread (and a few hours later), i was off again. Great hospitality! The energy-sapping climb up to the top of Domen Mountain was the second last hurdle to Vardø, followed by the nearly 3 km tunnel that connects this island town to the mainland. This impressive tunnel, built in 1983, is 88 metres below sea level. Speeding down the one half was great, but the uphill was something else; but the absence of wind (for once!) made the climb a delight.

The Vardø subsea tunnel

More on Vardø next time, as i need to get back on the road, but i leave you with this...


Thanks for reading!!     

Monday, July 23, 2012

Welcome to Cycling the World for Birds

Hi Everyone 

Welcome to my travel blog site, Cycling the World for Birds (or CWB for short). This blog will provide updates on my travels by bicycle across Europe and Asia over the next 18 months or so, while birding all the way. The basic plan is to cycle from the north of Norway to Eastern Europe, then through Central Asia to Mongolia, and then down to India via China, ending in Cambodia in Southeast Asia. 

From a birding point of view, there is no particular reason for deciding on this route, nor have i set any birding targets. This is first and foremost a personal journey, so the route may even change with time; I have left the details of the route to destiny! 

I will provided updates as regularly as possible on where i have been, the birds i have seen and any interesting cycling or birding experiences. I hope that this blog will assist in generating a wider interest in birding by bike and create awareness for bird conservation initiatives in South African and internationally. 

I am grateful to family, friends and former colleagues for their support and encouragement.

An update on my initial cycling and birding experience in the Varanger Peninsula of north eastern Norway will following soon. So watch this blog! Any feed-back or comments are welcomed.