Thursday, August 23, 2012

Pasvik…there and back again

Pasvik is a sliver of Norway in the far east of the country that is wedged between Russia and Finland. It is covered mostly by unspoilt taiga (coniferous) forest and interspersed with marshes and lakes, with the vast Pasvik River forming the border between Norway and Russia. Getting to Pasvik meant taking a serious detour from the north-south route through Norway i was planning, but it was considered a necessity as a number of bird species are easier to find here than elsewhere, such as Siberian Jay, Siberian Tit, Arctic Warbler, Little Bunting, Smew, Whooper Swan and others.

The forests and marshes of Pasvik.

I spent a total of eight days in Pasvik, from 4 to 11 August. From the town of Kirkenes in the north, it was a 100 km trip to the south of Pasvik, so getting through Pasvik and back again took some cycling. The route through Pasvik passes a number of villages such as Svanvik, Skogfoss and finally Nyrud in the far south. My first day of cycling south into Pasvik was fairly uneventful as I made my way to Svanvik, picking up the usuals such as Magpie, Willow Warbler, White Wagtail, Redpoll, Fieldfare, Redwing, Meadow Pipit and Hooded Crow. I had hoped to find Arctic Warbler at the traditional site at Strand, a site just before Svanvik, but no luck - I decided that it would be worth trying again on the return journey. Some nice water-associated species were seen along the way though, such as Sand Martin, Yellow Wagtail, Red-throated and Black-throated Diver, and Red-breasted Merganser. Sedge Warblers were occasionally found in moist bracken beside agricultural fields. I also noticed that Bramblings occurred in quite large flocks, number up to 50 birds perhaps. 

On the second day I was well within the range of Siberian Tits, and it was not long before i found a single bird in the vicinity of the old watch tower over-looking the industrial town of Nikel in Russia. The brown cap of this species is its most characteristic feature. Siberian Tits turned out to be a common species, with a couple of sightings had every day during my visit.

Siberian Tit with characteristic brown cap.

Later in the day I cycled a logging road but found the forest to be quiet, with most of the target species pretending to be scarce. A Dipper at a small stream was an exciting find, while I almost had decent views of a potential Tree Pipit. Dippers are simply incredible birds, being able to ‘swim’ underwater in fast-flowing streams using their wings in order to catch mostly aquatic invertebrates. Further along the road, in dense pine forest, I finally found my first Siberian Jays. The pair was moving quietly through the tree tops, and only revealed themselves when they glided across the path. Great birds! 

Siberian Jay. An inquisitive species.

By now I was happy with the day’s list of new lifers, only to find the bonus for the day, a juvenile Goshawk. A sizeable and impressive bird indeed, yet able to manoeuvre through the forest with ease. The bird showed well before disappearing into the forest beyond. With that the last rays of sun were also disappearing fast, so I decided to take a shortcut back to the tar road… Who said that a shortcut is the longest distance between two points? I was too far down the track to turn back, thinking the end could not be too far, so I continued on my set course. To cut a long story short, i spent a good three and half hours pushing and pulling the loaded bike through a spongy marsh for four kilometers! This certainly rates as my worst experience with a bike so far! 

The next few days brought some more lifers, including Waxwing, Crane, Whooper Swan, Pine Grosbeak, and a female Goldeneye with ducklings. An Osprey hunting over the Pasvik River was a nice find, while I also enjoyed seeing Spotted Flycatchers and Barn Swallows, both common migrants to southern Africa. I also had two brief glimpses of Black Grouse, a species which seems to prefer not being seen! As far as owls go, the only species I managed to find was Hawk Owl. A species I had hoped for was Great Grey Owl, but it appears that the crash in the rodent prey population has resulted in a general scarcity in large owls. According to local experts, the crash in the Lemming population in Varanger has forced all satellite-tagged Snowy Owls eastwards to Russia. In contrast, 2011 was an excellent year for Lemmings and hence Snowy Owls – so when it comes to birding, timing does count! Well, just another good reason to return to Varanger! 

A pair of Cranes near Nyrud, Pasvik.

I took time out to do some regular tourist activities in Pasvik, such as visiting Treriksrøysa, the tripoint between Finland, Russia and Norway. At this point, not only do three countries meet, but also three different time zones: Russia to the south uses Moscow Time, Finland to the west uses Eastern European Time, and Norway to the north and east of the tripoint uses Central European Time. Admittedly, I did do some birding along the 5 km hike to the tripoint, but only found Siberian Tits and Siberian Jays. A pair of Siberian Jays made a tri-nation visit while I was enjoying the peaceful atmosphere there, flying from one tree top to the next; I guess they were wishing I had brought food along. I know I did. Woodpeckers seemed to be particularly scarce, with no sight or sound of any of the three species that can be expected in the area, namely, Three-toed, Black and Lesser Spotted Woodpecker.  

Standing in Norway, with Finnish signs on the right and Russian trees at the back.

A bird hide on a wooded hill near Nyrud provided stunning views of the waters below and the surrounding forest. I spent some quality time here soaking up the scenery, when I should perhaps have been birding! Waterbirds were quite scarce though, with the only identifiable waterfowl species being Wigeon. Many of the other waterbird species that frequent the waters of Pasvik appeared to have moved on some weeks earlier. Browsing through the booklet with bird sightings clearly showed how the diversity and numbers of birds peak in May and June, and then decline during July. And so it was that I missed Smew, Bean Goose, Little Gull, and other great birds. Again, another reason to return!  

View of the Pasvik River from the bird hide near Nyrud, and Russia beyond.

I spent one night at a rustic cabin called Saimikoia in the heart of Pasvik, as suggested by Ronny, the friendly Kiberg resident who called me in for lunch on the second day of the journey. A special place indeed, tucked away deep in the woods and wedged between two small lakes. It was here that i discovered that my sleeping bag needed to be upgraded, if i wanted to get some sleep during the Norwegian autumn nights.

Sunset and moon rise over Saimikoia cabin in Pasvik.

On my return to Kirkenes, I made a stop-over at the Strand site to try for Arctic Warbler and Little Bunting in the moist birch forest. After an hour of sauntering around and finding nothing but a plethora of Willow Warblers, a pair of Arctic Warblers made a sudden appearance. A few minutes had passed before I was able to hold the camera steady enough to photograph them. It took even longer before I could safely get on the bike and keep it steady on the road!  How can it be that such a small bird can create so much excitement? Before i left the area, i gave Little Buntings a sporting chance to show themselves, but it seemed the game was over. Kirkenes was beckoning so it was time to bid Pasvik farewell, for now.

Pasvik was indeed worth the visit, with magnificent views of forests, marshes and of course, the Pasvik River. I also managed to get some mammal lifers, such as Elk and Red Squirrel, but missed out on Brown Bear. 

Before heading south and west to continue the journey through Norway, i made one more detour to Grense Jakobselv, the border between Norway and Russia on the Barents Sea, but more on this later.

Arctic Warbler, identified by the long pale eye-stripe.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Birding the Varanger Fjord

After attending to business in Vadsø on 30 July, I was off to the island in front of town, Vadsøya, to do the final round of birding. This would be my last trip to the island as I had to head west to get around the fjord to reach my next destination, Pasvik. Things had changed somewhat  around the small dam on Vadsøya since my weekend stay there some two weeks earlier; the Common Redshanks had moved their young further from the dam, the adult Red-necked Phalaropes had all left, leaving only a handful of juveniles, and the male Tufted Ducks had departed, leaving two females with newly hatched ducklings. Much to my surprise, a Spotted Redshank flew in at sunset while I was having a quick dinner. What a way to end the day! After that I was on the road heading west to Varangerbotn, at the very end of the fjord, which would be the turning point before heading to Pasvik. 

Sunset over the dam on Vadsøya

The 70 km trip from Vadsø to Varangerbotn took two days, mainly due to frequent rain showers. Along the way I saw the usual common species in the roadside thickets, such as Bramblings, Redpolls, Fieldfares, Willow Warblers, and Redwings. The first stop was at Vestre Jakobselv, where I spent some time getting a load of laundry washed at the local campsite. The river mouth at Jakobselv delivered some Common Ringed Plovers, as well as my first little Stint for the trip and four Spotted Redshanks. A juvenile Black-headed Gull and adult Arctic Tern where amongst the usual gull species (Common, Herring and Great Black-backed Gull). 

Little Stint at Vestre Jakobselv, along the northern shore of the Varanger Fjord

Further along the road I stopped at the Varanger Sami Museum and cultural trail, where the traces of human occupancy dating back over a period of more than 10 000 years is still visible. The trail takes one on an informative walk amongst ruins, Sami sacrificial sites, tombs, and sacrificial stones. The tent and house foundations are now nothing more than depressions in the ground – if only we could leave such a legacy after our generation! 

The foundation of a subterranean house dating back to 1500-1000 BC
The next stop was the town of Nesseby, and in particular, the Nesseby church. This quaint little church, built in 1858, stands between two prime shorebird mudflats. After picking up the usual Dunlins and Common Ringed Plovers, I was rewarded with my next lifer, Common Shelduck. A flock of eight birds were spending time in the small pond a short distance behind the church. Next morning, at low tide, there were also Black-tailed Godwits, Greylag Geese and a pair of Yellow Wagtails to be seen, but not much else. The wind and occasional drizzle forced me to the next stop, Varangerbotn. But fortunately, I was generally sponsored with two light-duty rain ponchos from two Norwegian birders, which certainly made my traveling in wet weather more comfortable. 

Prime shorebird mudflats at lowtide at the Nesseby church

At Varangerbotn there were two nicely positioned hides for watching shorebirds. Besides Dunlins and Common Ringed Plover, there were more Little Stints and one Curlew Sandpiper, which was a pleasant surprise. Spotted Redshanks were also heard in the vicinity but not seen, while Greylag Geese, Goosanders and a Black-throated Diver kept a distance. I was still waiting to get Temminck’s Stint, which is occasionally seen here, before the incoming tide quickly sent the last of the shorebirds off to a distant roost. With no shorebirds to scrutinise for Temminck’s Stint, I intended to make a quick trip to the local store for some groceries...

It was here that I met brothers Deniz and Bilal, who promptly invited me to their neighbouring restaurant for a cup of tea. Before I knew it, I was ‘sponsored’ with a large meaty pizza (to build strength for the ride, as Deniz put it), and the short trip to the grocery store turned into a six-hour sit-down in the local restaurant. Its times like these that make a journey unforgettable... Over several more cups of tea and a second meal, Bilal and I discussed life philosophy, about regaining ones individuality, living in the moment, and living life without fear. Somehow, this conversation was meant to be… 

The next day, still full after all the protein-loading from the previous day, I took on the 130 km route to Kirkenes, the gateway to Pasvik. Although I was more focused on cycling to cover the distance, I did spot a Hawk Owl (a daytime hunter) and a Three-toed Woodpecker on a wooden pylon, both lifers for me. 

A posting on the trip to Pasvik, which supports pristine pine forest and the vast Pasvik River, will follow shortly. I hope to get some maps up shortly too, showing the sites visited, so please do return. Thanks for reading!