Thursday, September 27, 2012

Of Lesser White-fronted Geese and more

I spent a cold night in Lakselv, so was looking forward to the day, which promised to be a good one judging by the amount of blue sky I could see from inside the tent. My first stop on the way north from Lakselv was the Stabbursneset headland and Valdakmyra marsh in the Porsanger Fjord, an important staging area for the Lesser White-fronted Goose. I found the usual wetland species at the marsh, such as Mallard, Wigeon, and Greylag Goose, as well as some species still somewhat unfamiliar to me, such as Pintail and Common Shelduck. I also saw my first Grey Herons for the trip. I also made a short trip of a few kilometers to Stabbursdalen valley, where the world's most northerly pine forest occurs. Though the forest was quiet, i did get to see some species close up, such as Siberian Jays, Bramblings and Willow Tits, as well as a pair of Red Squirrels. 

Siberian Jay in the Stabbursdalen valley

Back at the headland at Stabbursneset, which overlooks the southern end of the Porsanger Fjord, i met Tomas and Ingar, both ornithologists who were there to undertake various bird surveys, including a population count of the Lesser White-fronted Goose. This species, which had not yet arrived at the headland and marsh from their breeding grounds, is unfortunately in decline. Tomas mentioned that the number of pairs returning each year to the Porsanger Fjord was decreasing each year; the last counting being shockingly low. What makes it tricky finding out the reasons for the decline, is that no one really knows where these birds spend the winter once they leave the fjord after their short stay. And so it was that I did not get to see the Lesser White-fronted Goose, as I could not afford to wait until their arrival, but I was more concerned about their future survival than adding the species to my life list.

It was great experience chatting to Tomas and Ingar, and learning more about Norwegian bird life and research from such dedicated field ornithologists. To top it all, we were rewarded with great views of a Gyr Falcon flying by, before making a dashing attempt at harassing a flock of Hooded Crows on the marshland. With time running short, I had to leave if I was going to make it too my next destination, the town of Alta. Moving further north along the western side of the fjord i spotted Goosanders, Red-breasted Mergansers, Greylag Geese, Common Eiders and White-tailed Eagle. At some fresh water lakes to the west of the fjord I found my first Slavonian Grebe, in non-breeding plumage. A little further I was pleased to find more grebes, especially since they were still in breeding plumage and feeding their young. I spent quite some time here, when I should have been off cycling! Before I could leave, Tomas and Ingar arrived; they had driven the same route to conduct some surveys. So we spent some more time discussing birds while watching the adult grebes dive for food to feed their hungry offspring.  

Slavonian grebes, sometimes also referred to as Horned Grebes

Later that afternoon at a small town called Olderfjord, I passed the turn-off to Nordkapp, probably the most popular site in Norway for touring cyclists to start or end their journeys. It was nearly a 300 km detour so I resisted the temptation to see what Nordkapp looked like, and continued west to Alta. I passed some areas with rolling hills that were perfect for Rough-legged Buzzards, which were seen regularly when it was not raining! 

Should i go or not? I skipped the chance to visit Nordkapp to save time
Great habitat for Rough-legged Buzzards on the road to Alta

After arriving in Alta, I made a beeline for the public library to check emails, so I could make contact with my host, Stig-Martin. I eventually ended up in the Barila Pub across from the library, as the latter had no internet service for the day. I soon realised that my host lived 25 km outside of town, and I would have to take the same road I had just cycled to get to his place! My dismay at this realisation was noticed by an Alta resident who was visiting the pub with her friends. She kindly offered to drive me to Stig’s place, an offer i could not refuse considering that I had already cycled 90 km for the day. After checking again that she was okay making a 40 km plus detour to drop me off, we were loading my bike and panniers into her Toyota Hi-Ace. Once again, i was overwhelmed by the friendliness and helpfulness of the people I have met on this journey. There is a lot of good in this world, if we choose to see it. How we see this world depends on how we choose to see it – choose to see the bright side and the bright side will find you. 

Stig was a great host, who prepared a great ‘cyclist’s dinner’ with rice, egg and sausage scrammed together. His humour was fantastic and I enjoyed his stories about being hungry while touring, something I could easily relate too after being in the saddle for over a month… 

Watch out for these guys in Olderfjord if you plan to visit Nordkapp!

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Finally, heading south

After covering the Varanger Peninsula reasonably well since the start of my journey in July, it was indeed time to head south. My aim was to get to Tromso before the end of August, a distance of approximately 700 km passing the larger towns of Lakselv, Alta and Storslett. My first stopover was at Tana to meet up with my next host Rajan, who, like Arve, was a real inspiration for travelling. Rajan’s down-to-earth approach to life was infectious, and his hospitality without limits; I was treated to traditional Sami reindeer stew, sea trout cooked over coals, and lots of ice-cream. Rajan had a day off from work, so I joined him and his brother for a short fishing stint at the Tana Delta (no bites), before we departed ways. I headed a few kilometers north to set up camp at Kalbaknes, with a spectacular view over the Tana delta and surrounding mountains. My neighbours were two German couples who were touring Norway with their campervans and it was not long before we got acquainted. I was soon served pan-fried fish, bread and a couple of hot drinks to go with the great company. A guitar was later brought forth by one of the gentlemen, who played a few well-known English and German tunes while we watched the vast Tana delta bathed in moonlight. Another memorable moment…

The Tana delta in the late afternoon.

Well before the break of dawn I awoke to an astounding sight. There were literally thousands of Goosanders spread across the main river channels of the delta, riding the outgoing tide. I had never seen so many Goosanders together before, but the birds dispersed rapidly as the waters approached low tide. As the morning progressed, i scanned the mudflats for any exciting birds amongst the masses of Herring and Great Black-backed Gulls, finding the odd White-tailed Eagle perched on a sand bank. Arctic Skuas were also present, flying back and forth on the lookout for easy pickings. An Artic Redpoll made a brief appearance before I headed off to start the day’s cycle. Typical birds seen along the way, usually flushed from the roadside thicket, included Fieldfares, Redwings, Magpies, and Meadow Pipits. Redpolls, Willow and Great Tits were usually picked up by the calls, while the occasional Bluethroat was seen in willow thickets.

The only owl seen on this part of the trip!

The next two days presented some of the hardest cycling I had encountered yet. The 100 km stretch from Kalbaknes to Kunes via Iford had numerous climbs, some taking over an hour to defeat. But  the steep ascends usually meant that cliffs would not be far away, so it was not long before I was rewarded with good views of a flying Gyr Falcon. A Black Guillemot at one of the fjords was also a nice find, as I had not seen this species since late July at Vardø. Just outside the town of Iford I had great views of my first male Willow Grouse beside the road, but the close encounter made it hard to get the camera out without flushing the bird. Instead, I have a photo of a Hooded Crow, a species seen daily in Norway! 

Its signs like this that gave me the shivers, not the weather.

Hooded Crow, a common species seen daily.

I arrived at Kunes the next morning hoping to catch the grocery store to get some essentials for the day. Upon arrival, I soon realised that the only store in town was closed. I had lost track of time, it was already Sunday, a day when all stores in Norway are closed. My dismay quickly turn to bright cheerfulness when a town resident living close to the store ask if I needed help, and then invited me to join her and a friend for lunch! I was generously treated to bacon and eggs, and amazingly for this part of the world, freshly picked garden strawberries. This was a great stopover, and I was again grateful for the wonderful hospitality.

The ride from Kunes to my next destination, Lakselv, was an easier ride than what i had passed through before. Small lakes beside the road produced some waterfowl species, such a Wigeon and Common Teal, as well as my first Pintail. The only climb was the stretch to the Silfar Canyon, one of Northern Europe’s largest at a depth of 80 metres. The crystal clear water cutting through dolomite makes this canyon especially impressive. Unfortunately no cliff-loving raptors were to be seen in the vicinity.

A part of the Silfar Canyon.

The downhill ride from Silfar brought me into the Porsanger Fjord, which has the most expansive mudflats anywhere in the Finnmark County of Northern Norway. A stopover at a small lake beside the fjord produced a pair of Whooper Swans with four juveniles, but with the sun nearly set, there was not much time to explore the seemingly productive area any further. I pushed on to get to Lakselv before if got too late.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

A short trip to Grense Jakobselv

After visiting Pasvik I was keen to try out another detour, to Grense Jakobselv, which was highly recommended by a British couple I met earlier on my journey. Grense Jakobselv lies on the Barents Sea and is the northern-most border area between Norway and Russia. It is also listed as a worthwhile birding spot, where good numbers of seabirds can be seen. It was a 60 km trip from Kirkenes so I decided to cycle there and back in two days, to make up time for the impending southward journey through Norway. The scenery during the first half of the trip to Grense Jakobselv was pretty much the same as what I had been used too in these parts of Norway, but it was the second half that blew me away. Passing the Jarfjordfjellet Mountains, where the rock is some of the oldest in Europe, was something to behold. This was followed by the spectacular descent into the valley of the Jakobselv River, which reminded me of the drop from the escarpment into the Lowveld in South Africa (something I have unfortunately not had the opportunity to do often enough).  

A portion of Jarfjordfjellet Mountains, some of the oldest rock in Europe.

It was after the drop into the valley that I met Frank and Lill, who invited me for a cup of tea at Lill’s mother’s house. Sitting outdoors around a fire drinking tea in the company of great people was the perfect way to round off the day’s trip. It turned out my new Norwegian friends were old friends of Ronny in Kiberg; what an amazing world! After saying our farewells, i was on my bike again to complete the last few easy kilometers to the mouth of the Jakobselv River. The river with its stretches of sand banks and lush riparian woodland kept reminding me of South Africa. Was I homesick already? Never! Or not just yet. I think i experienced an epiphany during this part of the trip, coming to the full realisation that everything is one, everything is connected somehow, and like i have read somewhere before, 'all is everything, everything is one'. So no matter where we find ourselves in this world, our planet is still one organism, and all life is a continuum. 

The Jakobselv River.

The birds were quiet as it was already early evening, but it was not long before i reached the sea. With still enough good evening light, i did some scouting for shorebirds and others at the river mouth and beach, picking up the usuals such as Oystercatcher, Common Eider, Herring and Great Black-backed Gull, Goosander and Red-breasted Merganser. A small flock of Red Knots in non-breeding plumage amongst a rocky patch along the beach was an exciting find. Next morning revealed numerous Cormorants, Shags, Kittiwakes and Arctic Skuas flying back and forth just offshore. The latter were harassing the Kittiwakes as usual. Some Black-throated Divers were also not too far off. 

Overlooking the fjord at Grense Jakobselv.

The mudflats at the river mouth lagoon were surprisingly quiet in terms of shorebirds, although there were hundreds of roosting gulls and good numbers of Hooded Crows. I searched the gull flocks for an out-of-range Glaucous Gull, which would stand out like a sore thumb because of its large size, but no luck. Fieldfares and Redpolls occupied the areas with denser shrubs while Meadow Pipits were common in the vegetated dune fields. My lifer for the day was a pair of Willow Tits in the riparian thicket, a species I would see many times in the following weeks.

Looking back at the Jakobselv River valley, with mudflats on the left.

The trip back to Kirkenes was again spectacular, especially with the sun managing to break through the clouds more often than the day before. Along the way I was again pleasantly surprised by the friendliness of the locals. I was stopped by a family, with members of three generations present, and after answering enthusiastic questions relating to my journey, was handed a box of Russian chocolates! Later that evening i met up with my host, Arve. Chatting to people who are passionate about traveling is truly inspirational, and one can learn so much from their ‘out-of-the-box’ life experiences. Unfortunately there was not much time to chat due to Arve’s busy schedule, but I am most grateful for the opportunity to have met him.

Willow Tit

On the way back to Varangerbotn I spent a night close to Neiden, in a last effort to get Little Bunting the next morning. With an early visit to the chapel at Neiden where the buntings had been recorded in the past, I was greeted by a host of other species instead, such as Spotted Flycatcher, Pied Flycatcher, Redpoll, Willow Warbler and my first Bluethroat with a blue throat. It was actually just a small patch of bright blue on an otherwise brown bird. Nonetheless, it was exciting enough to see as all previous individuals I had seen in Pasvik and Kirkenes had no bright colours at all. Moving on west I had good views of a juvenile Cuckoo beside the road, as well as a female Tufted Duck with ducklings. Arriving late at Varangerbotn, I again visited the bird hides in the hope of catching up with Temminck’s Stint, but it seemed that things were no longer the same since my visit two weeks earlier. I got the feeling that the shorebirds, especially the small waders, had perhaps begun their southward migration. Even the mosquitoes seemed to have moved on, as I had no trouble getting a good night’s rest on the bench in the bird hide.

Having reached Varangerbotn, I was now ready to begin the southward journey through Norway. I had visited some great birding sites in the north-east of the country, but it was now time to make progress, or I would get caught by the Norwegian winter.