Saturday, October 20, 2012

Off to the islands!

At the end of Lofoten there are two distinct islands, namely Vaerøy and Røst, the latter which is particularly well-known for the variety and number of rare birds seen here during the migration season. Need any other reason to go? I caught the ferry from Mo­­skenes to Vaerøy, the closest island to Lofoten a mere 15 km away. The ferry ride lasted about two hours in the early evening, giving me about an hour of light to search for any interesting seabirds. Gannets and Arctic Skuas were regularly seen passing by, but I was really hoping for a storm-petrel before the light faded. 

Arriving at Vaerøy in the dark and blasting gale, it took a few hours of cycling around before i managed to find a sheltered spot to pitch my tent. The wind settled during the early hours of the morning, making conditions perfect for birding. I headed for the information centre, where I found a surprisingly excellent aerial map of the island. A quick glance revealed the best place to start, a small plantation north of the town at the foot of the mountains. At first the woodland seemed quiet, but it was not long before a pair of Chiffchaffs made their presence known. A short while later I noticed a Garden Warbler, followed by a warbler species I did not recognise at first, but turned out to be a Yellow-browed Warbler. 

The small plantation on Vaerøy, a good spot for warblers.

I realised I was not the only one birding the plantation. Kjell, a Norwegian birder who was part of a group of five visiting Vaerøy, was also watching the warblers. We were both surprised to see each other. I have not met many birders on my cycling journey, so was not expecting to meet a fellow birder on an island. Since Vaerøy is not as frequently visited by birders as neighbouring Røst, Kjell was not expecting to see another birder, especially one from South Africa! The group that Kjell was part of was visiting Vaerøy to see what vagrant bird species could be found on this poorly-explored island.

The trail along the foot of the mountain, with good Ring Ouzel habitat on the slopes.

After getting some birding tips from Kjell on other parts to visit on Vaerøy, I continued along the path that followed the lower slopes of the mountain. Amongst an area of large boulders, I found my first Ring Ouzels, a predominantly black thrush with a broad white crescent across the chest. A diminutive Wren was also seen in the thickets beside the path, while a pair of Golden Eagles soared above before passing out of view over the mountain top. Further along the path I met two other birders from the group, who were watching the slopes for interesting species. While chatting, the one and only Magpie on Vaerøy flew over us. Because this species is unable to fly over long distances without resting, few individuals make it to offshore islands. This particular bird has been on Vaerøy for some time and the local residents have even given the bird a name! 

A Magpie, but not the one of Vaerøy.

With time marching on I decided to make a dash for the northern side of the island to get a better impression of Vaerøy. The brisk 10 km round trip was worth it, especially in the warm afternoon light. I also got another lifer on the way, a pair of Twites on the steep slopes while crossing the small mountain pass. Other species seen included Curlews, Cormorants, Shags, and Grey Herons on the rocky shoreline. After briefly exploring the northern side of the island, it was a race to get back to the port to make the 8 pm ferry to Røst.  I had a great time on Vaerøy, though it was far to rushed. The absolute scenic beauty of this island impressed me, and I will surely return in future to spend quality time there. 

A view from Vaerøy Island, looking back at the tip of Lofoten in the distance.

Although I could only spend a day on Vaerøy, I had two days for birding on Røst before catching the ferry back to Bodø on the mainland. Røst has a long-standing reputation as a magnet for primarily Siberian and American vagrant bird species, and has traditionally been visited far more often than its neighbour, Vaerøy. On the first morning I met up with Martin, who has been visiting Røst every autumn for over ten years in search of rarities. Martin was watching a Ring-necked Duck, an American species and only the second record for Røst, when I joined up with him. The duck was amongst a group of Tufted Ducks on a dam near the airport, and had probably arrived on the island a day or two earlier. We were soon joined by Håvard, Steve and John who had been birding other parts of the island; we all admired the duck for some time and managed to get some photos. While we watched the duck, some local sheep took interest in my bike!. For more information on the birding at Røst and the amazing bird discoveries made there, visit the dedicated Facebook page at:

The Ring-necked Duck on Røst. For better photos visit the Facebook page!

Some sheep checking out my bike!

Other American birds that made it to Røst included two Pectoral Sandpipers, two American Golden Plovers and a Buff-breasted Sandpiper. During my two days on the island, I managed only to catch up with one of the American Golden Plovers which Martin relocated on the second day. The bird was amongst a small group of Grey Plovers and showed well; the prominent supercilium (the stripe above the eye) and the long projection of the folded primaries was easy to see. 

An American Golden Plover, showing the diagnostic supercilium above the eye.

While crisscrossing the island in search of birds, I regularly met Derek and Laura, whom I met in Lofoten before the first ferry ride from Moskenes,. They invited me over for dinner on the breakwater where they were camping on the second night. The warm fire and fantastic company under the clear and still night sky ensured another moment to remember.  

Røst is a flat island, with extensive tidal areas, pastures and gardens.

I also joined Martin, John, Steve and Håvard on some excursions to bird the gardens of the local residents and the pastures surrounding the airport. I am grateful for the opportunity to have joined them; the Røst garden birding was certainly something new to me. Gardens were visited one by one either on foot or by bicycle in search of any skulking warblers or other small passerines that may have found their way to the island. Several species were seen during the short time I was at Røst, such as the more regular species, including Barred Warbler, Lesser Whitethroat, Pied Flycatcher and Chiffchaff. The biggest find of all was an Arctic Warbler, a species I had just managed to see in Pasvik in the north-east of Norway in August. It was certainly nice to see this species again. Unfortunately the pastures were less productive at the time and i missed some nice Siberian pipit species which had been seen prior to my visit, such as Olive-backed, Pechora and Richard’s Pipit. The birding was nevertheless fun, and I enjoyed seeing some familiar species too, such as Wheatear, Common Redshank (now in sleek non-breeding plumage), Brambling, Ruff, Golden Plover, Snow Bunting, Red-breasted Merganser and Bar-tailed Godwit. Rock pipits were abundant, adorning nearly every rock along the shoreline. A single Lapwing was also an interesting find, as the species is generally uncommon in autumn. 

Birding on Røst, with a tidal inlet on the left and gardens on the right!
With hours to go before the ferry departure for Bodø, I took a late afternoon walk to the highest peak on Røst, a small hill that rises no more than 10 meters above sea level. On the way I saw my first Lapland Longspur skulking in the narrow path before me. This species had eluded me since the start of my journey, so I was pleased to catch up with it on Røst. In the early evening I joined Derek and Laura at the local pub for a warm drink before our ferry ride; the atmosphere was the perfect end to a fantastic three days on the islands.       

Some tidal flats on Røst, with Vaerøy island in the distance.

Friday, October 5, 2012

Cycling through Lofoten

The coastline of Norway is not a straight line. The innumerable islands and fjords create a complex and stunning mosaic of land and sea. This becomes particularly evident around Tromsø, a city situated on an island, and further southwards. Ferries link the road network in strategic places, making it possible to explore the best of this magnificent coastline. However, timing is of essence if one wants to enjoy the benefits of the ferry route. While staying in Tromsø I learnt that two of the ferries I was planning on taking from Tromsø had closed a week earlier, as these were summer ferries and therefore only open during the vacation period. I had no option but to take the busy E6 highway in order to get to my next destination, Lofoten, a massive peninsula made up of large islands and fjords. 

A typical small town in Lofoten, surrounded by mountains.
The three days it took travelling the E6 highway were rather uneventful birding-wise, but at least I reached Bjerkvik in good time. From here I left the E6 and took the E10 which would lead me all the way to the end of Lofoten. From Bjerkvik the road passed through magnificent landscapes with mountains and idyllic lakes. Some of the lakes held species such as Whooper Swans (up to 20 at one lake), Slavonian Grebes, Black-throated Divers, Pintails, Mallards, Teals, Goldeneyes and Tufted Duck. Road tunnels were fairly frequent in places, adding another interesting element to the route. After passing through one particularly long tunnel, I decided to take some time out at a parking space beside the road. Much to my surprise, I was greeted by the sight of a Merlin perched on a nearby pylon. After watching me with interest the small falcon took off only to land a short distance further down the road, providing more excellent views. Though I was not able to photograph this individual, I was able to get another a few days later, perched on a road sign.

An obliging Merlin perched on a road sign.

I saw my first Golden Eagle from a bridge over the Jågsfjorden. The eagle was feeding on a prey item along the shoreline of the fjord, while two White-tailed Eagles were watching from a safe distance. This gave me the impression that Golden Eagles are dominant over the latter, which I subsequently heard from local ornithologists to be the case. A number of Hooded Crows were also in attendance and although they approached quite closely, they did not get a chance to sneak any scraps. I saw a good number of Golden Eagles between the towns of Fiskebøl and Svolvaer, where the mountains were particularly impressive with steep cliffs crowning their tops. Though always seen at a distance either perched on a mountain top or soaring past almost vertical cliff faces, these birds had an unmistakable presence about them. A majestic bird in a majestic environment. 

I made a stop-over at the Viking Museum in Borge, a famous site where the foundations of a Viking longhouse dating back to the period 500 - 950 can be viewed. Original artefacts such as glassware, stone, bone and metal tools and other items found at the site are also on display here, making this a unique museum. Taking the self-guided tour, which included a short film, reminded me of the Big Hole Museum in Kimberley back in South Africa. After visiting the museum’s main centre, I headed down to the shore where a replica of a Viking ship was moored. By this time a fierce storm had reached Borge and I suddenly felt the need to find shelter from the gale and rain. It was already late afternoon and with nowhere to go, I pitched my tent in a dense pine forest close to the Viking ship. The storm lasted for hours, pushing the walls of my tent in all directions. Next morning I woke to a calm and serene atmosphere, as if there never was a storm. The call of a Robin in the woods close to my tent sounded absolutely amazing, almost like it was striking a cord inside me, reminding me of how often we take the simplest things in life for granted.  

Replica Viking longhouse at Borge, with original foundation to the left of the tree.

The next town I passed was Leknes, where I visited a small but nutrient-rich lake which looked promising even from a distance. Indeed, there were several waterbird species present, including Slavonian Grebe, Grey Heron, Tufted Duck, Goldeneye and Mallard. A small flock of Ruff made a fly-by, and I was reminded of reports from friends back in Kimberley that this shorebird species had already started arriving in South Africa. Close to the lake’s bird hide I heard the alarm call of a Snipe; closer inspection revealed a number of birds hiding in the flooded grassland at the edge of the lake. 

The small but productive lake at Leknes.
Cycling further towards the town Ramberg on the northern side of Lofoten I passed some agricultural fields where I was surprised to find my first Lapwing for Norway. A pair of Whimbrels was also enjoying the flooded fields, while Meadow Pipits occasionally flushed from the taller grass. Further on I reached Ytresand in the late afternoon, another recommended birding spot with enormous potential. A small lagoon surrounded by extensive marshland alternating with agricultural fields seemed the perfect environment for shorebirds. Unfortunately my attempt to bird the area well was short-lived when yet another storm moved in for the night. By the morning the wind had subsided but not the rain, allowing only a small window for birding. I did however manage to see a Black-tailed Godwit and Dunlin feeding on some mudflats on the way out.

The marsh at Ytresand.

By now I was close to the end of Lofoten with my final destination being Moskenes. From here I would take the ferry to the Vaerøy, an island some 15 km from the tip of Lofoten. A second ferry ride would get me to the next island called Røst, before catching a third ferry to Bodø back on the mainland. So in order to make my first ferry ride, I pushed on for the ferry town of Moskenes. On the way, I met Derek and Laura at the picturesque town of Reine. Unknown to me at the time, we ended up taking the same three ferry rides from Moskenes to Bodø, and so got to meet up on more than one occasion to share our experiences of this amazing part of Norway. 

The mountains near Reine in Lofoten.

Arriving at Moskenes with ample time before the ferry departure to Vaerøy Island, I made a quick trip to Å, a small town some 5 km from Moskenes. Å is the most southerly town in Lofoten, from where one can see the steep and imposing mountains of Vaerøy. From where I was standing, I could see Cormorants, Shags and Kittiwakes negotiating the light gale blowing from the south. I have been warmer, but rarely quite so content.   

At the end of Lofoten, looking in the direction of Vaerøy.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Cycling in the rain

After Alta the next major destination was Tromsø, the largest city in northern Norway. When my brother told me that he would soon be in Sweden for a work-related trip and could meet me in Tromsø for a couple days, I sure wasn’t going to miss the opportunity to see family. With six days to cover the 400 km trip to Tromsø there was not much time to waste, so I was on my bike again after spending a day in Alta. I did manage to visit some of the mudflats in the Altafjord during lowtide, but the low number of shorebirds reminded me again that autumn was in full swing. A few Dunlin were found feeding frantically to fuel up for their southward journey. The quiet waters of the fjord held Grey Herons, Red-throated divers, Red-breasted Mergansers, Common Eiders, Goosanders, Common Shelduck, Greylag Geese and Goldeneyes. Passerines in the woodlands and gardens included Brambling, Redpoll, Willow Warbler, Fieldfares, Magpies, Willow Tit and Greenfinch. I was pleased to see some Blue Tits, as Alta is about as far north as this species has been recorded in Norway. 

The next couple of days did not reveal any additional species of interest but I was happy to enjoy the fantastic scenery of the fjords, with Langfjorden being no exception. There were also a few climbs to get over, the most notable one being Kvænangsfjellet at over 400 m. Occasionally one’s effort at finishing a steep climb is recognised by fellow road users; upon reaching the top a passing motorist gave me a hoot and thumbs-up. 

A view down Langfjorden, north of Alta.

After the descent i got my first Sparrowhawk; which was flying overhead and calling excitedly. There seemed to have been some commotion which may have involved more birds, but I did not see any others. Heading for the town of Storslett I met with some strong headwinds which made steady cycling a challenge, while the next couple of days brought rain, and lots of it. I realised I would need to make adjustments to my gear if I intended to stay dry during such periods. Things don’t dry out overnight and especially not when your only shelter is a tent that is drenched on the outside and barely dry on the inside. In an attempt to keep my feet dry while cycling, i wore plastic bags over my shoes. This would last for a while, but not for a whole day.

Before the climb at Kvænangsfjellet.

Cycling along Kåfjorden I met two Swiss cyclists who were heading north to Nordkapp. They were very happy to see me as i was the first touring cyclist they had encountered since embarking on their trip a week previously. So it was a real moment when within a couple of minutes of chatting beside the road, a group of over ten touring cyclists pasted us! Nothing for days and then everything at once! 

The Swiss cyclists on their way to Nordkapp, also wearing bags over the shoes.

With the constant rain I found myself taking cover at every grocery store along the way in an attempt to lose some moisture. During this time birding was not at the top of my priority list, but rather staying dry. A Sami handicraft shop in Manndalen seemed like an interesting alternative to the grocery stores so I was keen to take a look inside. I must have looked like a cat dragged in from the rain, because the friendly ladies running the shop immediately brought me a cup of tea and some cake. I was then given a tour of the shop by Eda, who also explained the art of making traditional woollen Sami clothing using an ancient weaving technique. Once again, warm hospitality at its best. 

Sunset over the Storfjorden north of Skibotn.

Back in the rain, i made my way to the next town called Skibotn. A break in the clouds allowed a single House Martin a chance to forage along the road, flying back and forth past me as it hawked insects in the air. Arriving in town, i was relieved to hear that my friend Mikko from Tromsø was in Skibotn for the week. He was there together with staff of the University of Tromsø presenting a field course to a group of biology students. Mikko kindly arranged for me to spend the night at the field station, and so I had the opportunity to meet with some fellow biologists. It also gave me the opportunity to dry out a bit!

The road south of Skibotn, heading to Tromsø, with fresh snow on the mountain tops.

It was another two days before I reached Tromsø, just in time to meet up with my brother who had made a significant detour to get so far north in Norway. The two quality days we spent together were too short, but hopefully there would be another chance to meet along the way. After his departure, I had a great stay at Mikko and Anna’s place while I waited for some new gear I ordered to arrive. They treated me to some excellent home-cooked dinners and took me on an unforgettable outing to pick blue berries. The blue berry crumble Anna made with the spoils of this outing was amazing; i will never look at blue berries the same again!

While in Tromsø i spend a day birding the surrounds north of the city, with Black-throated Diver and a single Spotted Redshank being the highlights.

Spotted Redshank north of Tromsø