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.


  1. I love the little red house and your interesting stories!! Travel safely!

  2. Was a pleasure to meet up with you at Røst, Eric. You are always welcome back.

    I understand you made it to Trondheim. We were beginning to get somehow anxious when you were talking about cycling down there in the end of september. North of Norway can be hostile over the mountains in those times.

    Safe travels, i hope you have a fantastic time! See you!