Tuesday, November 27, 2012

A second episode in the snow

Camping on a hill south of Maløy on the coast of Western Norway, I awoke to something that sounded like rain pelting down on the tent. A quick look outside confirmed my suspicion – ice!  I had one episode before that involved cycling through ice and snow on a mountain top, and I was not planning on going through a second so soon, or so close to sea level. The evening before seemed so perfect, so still, with the promise of a clear day ahead.   

The view from a ferry ride; not such a clear day after all.

I was now a little more anxious about getting to Bergen, considering that my bike was not fitted with steel-studded wheels for ice conditions. I took to the road nice and easy at first, but since the ice and snow was fresh, it was relatively safe to travel at normal speed. As I made my way south towards Førde, I noticed how the depth of the snow increased, and how my speed steadily diminished. I was not going to make it to Førde in one day. I was struggling up the long inclines, while a snapped gear cable kept me from maintaining a reasonable speed on level ground. 

Looking back during a long steady climb. Got to watch the road!
I reached the small town of Eikefjord before sunset, and decided to follow the signs to the local campsite rather than attempt to camp off the road as I usually did. My inflatable mattress had packed up ages ago, but somehow I had managed to get away with sleeping ‘close to the ground’. I was just not sure how comfortable it would be to sleep on a few inches of snow without any insulation. Not sure whether I was still going in the right direction towards the campsite, I asked two ladies for directions. Fortunately they knew of a campsite 5 km further down the road at Storebru. Even better, they knew the brother of the campsite owner, who happened to live just a few meters from where we were standing. So after a phone call and clear directions to the location thanks to the gentleman and his iPad, I knew where I was going to spend the night. I was extremely grateful to the three locals for assisting me; I felt relaxed for the first time that day.

Passing through Eikefjord in the early evening.

The owner of the campsite, Hans, was extremely helpful and resourceful. He very kindly offered me a cabin, instead of a camping spot, at a rate I could not refuse. Hans also offered to give me a lift through the tunnel I would encounter the next day, as it was closed to cyclists. He pointed out that the alternative road over the mountain was not used by motorists and would therefore not have been treated with salt, making it a treacherous path to cross by bicycle. Further, he also arranged a specialist in Førde to take a look at my infected toe the next day. Somehow, probably while walking barefoot through a flooded marshland to reach a bird hide, I must have lacerated my toe without knowing (my feet were numb from the cold water!). 

Comfortable cabins at Endestad Camping (www.endestad-camping.no) .
Thanks to Hans I was able to spend a warm and dry night indoors, and fully appreciate the snow and white-coated surroundings outside. I also took the opportunity to replace the broken gear cable and service the bike. Next morning, as promised, Hans not only took me through the tunnel, but the whole 30 km to Førde. Though I was prepared to cycle the distance, I was relieved not to have to deal with the blizzard that was passing through the area. After getting the toe treated in town, I was off south again. For the next couple days I traveled through snow-covered landscapes to Bergen. With my eyes fixed to the road, I did very little birding. I did however notice the usual species such as Ravens, Hooded Crows, Blackbirds, Great and Blue Tits, Fieldfares, and Redwings.

A view over the river at Endestad Camping.

Keeping my eyes on the road did not always help. I soon discovered what ‘black ice’ refers too, the hard way, literally! It was around sunset, after a rapid drop in the ambient temperature, that I first noticed the rear wheel slip a little. Surprised, but not concerned, I continued further down the road. The next time the rear wheel moved sideways there was no stopping it, and I came down rather rapidly on my right side, ending with a short slide. A loaded touring bike has a lot of momentum! That was the first time I had fallen while cycling, the second time was five minutes later and this time on the left side. For some reason I found this amusing, probably because I had just considered the odds of exactly what had happened. Needless to say, I decided it was time to call it a day and pitch the tent! 

Getting ready to for another day on the icy roads.

In Bergen I met up with Oscar, a student whom I met at Moskenes in Lofoten.  At the time he was catching the ferry to Bodø, while I hopped off early at Vaerøy Island. There was just enough time on the joint ferry ride to get acquainted and exchange email addresses. Oscar kindly accommodated me for two nights at his student digs, for which I was grateful as I had a number of errands to run in town. Oscar’s fellow dorm mates were also most accommodating; I enjoyed our discussions around the kitchen table though I think I did most of the talking! It certainly beats talking to oneself while on the road.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Heading down Western Norway

I left Molde on a ten-minute ferry ride across a portion of the Moldefjord. Once across, I cycled through broad-leaved woodland displaying a variety of awesome autumn colours. Nuthatches and Great Spotted Woodpeckers were common, and I took a second glance at each woodpecker to make sure I wasn’t missing any of the white-backed variety. Not far down the road, while watching a small party of birds, I found my first Pygmy Owl. Awesome little birds! This species closely resembles the Pearl-spotted Owlet in Africa, except that it does not have the two spots ('eyes') at the back of the head.

The first major town I visited was Ålesund, where I made an unsuccessful four-hour search for the Little Grebes that usually hang out at one of the nutrient-rich lakes within the residential area. Determined to find the species, I promised myself to pay the lake another visit on my return from Giske Island, just offshore from Ålesund. To get to Giske I had to take a bus ride through two sub-sea tunnels and over a bridge, which connect Giske to the mainland via two other islands, if that makes any sense? Though I arrived in the dark, I had taken a look at the layout of the island on Google Earth, so had a good idea where to pitch my tent for my two day stay.

The north western side of Giske Island, looking out to sea.

Giske is a fairly small island so it was easy getting around by bike - I completed the road circuit on the island several times! The main species I wanted to find at Giske was Red-necked Grebe. Unfortunately, since I only had binoculars, I only had distant views of what I thought must be the species. Not satisfied that I could make a positive identification, I left the species off my bird list. However, I was rewarded with great views of Velvet Scoter, a black sea duck with a bright orange bill. These were common around the island, as well as Common Scoters, Red-breasted Mergansers, Red-throated Divers, Goldeneyes, Common Eiders, Wigeons and Long-tailed Ducks. The latter I had not seen for some time, so it was great to finally see the males in their splendid winter plumage. The occasional Razorbill was also seen flying past close to shore. The shoreline on the north western side of the island held Common Shelducks, Curlews, Bar-tailed Godwits, Dunlins, Redshanks, Sanderlings, and a pair of Grey Plovers. A pair of Ruddy Turnstones amongst some rocks was a nice surprise. I was also pleased to see my first male Teal in breeding plumage; a small but attractive duck indeed! I scoured the grasslands near the shorelines for rare pipits but only got the usual species such as Meadow and Rock Pipits, as well as Skylarks, Snipes and occasionally a flock of Twites. 

A Velvet Scoter, a common species along the Norwegian West Coast.

After my two days at Giske, I headed back to Ålesund through the tunnels again. A quick visit to the lake in search of the Little Grebe was quick indeed. A single grebe was the first bird I saw on the water as I approached! A far cry from the four-hour search just days before - but that’s how it works, this hobby called birding. South of Ålesund I took a couple of ferries to ensure I stayed on the scenic coastal route. It was while rushing to catch one of these ferries that I had my first views of a somewhat shy White-backed Woodpecker. Woodpeckers can sometimes hide pretty well behind a pole at the best of times, and this one was no exception. After clinching the most important features on the bird before it moved off, I was happy to resume my rush to catch the morning ferry ride.

A typical ferry at the port.

On my way south along the coast, I made a detour to a recommended birding location called Ervik. Ervik lies nestled between two mountain ridges, and has an idyllic beach, a few houses, some agricultural fields and a lake. I could have settled there permanently! Its also known amongst surfers, and there were two at the time trying to catch waves. Back to birding, the target species here was Stonechat. Expecting to find one perched on a fence like they do in South Africa, I eventually found one foraging within a patch of shrubs behind the beach. The bird was very discreet and spent most of the time close to the ground, only perching occasionally. He was in the company of a large flock of Greenfinches and a Wren. 

A view over Ervik, with the beach on the left and the lake on the right.

From the cliff overlooking the sea I tried scanning for migrating seabirds, but once again it was clear I lacked stronger optics. The only birds I could identify were the ones close to shore, and these included a flock of Common Scoters, and the occasional Gannet flying by. It was interesting to watch the scoters ride the rough surf without landing on top of the rocks; they seem quite content getting tossed about by the swells and having waves crash down on them!

A view from the cliffs at Ervik, while trying to identify passing seabirds.

Although the weather held back occasionally, the rain and wind was rather relentless at Ervik. When I heard from a local resident that the forecast for the next day was less rosy, I decided it would be best to move on. Besides, it was still a long stretch to get to Bergen, the next major milestone. I headed for Maløy, a significant fishing port to the south of Ervik, and took the early evening ferry ride across the fjord. I found a camping spot beside the road close to the top of the first hill. The evening was perfect, moderate temperature, no sign of rain, and no wind. Perhaps a little too perfect…

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Birding Molde and Ona Island

Molde is a unique town on the west coast of Norway. It is situated on the south side of a mountain slope with the Moldefjord stretching out before it. Beyond the fjord to the south is a panoramic vista of mountains, with a total of 222 mountain peaks, of which 88 reach higher than 1000 meters above sea level. Quite a sight!

A view over Molde at sunrise, with some of the mountain peaks in the background.

With a few days to spare, my friend Eirik took me birding around Molde and the small island of Ona, some 20 km from the mainland. Ona was our first target and we headed out early the first day to catch the two ferries to the island before sunrise. Standing on a high point on the island, Eirik was calling out the names of bird species he could hear or see, as they flew over us. Interestingly, birds seem to ‘drop’ onto the island under certain weather conditions, such as overcast skies. Hence a number of interesting bird species can be found on such offshore islands. 

Early morning on Ona, with grassland and shoreline habitats.

The usual species such as Blackbird, Blue Tit, Brambling, Redpoll, Common Starling, Redwing, Chaffinch, White Wagtail, Meadow Pipit, Fieldfare and others were heard above us. There were many others, but I lost track! A Grey-headed Woodpecker was heard calling nearby, which we later got to see, perched on a pole. As the sun appeared, we started our walk through the various habitats on the island, such as grasslands, gardens, beaches and small patches of woodland. The gardens produced some of the most exciting species for me, such as Lesser Whitethroat and a female Blackcap, which I did not get to see well on Røst in September. Wrens, Robins, Blackbirds, House Sparrows and various tit species were frequently found in the gardens.  Snipes were flushed from the moist grasslands, while Curlews, Grey Herons, and Cormorants were found along the rocky shores. Unfortunately we did not see any unusual pipits, with Meadow Pipit being the only species around.

Walking the beaches of Ona in search of larks and pipits.
At midday we decided to take the next ferry to Sandøy, situated between Ona and the mainland. From the ferry we saw a Common Guillemot, Razorbills and Red-breasted Mergansers on the water, while a Peregrine Falcon flew by. At Sandøy we saw many of the species seen earlier on Ona, but also a host of additional species. Along the shoreline were White-tailed Eagles, Bar-tailed Godwits, Grey Plovers, Mallards, Teals and Pintails, with a male Pintail in striking breeding plumage. Further out to sea were Kittiwakes and a Great Northern Diver. A pair of Whooper Swans flew overhead, which was a surprise as they are normally found on the mainland. 

A typical garden on Ona. A White's Thrush was seen here some years ago!
The grasslands held flocks of Twite, while a few Skylarks and Snipes were also flushed. A new Norwegian tick for me was a flock of Barnacle Geese on the agricultural fields, which also supported a small flock of Golden Plovers. A Merlin also made an appearance, perching for some time on a small tree before taking off again. The day on Ona and Sandøy was a great refresher of the excitement that comes with island birding, even though we did not get to see any major island rarities. I later heard that Ona was rather quite this year with regards to rare birds, compared to the other islands such as Røst, Vaerøy and Utsira. Nevertheless, I look forward to returning to Norway someday to indulge in some more extended island birding!  

Choose your colour. Some houses on Ona Island.

We also birded areas further north of Molde, visiting many of Eirik’s old birding haunts. Some of the highlights included my first Smew and Common Scoter. A Common Greenshank on the exposed tidal flats was an exciting find as I had not yet seen this species on the trip. Species I had not seen for a while which made an appearance during the day included Black-headed Gull, Waxwing, Little Stint, and Ringed Plover. Flocks of Snow Buntings and the odd Lapland Longspur (seen only in flight) and Skylark were found along the grasslands bordering the beaches. 
A Great Spotted Woodpecker, the most easily seen woodpecker in the area

We made a couple of concerted efforts to find a White-backed Woodpecker, a rather sought-after species. However, owing to the large home ranges that birds occupy, it is not any easy one to find. Great Spotted Woodpecker was usually the first and only woodpecker to show itself. A search in the forests above Molde delivered another woodpecker species though, which I was delighted to see, namely Black Woodpecker. This is a seriously impressive bird, with its pitch-black plumage and red crown, not to mention its good size. The species is somewhat of a regional rarity in the area, so we were lucky to see it. Though it did not hang around long, my impression of the bird is still very clear!

Birding some lakes north of Molde; the white specks are Whooper Swans!

Besides birding, we also took a drive along the famous Atlantic Ocean Road between Molde and Kristiansund, an 8 km drive that zigzags between islands and 12 connecting bridges, with sea on both sides. It was chosen as “Norway’s construction of the century” in 2005 and was awarded the status as a National Tourist Route because of the bridge and road architecture and the magnificent coastline that it traverses. So if you ever find yourself in the area, take it for a ride! 

The Atlantic Ocean Road on Norway's west coast

After a few great days in the Molde Area, it was time to head south again. Thanks to Eirik’s hospitality, I managed to see quite a number of new lifers as well as add several new Norwegian ticks to my trip bird list. My next major destination was Bergen in southern Norway, with a couple of stops along the way of course…

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Winter's catching up...

I took the longer but more scenic route from Trondheim to Molde, which would take me over the mountains at Sunndalsøra located en route between the two cities. On the second day after leaving Trondheim I reached Rindal, a good birding spot for some local specials. However, the good weather up till then gave way to light but persistent rain. As the first drops fell, I found my first group of Long-tailed Tits. What delightful birds; their pure white heads give the impression of small snow balls. These birds are quite quick when on the move and it was not long before they were foraging in the trees further down the road. After continuing in the rain for a while, I decided to stop at a fuel station with a little shop to take some cover. A friendly chat with the shop keeper turned into a longer discussion about the weather forecast and the road that lay ahead. Before leaving I was generously donated a couple of large tins of food and cold drinks for the road.

Near Rindal, with rain approaching.

On approaching Sunndalsøra, I was having doubts about my plans to cross the mountain. The top quarter of the mountains were covered in thick fresh snow, while some of my gear including boots and gloves were still drenched from the day’s rain. Stubbornness got the better of me and after a couple of hours in town building courage, I was taking the winding road through the breath-taking Litldalen Valley towards the mountain. The autumn colours of the trees were stunning, with every possible shade of yellow, orange and brown on display. The road started a somewhat steeper ascend, which then turned into a long slog to get up the steepest climb I have attempted yet in Norway. 

Looking back onto the Litldalen Valley during a steep climb.

Traffic was scarce, with the only vehicles on the road being rescue workers in search of a hiker who was caught unawares by the snow. He was lucky to be found, but it took a state-of-the-art rescue helicopter to get him off the mountain. One of the rescue workers told me that that was the first and probably last rescue operation for the year, and with that my concerns that I might have to get rescued too, were gone. Eager to make it to the top in good time, there was little opportunity for birding. Species seen while on the go included Siskin, Nuthatch, Willow and Marsh Tit, Redwing, Chiffchaff and Blackbird amongst others. Blackbirds were to become far more common after my first encounter with them in Litldalen.

Just before the top, a dense fog moved in, rekindling my thoughts of a second rescue mission on the same day. Fortunately the fog cleared after a while, making way for sleet. Great, things were really looking good now! Reaching the snow line, there was not much track to steer the bike on. Only one rescue vehicle had passed this way this far up, leaving a narrow track on the gravel road with two inches of snow either side. Fortunately the snow did ease up after a while, making cycling easier.

Heading for Aursjøhytta on top of the mountain.

I finally made it to a place called Aursjøhytta, about 20 km after climbing the steep ascent out of the Litldalen Valley. Aursjøhytta is more like a summer vacation spot; no one hangs out here when it snows. The well-spaced cottages were all deserted. With little choice but to get off the mountain before night fall, I continued along the track in the direction of Eikesdalen, at the foot of the mountain but on the other side. An approaching vehicle in the snow fall was a surprise, but I think they were more surprised to see me!  What would a cyclist be doing in the snow at 900 m up the mountain? After getting more information about the road ahead, which they had just traveled, I decided to make a break for the mountain pass that would get me to Eikesdalen. 

Magnificent snow-covered landscape on the mountain, but little time to appreciate.

It was a 10 km stretch, with lots of slippery ups and downs which meant I often had to get off the bike to push - wheel-spinning up icy inclines was not going to get me anywhere. Its like having teflon-coated wheels! I had a few sightings of Willow Grouse in the snow, but I was too rushed to really appreciate the views. I continued well after sunset, determined not to find out what it must be like to camp in the snow at such altitude. However, with the brakes clogging up with snow during the initial descend into the Eikesdalen Valley, I finally pitched my tent beside the road where the snow layer seemed less intimidating. 

Camping in the snow with the Eikesdalen Valley in the background.

My cheap thermometer read -5 degrees Celsius the next morning, the coldest I had experienced yet. With the rising sun I discovered I had stopped just above the snow line during the night. I was glad the episode was over. Now I could focus on birds again, and not where my front wheel was going. Dropping the last few kilometers into the Eikesdalen valley chilled me to the bone; the sun was still too low on the horizon to warm the valley. Battling to hold the bike and the binoculars with cold hands, I eventually made a dash for the first spot of sun I could find on the road. I also took the opportunity to dry some gear that got wet from the ice. From here on things got better, so I was able to appreciate the views along the magnificent Eikesdalen valley. Nuthatches were common, as well as Long-tailed Tits, Wrens, Goldcrests and Siskins. Unfortunately I did not see or hear any woodpeckers, one of the main reasons for taking the route over the mountain and through the valley.

Drying gear in the Eikesdalen Valley after a cold night in the snow.

Some 30 km before Molde, Eirik, who had returned from his trip, caught up with me. Fortunately so, as I was heading on the road to Molde that passes through a sub-sea tunnel closed to cyclists. If Eirik had not intercepted me with impeccable timing, I would have had to have made a significant detour. With the bike loaded in the back of the car, we were off to Molde to prepare for some island birding the following day. I was lucky to have escaped the early winter chill this time round…