My wife and I had postponed a trip to Scandinavia for the past several years, opting to travel to warmer climates instead. But since we will be returning to the US next spring after 6 years in Germany, we decided this summer we would be brave and drive north to the very end of Norway. What follows is our report, perhaps useful for someone else planning a vacation to the area for the first time. I say at the outset we did not see the sought-after rarities of the region (Arctic Warbler, Red-Flanked Bluetail etc) , but as this was our first trip north of Denmark, we didn't mind too much. As usual we planned the trip on our own and did not make use of tour guides. Thanks again to the Scandinavian birders who responded to my RFI posted on rec.birds last Spring. As recommended we purchased the very useful book by Gustaf Aulen, Where to Watch Birds in Scandinavia (ISBN 0-600-58459-3). Capitalized bird denotes first of trip, LL means lifer, 1st euro means first European sighting for me.
Long but quick drive to northern Denmark (no speed limit on the Autobahn), spotted a CROSSBILL-Loxia curvirostra in the pine trees near our tent site. (Hotels in Scandinavia are expensive, well over 100 US$ for even a modest room, so we bought a good tent for the trip and camped in secluded spots most of the nights. Unlike in much of the rest of Europe, Scandinavians are quite tolerant of camping in the wild if you keep your distance from private property.)
Car ferry from Hirtshals, Denmark to Oslo, Norway. Large beast of a boat, breakfast on Deck 9, high above the water. Spent most of the 8 1/2 hours outside in the warm sun (the last sunny day for quite a while). But by end of day rain showers had begun. At tent site in woods about 20km south of Lillehammer awakened at 2AM by loud singing of SONG THRUSH-Turdus philomelos. Even at this hour it was still light out, as we were far enough north so that the twilight lasted all night. Also present were ROBIN-Erithacus rubecula and WILLOW WARBLER-Phylloscopus trochilus.
We spent the morning enjoying a public fair in Lillehammer then had a picnic lunch along a typical farming valley, where the farms and houses are located half way up the sides of the broad glacial valley (relatively warm there). In the afternoon we made it to the edge of the mountainous Rondane National Park, approaching from Doralseter in the northeast (where it was supposed to be driest). These Parks in Norway are more akin to Wilderness Areas in the Western-US: they tend to have no roads. You are sometimes lucky to find a marked trail. Car birders beware! On way there (Route 27-hauntingly beautiful, open landscape) we spotted VELVET SCOTER (White-winged S. in US)-Melanitta fusca (1st euro), HOODED CROW- Corvus corone cornix, MALLARD, and fine views of a singing male BRAMBLING-Fringilla montifringilla. On our hike into the park we saw COMMON REDPOLL-Carduelis flammea, MEADOW PIPIT-Anthus pretensis and Willow Warbler. On the way back along the river we were startled when a WILLOW GROUSE-Lagopus lagopus (LL) exploded from the birches next to the trail. The leaves on the birches were only just beginning to emerge, and trees were rare creatures in this park (and so it seemed were the birds). It was mostly cloudy for our hike and there was a strong, cold wind; we had dressed for winter. We got back to the car in the late evening and headed outside of the park for bit warmer spot lower down in the forest (where we saw and heard a TREE PIPIT-Anthus trivialis).
We drove a bit south to Fokstumyra Nature Reserve, a flat area of mires (fens and bogs) and ponds. We hiked the complete loop trail, which took us 5 hours. The sun came out for most of the hike, and it was nearly warm! Slow going at first, trying to keep our feet dry on a makeshift boardwalk (sometimes little more than planks lying on water, it felt like we were playing a level on MYST) and seeing only willow warbler, REED BUNTING-E. schoeniculus and FIELDFARE-T. pilaris. On the large ponds to the south we saw velvet scoter, TUFTED DUCK-A. fuligula and nesting COMMON GULL-Larus canus, and BLACK-HEADED GULL-L. ridibundus overhead. Then a beautifully-colored RED-NECKED PHALAROPE-Phalaropus lobatus (LL) swam within a couple of meters of us as we stood on a solid boardwalk, good looks and a female at that (more brightly colored than the male). A bit later we saw a magnificent pair of CRANE-Grus grus fly in and land quite a ways away (gave me a reason to use the scope I had been lugging around). On the trail heading back north we saw a CUCKOO-Cuculus canorus, a singing BLUETHROAT-Luscinia svecica (unfortunately it kept its distance), REDSHANK-Tringa totanus, a bright YELLOW WAGTAIL-Motacilla flava thunbergi and a pair of SWIFT-Apus apus. Back at the center we watched HOUSE MARTIN-Delichon urbica landing near a puddle and scooping up mud for their nests. After this we took a very scenic drive down the Ramsdalen via Route 9 to the coast.
We arrived on the Norwegian coast the previous evening and set up our tent on a bluff at an old quarry just off the narrow coastal road on the island of Gurskoy, past the town Moltustranda. From there we had a great view of the islands leading to Runde. We watched with concern as the the peaks of the islands disappeared in thick cloud.
Sure enough by next morning it was raining real hard. We drove over a series of tall graceful bridges (one laners so you have to pause at the widened part of the top to see if anyone is coming) and got to Runde. It is a mostly treeless island, only a couple of miles long but with peaks up to 1000 feet--and of course sea bird cliffs. Along the road we watched the stiff-winged flight of the FULMAR-Fulmaris glacialis (LL) heading to and from their nests. After lunch the rain stopped and the clouds lifted off the peaks, so we climbed up the muddy trail to the top of the cliffs. What a sight! Puffins everywhere (ATLANTIC PUFFIN-Fratercula arctica-LL), standing there near their burrows, some near the top of the cliffs, looking back at us as if to say, "Hi, I'm an Alcid, what are you?". The air was filled with flying puffins. We couldn't get ourselves to move much further until the clouds settled down on us and the rain began, so we figured we would explore the area more thoroughly the next day. On the hike up we had been surprised to see a GREAT SKUA-Stercorarius skua-LL, out of its range according to my two field guides, chasing a gull. (That afternoon I purchased the inexpensive booklet with checklist, Birds of Runde, at the info center in the harbor, and it mentioned that Great Skuas have been breeding there since 1980. Total seabird population on Runde is estimated to be 170,000 pairs, ?in a good year".) Up on the plateau we saw meadow pipit, SKYLARK-Alauda arvensis and NORTHERN WHEATEAR-Oenanthe oenanthe. Close to shore we saw ROCK PIPIT-Anthus petrosus-LL, SHAG-Phalacrocorax aristotelis-LL, RAVEN, Hooded Crow, Starling, PIED WAGTAIL-Motacilla alba, COMMON EIDER-Somateria mollissima-(1st euro), NORTHERN GANNET-Sula bassana-(1st euro), GREATER- and LESSER BLACK-BACKED GULLs (Larus marinus and fuscus), HERRING GULL, common gull, GREY HERON-Ardea cinerea, SHELDUCK-Tadorna tadorna, mallard, OYSTERCATCHER-Haematopus ostralegus, WREN-Troglodytes troglodytes and near the only pine trees GREENFINCH-Carduelis chloris. Offshore we saw a BLACK GUILLEMOT-Cepphus grylle on the water, conspicuous with its white wing patches. Back near our tent site we saw TWITE-Carduelis flavirostris and a CURLEW-Numenius arquata, nesting on a grassy meadow near Moltustranda.
The next day we had hoped to take a boat trip to see the cliffs from below, but the weather was so bad it was cancelled. So even though the top of the island was in cloud I hiked up to the cliff tops again (Kyra stayed below). I hiked along the western portions of the island and never did see the water through the fog. I was lucky to see the trail in front of me. Once or twice the fog lifted enough to see the gannets and the KITTIWAKE-Rissa tridactyla flying to and from the cliffs, the white of the gannet wings shining through the gloom. (Razorbill, Common and Brunnich's Guillemot also breed here, but in this weather...) That afternoon we drove inland towards Trondheim and used the pouring rain as an excuse to stay at a good hotel in Orkanger. Saw a House Sparrow from the hotel window, appropriately enough.
A bit of culture (the cathedral and the architectural museum in Trondheim), then north on route E6 (the main highway, usually two lanes but excellent quality, goes all the way to Kirkenes, no ferries but watch out for those German RVs and the automatic radar devices that take your snapshot if you drive to fast). Rained off and on all day. Camped near Mo i Rana, saw REDWING-Turdus iliacus-LL, COMMON SANDPIPER-Actitis hypoleucos and CHAFFINCH-Fringilla coelebs near our tent-site by a river.
We decided to head for the coast (looked like fewer clouds in that direction). Missing the 10am ferry for the island of Lovund by half an hour (and the next one not until 9PM), we decided to take the next ferry north along the coast, following route 17. As we were on this ferry the skies cleared: sunshine as we steamed across the Arctic circle, marked by a silver statue of a globe on the shoreline. And just after that we spotted an adult WHITE-TAILED EAGLE-Haliaeetus albicilla soaring in the blue sky. The stretch of road ahead gave us great views of a deeply crevassed glacier that came down nearly to the fjord. Finally got to Bodo, a harbor with ferries to the bird islands of Rost and Vaeroy. But as with our luck with ferries would have it, they leave infrequently, next one at 3PM the next day (and they are not cheap if you take your car with you to each spot). So after dinner we took the 9PM ferry to the Lofoten Islands (Moskenes), west of the mainland, arriving at 1:30 AM. What a place. Alpine-like peaks soaring straight out of the water, and approaching these with the midnight sun, orange sky and purple mountains. Unforgettable.
Strikingly beautiful scenery, sunshine and good birding too. We hiked south and then west from the town of A (not much bigger than its name) and had good looks at a pair of ARCTIC SKUA-Stercorarius parisiticus-LL, but as we got a bit closer they came at us from different directions, gliding down the slope at thigh-level, pulling away at the last instant. We took the hint and changed course (or were they hoping I would disgorge the banana I just ate?). Flushed a Willow Grouse a bit later and saw a Black Guillemot offshore.
One of the best spots for us birding-wise was along the small road from Fredvang to Selfjord. Alerted by a suddenly very noisy gull colony across the fjord, we spotted a juvenile GOLDEN-EAGLE-Aquila chrysaetos. I hiked up a steep hillside with scree and finally saw a pair of RING OUZEL-Turdus torquatus-LL (just the kind of habitat the field guide said it would be found in). At a marsh nearing the end of this road we watched two COMMON SNIPE-Gallinago gallinago-LL in flight display, tail feathers humming with each dive. Also there were very noisy WHIMBREL-Numenius phaeopus, Redshank, and Arctic Skua. Also present were RED-BREASTED MERGANSER, Curlew, Oystercatcher and COMMON TERN. Just south of Leknes, next to the town of Storeidet was a lake with several beautiful SLAVONIAN GREBE-Podiceps auritus-LL. Also on and around the lake were Black-headed Gull, Curlew, Reed Bunting, Common Gull, Oystercatcher, Tufted Duck, Mallard, GOLDENEYE-Bucephala clangula, WIGEON-Anas penelope, and TEAL-Anas crecca.
A bit farther north we spotted a LAPWING-Vanellus vanellus, KESTREL-Falco tinnunculus, and 3 Willow Grouse along Odden Road.
From the Lofoten Islands Kyra and I drove north to the next island group, the Vesteralen. We went to the western edge to the town of Nykvag, off Route 820, to check out the sea bird colony. The road into town passes along cliffs with amazing number of Kittiwake. There was a bright red scarecrow placed high up on the hills below the cliffs, near the town, to no obvious effect. We watched the colony from the side of the road, across the harbor, when a great commotion arose, hundreds of Kittiwake taking flight and screaming--two juvenile White-tailed Eagles were hunting along the ledges. What a sight. A Hooded Crow set off after one of the eagles, diving repeatedly at it from above and behind, each time the eagle swinging its talons toward the crow. Once the eagle even did a complete somersault while trying to strike the crow. We hiked behind the village to an overlook of the offshore island with the Alcids. There were countless puffins feeding in the calm waters between us and the island. With the scope I could see GUILLEMOT = Common Murre -Uria aalge * on the ledges among the Puffins.
From there we went north to the island of Andoya, but because of bad weather we did not do much birding. The whale watching trip was cancelled.
We drove to Abisko Nat. Park, just across the border in Sweden, a mountainous area. It is in a rain shadow and is (relatively) dry. The sun did indeed shine for most our stay. In the late afternoon we followed the trail upwards along the river, seeing nothing more than the usual Willow Warbler and Fieldfare. Coming back along the trail, Abisko East, we had good looks at several singing Bluethroat. I had been looking for loons at every pond, and here we finally spotted one on a hummock of vegetation in a small pond, sitting on a nest. At first we thought it was a black-throated loon, but the low sun was behind it, making identification difficult. When we got closer it stretched its neck outward and downward, making it much less conspicuous on the nest (and hiding a key field mark). So we headed away and then came back a little later through a stand of pines, keeping out of view. The Loon was not disturbed and kept its head up, letting us get a good look at its orange-red neck, a RED-THOATED DIVER/LOON-Gavia stellata-*. In this area we also saw Whimbrel and a distant tern, probably Arctic. We watched an agitated little Willow Warbler repeatedly diving at the head of female, grey-phase Cuckoo perched and no doubt up to no good, at least from the warbler's point of view. The cuckoo finally had enough and flew away. We tented off the highway outside of the park (tenting in Abisko is permitted only in designated sites).
From the tent the next morning I watched a tit get closer and closer, hoping maybe it was a Siberian Tit, but even without binocs I could see its black cap, a Willow Tit - Parus montanus. A sunny day, I took the chairlift up to higher elevations then took a hike to a minor peak, crossing several snow fields, but unfortunately no great mountain birds to report. Nice view though. Back in Norway, heading north again, we took a break off the E6 near Oteren (with regrets we passed by the road to Tromsoe and the Tromsoe Museum--hampered by concerns of time and distance). We saw a colony of SAND MARTIN = Bank Swallow - Riparia riparia, nesting in a river bank of all places (in Germany they are found most often in gravel pits, the natural sites along rivers gone for the most part, thanks to control and dredging of the rivers). Good looks here at a singing PIED FLYCATCHER - Ficedula hypoleuca.
A fateful day. With the weather deteriorating, we made for the traditional tourist goal of the North Cape, the northernmost point of the European mainland. Actually this isn't really true for a couple of reasons. North Cape is on the (large) Island of Mageroy, and you have to take a ferry to reach it. Also, there is another cape, Knivskjellodden, just to the west of North Cape that juts out farther to the north, even if it doesn't have the dramatic cliffs of North Cape. But from there you are supposed to have great views of the North Cape. So we decided to not go to the tourist trap of North Cape, but to hike out to Knivskjellodden. So what if it was 5 PM and, according to the sign, an 18 km (11 mile) hike, roundtrip; this is the land of the midnight sun (when it can be seen through the clouds, at least). The landscape was barren: rolling hills of scree and an occasional snow field, no real trail but cairns (small towers of rocks) and an occasional pole along the way. The weather was cloudy with a stiff breeze but it wasn't raining and the visibility was good. Off we went.
Along the way out we passed many Arctic Skua, GOLDEN PLOVER - Pluvialis apricaria and a couple of SNOW BUNTING - Plectrophenax nivalis as well as Wheatear. Nearing the Berrents Sea (finally) we passed Arctic and Common Tern, RINGED PLOVER - Charadrius dubius, Shag, and the usual gulls. Just as we made it to the end of the cape, and were taking the documentary photos, it started to rain, the top of North Cape disappeared in clouds, and the wind picked up, blowing from the south and into our faces for the return journey. We gritted our teeth, put on our parkas and headed back. The rain came down harder, the wind increased. As we climbed up towards the top of the ravine, away from the sea, thinking it couldn't get much worse, it did. The clouds came down, and through the thick fog we lost the trail markers, not finding the one ahead, the one behind long gone. We wandered about, trying to find a cairn. No shelter. I thought we were done for, going to die of exposure--in the summer! And no life bird on this hike as consolation! (We had had a compass, but we lost it a thousand kilometers ago. It had a thermometer attached to it, and we wanted to check just how cold it was back on Andoya.) However, after a very uncomfortable hour the fog lifted enough to spot a cairn, and then another. We carefully made our way along the row of markers, this time making sure we didn't lose track of the one immediately behind us.
A few km north of the Stabbursnes Reserve, along the coast, we spotted a flock of about 200 Bar-tailed Godwit- Limosa lapponica - * (a lifer!). Nearby, shallow wooden vegetable crates were placed on low poles and fence posts; they contained nesting mew =common gulls and a couple of Oystercatcher. At the Reserve headquarters we stopped at the visitor center. It had a great one-room natural history museum with lots of good info and exhibits on arctic bird life, among other things. We also picked up a series of excellent paperback books on the natural history of North Norway published by the Tromsoe Museum (one of which, Bird Life, with chapters by BirdChatter Wim Vader).
We spent the next two nights tenting off the dirt road that led to the National Park, among the pines (the northernmost pine forest in the world, they claim). On our hikes around this area we found several (Bohemian) Waxwing - Bombycilla garulus *, a Siberian Jay - Perisoreus infaustus * , and a pair of Siberian Tit - Parus cinctus * nesting in a hole in a pine. I spotted a Slavonian Grebe on a small lake near the river, a bit out of range according to the guide books, but so be it. I never did get used to seeing whimbrels perched at the very tops of tall pines, singing very loudly, like they do in these parts (not what you think of as typical shore-bird behavior). We watched a male bluethroat singing from the end of a log and cranking his tail straight upwards, a curious, wren-like display. I kept looking for Arctic Warbler and Arctic Redpoll, but kept finding the usual Willow Warbler and Common Redpoll, as far as I could tell.
Heading east on Route 98 we stopped at the Borselvosen og Viekker Nature Reserve (near the town of Borselv) to do a bit of car birding on the raised dirt road there (it had started raining again). Here we got good looks with the scope and car mount combo of several Temminks Stint - Calidris temminckii * . Also present here in the wet meadow were LAPWING - V. vanellus (with fledglings), ringed plover, RUFF - Philomachus pugnax ( including males with neck-ruffs), and arctic skua, among others.
Further east and inland we spotted --wow, a bird of prey -- a ROUGH-LEGGED BUZZARD - Buteo lagopus *, the dark terminal band quite obvious, even from the car. We saw very few birds of prey, and no lemming (not that I've ever seen a lemming before): was it a particularly bad year for lemmings and raptors in Norway? Or was it us?
We finally made it to Varangerfjord. Because of bad weather (and the European soccer final the next evening) we checked into a hotel for two nights in Vadso (relatively cheap at about $100 per night).
The next day we drove to Vardo and then Hamningberg. On the way we took a left on a dirt road 2 km before Skallelv. Along this road we saw golden plover, a pair of DOTTEREL-Charadrius morinellus *, a couple of LONG-TAILED SKUA/Jaeger-S. longicaudus *, SHORE LARK=Horned Lark (1st Euro), and LAPLAND BUNTING = Lapland Longspur *. When I couldn't get my car to go any further (I would have had to cross a stream bed), I walked and saw nothing (cutting north wind) while Kyra stayed in the car and watched the Dotterel wander back while I was gone. Back on the coast, nesting arctic terns were frequent. We also saw TEAL- Anas creca, Goosander, TURNSTONE, and Bar-tailed Godwit. At Indre Kiberg we had great views of displaying Ruff as well as Lapland Bunting and golden plover, from the car in the pouring rain.
On the smaller road to Hamningberd (an incredible landscape, fractured sheets of rock thrusting up from the sea) we spotted LONG-TAILED DUCK =Oldsquaw * among a raft of Eider (the usual ones) in a sheltered part of the coast, and a lone red-throated loon on a small pond. The weather was ferocious out there. On the way back to Vadso we watched with fascination how the skuas attacked the lines of gulls flying along the coast.
Quite cool (north wind), but the sun came out! We went to Eckeroy and saw zillions of Kittiwake from the top of the cliffs. In the water we saw RAZORBILL (1st euro), several black Guillemot. On land there were Snow Bunting and lots of Lapland bunting. On to Nesby, where we read that behind the church is a pond with philarope. Sure enough there were two-dozen Red-necked Phalarope on a tiny pond and another dozen along the shore (low tide)--who pays those guys? Shelduck were also here.
We headed south and east to the final National Park in Norway, along the Russian Border, Ovre-Pasvik. We didn't drive all the way to the park itself, but tented off the very rough dirt road that led to its border. Of special note, SPOTTED REDSHANK - Tringa erythropus were here (calling from the tops of pines!). We heard Common Snipe in the evening. A walk along a dirt road.... produced RUSTIC BUNTING - Emberiza rustica * and (Bohemian) Waxwing.
After that we basically blew back to Germany and our own bed. We put 9000 kilometers on the car (not including numerous ferries), but the BMW didn't so much as whimper. A most memorable trip for us, with some of the most beautiful scenery Europe has to offer. Even if it rained nearly every day, you could just as easily say the sun showed nearly every day (even at midnight, on occasion).
I apologize to any Norwegians that read this for not using the special characters while typing the place names. I know from experience with the German language that it wouldn't work anyway.
And thanks again to those kind birders that responded to my RFI on rec.birds back in May: Wim Vader, Morton Gunter, Christian Steel, Annika Forsten, Craig Marken and Per Steiner.
And hello to British birders Terry and Jill whom we met three times by chance along our trip, on the off chance that they come across this posting.
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